Category: African Cinema

Sema Stori – Documentary Film in Kenya

Sema Stori – Comic Relief Workshop Members

A couple of weeks ago we received a message from Kenya asking if we were interested in helping to promote a scheme which supports documentary filmmakers in East Africa. ‘Sema Stori’ simply means something like ‘tell a story’ in Swahili, so if you search for the title online, many different kinds of material pops up. What we are specifically concerned with here is a scheme linked to Docubox and Comic Relief (the tagline on the scheme’s website is ‘Stories that Speak’). The aim of the scheme is to offer mentorship by an established filmmaker and funding to make a documentary on one of four important topics: Mental Health, Early Childhood Development, Gender Justice, and the Right to Safe Secure Shelter and settlement. The scheme was promoted in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, offering up to £10,000 each for a maximum of ten films. The scheme had an applications deadline in May 2019 and the completed films have been made available in August 2020. You can access the films on the Facebook Channel of Sema Stori. Unfortunately, we have withdrawn from Facebook and closed our account so I have not been able to see the films. But since there are aspects of the programme presented elsewhere, I have decided to do some more research.

Documentary in East Africa

There is a long tradition of documentary filmmaking with a focus on ‘social documentary’ in East Africa and in other anglophone African countries. This is often seen to derive from the legacy of British colonial film policy which saw documentary film as a means of aiding social education. (It was also a means of propagandising on behalf of British interests) At the time of independence in the 1960s it did also provide the new nation states with some basic infrastructure and a small group of trained personnel. In other parts of Africa, similar ‘legacies’ meant that the early film cultures of the new nation states followed a different trajectory to that of francophone ex-colonies where French colonial policy promoted French culture and laid a foundation for more artistically inclined films in countries such as Senegal or Ivory Coast. The British-influenced documentary approach resulted in what some commentators described as ‘development filmmaking’. In the last ten years, 50 years after the end of the colonial period, we might expect this legacy to be no longer visible but it seems to have survived in a changed and updated way.

Docubox

Who are Docubox? Here is the statement on the front of their website:

DOCUBOX IS THE EAST AFRICAN DOCUMENTARY FILM FUND

We exist to enable talented, driven, focused and accountable East African artists to produce unique films that unearth new realities and cross trans-national boundaries. Through training, development and production grants, screenings for people who love documentary films, we promote East African filmmakers and share their unique stories with the world through creative documentary. We currently fund fiction under The Box.

Based in Nairobi, Docubox in the modern parlance of film development work, appears to be an important hub – an organisation that brings together funders such as NGOs, charities and other resources with aspiring filmmakers, and practitioners prepared to take on mentoring roles. Its aim is to promote film as an agency for social change. One of the driving forces behind Docubox is Judy Kibinge who was born in Kenya, lived in the US as a small child and educated in schools and higher education in the UK before working in advertising, corporate video productions and eventually as an independent filmmaker in Kenya, gaining an international reputation. Docubox is a Kenyan organisation but its funding partners include the British Council, The Danish Centre for Culture and Development (CKU), the Ford Foundation, Comic Relief and Hivos – People Unlimited (Netherlands). Docubox has used the available funding to create a range of projects covering both social documentary and fiction and as well as online screenings it has organised documentary screenings in Nairobi courtesy of the screening facilities of Alliance Française. In this way it has helped many aspiring filmmakers to gain exposure.

Comic Relief

Comic Relief is a UK-based charity founded by the scriptwriter Richard Curtis and the comedian and actor Lenny Henry in 1985 as a response to the Ethiopian famine. Since then it has grown significantly raising money from biennial ‘Red Nose Days’ which feature community fund-raising initiatives and a ‘charity telethon’. I have to confess that this is not something I have watched or taken part in for a whole host of reasons so I can’t really comment on the venture. A spin-off from the television coverage has involved various UK TV personalities making trips to Africa in particular to discover how the money raised has been spent. Again I haven’t watched any of these, but they have attracted some criticism with suggestions that they reinforce negative typing of Africa and Africans. Because of this I’m slightly wary of Comic Relief’s role in Docubox but it is reassuring to see that Docubox is purely Kenyan.

Submissions

Docubox clearly want to see proposals for films that focus on personal stories rather than traditional investigative reports with ‘expert’ talking heads. They demonstrate this by offering examples on their website. I haven’t managed to see the films produced for the project, but I have discovered several of the video statements made by filmmakers who I assume applied. You can check the Docubox advice on how to submit and watch the short statements below (they are each only a few minutes long).

Finally I found a statement by someone who I think has been successful in making a film for the project. I think this is Eugene Muigai and his film is called ‘It’s Okay Not To Be Okay’ which should have appeared on the Facebook page of Sema Stori earlier in August.

Sadio Mané: Made in Senegal (Germany-Senegal 2020)

Here is an unusual film release, perfect for lockdown. Sadio Mané, star footballer with Liverpool and Senegal has produced a film about his life and his football career. It is widely available on release via either of its two partners Rakuten TV in Europe and Canal+ in Francophone Africa. In the ‘Rest of the World’ it is available on Pay Per View at low rates (less than $2.00) see https://www.made-in-senegal.com All PPV monies will go to charities.

Mané with the European Champions League trophy

As a film this is a conventional biopic covering the childhood and ‘football journey’ of its subject. As a form of media event it is something more complex. Most global football clubs are now international brands with their own media production outfits, including their own TV channels/stations as well as associated social media outlets and fan operations. Over the last twelve months I’ve watched many programmes from Liverpool FCTV and gained a certain kind of access to the inner life of the club and some of the players (a handful of players are used in these films – many others are only glimpsed in the background). I feared that this film about Sadio Mané would be just a feature length version of these club videos. But it is much more than that.

The production company is the Berlin-based Vertical Social Club, a company focusing on offering a whole range of media services for sports clients in terms of branding, social media etc. on a global scale. This film meant working with Sadio Mané’s commercial brand sponsor New Balance and with Arena 11 Sports Group, another German company. What Arena 11 actually does I’m not sure but it appears to involve players’ agents and contracts and is linked to the transfer market. The film is credited to Mehdi Benhadj-Djilali,
Peta Jenkin and Jermain Raffington. Peta Jenkin appears to be the director with most experience in this kind of documentary.

The footballer stirs the pot when he visits his Uncle’s home in Dakar

But enough of the institutional stuff. Does Sadio Mané have a story interesting enough to fill 72 minutes? You bet he does. Sadio was born in a village in Southern Senegal in the Casamance region. His father was an Imam in the village where subsistence farming is still the main form of employment. His father died when Sadio was seven and he was brought up within his extended family who have a collective belief in education. It’s noticeable that Mané today speaks fluent French whereas the older members of his family speak their local language Diola (or perhaps the more widely-used Wolof?). Sadio wanted to be a footballer from early childhood but the family disapproved so at 15 he made the difficult journey to the capital Dakar with a friend to contact formal football hierarchies and on his return negotiated one more year of schooling before he joined ‘Generation Foot Academy’ in Dakar from which he was eventually signed by the French Ligue 2 club Metz.

The young men who gather in Mané’s village to hear him speak when he opens the school he has built

This is a remarkable story. Later in the film, Sadio recalls his father’s death was partly the result of a lack of hospital facilities locally. He also refers to the ‘rebels’ in the region who have been fighting for independence for many years and whose actions interrupted funeral arrangements for his father. When Sadio arrived in Metz aged 18, a serious injury threatened to halt his career after only a few months but he recovered from surgery and subsequently played for RB Salzburg in Austria and Southampton in the English Premier League before signing for Liverpool in 2016. Now, as a winner of the European Champion’s League, UEFA Super Cup and World Club Championship, he is one of the most valuable players in the world.

The wannabe footballer gets up early to travel to Dakar in this animated sequence

The film is shot in 1:2.35 and mostly follows its subject through three sections – his early life and early career, success with Liverpool in the Champion’s League final of 2019 and the last section covering his return to Senegal after the final in Madrid, his time with his extended family and the ultimate disappointment of Senegal’s defeat in the Africa Cup of Nations by Algeria in a penalty shoot-out in Cairo. No footage of aspects of Sadio’s childhood exist so the production used the animation company Jump to create drawn animations that I think work very well. The style reminded me of the work of French animator/director Michel Ocelot on the ‘Kirikou’ films.

Sadio speaks direct to camera

Sadio Mané speaks direct to camera in a relaxed manner and in his own film he seems at ease. He seems like a private person and apart from his agent Björn Bezemer, with whom he has a close relationship, we see him mostly with his extended family, including his uncle with whom he has built a house in Dakar, and in his village back in Casamance. The film ends with him opening the school he has built and the hospital that will be completed soon. He repeats his family’s words to him about valuing education above all. The young man has done well, learning a great deal outside school. But it isn’t easy. He is under pressure, both as an important player in the national team and as a local role model in Casamance.

Sadio Mané poses before a a legendary quote by Bill Shankly (the manager who created the Liverpool legend in the 1960s)

This is a German film so Jürgen Klopp speaks German, Sadio speaks French and his family’s local language. Much of the rest of the film is in English (or at least I think it is – I’m so used to reading subtitles that I sometimes don’t notice). The Liverpool players who appear are, I think, all non-English players. Virgil Van Dijk, Gini Wijnaldum and Mo Salah speak in English but Naby Keïta, who comes from Guinea and in some ways is closest to Mané in terms of background, speaks in French. Selecting these players to comment seems logical for several reasons but they are not spelt out and I would like to have learned a little more about Sadio’s interaction with the wider Liverpool FC community. But then, I’m a fan and the film does include the shot above in which Sadio stands next to a quote by Bill Shankly, so I can’t complain.

LIFF 2019 #12: Wênd Kûuni (Le don de dieu, God’s Gift, Upper Volta 1982)

The second of my two archive screenings featuring films with female editors was this 1982 feature by Gaston Kaboré. The editor in question is Andrée Davanture, the French woman who founded a company called Atria in Paris in 1953. After working with several well-known French directors, she later worked with some of the most significant francophone African directors including Souleymane Cissé from Mali, Safi Faye from Senegal and Gaston Kaboré among others (see this website). Beautifully restored by Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, Wênd Kûuni was projected in Academy (1:1.37) in stunning colour with especially good lighting and grading to produce a range of dark skin tones.

Wênd Kûuni is one of the first of what Manthia Diawara termed ‘return to the source’ films. The earliest Sub-Saharan African films had tended to take a neo-realist approach to contemporary life in the newly established independent francophone states of West Africa. Later this became a more sophisticated historical approach analysing the process of colonisation in the films of Sembène Ousmane, Med Hondo and others. The return to source was an attempt to present African stories from pre-colonial times and to try to find a new aesthetic for a distinctively African cinema. Some directors also saw this approach as a way of avoiding censorship in the difficult days of neo-colonialist rule by new authoritarian leaders.

Wend Kuuni (Serge Yanogo) when he has become a herder

Kaboré’s film is set during the period of the Mossi kingdoms which lasted for hundreds of years before the French imperialist forces arrived in the Upper Volta region in 1896. (Upper Volta became Burkina Faso in 1984 after the film was released.) The film begins with a woman being told that her husband is missing and she is worried about how she and her son will cope. A transition then moves the story on and a pedlar is riding his donkey through the bush. Hearing a sound, he investigates and finds a boy clearly ailing and exhausted beneath a ragged cloth. He decides to take the boy with him to the next village he intends to visit and there the boy is taken in by a weaver who accepts him into his family – he has a wife and a little girl. The weaver decides to name the boy ‘God’s gift’.

Wend Kuuni’s new little sister

Wend Kuuni recovers after he is fed and watered but he refuses to speak. As he recovers he becomes the family’s shoat (sheep?goats?) herder. Eventually comes the moment when a dispute in the village (concerning the role and behaviour of women) escalates so that Wend Kuuni is himself shocked back into speech. The plotline of the narrative does not contain many dramatic moments but it more than makes up for this with an observation of daily life in the village. I enjoyed the film very much. Following Keith’s comments on Osaka Elegy, I don’t know whether it was a film or digital print but it looked good. Several years after the film’s production in 1995, Gaston Kaboré made the following comment as part of celebrations for the centenary of cinema:

A society daily subjected to foreign images eventually loses its identity and its capacity to forge its own destiny.

The development of Africa implies among other things the production of its own images.

LIFF 2019 #6: Moffie (South Africa-UK 2019)

Nicholas (Kai Luke Brumer) brutalised and traumatised by his experiences

‘Moffie’ is the standard homophobic term of abuse in South Africa, apparently across various languages. This film has been described as a ‘queer war movie’. In 1981 what the South African authorities described as the ‘Border War’ was in operation along the boundary separating the former ‘South-West Africa’ from Angola. (Many of us outside South Africa thought of it as a ‘Liberation War’ on behalf of SWAPO – the South West Africa People’s Organisation.) Conscription in South Africa meant every young man over 16 was subject to 2 years National Service. Nicholas Van der Swart has an Afrikaans name courtesy of his stepfather, but his biological father is an English-speaking South African. He finds himself in a predominantly Afrikaans intake for basic training.

The conscription train picks him up . . .

The basic military training of raw conscripts is a familiar narrative in film cultures across the world. It always has an element of brutality, often via the figure of the Sergeant-Major or equivalent. Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is perhaps the best-known example, but there are many others. I’ve seen a few but none quite so foul and repulsive as the treatment handed out to the young men here. It’s a brutality delivered with constant swearing and sexist and homophobic insults. The conscripts are duped into thinking that they are fighting to protect the women and children of South Africa from the ‘blacks’, the communists and the threat of homosexuality (illegal in apartheid SA). Two conscripts found in the same toilet cubicle together are treated harshly with terrible outcomes. Nicholas defends himself in the intense testosterone-filled Afrikaner barracks, but he is spotted by another gay conscript. We learn about Nick’s earlier teenage years in a flashback and are prepared for what might happen as basic training continues.

There are only two direct contacts between the conscripts and black Africans. One is treated in a vile way, the other is an enemy soldier. I can’t remember if it was a line of dialogue or something I read in a review but I was struck by the observation that however evil the apartheid regime was in its treatment of black Africans, at least it wasn’t illegal to be a black African (but it was illegal to be in the wrong place). It was illegal to be gay and the psychiatrists of the South African Defence Force (like the Israeli Defence Force, quite happy to be offensive and cross into other countries) were prepared to use any methods to ‘convert’ young gay men.

The beauty of an African night

This the fourth feature by writer-director Olivier Hermanus. One of the first three films, Beauty (2011), also had a gay theme and did get a UK release by the LGBTQ specialist distributor Peccadillo Pictures. Moffie is a UK co-production but so far doesn’t seem to have a UK distribution deal. It certainly deserves one. The script for this film was adapted from an autobiographical novel by André Carl van der Merwe. The adaptation produces a confident, disciplined piece of filmmaking with a stunning central performance by Kai Luke Brummer in the central role. Many of the other young men in the cast are non-professionals. The photography by Jamie D. Ramsay is equally impressive, especially since the film appears to have been shot entirely in Western Cape Province. The restrained score by Braam du Toit also includes some local pop material including an allusion to the ‘Sugar Man’ phenomenon in the country and a local version of the Isley Brothers ‘Summer Breeze’ during the flashback sequence to Nick’s early teens.

Nicholas and Dylan (Ryan de Villiers). Is a relationship possible?

Once the basic training comes to an end, the brutal treatment of the conscript becomes less pronounced, though it is still there and increasingly insidious. Ramsay’s camera becomes more lyrical in presenting the bodies of the young men, often naked in the showers or skinny dipping en masse. In one scene they play volleyball bare-chested and in shorts and, reading reviews, I see that I wasn’t the only one to recognise what seems to be an hommage to Beau Travail (France 1999), the Claire Denis film about another set of gay relationships in a colonial army in Africa (the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti). These scenes are indicative of one of the great strengths of the film. Here is Jonathan Romney from his Screendaily Review commenting on the changing depiction after the earlier brutality:

That Hermanus is able, subsequently, to portray these young white men as human, vulnerable, even sympathetic, is a sign of the moral seriousness and subtlety of his approach.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative but I will say that the film does not have a conventional resolution. IMdB suggests that the film involves ‘War. Romance. Drama’. I think calling what Nick experiences ‘romance’ is misleading. Sensitivity, emotional bonding, loyalty certainly and desire for intimacy definitely but many of these young white men were traumatised and scarred by their experiences in the SAFD. Thirty years on they still find it difficult to process. All of this means that the film might struggle to find audiences outside South Africa, but I hope not.

This is a major achievement for a black filmmaker from South Africa who has made an important social statement as well as one of the best films of the year. If you get the chance, do go and see it. It opens in South Africa in 2020 and is still visiting festivals like Leeds.

Akasha (Sudan-South Africa-Germany-Qatar 2018)

Lina (Ekram Marcus, centre) with the AK-47 and two other young women in the village who are annoyed with Adnan

Akasha or aKasha (the ’round-up’) is a gentle comedy about young men and women in the midst of the long-running civil war in Sudan. Writer-director Hajooj Kuka won prizes for his documentary feature Beats of the Antonov (2014) and this feature returns him to the same conflict with the same backing from South African production company Big World Cinema (which also backed Rafiki from Kenya). Big World Cinema has been effective in getting films from across Africa into major international festivals and this one appeared at Venice, Toronto and London in 2018. We watched the film as part of Black History Month at the same venue where we saw Beats of the Antonov back in July. Again there were members of the local Sudanese community in Bradford in the audience. This time they were nearly all women which makes me wonder if the men knew something about the film. One of the features of the earlier film was the director’s interest in the culture of the young women in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions of Sudan, fighting against the regime in Khartoum.

Absi and Adnan get help with their disguises.

The film begins with a pre-credit scene in which we learn that the civil war has a forced ‘time out’ during the rainy season when the churned-up mud tracks make movement difficult. The soldiers in the rebel army are given time off to help their families. The ’round-up’ then begins to bring the soldiers back for the next round of action and the film’s narrative follows two young men who attempt to avoid being called back. We first discover Adnan (Kamal Ramadan) in bed with his girlfriend Lina (Ekram Marcus) but when she sees another woman’s name carved onto the stock of Adnan’s AK-47 she throws him out, believing he has been sleeping around. Adnan finds himself outside the compound without his gun and without a belt to hold up his uniform trousers. But he does come across Absi (Ganja Chakado), a city boy who has so far avoided a call-up. The two bond quickly and hatch a plan to retrieve the gun and to avoid the local commander Kuku Blues (Abdallah Alnur) who is already hauling young men back into uniform. The plan involves dressing as local women. Meanwhile the young women in the village are preparing for a wedding. Those are the ingredients of the plot with ample opportunities for jokes and sight gags.

Most of the gags are basic and universally accessible but Hajooj Kuka sets out to satirise the military pretensions of the men and to boost both the intelligence and the wit of the young women. A couple of carefully placed objects (a copy of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and a poster of Angela Davis and other Black leaders) suggest that Lina is far more aware than Adnan who will later have to eat humble pie when his ‘warrior’ status is revealed as a sham.

Absi and Adnan on the bike

Hajooj Kuka was initially known for his camerawork and with his cinematographer Giovanni P. Autran he creates some attractive landscapes around the village and into the hills. With characters often seen in long shot moving through the landscape (including chase sequences) the film seems to refer back to quite a few of the internationally-distributed West African films of the 1970s and 1980s. At one point Absi borrows a motorbike and I wondered if the resulting images were a nod to Touki Bouki (Senegal 1973). Closer examination shows the bike to be a Chinese model from Senke. A little later, Adnan sets off for the hills and has an ‘experience’ with hallucinogenic flowerheads. Jokes about ‘stoners’ and dope smoking are told by Kuku Blues, possibly in order to demonstrate his ‘hipness’ – but readings like this are dependent on subtitling. I wondered if this too was a nod towards the ‘Return to Source’ African films of the 1980s. Mostly though the film is a gentle comedy that makes some interesting social comments on gender identity and modern culture for young black Sudanese men and women. The Civil War is currently on hold after the dictator was deposed in April 2019 and peace talks with the new regime are underway. It would be good to think that films like this in future can focus on the comedy (and the music) without worrying about the recall to arms.

Rafiki (Kenya-South Africa-Germany-Netherlands-France-Norway-Lebanon-UK 2018)

rafiki-2018-001-women-pink

Being told you are degenerate in church

This is an effective ‘coming of age’ film from an unlikely source: Kenya. Co-written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu the film was banned in its native country because it ‘promoted lesbianism’. If anything, the film shows how difficult gay love is in a homophobic society so ‘promotion’ doesn’t exactly cover it. The discriminatory formulation harks back to Thatcher’s disgusting ‘section 28’ that, in 1988, was designed to prevent local authorities in Britain from ‘promoting homosexuality’. So disgust with Kenya for banning such a tender, and not explicit, film must be tempered, in the UK, by the acknowledgement that 30 years ago our government was promoting similarly homophobic messages. No doubt our colonial laws, homosexuality was only ‘made legal’ in 1967 in the UK, contributed to the difficulties Kenya has in acknowledging different sexualities.

Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva are superb as the unlikely couple: Kena quiet and withdrawn; Ziki loud and flamboyant. They are daughters of local electioneering politicians which adds a social dimension to the film’s melodrama. The importance of the Christian church in Kenyan society is acknowledged and so is its homophobia. The pastor’s sermon against difference is shown to encourage the attacks Kena and Ziki suffer; Kahiu shoots a mob scene in a genuinely scary manner. The film itself is as brave as its characters.

The film also portrays patriarchal society, particularly through Kena’s dad, as problematic. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy, he owns a shop and happily gives credit to shoppers that seems to be more than part of his campaign for reelection (presumably as a local councillor). However that hasn’t stopped him abandoning his wife for a ‘younger model’.

Ziki allows Kena to fulfil her potential by giving her confidence; initially her ambition was to be a nurse. However, she is obviously bright enough for even more challenging roles in health care. The ending of the film is nicely ambivalent for no matter how much the audience (I doubt homophobes will be still watching at this point) want the couple to be together, that is not a straightforward option in contemporary Kenya.