There was a lot of glamour, music and humor at the first-ever African Film Festival in Dallas, Texas, July 1-3. But for filmmakers it was a serious opportunity to show their cinematic products, connect with one another and share their visions with people from other cultures.
The festival included films made by Africans but also featured a number made about Africa by people from other regions of the world.
The founder of the festival, Nigerian-American filmmaker Kelechi Eke, told VOA he wanted to provide a stage for films by Africans and films about Africa for both people who have come here from Africa and Americans who have an interest in its cultures.
“I recognized that we don’t have enough film festivals to celebrate African films, thereby trying to give more exposure to our work," Eke said.
Hooray for Nollywood!
While Hollywood films and European films still draw large audiences in Africa, films shot in Africa, often using indigenous languages, are also very popular. Nigeria has one of the most prolific film industries in the world, right behind India, where the film industry is called Bollywood. Nigeria’s movie scene is called Nollywood.
Nigeria and South Africa have had film production companies since the colonial period. But in the 1990s, Nigerian filmmakers began taking advantage of the availability of relatively cheap video cameras to make films that were distributed on videotapes and DVDs. While critics derided them as low-quality productions, some showcased skilled actors and told stories so compelling that viewers ignored technical faults.
Nollywood cinema has also advanced with high-production-value films like 2009’s The Figurine, which met with acclaim at international film festivals and earned most of its revenue outside Africa. But improving digital video equipment and internet distribution have kept the market for smaller-budget films alive.
Pan-African film movement
Filmmakers in other nations in Africa soon followed the Nigerian example and started producing their own movies. At the Dallas festival, some of the most lauded films came from Cameroon, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Burkina Faso and South Sudan. But the popularity of Nigerian films to a general sub-Saharan African audience was clear in the warm reception given to Nollywood film stars Patience Ozokwo, known affectionately as Mama G, and Uche Jombo.
Speaking to VOA after the ceremony, Ozokwo credited Nigerian filmmakers with paving the way for the rest of the continent.
“Since Nollywood started, every country is trying to catch up with making movies, because movies seem to be the easiest way to reach out to the people,” she said.
Jombo also credited Nollywood with showing Africans they can tell their own cinematic stories.
“It is African people, African filmmakers, making African films, telling African stories to Africans,” she said.
She also believes the loose nature of the Nigerian cinema industry makes it possible for people like her to make their own films in their own way.
“You do this your way,” Jombo said. “You have to, because there is no big company, no big studio that is funding. You really don’t have to answer to anyone.”
A film produced by and starring Jombo, Lost in Us, shown at the festival, deals with a mentally ill man stalking a movie star, played by Jombo. She said mental health is rarely dealt with in African films or discussed openly in society.
There was an impressive range of themes presented in the 42 films screened in Dallas, ranging from the rights of women to the devastation of diseases like AIDS and Ebola to the challenges of interpersonal relationships at a time when the world is growing smaller and people of very different backgrounds meet.
An example of the latter is the film Ben and Ara, produced by Cameroon-born Constance Ejuma, who also played the role of Ara and won the festival’s best-actress award. Ara is a Muslim woman from Cameroon who falls in love with a white American agnostic.
“It is just an exploration of people from two completely different walks of life ... coming together and meeting in the middle, and the thing that brings them together is love,” she said.
Another winning film was the documentary The Vanished Dream by Spanish director Juan Betancor. It tells of the work done by foreign volunteers in Guinea-Bissau in the 1970s that fell to ruin after a military coup, which led to years of mismanagement and corruption. Another documentary, Nowhere to Run, produced by a foundation in Nigeria, shows the dramatic impact of environmental abuse and climate change on West African coastal areas.
The organizers of this African Film Festival said they would mount another one next year with the goal of making it an annual event that will grow in importance for African filmmakers and for Africans of the diaspora, many of whom now live in cities like Dallas.
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