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Is this the year of the African documentary?

By Wilfred Okiche
Posted on Thursday, 17 June 2021 10:51

Award-winning Kenyan documentary spotlights toll of activist's anti-corruption crusade in Nairobi
Kenyan social-political activist Boniface Mwangi arrives for the screening of the Kenyan documentary 'Softie' at the Prestige Cinema in Nairobi, Kenya October 16, 2020. Picture taken October 16, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya - RC2ZMJ9KCX17

With the global success of films like 'Softie' and the Oscar winning 'My Octopus Teacher', could the documentary format be entering boom season?

The highest grossing Kenyan film in theatres last year was a documentary.

Softie, an energetic profile of famed photojournalist turned political activist Boniface Mwangi premiered at the Sundance film festival where it won a special jury award for editing. Even though its festival rollout was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, Softie stayed the course, playing several online festivals and picking up a few more awards along the way. The Sam Soko directed docu-thriller eventually arrived Kenyan theatres for a limited release sometime in October.

Despite critical acclaim and international support, exhibitors in Kenya were not enthused about Softie’s box office chances. Soko recalls, “They took a chance and allowed us screen [time] for two weeks, but we were eventually in theatres for eight weeks. No mean feat.”

Growing success from Africa

Softie’s overperformance reflects a trend of documentaries from and about Africa that are finding success critically and commercially, home, and abroad. In April, South African Netflix nature documentary My Octopus Teacher became the unlikely winner in the documentary category.

The Letter, a film about widespread elderly abuse in rural communities was Kenya’s submission in the Best International Film category at the Oscars. Dieudo Hamadi’s Downstream to Kinshasa, about war survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo fighting for their compensation became the first project from the country to be named in the official selection at Cannes, the world’s biggest film festival.

The Netflix film My Octopus Teacher by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, won a BAFTA for best documentary on 11 April. © Netflix

 

 

Elsewhere, Malian director Ousmane Samassekou had his excellent debut feature, The Last Shelter about migrants finding temporary shelter in a safe house located in the city of Gao win the grand prize in the main international competition at the Danish documentary fest, CPH:DOX.

Faya Dayi, a poetic, dreamy meditation on the drivers and effects of the khat trade– Ethiopia’s biggest foreign exchange earner- premiered at the Sundance film festival. The film helmed by Mexican-Ethiopian Jessica Beshir would eventually win the top prize at Visions du Réel, the renowned Swiss documentary festival.

‘Documentaries are cheaper’

All of this activity speaks to a resurgence of the documentary form in several industries across the continent. In others, documentaries are the engine sustaining a semblance of an industry. Hamadi who is one of the leading filmmakers in the DRC explains his situation: “If it seems like I have chosen to make only documentaries, it is only because it is the easiest way to make movies in the DRC. Documentaries are cheaper. Financing fiction films here is almost impossible.”

Documentaries may cost a lot less than fiction films but that doesn’t mean they are any easier to make. They are usually time and effort intensive and because avenues for commercial returns are limited, filmmakers struggle to attract funding.

In Kenya, the funding climate is better than most thanks to investments by the private east African film fund, Docubox founded in 2012. Docubox has partnered with organisations such as the Ford Foundation and Doc Society among others to help train filmmakers and fund their projects. The Kenyan film commission has also launched a small fund with the goal of supporting documentary filmmakers.

I am noticing a shift by African filmmakers from films dealing directly about social and political issues to character-based narratives representing these issues through the heart of the protagonists’ experiences. Through the lens of storytelling and creative direction, African films can now be seen to be on par with their international counterparts.

Soko points to the Docubox supported New Moon, a 2018 documentary about Lamu, a small island, as it transforms from an obscure, predominantly stone town to a huge port as a turning point for the non-fiction space in Kenya. “The response to Phillipa Ndisi-Herrmann‘s New Moon was for me the beginning of this new wave in east Africa. The reception enabled other filmmakers to not only dream but actualize their own projects,” he tells The Africa Report. 

For acclaimed producer Toni Kamau, whose company, We are not the Machine Ltd produced Softie, the renewed interest in African documentaries also has to do with an update of form and style.

“Character driven documentaries (like Softie) where lived experiences are put before themes or key messages give us insight into lived experiences – and they can just be as entertaining as fiction,” she tells The Africa Report. “I learn something new every time I work on film teams – about people, the world and even myself and I hope that audiences feel the same way too.”

This sentiment is echoed by Mandisa Zitha, director of the Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, the premier non-fiction film celebration on the continent. Zitha adds: “I am noticing a shift by African filmmakers from films dealing directly about social and political issues to character-based narratives representing these issues through the heart of the protagonists’ experiences. Through the lens of storytelling and creative direction, African films can now be seen to be on par with their international counterparts.”

South Africa ‘heads and shoulders’ above the rest

Zitha’s home country, South Africa is heads and shoulders above the rest of the continent in terms of creating opportunities for documentary filmmakers.

A national film fund exists to support documentary film and SABC, the public broadcaster has upheld the mandate of telling local stories in spite of challenges. Generation Africa, a forward-looking project conceived by the influential non-profit Social Transformation and Empowerment Projects (steps), introduced an intervention to support African filmmakers to tell stories about migration from an African perspective.

There are many parallels that come from the shared post-colonial experience. Documentary films aim at the heart of these challenges and allow audiences contemplate how to implement change.”

“When we issued the call for stories, we discovered a plethora of narratives that show how young people see migration,” says Tiny Mungwe, producer for the project.

Generation Africa has commissioned 25 documentaries made in 16 African countries covering a variety of perspectives on migration, to be distributed through AfriDocs. The first two films birthed from this initiative, Samassekou’s The Last Shelter and Aicha Macky’s Zinder– about young Nigeriens organising themselves into gangs as a reaction to the desperate lack of prospects- have made visible impact at international film festivals.

Global calls for representation have led to increased demand for African storytelling and filmmakers are placing themselves in prime position to meet the moment. HBO for example recently put their weight behind The Legend of the Underground, a punchy documentary about non-conforming persons in Nigeria. And film festivals are showing more willingness to program African films.

Beyond visibility, Mungwe sees non-fiction films as a chance for Africans to reflect on the diversity of experiences across the continent. “There are many parallels that come from the shared post-colonial experience. Documentary films aim at the heart of these challenges and allow audiences contemplate how to implement change.”

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