Globalization is reducing diversity to a minimum of conservative, standardized products: homogenized, pre-digested, regurgitated, slickly packaged goods for universal, easy, unthinking consumption. That’s happening all over the world. But closer to home, and to our hearts, is the problem that there is less and less space for African filmmakers to be seen or heard. This is not to say that films about Africa are not seen on North American and European television and cinema screens – it is that these films are processed by non-Africans.
We at the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival, an annual event in its eighth year, began with the notion that the festival would, in time, screen as many South African and African titles as international ones. We receive an average of 400 films annually and watch them all with a few criteria in mind. In short, we look for great stories that speak to our audiences, challenge them through content or form, and stimulate debate amongst filmmakers. We also look for films to buy for television and DVD distribution.
After eight years of doing this, we have picked up on a few trends – one of them being that 10% to 15% of the films about Africa are made by North Americans and Europeans. They usually deal with some kind of crisis or disaster, be it extreme poverty, civil war, child soldiers, AIDS, child rape, ecological disasters and mismanagement. Some of these filmmakers have good intentions – to raise awareness about certain issues – and some even include critiques of colonial legacies. However, best intentions aside, the end result often compounds the stereotyping of Africa in the minds of the North American and European masses. We know that disaster and crises attract the curiosity of all people, not only filmmakers. When people are galvanized to right a wrong, it’s a good thing. But, in the context of hundreds of years of imperialism, colonialism and racism, it seems uncomfortable to focus only on the negative.
What is this obsession with Africa as Hell? Is it the ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I?’ syndrome? Is it out of a genuine concern to promote awareness around important issues, or is it out of a curiosity for drama and pain?
All of those ‘other’ filmmakers live in countries that have many of the same issues with inequality, pedophilia and rape, among other things, yet there is this obsession with disasters in Africa.
Disasters aside, there is always the problem of interpretation. Without local knowledge or knowledge of a local language, interpretation becomes imposition, and even the most basic exercise of translation for subtitling can go awry. We have listened to South African audiences sighing in disapproval when watching subtitled films with South African languages incorrectly translated, so much so as to give a different meaning to the words uttered. There are certain films that avoid these obvious pitfalls, but more often than not, it comes down to money. Money is power, and the first world often has the upper hand in this regard. That being said, there is a great need for African filmmakers to tell their own stories, in all their complexities and nuances, for both local and international audiences.
But what of the films that South Africans are making? Is there life for them beyond the festival circuit? This is not just a simple bash-the-North exercise. We do not come with a sense of entitlement, a ‘you owe us’ point of view. We’ve watched your films and television for the past 20 years, we can speak your language, we’ve drunk the Coke, swallowed the hamburger. We know you as you will never know us – what we’re afraid of is making the same mistakes.
So, what is the alternative? Is the solution simply that more space is made for South African-authored films on North American and European networks? Have we anything new to offer by way of challenging subject matter and innovative filmmaking styles?
African documentary filmmaking has generally been very dependent on European government and donor agencies for funds, more often than not resulting in issue-based films with little appeal beyond a particular audience. There are few African-originated sources for financing documentaries, so one questions the ‘independence’ of such efforts.
In South Africa, there are a few sources of funding for documentary films. Most of the available money is state funding administered by a number of agencies that still perceive the documentary format as an educational tool crucial for social stability and nation building.
In this young country of ours, with its painful past, we are tasked with the ideal of creating a nation and yet, must still recognize the ethnicity of our people (we have 11 official languages). It is laudable that creative talent assist in the promotion of these grand, liberal ideals. But what we also need is the space and money for filmmakers to conceive of films that have nothing to do with the bigger picture.