OUAGADOUGOU, (Reuters) – The African equivalent of an Oscar — the Golden Stallion of Yennenga — has been awarded to a film about Ethiopia’s bloodthirsty past.
But for now, Hollywood acclaim remains far out of reach for most African filmmakers showing at the FESPACO festival in Burkina Faso last week.
Directors and producers on the continent contend with tight financing, few editing facilities and sometimes impossible distribution hurdles, as cinemas continent-wide close down.
“We in the Diaspora really need to start working with people in Africa,” said Nigeria-born U.S.-based filmmaker Chike Nwoffiah, whose film was selected for the competition. “Co-production can bring together funds, location, equipment and expertise. Together we have the connections and the network to launch blockbuster films.”
The winner at this year’s 40th pan-African FESPACO film festival in Ouagadougou, “Teza,” took 14 years to make, even with the benefit of support from director Haile Gerima’s U.S.-based production company, German co-production and French donor backing.
Film buffs have also been directed to the potential of developing world films, following the success of “Slumdog Millionaire,” a feel good film about young slum-dwellers in India and directed by Briton Danny Boyle.
It swept the board at this year’s Oscars, winning best film and best director in addition to six other awards, and has taken more than $200 million at the box office worldwide.
Disney also recently struck a deal with a Bollywood film company to produce an animated Hindi-language film set in India.
“Lots of people have been asking why Slumdog Millionaire got an Oscar but not Teza,” the winning film’s associate producer and director’s sister Selome Gerima told Reuters after winning. “This film has got a lot of prizes and it is definitely good enough.”
That’s not to say African films can’t make it — South African film “Tsotsi” (Thief) won an Oscar for best foreign language film in 2006, but many critics say Hollywood’s embrace of the movie, about gangsters and poverty in a Johannesburg township, reinforces negative stereotypes about the continent.
“Hollywood …. makes Africans into pimps, whores and drugged-up cops,” said South African director Zola Maseko, who four years ago came first at FESPACO for his stirring drama “Drum,” about a black journalist who campaigned against apartheid.
“We have to be careful about how to look at Slumdog. I’m quite concerned that a film about India is made by a Western director,” he said.
African films have often been criticised for nurturing a slow French-influenced desert village feel, lacking the speed and showmanship necessary for films to do well amid the action-packed dramas of Hollywood.
“I don’t see why we shouldn’t have our own Slumdog Millionaire one day,” said Tendeka Matatu, producer of “Jerusalema,” an edgy, fast-paced South African film about Johannesburg gangsters which won three awards at FESPACO, including best editing.
“We put a lot of time and effort into the technical aspects of the film. We wanted it to be so fine that even if people didn’t like the story, they couldn’t fault the look,” he told Reuters after picking up three awards.
Whatever their style and pace, African films don’t lack fans at home. In Burkina Faso’s sweltering capital Ouagadougou, local cinema lovers queued well into the night, streaming back from three entry points at cinema hall Cine Burkina, for the chance to see FESPACO’s winning film on the big screen.
The question is whether Americans would be prepared to do the same for an African-made film.
“It’s going to be very difficult for one of my films to find Hollywood backing,” said Maseko. “But then again, Americans have just voted in Barack Obama, so perhaps they are more ready to see Africa through African eyes.”