Africa’s celluloid treasure trove

2009-11-13 13:25

GREAT Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene entrusted his precious film catalogue to the African Film Library before he died two years ago.

After meeting with Mike Dearham, the digital library’s curator, Sembene understood how the ­library could preserve his legacy and educate future generations of film-makers and audiences.

Although the library was only ­officially launched at Montecasino last month with a screening of John Kani’s Nothing But the Truth, Dearham spent the best part of four years bringing to fruition an idea ­arrived at by M-Net’s board of directors: to collect and catalogue the great films of the African continent.

“It’s been close to three-and-a-half years, possibly four, that this initiative has kicked off and it began with an idea to put together – assemble – a library of products, loosely referred to as the African Film Library, that emanate from the ­continent and that provides a showcase of the best cinematic works produced, directed by Africans,” said Dearham.

“The objective was also to develop a one-stop shop for these products. If you know the situation in ­Africa, a lot of these products are very rare and inaccessible.

“So the idea was to allow quick and easy access, outside of the preservation objective.

“I think the other objective was to find a way to assist African filmmakers financially through a once-off payment for certain rights and in so doing catalyse production, because we have made generous payments to film-makers and producers and that will allow them to invest in future productions.”

The project started with an inventory including names such as Djibril Diop Mambety, Abderramane Sissako, Flora Gomes, Jean Marie Teno and, of course, the father of ­African cinema, Sembene.

“We began by drawing up a wish list of what we perceived to be the most entertaining, the most pertinent, African film products that we were aware of.

“We looked at the continent and at the films that had received prestigious awards. We looked at those films that were directed by African film greats from each region of the continent and we looked at films that were entertaining,” said Dearham.

The inventory was translated into a budget and Dearham had to find out who owned the rights and then buy them on a willing buyer, willing seller basis.

His team travelled to film festivals to see the films and meet the ­directors, but discovered that often the rights were owned by Europeans – another hangover of Africa’s colonial past.

Said Dearham: “You can attend these festivals and meet directors, but directors are not necessarily owners of these films, so we had to tread very carefully when it came to zooming in and sourcing the legal owners of these films.

“In the majority of cases we found ourselves negotiating with French, Belgian producers. This is Africa’s legacy; this is where the rights resided. So we found a lot of travel to Europe and a lot of engagement with very recalcitrant producers, if I can use that word.

“We are close on to 600 films. It has never been done before in the history of African film and the cultural development of this continent.

“No enterprise has actually taken the brave and noble step forward to go out and buy back the rights that rested in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

“We bought back those rights and now they rest in Africa. So philosophically and in terms of African development it was a very critical step. It’s buying back our memories, because these films are images of ­African memory.”

Many of the films are being shown on DStv’s Movie Magic channel, and Dearham has signed deals with many African countries, including Ghana, Tunisia, Mozambique and Uganda, to show the films on free-to-air TV stations. Selections of the films are also being packaged for sale on DVD and film festivals the world over are now aware of the ­African Film Library as a resource.

The online video-on-demand facility is due to be up and running soon. Dearham hoped the facility would become a resource for teaching African film worldwide.

Having the facility would be like hiring a DVD in cyberspace, where you can log on, pick a film, pay and watch it as many times as you like in a 24-hour period.

Dearham said he was honoured to have met many of the artists, whom he considered to be modern-day ­griots or praise-singers – the keepers of culture and oral traditions among their people.

“African directors have increasingly been seen as griots of their time. In African communities there would be the elder, tutoring the young kids in the village about past memory or past stories.

“As we moved through the colonial era into the independence of African nation states in the early 1960s and late 1970s, we found that the African film-maker who used the modern tool of audiovision essentially became that griot, that person who would tell stories that people could benefit from, that people could identify in terms of African culture.

“And in Africa there were several prominent storytellers. If I could name a few, from West Africa, for instance, the most famous African director of all time is Ousmane Sembene and from North Africa it is Yousef Chahine.

“This applies in the Portuguese setting too, where you have people like Fernando Vendrall. And such giants of their time,” said Dearham.

He added: “The powerful thing of my journeys through this project is that I have gotten to meet these people and sat down in meetings with them to talk about not only business, but about their views of the world and their views of the future of Africa and its people – and that is probably one of the highlights of my life.

“Sembene entrusted to us all of his films, without exception. He saw in it a way to leapfrog. We spoke about concepts like new media, video on demand and computer- mediated delivery and words that initially boggled his mind, but he saw in it how it could benefit Africa and its people.

“So it was a great journey to have met these giants, these storytellers, to a point now where we have the largest, most prolific, diverse, appealing collection of film works ever curated in the history of African ­media and culture. It is a great step forward.”

Just like he recognised the need to change his medium from the written word to the moving picture in the 1960s, Sembene’s endorsement of the African Film Library, by letting them drive his legacy, shows this visionary’s understanding of the next great platform for the dissemination of African ideas – new media and, of course, television.

Movie magic

Look out for these great African films on M-Net’s Movie Magic:
November 20 – Clando. A man sets out to find a better life in Germany but is convinced to fight for a better life at home, directed by Cameroon’s Jean Marie Teno.

November 22 – Layla. An Arabic retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story directed by Tunisian Taieb Louhichi.

December 2 – Nothing But the Truth. Adapted from John Kani’s play about a man finding the strength to forgive his brother.

December 12 – Moi et Mon Blanc. About a student who finds a bag of drugs while stranded in Paris. Directed by Burkina Faso’s S Pierre Yameogo.

December 13 – Ceddo. Ousmane Sembene’s masterpiece about a tribe trying to safeguard their culture.

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