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Screenings for the kids

By Alexander Macbeth
Posted on Monday, 28 September 2009 08:37

A project bringing mobile cinema to schools and youth centres in villages across Africa has the potential to create a new distribution network for African film.

Read more about African film in the latest issue of The Africa Report, where Alexander Macbeth travels to the Zanzibar Film Festival to find a growing momentum in East African cinema.

What Conrad once brashly termed the Heart of Darkness, today the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is soon to be lit up with cinema, replacing its ravaged war-torn images with new ones. As part of a new European Commission funded project, Cinétoile, the Belgian based co-ordinator, will be showing films in conjunction with its eight African partners in eight sub-Saharan African nations.

The five African films, which include Mah-Saah Sah, a coming-of-age tale by Cameroonian film-maker Daniel Kamwa, are to be shown in youth centres, stadiums and in villages across Africa through mobile cinemas from the end of 2009 through to 2010. African festivals, film organisations and active mobile cinemas will be involved in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, DRC, Uganda and Mali.

The screening of the films in each country will run by eight territory-based organisations, each with their own goals relative to the region’s national film cultures and needs. In South Africa for example, where Lara Preston of Red Flag will be administering Cinétoile’s mandate, the films will be shown in technical colleges, universities and film schools in the Gauteng area, “to establish as a wide a sample of possible of urban young people”. Red Flag will also be working with the International Video Fair Trust, the Zimbabwean Cinétoile partner, to “set up a cross-border online dialogue in regards to many cultural issues, not least dealing with xenophobia”.

One of the most ambitious aims of Cinétoile’s mandate is to reach out to places where film is practically absent, to screen to “under-privileged audiences”, says Aurélien Bodinaux, one of Cinétoile’s directors. However, Preston sees language as a major issue and it is here that Cinétoile has gone further than previous projects aimed at better distributing African cinema in Africa.

In Tanzania, the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), the Tanzanian partner will dub the films into Swahili from French and English, to then screen them in all four corners of the country: from Mwanza Stadium to a village on the south-eastern border with Mozambique. Dialogue between Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania is at the heart of this initiative.

A culture of African cinema

The question remains: How to turn the Cinétoile project into a permanent mobile-image unit? Cinétoile says it wants “African cinema to be enhanced,” and “recognised as elements of cultural heritage and as tools for dialogue between African peoples”. Having held two conferences where delegates from the eight partner organisations were invited, at FESPACO 2009 in Burkina Faso and at ZIFF 09 in Tanzania, Cinétoile supports the development of international Pan-African networking between distributors seeking solutions to common problems. Lack of electricity, different languages, regional sensitivities to content, logistics, equipment and lack of precedent make projects such as Cinétoile’s difficult to accomplish.

One advantage is that the organisation’s partners have experience. In West Africa, CNA, which already has several years experience doing mobile cinema projections in 10 West African countries, will represent Cinétoile in Burkina Faso and Mali. As Burkinabè director Dani Kouyaté noted, “Cinema can be an extraordinary means of allowing the griot to survive.”

It can also help foster competition. Most West African films are produced with French government money (producers often require an original script in French) and distributed through French cultural centres in Africa. With the exceptions of Nollywood and South Africa, most African countries are tuned into American, Indian or European cinema. Red Flag’s Preston says that Cinétoile will encourage a “culture of African cinema”.

Ogova Ondego agrees. The Kenyan director of Lola Kenya Screens, Cinétoile’s Kenyan partner, will screen the five films in Kibera and Mathare – two poorer, densely-populated settlements in Nairobi – as well as in the Nairobi Central Business District and Eastlands, to a more middle class audience.

“Lola Kenya Screen will show films in English, Kiswahili and Sheng (depending on location and audience),” says Ondego, whose annual Children’s Film Festival is a regular success in East Africa. They will be shown “to children and youth in primary schools, secondary schools, vocational training institutions and religious centres. We will also use commentary where necessary”, adds Ondego.

In Sankuru Province in DRC, Studio Malembe Maa, Cinétoile’s Congolese partner, will screen the films as part of its annual mobile cinema programme that has been running since 2005. Part-financed by Signis, the World Catholic Association for Communication, Studio Malembe Maa targets isolated villages in the war-torn Sankuru area. Jean-Michel Kibushi, the organisation’s director, says they take local approaches to marketing; contracted cyclists ride through the villages days before the screenings announcing that the cinema screens will be arriving in a nearby village.

With such a wide mandate, Cinétoile has the ability to establish international African networks for film distribution. As Gaston Kaboré, the award-winning Burkinabè director says, “If many countries come together, the market will be larger and we can expect our movies to have consequent impact.”

Kabore and other prominent African film-makers have often lamented that their films are rarely seen by their intended audience. Up until now, it was more likely for a Congolese film to be screened in a university hall in London or Paris than in a small village in the DRC.

The Cinétoile films, which will be screened between the end of August 2009 and September 2010, may well also lay the foundations for a dramatic increase in film production across the continent, finally connecting directors like Kaboré with their target audience.

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