Cannes and Africa: a shy relationship

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Created in 1939, the Cannes Film Festival is, like its closest competitors Venice
and Berlin, a major cultural event that Africa has barely been able to infiltrate:
on the one hand because of the huge deficit of national, regional or continental
African film industries; on the other hand because of the lack of public interest in
and the absence of African stories from world screens.

Confined to an exclusive and limited Africa-loving audience, these movies are
generally screened at a small number of film festivals dedicated to African
cinema, without being able to break through to the world distribution market.

Before the independence and decolonisation drives of the 1960s and 1970s,
France, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Belgium were still sharing control of
the African continent. Egypt was an exception, having gained its independence
and recognition as a sovereign state in 1936, and declared a republic in 1953.

This political situation had a direct effect on the Cannes Film Festival selections.
In 1946, the feature film Dunia, from Egyptian director Mohamed Karim, was
screened at the festival in competition, as if to show the blossoming of Egyptian
cinema (the country produced 55 movies between 1939 and 1945).

Up until 1970, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco were represented at Cannes
through 22 films, which were the work of French directors; Niger, Gabon, Congo
and Senegal had a minor presence with four films. In 1952, Morocco even
received the Grand Prix for Othello, a film directed by a famous American
director, Orson Welles.

It was necessary to wait until 1959 to see another African director, the Tunisian
Khaled Abdul Wahab, enter the competition with the short-film Le seigneur
Julius.

During 66 years of the festival, 47 African movies were selected to be screened,
including short films and features. Through the 54 African states, only 10 have
had the good fortune to be admitted into competition. Among these, South
Africa has had the most entries (10), followed by Egypt (nine) and Tunisia (four).

South Africa, which first entered in competition in 1952 with Errol Hind’s short
film Glimpses of South Africa n°5, has not yet introduced a black filmmaker into
the Croisette. This is a situation that may change soon, considering the
international recognition now received by the likes of Khalo Matabane or Jahmil
X.T. Qubeka.

Among African nations Egypt was the first to compete at Cannes, in 1946. South
Africa followed in 1952. Seven years later, Tunisia followed. Then in 1962,
Morocco came onto the scene, represented by Abdelaziz Ramdani”s short film
Souls and Rhythms. In 1964, sub-Saharan Africa increased its representation
when Senegal’s Paulin Soumanou Vieyra entered his short Lamb. The Algerian
director Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina’s feature, The Winds of the Aures, was
accepted in 1967.

Twenty years later, Mali was in the running with Souleymane Cisse’s feature film
Yeelen. Then Burkina Faso made an appearance with Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Tilai in
1990. Lusophone Africa was not forgotten, as Guinea-Bissau, represented by
Flora Gomes’ Po di sangui came onto the scene in 1996. Fourteen years later,
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and his feature film A Screaming Man put Chad into
Cannes competition in 2010, and again in 2013 with Grisgris.

These selections make up a total of 32 filmmakers. Egypt’s Youssef Chahine has
had the most selections (five times), followed by South African Jamie Uys and
Algerian Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina (four times each). No African women have
been selected in the main competition but South Africa’s Elaine Proctor
presented her feature film Friends in the 1993 Un certain regard selection.
The same year, Jane Campion from New Zealand became the only female to win
a Palme d’Or with her feature The Piano. This year, she is the President of the
Jury. To date, few African filmmakers have been given the chance to serve on
the jury; out of the 10 countries selected for the official competition over the
years, only six have been represented on the jury. South Africa, Guinea-Bissau
and Algeria have not yet had this opportunity.

Moreover, among the 47 African movies selected in the official competition, only
five have won awards. The Wind of the Aures by Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina
(Algeria) won the prize for Best First Feature in 1967. Chronicle of The Year of
Fire, also directed by Hamina, won the only Palme d’Or in African History in 1975.

In 1987, Malian director Souleymane Cisse won a Jury Prize with Yeelen. Then in
1990, Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Tilai (Burkina Faso) received the Grand Prix. Twenty
years later, Chadian Mahamat-Saleh Haroun won the Jury Prize for A Screaming
Man.

Unfortunately, Egypt and South Africa, the two countries with the longest
histories in the competition, have yet to earn their Cannes’ recognition.

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