Following South Africa’s historical multiracial elections in 1994, a Black majority government came to power, which almost immediately identified the film industry as an important part of their effort to transform one of the most racially and economically unequal countries in the world. The government considered access to culture a basic human right and saw cinema as one way to strengthen the new democracy, by promoting national unity and contributing to economic development. In 1999, through parliamentary legislation, it created the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), an agency responsible for promoting the development of a national cinema. This signaled the possible start of a dynamic, socially engaged, and financially viable film industry that could enliven filmmaking within South Africa and across the African continent. With the end of apartheid-era sanctions, South Africa re-entered the global market and the government embraced neoliberal policies. Consequently, the NFVF increasingly focused on the commercial possibilities of film. While government investments in the film industry have produced some positive results, deeply entrenched structural inequities remain an obstacle to Black filmmakers seeking access to the means of production, distribution, and exhibition. Moreover, in a country of about 55 million people in 2013, cinema was only accessible to about 10 percent of the overall population due to the cost and location of movie theatres. Despite these limitations, in the first two decades of democracy, there were notable developments in independent, popular, and documentary films. Although these categories are not fixed or static, they are a useful way of framing recent trends that offer insight into the South African film industry and the way its films represent the nation. There have also been significant changes in the realm of distribution and exhibition that have the potential to upend the traditional model of cinemagoing.
The Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) was founded in 1969. It began as an intimate week-long gathering of filmmakers and enthusiasts in the capital of what is now Burkina Faso to watch contemporary films made by African filmmakers. At its peak in the 1990s, it attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators, both local and international. Since the 2000s, iterations have been smaller affairs, significantly impacted by both changes of government in Burkina Faso and wider political instability in West Africa, as well as ongoing debates about what films it should be showcasing. Despite such challenges (and with only one exception in the mid-1970s), however, FESPACO has remained a constant on the African continent, faithfully screening films by African and diaspora filmmakers every two years for more than half a century. FESPACO was conceived in the age of decolonization by a group of men and women who are considered to be the pioneers of African cinema, including the Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. It was established as the first sub-Saharan showcase of African filmmaking, an emergent and significant field in the era of independence when cinema was prized for its ability to make visible African realities and to (re)constitute national histories eclipsed by colonial rule. The concept of a distinctly “African” cinema was articulated most extensively by filmmaker and scholar Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and referred to films made by Africans, telling African stories, principally for African audiences. For Vieyra, Sembène, and their contemporaries, it was essential to take back control of the art of cinema on the African continent, where it had predominantly been deployed as a colonial tool; FESPACO was conceived as the regular forum for those committed to its development to come together and share their work. Through the course of its development, FESPACO has been confronted with a number of challenges regarding its form and its evolution. Its strong connections with the Burkinabe state have been seen as both a significant factor for its growth and its success, and, particularly in the era of Blaise Compaoré, as a source for concern regarding freedom of expression. Since the turn of the 21st century, questions about where video filmmaking—an industry that has proliferated on the African continent in a manner unprecedented internationally—fits within FESPACO’s definition of cinema have been consistent. The festival has, over the years, been accused of being both outdated and elitist in its commitment to celluloid, but also of straying from its original remit to showcase African stories for African audiences, accusations it has responded to by the creation of new prize categories and requirements for submission. The year 2019 was one of reflection, but many critics felt that after some difficult years the festival was showing signs of rejuvenation. Though it is now one of many film festivals on the continent committed to showcasing African cinema, there remains significant appreciation for the historic status of FESPACO as a preeminent sub-Saharan cultural institution.
Contrary to popular belief, the animated moving image on the African continent has long and diverse histories across many countries. Although it shares both the technology and some of the formal aspects of cinema, its historical development followed a different trajectory to that of indexical film, both in Europe and in Africa. This may be because of animation’s ability to draw upon a range of artistic practice, which means it can take many guises; at times it appears like a cartoon, or sometimes like puppets or sculptures that come to life; at other times it is a metamorphic drawing or painting, or even a photographic montage. In addition, while animation tends to be associated with content specifically intended for a children’s audience, it has in fact been an effective vehicle to conceal sociopolitical critique that would otherwise be considered problematic. Different animators in Africa have used animation to this end, presenting subversive and social-realist content within the unrealistic depictions of fantastical stories, the parodic, comedic or allegorical, or culturally located visual metaphors. African animators have also used animation to safeguard and give permanence to the stories, myths, and legends they grew up with. These legends have occasionally also informed animated superheroes in games such as the Kenyan mobile phone application Africa’s Legends, or the cast of an Afro-futurist setting such as the Nigerian “Afro-anime” production Red Origins. With the onset of digital technology, the landscape of animation in Africa has seen a blossoming of activity from expert and non-expert prod-users. Their work circulates in formal and informal settings, whether visible at a festival, on television and mainstream media, in online social networking spaces or on video streaming sites such as YouTube or Vimeo. The prolific characteristic of animation made for digital spaces has resulted in a paradoxical simultaneous visibility and invisibility. Networks of African artists have benefited from the visibility and distribution that the Internet and smart phone technologies offer; for example, Kenyan multimedia artists Just a Band were quoted as saying that they were discovered online before they were discovered in Nairobi. However, the ephemeral quality of these digital spaces can also be problematic from the archivist’s perspective as digital traces change. For this reason it is increasingly important to capture the traces that African artists leave in this dynamic space as they reflect the zeitgeist.
John C. McCall
Motion picture technology developed at the dawn of the 20th century, just as the formal colonization of Africa was launched at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. While it took a few decades for cinema houses to spread in West Africa, by mid-century the colonial administrations began to use film as a means for conveying colonial culture to African subjects. For the British and French colonials, film was a means to shape public opinion. Both British and French colonial administrations criminalized indigenous filmmaking for fear of the subversive potential of anti-colonial messages—film communicated in one direction only. When West African nations became independent in the late 20th century, these restrictions vanished and Africans began to make films. This process played out differently in Francophone Africa than in Anglophone countries. France cultivated African filmmakers, sponsored training, and funded film projects. Talented and determined filmmakers in Anglophone Africa also struggled to produce celluloid films, but unlike their counterparts in former French colonies, they received little support from abroad. A significant number of excellent celluloid films were produced under this system, but largely in Francophone Africa. Though many of these filmmakers have gained global recognition, most remained virtually unknown in Africa outside the elite spaces of the FESPACO film festival and limited screenings at French embassies. Though West African filmmakers have produced an impressive body of high-quality work, few Africans beyond the intellectual elite know of Africa’s most famous films. This paradox of a continent with renowned filmmakers but no local film culture began to change in the 1990s when aspiring artists in Nigeria and Ghana began to make inexpensive movies using video technology. Early works were edited on VCRs, but as digital video technology advanced, this process of informal video production quickly spread to other regions. The West African video movie industry has grown to become one of the most prominent, diverse, and dynamic expressions of a pan-African popular culture in Africa and throughout the global diaspora.