Cannes 2003: all-out mobilisation!

By Olivier Barlet

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As productions were few and far between, only one film from the Central African Republic and two Moroccan films were selected at the Cannes film festival this year. Yet aid structures exist. At a time when people are mobilising against the American steamroller in an effort to defend cultural diversity around the world, the question is whether Europe intends to impose itself as an obligatory passage when it backs the production of images from the South, or whether it intends to let the countries of the South create an industry that is capable of producing its own images. In other words, the question is whether we prefer a game of ping-pong between Europe and America, or real cultural multilateralism. The Cannes Festival 2003 was the occasion for a whole series of roundtables and the announcing of aid programmes to Southern cinemas. Highlights, and a review of the films.

The question is as old as Independence itself. It reflects the concern to ensure that the huge funds invested in technical assistance programmes are structuring for the countries concerned, rather than eternally perpetuating an aid system that enables the North to glorify its own humanity whilst turning the South into the eternally grateful receiving party. With the economic crisis, however, public aid is not on the increase, even if it is not actually under threat. People have to make the same sums go further than before. A potentially near future also needs to be envisaged when the funds are likely to dry up, or, as Idrissa Ouedraogo likes to put it, when « the mat we are sitting on will be pulled out from under our behinds ».
An all-round battle plan
2003 has effectively marked a change of mood at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Richard Boidin’s appointment (who previously worked for ARTE) as head of the audiovisual department marks a new discourse that recognises past errors and expresses a desire to change, as was made clear in a roundtable devoted to Southern film funding (see www.africultures.com). To make this effective, a number of truly revolutionary changes have taken place:
1) Rather than working in isolation, or even undermining one another’s efforts, the different institutions are to coordinate or unite their actions.
The first visible evidence of this was the single, 400 m2 « Cinémas du Sud » pavilion at Cannes, which brought the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MAE), the Centre national de la Cinématographie (CNC), the Agence intergouvernementale de la francophonie (AIF), TV5 and Canal France International (CFI) together under the same roof.
2) At long last an effort is to be made to distribute films in Africa.
After a two-year study carried out essentially by the Agence intergouvernementale de la francophonie (AIF), the MAE, AIF and European Union’s announcement of a joint « Africa cinemas » programme to back film distribution demonstrates the desire to take concerted action in a hitherto neglected domain (see the report on its presentation in Cannes on www.africultures.com). The aim is to reconnect African filmmakers with their local audiences. Given the general degradation of movie theatres in Africa, the American monopoly over distribution, the economic crisis, and the hesitancy of national television stations, African audiences rarely get to see African films. The three institutions’ production aids will continue on the one hand, whilst on the other, an overall envelope of 1.5 million euros is to be allocated to help distribution in the movie theatres. Run by Europa cinemas and placed under the direction of the Burkinabè producer Toussaint Tiendrebeogo, this fund will back distribution contracts in at least five countries on the continent, representing an average of 75 000 euros per film in the form of copies, trailers, posters, press books, transport costs, the organisation of promo events, and so forth. If the exhibitors agree to programme a certain percentage of African films, they will receive subsidies to modernise their cinemas. Structuring aids will also be given to African distributors. Alternative distribution networks (digital cinema, video, itinerant screenings) will be explored and backed, along with film distribution on the hertzian television channels.
This impressive programme presupposes that the public will follow! The reality is that African audiences are losing interest in their own cinema, in French cinema, and even in cinema in general. Although a lot of thought has been given to the commercial promotion of film, one term that is so very dear to us still appears to have been forgotten: film criticism. The days when one of Jean-Louis Bory’s radio diatribes won or lost a film 50 000 viewers are of course long gone. African critics do not make or break a film anymore than they do in France. Yet there is a contradiction, as it emerges from all the official interventions that the institutions have chosen to continue to back what they refer to as « quality cinema ». Yet this, by definition, is not mainstream. For this type of cinema to find an audience, therefore, a certain film culture needs to be nurtured – especially amongst young people – that will improve the general quality of film production, as the production aids do when they make films’ artistic quality their main criteria. That presupposes thought and critical publications, which in turn necessitates training African cultural journalists to be critics and giving them the means to express themselves, to confront their viewpoints, to improve their standing, and to be read beyond the boundaries of their media. Whilst the revival of a film journal such as Ecrans d’Afrique/African Screen seems difficult to finance and distribute effectively, the Internet offers a future solution in this respect, as it allows both topicality and more in-depth research. Apart from that, the structuring aspect of this backing to movie theatres and distributors can of course only be applauded. At last, this funding will consolidate an essential stage of the film process. Even though movie theatres in their current form (often oversized, single movie theatres when what is needed are multi-screen theatres and for people to explore the possibilities of digital projections) are not necessarily the solution for film distribution in the future, potential audiences like « going out » to the cinema in attractive and well-equipped movie theatres. It is in this respect that cinema remains an alternative to television and video.
3) A scheme to encourage African images.
The aim of the three-year programme announced by the MAE, entitled « Plan images Afrique », fortunately works in the same direction as the desire to structure and to take grass-root realities into account. The choice to merge the current Fonds Sud Télévision and the Fonds d’Appui au développement des Cinémas du Sud (ADCSud) into one organisation – the Fonds images Afrique – is in itself a revolution. Following the other institutions’ example, it means that two domains that were hitherto carefully separated by the ministry are at last no longer opposed: namely film and television. Furthermore, it has opened funding up to all formats and durations, no longer excluding cinema short films, and also including television dramas, sitcoms, animation, pop videos, magazines and documentaries. Finally, the funding is applicable to all stages of development and production, whatever the medium chosen. Although no real parity has been announced (which would enable people to avoid the same old Western fiats on what African films should be like), the funding is to be attributed by a commission made up of European and sub-Saharan African professionals. And last but not least, the entire sum will be attributed to a local production company and must be spent locally. With an envelope of 6 million euros over three years, this funding, which can be combined with the other grants, is far from being just a drop in the ocean! It will also include training for screenwriters and producers, and promotion.
4) Using television as a relay.
In addition to funding production (Fonds images Afrique) and distribution (Africa cinemas), the third part of the « Plan images Afrique » involves backing African television. This is the result of a quantitative reflection on audiences that puts the question of the impact of movie theatres into perspective (the sums needed to modernise all the movie theatres would be colossal) in favour of television. It is thus now no longer a question of just producing movies, but also series, sitcoms, television dramas, documentaries, local fictions, etc. In other words, the aim is to re-conquer a lost terrain so that Africans primarily see images produced in Africa. This approach is a managerial one, involving the signature of conventions to help the television companies to become more professional, to study their audiences’ desires and expectations, and to explore the advertising market. An additional 3 million euros are to be invested in this three-year programme. It comes as no surprise that CFI has been appointed to oversee the programme. After all, CFI is an instrument of cooperation and the entire programme is first and foremost a cooperation programme. But that fact that CFI has been put in charge of managing this funding makes some fear the worst as, thanks to its policy of giving programmes to Southern television stations for free, CFI is at present one of the main obstacles preventing the latter from taking themselves in hand to produce their own programmes. But the problem is complex, because other (English and German-speaking) countries also donate programmes, and also because the reality is that African television companies more readily air foreign mass audience programmes than the African programmes that CFI tries to promote. Moreover, American and Brazilian series get such high audience ratings that the channels make them their priority. The bottom line is that, like everywhere else, audiences in the South are looking for light entertainment, not cultural quality. Film and audiovisual funding are thus part of an educational undertaking. As Serge Adda, director of TV5 puts it: « Our undertaking is voluntarist. It reflects a joint effort to defend cultural diversity rather than meeting audience demand ». But does that mean that only demanding works should be produced? Charles Mensah, director of the Centre National du Cinéma in Gabon, protests about « the powerful lobby that influences festival juries » and which favours « auteur films instead of mass audience productions », to the detriment of ties with African audiences.
Which brings us back to that old poisoned audience debate again! The history of cinema shows that audiences lose interest when commercial products fail to renew themselves. There is no cinema without creativity. With African film in particular, where films are not the product of an organised industry, the auteur-mass audience film opposition is redundant. To take a Gabonese example, is Imunga Ivanga’s film Dôlè an auteur or a mass audience film? The same question goes for Didier Ouenangaré and Bassek ba Kobhio’s Le Silence de la forêt, which was presented as an auteur film at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight this year, but which nonetheless addresses a wide audience. Rather than opposing these two terms, it is more useful to situate the opposition within the films’ content. Does the content rework the world’s anguishes to help viewers accept the (globalized American) order, as Hollywood films do? Or does it wade in reality instead, as other cinemas do, in order to envisage change, thereby producing a cinema of the gaze in which creators propose their vision as they place this gaze within a participative reflection? That some films thus be less accessible than others in this necessarily formal experimentation is part of the creative game. That jury festivals be sensitive to this is quite normal. Unless they judges films in terms of their ratings or public appreciation, their role is to motivate spectators to try the experience of seeing films that might well be demanding, which reflects film’s educative and cultural role, film not simply being a form of entertainment.
The old accusation now levelled at the new generation of filmmakers that they make films to please Western audiences is so predominant that the Guilde des réalisateurs et producteurs africains (African Guild of Directors and Producers) has devoted its latest bulletin to a certain number of directors’ answer to this question (available online at www.cinemasdafrique.com). All demand the freedom to produce artistic works without having to worry about meeting criteria of African identification.
« Do we focus on auteur films too much? » wonders Jean-Claude Crépeau, head of the AIF’s audiovisual sector. « No doubt. We need to bring the decision-making closer to the ground. » This is undoubtedly the solution, but has a snag to it too. The problem is not the existence of auteur film, but rather the imbalance in the production of images. The overly complex and centralised funding aids do not truly allow the emergence of local production, which would make digital filmmaking possible. Yet it is precisely this that could directly provide national television stations and audiences with far more images on video or DVD, which will soon impose itself in Africa too. This will only be made possible by democratising funding, spreading funds a bit more thinly, and by decentralisating decision-making.
The idea is, as the French system of automatic aid shows, that masterpieces emerge from the general mediocrity (which can then be transferred onto film to go on general release around the world). Talented young filmmakers who crave to make films are emerging everywhere, but do not always have access to such subsidies. The Forut experience in Dakar is exemplary in this respect, producing community videos after simple training. But the word « decentralisation » was not the buzzword in the Cannes presentations. A ministerial mission is due to travel around the different countries, however, in order to meet local officials before determining the exact modalities of the « Plan images Afrique ». We can only hope that the question will be raised, the link with the national politicians being essential here.
New copies for North Africa
In 2003-2004, the CNC is going to provide Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian distributors with new copies on an experimental basis so that they can organise simultaneous releases in their countries and thus benefit from the films’ promotion campaigns in the French media, which are widely picked up throughout North Africa (see details on www.africultures.com).
Cannes also saw the announcement of the Soleils d’Afrique initiative – a glittering awards ceremony for African film, or an African version of the Oscars! The first ceremony will be held on 17 April 2004 in Dakar, and will be retransmitted on TV5 Monde and CFI, along with homages and extracts of African films. Youssou Ndour is working on the music for the event. The prize giving will thus be alternated with music, film extracts, and highlights of the best moments of the year.
The Djibril Diop Mambéty Prize, traditionally awarded at Cannes by the association Racines and hosted this year by the Critics’ Week, went to The Sky in Her Eyes, a South African short co-directed by Ouida Smit and Madodo Ncayiyana.
Cannes junior, which was created 21 years ago, before being threatened by the town of Cannes’ withdrawal of its logistical and financial backing, and finally saved by a series of new partners, brought together a jury of youngsters from Madagascar, Les Mureaux, and Marseille. The next edition of this travelling festival will be held on Mauritius from the 9 to 14 December 2003.
The films, the awards!
Three African films featured in this year’s selections at Cannes, one of which won an award. The « Un certain regard » selection’s « Premier regard » award went to Faouzid Bensaïdi’s Mille mois. The Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, who won the France Culture prize for his film Heremakono – En attendant le bonheur, was president of the jury. Of the two Moroccan films selected, Mille mois, whose fragmentary film style is not dissimilar to Sissako’s, deserved a thousand awards! In it, the director develops his own original film language, first discovered in his short films, La Falaise and Le Mur. By focusing his camera on a place where his characters come and go, he places the spectator in a dynamic and attentive state of expectation that allows him to develop the multiple digressions created by the narrative. Centring the film on a mother and child taken in by the grandfather’s village because the father is in prison, Bensaïdi reveals the scars left by Morocco’s dark years, but also broadens his message to evoke the country’s spiritual and human future.
Just like his short films, Narjiss Nejjar’s Les Yeux secs – the other Moroccan film shown during the Directors’ Fortnight – struck me as barely masking its painful superficiality behind a grandiloquent symbolism and aestheticising visuals. The arrival of an old woman who is just released from prison and a young bus driver upset the order of things in a village inhabited by prostitutes. The message is clear: the women need motivating to force them to take themselves in hand. But this drags on for two very long, uneventful and pretentious hours.
Also presented during the Directors’ Fortnight, Didier Ouenangaré and Bassek ba Kobhio’s Le Silence de la Forêt, the first film from the Central African Republic, was worth seeing, even if it didn’t fulfil all its promises. In this up-beat, funny and captivating film, a school inspector who is shocked by the contempt shown for the Pygmies and who hopes to educate them, is initiated into Pygmy values, quickly realising that he is the one who can learn from them. The actors are excellent, notably Eriq Ebouaney, who starred in Raoul Peck’s Lumumba, and Nadège Beausson-Diagne, first discovered in Les Couilles de l’éléphant, not to mention the Pygmies themselves, who were not present in Cannes. But would they have even wanted to be there? The glitz is one of the facets of film. Although an essential springboard for recognition, Cannes ought not distract us from the importance of massively producing and distributing locally made images that counter the acculturating invasion of those made by others.

Contact Africa cinémas : 54, rue Beaubourg, 75003 Paris, France, tel +33 1 42 71 53 70, fax 47 55.
Contact New copies for North Africa : [email protected], tel +33 1 44 34 38 31, fax 36 59. ///Article N° : 5426

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