Senegal’s films in the jaws of death

2012-09-18 08:06

Faded movie posters peel off the walls, a big screen lit only by sunbeams pushing through the broken roof of the musty, abandoned cinema, a symbol to many of the death of Senegal’s ­film industry.

“When we look at the state of Senegalese cinema, this is it,” film maker Mariama Sylla says, jabbing her finger towards the derelict Cinema Liberte in a Dakar suburb.

Senegal was once the leader of African cinema, with directors such as Ousmane Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambety receiving international acclaim during the country’s cinematic golden years after independence from France in 1960.

After years of steady decline, film makers are despondent about the future of an industry, which they say has been abandoned by the government.

“Senegalese cinema was born before the Asian cinema,” says Sylla, the co-founder of the Collective of Indignant Senegalese
Filmmakers, which held a recent protest over the moribund state of the industry.

“Today, Asian cinema is in the front row in Hollywood, at the Oscars, Cannes . . . while ours is stuck debating a crisis that has lasted for years,” she says.

However, new hope has appeared in the form of Senegal’s new culture minister, Youssou N’Dour, the world-renowned singer, appointed after a new government was elected in March.

A frank document published by N’Dour’s ministry in June admits weaknesses in the film industry are “symptomatic of the non-existence of state support”.

Mamadou Ndiaye, an award-winning director, who cannot survive without his day job, comments: “Today, the major challenge is finding financing to produce a quality film . . . It is also difficult for those who have made a film to show it.”

Last year, Ndiaye won the prize for the best television series at Africa’s largest film festival, the Panafrican Film And Television Festival, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, with his show Ismael Ndiaxum (Ismael the Blunderer in Wolof).

Despite working for state television station RTS, he has been unable to sell the series to them and show the series to a local audience. As a result, the show is likely to be aired first on a French television channel.

“They (state television) only offer you crumbs,” he said.

In the past 10 years, almost all of Senegal’s cinemas – which once numbered 100 – have been sold, becoming shopping centres, nightclubs and churches, according to the culture ministry’s report. Only eight are still
in business, but struggling to survive.

This means movies such as Moussa Toure’s La Progue, which was shown at Cannes and won two awards at the Francophone film festival in Angouleme in the southwest of France, has not been seen by the average Senegalese.

The drama tells the story of 30 people attempting the hazardous boat-crossing to Europe – a story of desperation that many Senegalese can identify with.

At the offices of the Association of Senegalese Filmmakers (Cineseas) only two DVDs of local movies are on sale.

A salesperson admits it has been more than five years since they have had an original DVD to sell from award-winning director Ousmane Sembene, who is considered the father of African cinema.

“Maybe you could buy it in France?” he suggests.

After independence from France, culture flourished in Senegalunder poet president Léopold Sédar Senghor, who is regarded as one of the continent’s most important intellectuals.

But after an economic crisis in the 1980s, strict controls imposed by the World Bank left culture out in the cold as government cut subsidies, sold cinemas to private owners and dismantled support systems.

In 2002, new hope bloomed when then president Abdoulaye Wade signed a new law meant to regulate and support the industry, “which we had been running after for 20 years”, says Cineseas vice-president Amadou Salaam Seck.

But it has yet to be implemented.

However, Seck said that after recent meetings with N’Dour, who has promised to set up the national centre of cinematography envisioned in the law by the end of the year, “we are very optimistic regarding the real revival of cinema in 2013”.

Ndiaye’s latest film, Crepescule (Twilight), is about the decline of Senegalese cinema.

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