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A Bleak Horizon: African Cinema At European Film Festivals

Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu (2014)
Timbuktu (2014)

As the global film industry meets the explosion of new content with a tendency to distil each new feature down to its commercial potential, film festivals are becoming ever more essential. With the year-end awards season as the culmination, years in cinema now seem divided into festival-defined seasons: Sundance and Berlin leading off the first four months, then Cannes, then the double whammy of Venice and Toronto to head into the Oscar race. And there, amid the glut of glitzy fests, many proclaiming themselves ‘International’ events, are shown the finest of film from across the globe… or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to go.

Alas, ‘International’ they may be, but inclusive they are not, and there’s one region that consistently draws the short straw: Africa.

If the industry is booming worldwide, in part due to the increasing accessibility of resources due to digital innovation, it makes sense to analyse how that has been reflected in festivals. I’ve evaluated the data since the turn of the century in the top competitive slates of five of the world’s biggest: Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, San Sebastián, and Venice, to see what the state of affairs for African filmmaking is across this section of the industry, and the results are discouraging…


1 Golden Bear since 2000: 2005 – U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (Mark Dornford-May)

Last year with at least 1 African title in competition: 2017

Berlin fares the best of the five, yet African titles still make up less than 3% of their total in the top comp since 2000. Of the nine African titles up for the Golden Bear since then, one did win the award – 2005’s U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, the only one not a co-production with a non-African nation, though its director, Mark Dornford-May, is a white Englishman.


0 Palmes d’Or since 2000

Last year with at least 1 African title in competition: 2019

Only two of these five festivals have featured female African directors among their pitiful few African competition entries, and only one each. Cannes is one of the two (the other being San Sebastián with Farida Benlyazid), with Mati Diop’s Atlantics having competed for the Palme this year. That’s a mere single black woman among 412 entries for the Palme d’Or since 2000.


0 Golden Leopards since 2000

Last year with at least 1 African title in competition: 2016

Despite two African productions scoring top honours at Locarno in the 1970s, the current state of things in the Swiss lakeside town is pretty dismal for the continent’s offerings. There have been only five African films up for the Golden Leopard since 2000, and none have won a single jury prize in that time.

San Sebastián (data from 2000-2018)

0 Golden Shells since 2000

Last year with at least 1 African title in competition: 2010

Things may be utterly ignominious elsewhere, but San Sebastián really takes the cake. No African film has competed for the Golden Shell for nine years now, while all of the four that have since 2000 have been co-productions with non-African nations, and none of them have won a jury prize here either.


0 Golden Lions since 2000

Last year with at least 1 African title in competition: 2013

Like San Sebastián, Venice has only included one African production in its top competition lineup this decade, and like all the other surveyed fests save Berlin, its percentage of African titles competing at that top level falls below 2% since 2000. One has to travel back to the 1960s to observe a Golden Lion winner hailing from Africa, and even that was a European co-production with an Italian director.

Souleymane Deme in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Grigris (2013)
Souleymane Deme in Grigris (2013)

Festivals may have a responsibility to their own success to fill their slates with popular titles, their red carpets with famous faces, but if such practices come at the expense of the cinematic output of already-disadvantaged regions, it’s arguable that said success perhaps isn’t worth pursuing.

“At Cannes this year, Mati Diop’s Atlantics was sharing competition space with the Dardennes’ Young Ahmed, Desplechin’s Oh Mercy!, Kechiche’s Mektoub II and Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die – films of little artistic merit beyond the brand recognition of the directors behind them,” says Film Inquiry’s Alistair Ryder. “Decisions like this hinder better films being allowed into the main competition slate. Festival programmers have a duty to highlight films that would otherwise struggle to find a voice.”

“Most commercial films produced and sold by American studios don’t need a festival launchpad,” says Awards Daily’s Ryan Adams. “If festivals fail to spotlight African cinema then those films are harder for individuals to discover or ever be aware of. Any film festival that claims to care about nurturing and appreciating the vastness of world cinema should take every opportunity to raise awareness of African films to a global audience.”

Filmotomy’s Robin Write proposes an interesting solution: “Is a continent demographic quota too much to imagine? You have to consider how much the festival organisers and delegates want to actually represent the world of cinema. The whole world!”

One can hope that things will change moving forward, and hopefully Mati Diop’s success at Cannes this year will inspire selection committees to shake things up in years to come. Hope alone, however, won’t cut it. There needs to be a concerted effort made, akin to the recent ‘5050 en 2020’ movement committing festivals to 50% female inclusion from 2020 onward. Otherwise, we may continue to see worthy African cinema shut out of the supposedly ‘global’ film industry’s banner events year after year.

Image Credit: Grigris (MovieStillsDB) Timbuktu (Festival de Cine Africano - FCAT (Flickr) Licence)

Music Credit: West in Africa (John Bartmann)

Video Credit: Atlantics (VideoClip Entertainment) / Felicite (Mikros) / Grigris (Les Films Du Losange) / Outside the Law (CPR Agency) / Timbuktu (Africine / CPR Agency)

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