The Africa Hub & EFM: Asking What If & Why Not

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EFM Horizon presentation from Professor Alex McDowell of World Building Media Lab.

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

Having the amazing opportunity to attend the recent Africa Hub at the European Film Market (EFM) 2019, I was overwhelmed at the sheer variety of innovative and collaborative projects that were presented from the African continent.

I also was fortunate enough on my first day in Berlin to attend an EFM Horizon presentation from Professor Alex McDowell of World Building Media Lab (WBML) at the University of Southern California that framed my thinking for the rest of the week.

McDowell set out an inspiring thought process and way of thinking that could have a profound impact on all of us working to improve and develop the creative industries across Africa.

At the WBML, McDowell and his team imagine future worlds built on two key questions that initiate and inspire every project they do and every world they create – WHY NOT? & WHAT IF? Combining deep research with irrepressible creativity, the team builds potential future worlds to address some of the most pressing challenges facing society.

This ability, to imagine and then to actually map out and build future scenarios that are premised on a spirit of optimism and wonder, is urgently required by anyone working in the creative industries, and especially in Africa. Starting with the premises of what if and why not enables us to ask and imagine.

What if there were meaningful co-production treaties between African countries, and why not include gender parity requirements in these agreements? We can ask, why not have visa-on-arrival policies for all visitors, like Rwanda does, and what if African creatives could travel cheaply and easily throughout the continent?

From just these two scenarios entire future worlds can be imagined. Worlds that see financial and political cooperation between countries to support the film industry.

And what if we were to think even bigger and to question even more? World-building began within the realm of science fiction, which – we have seen – is more and more becoming science fact,where what is imagined can be achieved.

If we look around the world, it is clear to me that when we do imagine alternative models and scenarios, they are often the most successful and paradigm-changing.

At the Africa Hub, a few of these paradigm-shifting trends emerged, although not necessarily explicitly connected to one another. For example, the understanding -which is imminently sensible yet has not often been the norm – that it is more sustainable to focus on the person than the project, was expressed repeatedly during more than one presentation during the week.

A host of projects are now specifically working to develop future sustainable leaders, industry activists and entrepreneurs, instead of just focusing on the rush to develop and produce specific projects.

Projects including the Creative Producers Indaba, a collaboration between The Realness Institute EAVE and IFFR PRO, and the Film Pro Series partnership in East Africa between Docubox and The Robert Bosch Foundation, amongst others, are focused on developing the individual who can then go on to develop and support others within their regional industries, as opposed to developing a specific script or film.

Taking that to the next level, what if we focused more on education than on production from the start? Why not have film clubs at primary and high schools across Africa to instil an appreciation, love and a language of film amongst the next generation? What if we focused on creativity and creation as opposed to conformity and consumption?

Throughout the presentations and conversations at the Africa Hub there was a sense of both frustration and optimism: optimism, first and foremost, at the mere existence of the Africa Hub. Now in its third year, the Africa Hub continues to grow and there has been a conscious effort towards inclusivity and diversity in terms of its  attendees and programming.

Another cause for optimism is that more and more individuals and organisations are recognising the need for collaborative and sustainable projects that see past the once-off or short-term project. This optimistic and collaborative kind of thinking is exactly what can lead to the what if and why not kind of world-building that we require.

The frustration, however, arises from the realisation that many of the gatekeepers to resources are not keeping up with this mode of thinking. Whether it is the many African governments who refuse to open up visa regulations and to actively pursue economic and co-production cooperation talks, or some of the top European funders who structure their grants and programmes in accordance with antiquated and outmoded ways of thinking, the gatekeepers need to start asking themselves what if and why not?

What if these funders could open up Pan-African funding streams so that organisations operating across the continent could get support without having to apply to three or four regional offices? What if the gate-keepers actually listened to existing needs, instead of providing solutions to challenges that don’t exist?

What if African writers, directors, and producers got to retain their IP in co-productions? Why not set up equitable models of co-production and distribution that leave lasting financial impact on the affected regions?

Let us all keep asking these questions and challenging those with resources to do the same. It’s time to world build an ideal African industry that can become a reality.

 

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