From the period of the “Scramble for Africa” in the 1880s to the era of decolonization that began in the 1950s, culture and media played essential roles in constructing images of the colonized subject as well as governing newly conquered empires. In the struggle for political independence, Africans used film, music, literature, journals, and newspapers to counter European ideas about African society as well as to provide the foundations for postcolonial national identities. With sovereignty largely realized across Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, the roles of culture and media were critical in forging the bonds of nationhood and solidifying the legitimacy of the new states. However, those official efforts increasingly clashed with the aspirations of cultural activists, who desired a more thorough transformation of their societies in order to transcend the colonial legacy and construct progressive communities. Media and culture became a forum for political conflict whereby governments increasingly restricted creativity and subsequently sought complete control of the means of cultural creation and diffusion. Both the aspirations of public officials and opposition activists suffered during a period of prolonged economic crisis in Africa, which began in the 1970s and stretched into the 1990s. The sinews of governance as well as the radical pretensions of culture workers were torn asunder as many parts of Africa suffered state collapse, civil war, famine, and epidemic diseases (including the HIV/AIDS and Ebola crises). The dawn of the new millennium coincided with the age of neoliberal globalization that, for many African countries, was synonymous with structural adjustment programs and oversight from such international lending institutions as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. This often required the privatization of media across Africa and included the greater prominence of non-African media sources on radio, television, and the cinema throughout the continent. It also was reflected in a shift among African culture workers, who frequently centered on the impact of globalization on African societies in their work. Filmmakers, musicians, and writers often use their platforms to speak to the wider world beyond Africa about the place of African societies in the globalized world.
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.
The emergence, spread, and transformation of media technologies in North Africa has attracted much attention over the past decade. Yet the disruptive effects of technological mass media have been a defining feature of North African modernity from the mid-19th century to the present. Classically distinguished from pre-modern oral and scribal transmissions by “technological reproducibility,” mass media offer capacities both for simultaneous collective address (i.e., broadcast), and for nearly limitless copying (i.e., reproduction) and re-transmission (i.e., sharing). As such, dramatic expansions in mass media, from print journals, or “the press,” to electronic broadcast media of radio and television, small media of audio and video cassettes, and Internet-based and mobile digital media, have sustained modern North African political movements and mass publics, from anticolonial nationalism to postcolonial nation-state building and the 21st-century Arab Spring. Any understanding of contemporary mass media, including digital media, in North Africa must consider how these current media movements reprise and transform earlier forms of political consciousness, community, and protest grounded in a century of new media.