SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:
Perhaps it’s time to talk about how we talk about the movies we watch. Or more importantly: how often, here in Africa, we don’t talk about them.
The obsessive cinephile who could, and would, talk for hours about the smallest nuances of a film, the background of a director and the casting choices, seems to be a breed on the verge of extinction within the African cinema space.
This dearth of film obsession seems to me directly linked to a critical lack of serious film criticism in mainstream media in most major African centres. As someone who has worked on film festivals in East, West, and Southern Africa (I do not speak of Francophone Africa as I simply do not know if the same applies), it is clear that there are hardly any professional film critics left.
Why is this a problem? Well, an appreciation of film expressed through coherent and contextualised information leads to an informed and, hopefully, film-curious population. If we are ever to stem the tide of one major American blockbuster after another dominating our (few) African movie screens, an entire culture change is required.
This culture change can be facilitated through dialogues around and about African film – these dialogues need to take place in the traditional mainstream media, on social media, at film festivals, at film schools, at high schools and even at primary schools through film clubs and related classes. But this is not happening.
Imagine if film clubs that screened and discussed African films existed in primary schools across the country. By high school, these same young people would be making films and not just talking about them. Programmes across Kenya that expose primary school children to films and encourage and skill them to make their own, already exist – and Kenya’s film industry is seeing the benefits.
Experience in key territories such as Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria and even South Africa has shown me that a vibrant cinephilic culture that promotes film for film’s sake hardly exists.
A very unscientific poll of industry professionals across these same countries shows the same results: it is exceptionally difficult to find film critics working in the media, as well as to find qualified festival jury coordinators or members who have the kind of encyclopaedic knowledge and obsessive passion for African film that should be part of any country’s film industry.
In my many years of experience working on publicity for various film festivals across Africa, this scenario is getting worse. These days, the first question I most often get from media about attending or covering a festival is, “Who will be there?”
In other words, what celebrities will be there? Who can I interview about what they are wearing, and who can I photograph? Hardly any media attending African film festivals these days even attend the screenings. Film directors and festival staff have to almost beg the media to attend and to review the film.
However, when these rare reviews do come out, they reflect the lack of film history, language and general knowledge of the journalist. Of course, there are amazing exceptions to the rule – but these only make the mediocrity of the norm stand out.
New media and the rise of instantly-updated content on websites is part of the problem. Media houses tend to cut and paste press releases and are very eager to hire young new staff at the expense of older more experienced journalists. However, it is the filmmaker and the audiences who suffer from this lack of credible film criticism.
Creating a culture that loves film, and that loves to talk about film, is a prerequisite for a viable film industry. While many film schools exist, and there are dozens of training programmes for filmmakers, there is a distinct lack of opportunity for the training and development of the film critic.
I have often pushed for training workshops of this kind at film festivals and major market events (as have some journalists such as Moses Serugo of Uganda), but these are very rare indeed. The training of film critics should be taking place alongside the training of filmmakers – and as often. By promoting a healthy and engaged culture of film criticism, industry bodies can ignite a movement that will grow audiences and even improve the quality of films being made.
Let’s start by talking about film; encouraging others to talk about film; and pushing for the creation of film clubs at schools, and journalism workshops at festivals and events. The future of our film industries requires nothing less.