« I think we will see Africa taking huge steps »

Interview with Salim Amin, Kenyan filmmaker and producer, by Olivier Barlet

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Salim Amin, good afternoon. We are at the Cannes Festival for the 60th edition, 2007. It would be interesting to talk about the film you brought to the Les cinémas du monde screening. It is not often that we see Kenyan films in Cannes. You also represent the English-speaking part of Africa, also rarely seen. You reflect an organized, business-like cinema industry that is not very developed in Africa in general. Could you tell us about your film, your being here in Cannes and the way cinema is organized in your country?
It’s a huge honor to be in Cannes. I think it’s the first time ever that a Kenyan film has been screened here. It’s great to be in Les cinémas du monde; it also would have been great to be in competition in one of the big categories. Having seen some of the mfilms in competition, I wonder why some of the African films are not in there. It’s a pity because all of them are of great quality. I feel that a lot of those in competition are done by directors of reputation and are not there thanks to the quality of their work. That is a struggle we’ll have to keep going on with. We must try to improve our own quality and make sure that we get to a stage where they can’t ignore African films. They’re so good, they win everywhere and they have to be in Cannes.
However, I wouldn’t say that I’m a representative of Kenyan film-making because Mo and Me is not a film but a documentary. We don’t make feature films as a company: our main work is documentaries, current affairs and features, not motion pictures. However, the Kenyan industry is moving along quite rapidly. More and more films are made every year; not necessarily great quality films but it will take time to develop the technicians, the directors and the production and post-production facilities.
Who are the Kenyan directors? Some years ago, most Kenyan films that came out had women directors.
Yes, the best directors in Kenya are still women directors. However, there are some good male directors coming on. They are trying to find some budgets to make higher-quality films, and partner with countries around of East Africa, for example Tanzania. Together, they’re trying to raise more money. There are more film festivals coming in East Africa which are very useful for filmmakers to showcase their work. The Nu Metro Cinema group, a South-African chain, has opened numerous multiplexes in Kenya and Uganda. They occasionally showcase African films. This means that, apart from having their films screened at a commercial venue, filmmakers will get money out of it as well. This is very encouraging because, unfortunately, filmmakers are not making money. It’s difficult for them to keep on making films because they have to find funds for every one of them. It’s not like one film will do well and they can use the funding from that film to do the next one. CameraPix is trying to develop the TV aspect. I’m working on the formation and the launch of the first Panafrican 24-hour news channel Africa 24. It will have space to showcase African films on a weekly/monthly basis around the continent. I believe it will be another important element in exposing the talent that is on the continent. The distribution will not only be in Africa but also in Europe, the UK, through some American outlets. It will be in English and French: hopefully, it will appeal to a large percentage of the world’s population.
There will be a strong competition between the different channels as more and more initiatives are taken. Will you be in a position to help this competition?
I think so. The model that we’re using and the people we’re bringing on board will make « African 24 » (the channel) a powerful entity. We have some of the best editors in journalism already on board with us. We want to set very high standards from the beginning. That way, we can make sure that we are on the same level with the CNNs or the BBCs in terms of quality. That’s all we are going to be judged by. People are going to think « It’s African so it doesn’t matter if the picture is shaky »; we don’t want to give them that excuse. We have the talent in terms of journalists and filmmakers.
That brings us to your documentary which is of very good quality. It’s also a film that seems to be made-for-TV: in the length, the personal way you approach the subject, the commentary… Is this the kind of product that the industry makes and will continue to make today or is there a possibility of making more ‘art’ films?
There’s definitely more of a scope. We made this film for television. The original version of Mo and Me was a seven-part series. Because the festivals would not show a series, we then made it into a 95-minute version. We cut out an hour to make this theatrical version. It has won awards at a dozen film festivals all over the world. Now, we’re hoping to make the motion picture. The rights have been bought. Maybe we can come and premiere it here in 2009. It will be a proper full-actors, full-fledged motion picture, not a documentary. The Me part will be removed from the title; it will just be Mo’s story, told in a proper motion picture sense.
In terms of others films by filmmakers in East Africa, they are proper features; not made-for-TV movies. Unfortunately, they hardly ever get shown on TV because the system on the continent for TV stations is very strange; the broadcasters ask you to buy air-time. They don’t pay you to take your film and broadcast it. Filmmakers can’t afford to buy air-time.
That’s also the case in other countries…
Yes, it’s the case in almost every country I’ve been to in the continent, except in South Africa. They want you to pay or to find yourself a sponsor. While that system is in, it’s going to be very hard for filmmakers to have their product showcased to a mass audience. This is where we want « A24 » to be different. We will pay the filmmakers and find sponsors. But in terms of the Talent, a broadcast training center, a school in Kenya. We’ve graduated about 75 students over the last eight years and they’re all brilliant. They’re all working on films or documentaries, or they’ve started their own production companies. The Talent just gives them an opportunity. It uses the new technology that is available, cheap and accessible to make all of this possible. Five years ago, we wouldn’t even be talking about a project like this because it was too expensive. The technology has changed so much that it is now affordable to make money on a 24-hour news channel. As technology is now cheaper, smaller and more efficient, I think we will see Africa taking huge steps. One of the distribution networks that I see is mobile phones. It’s a massive tool of distribution. Africans are not going to buy 2000 dollar high-definition TV sets but they will buy mobile phones that are 3 GNA volt and can get mobile video.
Are you in contact with the M-Net initiative of the African Film Library?
I’ve spoken to M-Net a little bit. They only do what suits them and tend to favor South African directors and companies. I would be wary of them. I assume they will have competition if these licensing procedures in South Africa go through. They’re talking about licensing eight to ten different platforms. Then M-Net will have serious competition and will have to think about how they’re operating because at the moment, they’re operating as a monopoly. It’s a great thing we have archives and are looking for ways to digitize them but it’s not easy to find that kind of money. We have ten thousand hours of footage. We really want to preserve it as it’s one of the most intense history of postcolonial Africa. But we can’t afford to do it. I’m hoping another initiative will make people understand the need of preserving the history of television and cinema in Africa.
At the forum in Les cinémas du monde, you mentionned that people from the outside, from Hollywood for example, come to Kenya because there are beautiful sets but bring their own technicians. Is there any perspective for change?
We need to prove to all these Hollywood makers that we can produce the same kind of talent. At the end of the day, all Hollywood films are on budget: we can prove that we are as talented and we are cheaper. Things are happening, there are a lot of good location companies in East Africa that are getting all the work for things like Tombraider that have been shot in Africa. They’ve been doing all the logistical work.
You mentionned earlier that two or three millions dollars per year were put into the production of local films in Kenya. What kind of films are they?
They are sort of features, local feature films that are funded either by individuals or by sponsorships. However, that’s not a big amount of money for the film industry. This doesn’t include the Hollywood-sort-of-budgets that come in.
Many popular films are emerging in Kenya in terms of « films de genre » or sentimental comedies…
Absolutely, this is something new. But they’ve taken the leaf out of the West African market. They’ve seen the success of some of the West African, such as Nigerian, films and are trying to emulate that. They’ve understood that it doesn’t have to be all politically-oriented films; the topics they can tackle are much more interesting to people.
How is the industry dealing with that?
Distribution, initial financing, film stock and cameras are a problem. This is slowly building up. There are more and more people who invest. The Kenyan industry has to find private investors. There are many rich businessmen in Kenya but they’ve never seen film as a way of making money and doing social good. I think we have to educate that section of society. This is how it happens in the West.
You are here with Samuel Garrick. Hello, could you tell us what your role is in the company?
I’m the sales agent for Camera Pix. I’m also the publicist at my firm Quantock based in New York. I have my own agents, about half a dozen around the world. We attend festivals. I took a very personal interest in Mo and Me. I come from a television background so I didn’t have to think very hard about whether I’d be involved in this project. I’m delighted, it’s such an honor to be here.
Is it difficult for you to try and sell a film in Cannes?
We didn’t know we were going to be here until fairly late, so it was a bit of a scramble. We didn’t really get to prepare things. However, I can’t complain as it’s been an honor. We’ve won half-a-dozen awards now. It’s so heartwarming when you come out of the Les cinémas du monde screening; you get such a flow of emotion and you get invitations to other festivals. It just shows that amidst all of the festivals, Cannes really is the « best ».
So you’ll be coming again!

///Article N° : 6697


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