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Posted 21st September 2009

Creative Comment and Critique: Animation filmmaking in Africa

By Paula Callus, Senior Lecturer at the National Centre of Computer Animation, Bournemouth University

It comes as no surprise that African animation has gone largely unnoticed, with its history and development undocumented, sometimes resulting in the misplaced notion that it does not exist. However, African animation has a history that is at times as old as European animation, with its earliest animations dating back to 1916 in South Africa, the 1930s in Egypt and the 1950s in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As is true of animation worldwide, animation in Africa does not only exist in the realm of children’s entertainment, but also acts as a document of local narrative and myth, political criticism and social commentary. The animation programme for Africa in Motion aims to position African animation within these discourses, presenting a diverse collection of works, from its earliest forms to the more contemporary 3D computer-generated animations being developed by young ‘up-and-coming’ graphic artists and cartoonists.


The work presented stems from a variety of African countries: Niger, DRC, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, Zimbabwe and others. Whether artistic or commercial, they offer the viewer the opportunity to dispel the notion that perhaps African animation is primitive in its form or lacking the production values of its American or European equivalent. At times we can see evidence of the influences as far off as Japanese Manga Anime, but the work still retains a strong sense of the unique identity that drives it.

The programme showcases some of the earlier work, such as that of Moustapha Alassane from Niger, cited as the father of Sub-Saharan animation who made Bon Voyage Sim (1966), a charming satirical account of the pomp and grandeur of African politicians post-independence.

Also screening are a collection of films by Jean Michel Kibushi from the DRC who presents the viewer with a diversity of aesthetics, techniques, and narratives, at times sombre and reflective, at times a celebration of local myth riddled with Congolese humour. The animated hand-drawn documentary, Kinshasa Septembre Noir (1992), for example, makes use of rudimentary materials such as chalk-on-paper, which due to the political environment at the time was the only way to document the military pillaging that was occurring in Kinshasa. Kibushi’s work also promotes aspects of his culture through local myths and narratives that stem from his childhood, whilst drawing from popular artistic practices such as those of Congolese popular painting and local theatre and dance. This is evidenced in his stop-motion film, Prince Loseno (2004), and cutout animations Muana Mboka (1999) and Le Crapaud Chez ses Beaux Parents (The Toad who Visits his In-Laws, 1991).

Making of Florian

Although both Alassane and Kibushi are fundamentally auteurs and tend to work independently of an industrial incentive, this is not always the case. There is evidence of young animators in Kenya that are funding their own work through commissioned projects in the advertising industry such as the talented Peter Mute, Alfred Muchilwa, Moses Wanjuki and Kwame Nyongo and Gado featured in the programme. These practitioners began as cartoonists, fine artists, painters and graphic designers. They all participated in UNESCO’s Africa Animated! project in 2003 that aimed at encouraging and empowering young artists with the skills and knowledge to produce their own short animations. The Africa Animated! project ran for three years and included participants from East Central, South and West African countries. In most cases the participants stemmed from varying practices and had no previous knowledge of animation. Educational shorts were produced with a view to broadcast across various African countries. A collection of these shorts will also be screened.

Perhaps the greatest success story of the growth and development of both the commercial sector and independent filmmaking circuit can be seen in South Africa. Animation in South Africa has been used to address local issues, such as HIV/AIDS, with the case of the commercially driven and locally broadcast Takalani Sesame Series (Sesame Street Africa) introducing the first HIV positive character, Kami. The more sensitive topical issue of the rape of a young infant was tackled in the animation And There in the Dust (2005) by DOproductions, which is included in the program for Africa in Motion. Here the directors used a combination of pixilation and stopmotion, with strong visual metaphors to address this otherwise difficult to depict theme. South Africa also has produced some wonderful independent shorts shown at Africa in Motion, such as the experimental work of fine artist Tessa Comrie, and the comedic political satirical skits of cartoonist Mike Scott.

Hm Hm

Also featuring will be the work of some talented graduates from Helwan University of Cairo, Minia University, and independent filmmakers from the Cinema Institute, Cairo. The work showcases the variety of aesthetics and skills whilst being technically very accomplished. These animations will screen alongside the artist Mohammed Ghazala’s 2D digital animation Hm Hm (2005), meaning `hungry’. Besides being a practising prolific animator, Ghazala also lectures in the Animation Department of the Fine Arts Faculty of the University of Minia. The department attracts students from all over Egypt to study animation and is considered one of the first animation departments in universities in the Arab world. The film Hm Hm was part of a video installation for the Youth Salon festival 2005 in Cairo where it was awarded a prize for the video art section. It is intended to be viewed in a gallery setting projected on a screen facing upwards, placed as if the top of a set table in a restaurant. Its production process included loose drawings on the computer using rudimentary technology, drawing with the mouse rather than a graphics tablet. This gives the work an experimental loose and erratic movement that is well suited to the humorous theme.

Across the continent there is evidence of a growing community of animators and there is much to be said about the impact of digital technologies on the sudden appearance of African animation in the European circuit. Perhaps the internet has to some extent democratised the dissemination of this work that can now be viewed online, for those young African animators that have access to these technologies. With animation groups and forums popping up everyday, African animators are beginning to discuss and disseminate ideas about their own work and the specific problems they face. For this reason, the inclusion of animation as part of the Africa in Motion programme could not be more timely. African animation, it would seem, is at the cusp of a new and exciting period and deserves the attention of a wider audience to recognise its efforts and accomplishments. It is within this climate that Africa in Motion seeks to promote the work of these artists, and frame and contextualise it within its specific social, cultural and political contexts, providing a platform for wider discussion on the future of animation in Africa.

Posted 21st September 2009

AiM After Hours: African cinema off the tourist map

By Trevor Steele Taylor

I always knew there was another Africa. I always knew that film aesthetics were profoundly housed in the archetypes of a culture. I always knew that African film aesthetics were as vast and profound as the continent that housed them.

For the European explorer, clad in a pith helmet and climbing boots, the search for the aesthetic pile, beyond the Mountains of the Moon, where the great Ayesha reigns is a quest as fascinating as being locked into the vaults of Eurocine and having the hours of the night to piece together the mysteries of Alternative Versions.

This late-night, three programme season – aptly called AiM After Hours – is not exhaustive. It is a small delicate bite on a far bigger morsel. The films are primarily by South Africans with one Nigerian exception. The quality is great and to those who know neither Kaganof nor Stanley, this should be an eye opener.

I saw my first Nigerian film in a little cinema in Brussels called CineNova. I was sitting next to Richard Stanley (also a guest at this festival). The film was End of the Wicked by Nigerian auteurs Teco Benson and Helen Okpabio. I had never seen anything like it before. I turned to Richard. He turned to me and said “My faith in cinema is restored!” There you are – even when you think you know the dog, it still has the ability to bite you.

The extraordinary symbiotic relationship of fundamentalist Christian evangelism and exploitation cinema with images which verge, and sometimes transcend the pornographic is no more impressively realised than in the films of Benson and Ukpabio.

Their American counterparts, the Ormonds, who moved with barely a bat of the eyelid from the nudie film Mesa of Lost Women to the explicit scare picture The Burning Hell, would have been impressed, as I was by the Ukpabio/Benson masterpiece End of the Wicked. No holds barred there – oh no – old Satan has his way in a surrealistic blood and sex bath which includes a witch suddenly sprouting an enormous phallus. In the last 20 minutes though, evangelist Ukpabio turns up, casts out demons, sends old Satan packing and the excesses that went before are exonerated.

This is the tried and true format and it is on the cards again in Highway to the Grave (screened as part of the AiM After Hours series). Unfortunately the team ran foul of the Nigerian censors with their reportedly divisive The Rapture and new censorship laws were enforced, turning the transgressive nature of the prolific Nigerian film industry into an equally prolific, but perhaps rather less daring Nollywood.

Did you know that a certain William Akouffo in Ghana made a block buster on no money called Diabolo about a man who turns himself into a snake which enters by way of the genitalia of sleeping women causing them to vomit money? Have you heard of Othello the Black Commando and its prolific director Max H. Boulois? Have you ever encountered The Slit – shot in Zimbabwe and almost ending in tragedy for its German cast and crew? Have you heard of Elvira Hoffman, prolific pornographer and director of Dust Raider and South African Girls? None of these at this year’s AiM but who knows what the future holds?

What will be screened is the long awaited, mobile phone shot feature, SMS Sugar Man, by the prolific South African director Aryan Kaganof, in which a pimp cruises the streets of Johannesburg, delivering white hookers to wealthy black punters on Christmas Eve. Kaganof is also the scriptwriter of Akin Omotoso’s short film Jesus and the Giant (screened with SMS Sugar Man) in which a black woman Jesus takes on a serial rapist, the Giant. Through a montage of digital still pictures, the editing creates a rhythm of motion.

Then there is Richard Stanley, a luminary figure amongst film directors with his unforgettable Dust Devil, about a shape shifter on the roads of a newly independent Namibia. Also in the programme is his Voodoo documentary The White Darkness during the filming of which he, like Maya Deren before him, was also initiated into the priesthood of Haitian magical mysteries. I will be introducing the screenings as well as having an extended chat with Richard Stanley on stage. I am going to enjoy it. I hope you will too!

Posted 21st September 2009

A Farewell to the Master of Arab Cinema: Youssef Chahine

By Kamran Rastegar, Lecturer in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Edinburgh

Youssef Chahine: 25 January 1926 to 27 July 2008

In 1998, Youssef Chahine spoke at a Film Studies class in a university in New York City – his film, Al-Masir (Destiny), had just been featured at the New York Film Festival and the students of this class had seen the film. Al-Masir is a fictionalised account of the life of the Arab Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes) recounting his intellectual struggle to promote reason over religious literalism. The film treated this historical episode as a parable concerning the spread of fundamentalist politics in the contemporary Arab world, and, through musical scenes and fantastic swordplay, ends with a call for the rejection of religious literalism.

One student asked the director if the film aimed to promote “tolerance”. Chahine chuckled and replied by noting that in his view “tolerance” is a typically Western notion – he would prefer to have the film seen as promoting respect and reciprocity for religious and cultural difference, something much more meaningful that simply adopting a tolerance for others. He went on to say that his understanding of Ibn Rushd was that he represented that dimension of Arab-Islamic civilisation which flourished not simply on tolerance, but on active engagement with religious and cultural Others, and which promoted this engagement through rationalism and science.

By citing this ideal, Chahine was possibly also tapping memories of the Alexandria of his childhood, where he grew up in a mixed Syrian-Greek Christian family – the Alexandria which would serve as the setting for the films in his “Alexandria Trilogy”.

But it would be wrong to call Chahine a romantic nostalgist – his Alexandria, a place of respect and reciprocity for Others, served more as an ideal that could be reached only through political and social struggle. This sense of commitment and engagement serves as one of the few threads by which we may try to tie together his very diverse oeuvre.

While his films ranged in style from neo-realist to epic and from surreal to melodrama, one could always rely upon Chahine’s personal engagement to be reflected within their frames. His films also consistently addressed issues of specific concern to a progressive Egyptian artist such as gender equality, acceptance of non-normative sexualities, and the destruction of class distinctions and prejudices.

There are certain films by Chahine that are viewed by many as successfully bringing a wide range of these themes together – one of these most certainly must be el-Ard (The Land, 1969), one of the classics of Egyptian anti-colonial cinema, screened as the opening film at Africa in Motion 2008.
Coming as it does nearly at the mid-point of Chahine’s career, it showcases his command of the cinematic form, while retaining the vitality and originality of a filmmaker who makes films as part of his ideological and social commitments. The film narrates the gradual politicisation of a small Nile-delta village in the 1930s, tracing the eventual revolt of the villagers against the corrupt colonial government. The political theme plays out against the backdrop of a love story and intergenerational conflict among the villagers.

The film is populated by memorable archetypes of the anti-colonial genre, and to some extent follows the template of socially committed filmmaking by depicting a poor community as it begins to awaken politically. el-Ard ends on a distinctly ambivalent note – celebrating the struggle, but uncertain of where this endeavour has led to – through a searing final shot that will be imprinted on the memory of any viewer of the film.

In el-Ard we discern the crucial social commitments that were to guide Chahine through so much of his work. It would be too facile to say, however, that Chahine’s work is easily reduced to terms such as “anti-colonial” or “Arab nationalist” even if these stances are valid terms to describe dimensions of some of his works.

Even in this film we may also follow Chahine’s fearless self-critique of Egyptian society’s deep class divisions, as well as his disillusionment with the aftermath of the 1952 revolution. Chahine was typical of the bravest members of the engaged secular Left of the Arab world in his ability to turn the mirror of criticism upon his own society, even while continuing to point to the unjust global systems which he believed were often to blame for the fundamental problems in Egypt and the Arab world. Schooled in filmmaking in the US, Chahine always mixed his praise of the openness and generosity he experienced on the part of Americans with trenchant criticism of what he viewed as the US’s profoundly negative role in the Arab world.

With the passing of Chahine this last July at the age of 82, the Arab world in general, and Egypt in particular, have lost one of the preeminent cultural voices of the secular Left. Chahine inspired numerous younger filmmakers and several of his protégés now occupy positions of note within a recently rejuvenated Egyptian cinema industry.

Chahine’s own legacy is assured, and with him we may say that Arab filmmakers found a confidence and clarity which has laid the groundwork for the current generation of filmmakers who have placed Arab cinemas squarely into a global spotlight.

Posted 21st September 2009

A Report on Africa in Motion 2008

By Lizelle Bisschoff

African cinema has, historically and contemporarily, been hugely marginalised in film distribution and exhibition all over the world – African films constitute around 1% of public film exhibition worldwide. The Africa in Motion (AiM) film festival, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, was conceived as an initiative to overcome this underrepresentation of African film, particularly in British film culture.

The third annual Africa in Motion film festival took place from 23 October to 2 November 2008, with screenings of over 50 films from 22 African countries taking place primarily at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse Cinema, the festival’s main host.

The main rationale behind the festival has been, since its inception, a belief in the importance of creating access to African cinema for British audiences and providing opportunities for African filmmakers to exhibit their work in the UK.

The festival positions itself first and foremost as an arts festival, celebrating creativity, innovation and artistic excellence. As such, AiM is not a ‘development initiative’, although there are of course obvious socio-cultural benefits in providing opportunities for the British public to view authentic representations of African traditions, histories and cultures, as created by Africans themselves.

There is a long tradition in Western (North American, British and European) cinema of Africa being represented and appropriated by directors from outside of Africa, and of the continent being used as an exotic backdrop to tell primarily Western stories. Furthermore, the way that Africa has been constructed in the Western imaginery, through ‘official’ history, the media and global politics, has always been in need of urgent revision. African cinema is largely a post-colonial endeavour, and as such is relatively young in comparison to film industries in the US, Europe and Britain (with the exception of Egypt and South Africa, which have the two oldest film industries on the continent and colonial histories which differ from the majority of other African countries).

African directors are increasingly taking on the challenge of re-writing history and recovering neglected and repressed stories and they are doing this with an artistic skill and creative vision at par with the greatest films made anywhere in the world. The Africa in Motion film festival honours and celebrates these hugely significant contributions of African filmmakers to world cinema.

The curatorial approach to Africa in Motion emphasises the diversity of filmmaking practices on the continent, and thus incorporates films from a variety of countries, time periods, genres, styles and themes. Africa in Motion 2008 opened with a classic film, The Land (el-Ard, 1969) by the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, as a tribute to this hugely important pioneering filmmaker who passed away in July last year.

The opening weekend of the festival continued this emphasis on the classic films of African cinema, with retrospectives of the work of two of the most significant and talented filmmakers to emerge from francophone West Africa – Malian director Souleymane Cissé and Burkinabe director Gaston Kaboré. Three films of each director were screened. Cissé’s films, Work (Baara, 1978), The Wind (Finye, 1982) and Brightness (Yeelen, 1987) were screened chronologically and thus provided a clear trajectory of how his earlier socio-politically themed and social realist filmmaking developed into the mythically themed and non-realist filmmaking of his later career, culminating in the extraordinary feature Yeelen. Kaboré’s retrospective included the feature God’s Gift (Wend Kuuni, 1982), set in rural, pre-colonial Africa and arguably Kaboré’s best-known film, as well as its sequel Buud Yam (1997), which revisits the beloved child characters, now adults, which Kaboré created in Wend Kuuni. Kaboré’s third film screened at AiM was Zan Boko (1988), in which he addresses the conflict of tradition versus modernity in contemporary African cultures, a recurring theme in African cinema.

After the opening weekend’s screenings of some of the most important African classics, the festival’s focus shifted to contemporary highly acclaimed and award-winning feature films. This commenced with pioneering Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s female-centred Faat Kine (2001), his second last film before his death in June 2007 and the first in his planned trilogy of films celebrating the everyday heroism of African women. Sembene’s legacy as ‘the father of African cinema’ lives on through the work of contemporary Senegalese directors such as Mousa Sene Absa whose film Tableau Ferraille (1997) was screened at the festival. This film continues on one of the most important themes set in Sembene’s work – a condemnation of the exploits of a corrupt post-colonial elite destroying the promise of true African independence.

The festival’s focus on contemporary African cinema moved beyond francophone West Africa, which historically dominated sub-Saharan African cinema, to also include films from other parts of the continent. South African director Khalo Matabane’s docu-fiction film Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon (2005), an emotive interrogation of contemporary multi-cultural South African society, is indicative of the emergence of talented black filmmakers in post-apartheid South African cinema. Nigerian director Newton Aduaka’s Ezra (2007) is a hard-hitting but poignant film which highlights the plight of African child soldiers. Ezra won the grand prize at the 2007 FESPACO film festival, the most important African film festival which takes place biennially in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Nigerian cinema is of course best-known for its prolific video-film industry, dubbed Nollywood, the first and currently only economically self-sustainable film industry in Africa and the third largest film industry in the world after Hollywood and Bollywood. AiM included a screening of Bleeding Rose (2007) by London-based Nollywood director Chucks Mordi. Winner of the Best Nigerian Feature Film at the 2007 Lagos International Film Festival, Bleeding Rose is quintessential low-budget Nollywood dealing with familiar Nollywood themes such as witchcraft and Christianity.

The focus on contemporary features also included films from underrepresented regions with a smaller output of films than in the more prolific West and South African film industries. Bongoland II: There is no place like home (2008) by Tanzanian director Josiah Kibira provided a rare opportunity to audiences to view a Swahili film. The film addresses the pertinent issue of the African immigrant returning home with a sharp satire and wit. Lusophone African cinema was represented by Angolan director Zézé Gamboa’s award-winning film The Hero (O Heroi, 2004), which addresses Angola’s tragic past of forty years of uninterrupted war, and its uncertain future, through the central character of an ex-soldier. Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Dry Season (Daratt, 2006) also addresses the difficult path towards peace and reconciliation in a country which recent past has been shaped by war and the desire for retribution. Contemporary North African cinema was represented by female Algerian director Djamila Sahraoui’s Enough! (Barakat!, 2006), once again addressing the violent history of a war-torn country through the eyes of two central female characters. AiM 2008 closed with Guinean director Cheick Fantamady Camara’s Clouds over Conakry (Il va pleuvoir sur Conakry, 2007), which picks up the recurrent tradition-versus-modernity theme as a liberal political cartoonist learns that the spirits have chosen him instead of his older brother to succeed his father as imam of Guinea’s capital Conakry.

The range of contemporary fiction feature films was complemented by a variety of captivating documentaries. UK-based Nigerian filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa’s This Is My Africa (2008) documents the perceptions and reflections of 20 London residents who love the African continent, thus giving a voice to people from the African diaspora. An afternoon of documentary screenings at the Edinburgh College of Art explored African identity through the themes of sport (Zulu Surf Riders by Carlos Francisco, South Africa, 2008), music (African Underground: Democracy in Dakar by Nomadic Wax & Sol Productions, US/Senegal, 2007), and dance (Dance Got Me by Ingrid Sinclair, Zimbabwe/UK, 2006) respectively. Andy Jones’ As Old As My Tongue: The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude continued the musical theme through a portrait of Zanzibari singer Bi Kidude, probably the oldest singer on the world stage today. AiM 2008 had a special focus on the Bushmen of Southern Africa, with the screenings of two documentaries – South African director Rehad Desai’s Bushman’s Secret (2006) and Namibian director Ginger Mauney’s Legends of the Bushmen (1997).

The short film format, often neglected in cinema exhibition, was firmly incorporated in the festival through the hosting of a short film competition. Eight films were shortlisted from over 60 entries, and these films were screened at the festival with the winner being announced directly afterwards by Burkinabe filmmaker Gaston Kaboré, who chaired the jury. Six African countries – South Africa, Nigeria, Mozambique, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco – were represented by the eight shortlisted films. Mozambican director Rogerio Manjate won the first prize of ₤1,000 with his heart-warming three-minute short I Love You (2007) and Tunisian director Anis Lassoued’s magic realist tale Magic Crop (2006) won the audience choice award. The AiM short film competition was open to emerging African filmmakers who have not completed feature-length films yet and thus the competition was intended to stimulate and reward filmmaking endeavours by young African filmmakers, who often struggle against tremendous odds to fulfill their filmmaking ambitions.

The diversity of African cinema was not only celebrated by the wide genre representation which spanned feature fiction films, documentaries and shorts, but also by an adventurous new strand of late-night screenings of unusual, daring and provocative African films. Included here were experimental South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof’s erotic feature SMS Sugar Man (2006), the first feature film shot on mobile phone cameras, as well as South Africa-based Nigerian director Akin Omotoso’s short film Jesus and the Giant (2008), short entirely on a digital stills camera with 7,000 photographs stitched together to create the final montage. Also screened in this strand were Teco Benson’s outrageous pre-Nollywood lo-fi video-film Highway to the Grave (2002) and South African director Richard Stanley’s documentary The White Darkness (2002), on voodoo practices in Haiti, as well as his cult classic Dust Devil (1992), a meta-physical horror set in the Namibian desert. The series of late-night screenings was intended to challenge audience perceptions of what African cinema is or should be, and also contributed to expanding AiM’s audiences beyond lovers of world cinema who are particularly drawn to the more conventional features and classic African films.

Continuing the festival’s programming emphasis on diversity AiM 2008 included a focus on African animation, with animation shorts being screened in two sessions, one for adults and one for children. Shorts from all over the continent, including South Africa, Kenya, Niger, DRC and Egypt, incorporated a variety of animation techniques such as cut-out, claymation, stop-motion and computer animation. The themes of the animations were as varied as their styles: UNESCO’s Africa Animated series was intended to create authentic educational and entertaining television programmes for African children; Congolese director Jean Michel Kibushi’s claymation creations retell folktales he recalled from his childhood; and a collection of Kenyan animators use the medium for political commentary, much in the same way as satirical newspaper cartoons.

Africa in Motion has, since its inception, attempted to constitute an event rather than consisting merely of film screenings, and thus filmmakers are invited to the festival to host question and answer sessions with audiences and present masterclasses. Ten African filmmakers were invited to the festival in 2008, including Burkinabe director Gaston Kaboré, who delighted audiences with entertaining anecdotes from his filmmaking experiences. All the screenings were introduced by film scholars and many screenings were followed by panel discussions. A wide range of complementary events further contributed to making AiM a rich and well-rounded event. The festival hosted a wine tasting event with South African wine, several live music performances by African musicians, an African storytelling event, an animation workshop for children, a book launch, and an exhibition of Bushmen art work and jewellery.

Africa in Motion is currently the biggest African film festival in the UK, and for the first time in 2008 a sub-selection of the programme toured to 12 cities across the UK through November and December, under the title AiM on Tour. Audience reception of the festival was extremely positive with more than half of the screenings in Edinburgh sold out, and wide press coverage was achieved locally, nationally and internationally. With the current climate of worldwide economic repression and continuing cuts in public funding, especially for the arts, the future of the Africa in Motion film festival might appear somewhat uncertain, but as long as there is a strong demand for African cinema in the UK, it is the organisers’ hope that the festival would be able to continue its aim of bringing the best of African cinema to British audiences.

Posted 21st September 2009

North African filmmaking: forgotten or ignored?

by Stefanie Van de Peer

The niche discourse reserved for African film theory and history has the tendency to prefer the classic auteur cinema from Francophone West Africa, due to this region’s prolific and innovative film making practices and their intricate relationship to the previous colonisers. Apart from the popular Egyptian melodrama and independent film industries, the North African region’s filmmaking has been left out of many studies on Arab or Middle Eastern cinema. Here, the Syrian and Lebanese and the controversial Palestinian cinemas have taken up much of the intellectual space. The same has been argued about African literary criticism: most studies focus on Nigerian and South African literary masterpieces while North Africa seems to be forgotten.

With a few exceptions, filmmakers from North Africa are ignored and left to specialists in the field. Roy Armes has attempted to trace a cinematic aesthetic within North African culture, with a focus on Tunisian and Moroccan filmmakers and on a theme-based analysis of mainly fiction films. Scholars of African cinema seem to regard filmmakers like Youssef Chahine from Egypt, Moufida Tlatli and Ferid Boughedir from Tunisia and Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina from Morocco as exceptional auteurs, separate from any kind of national or even regional cinema aesthetic. Yet these auteurs are fully integrated into their national cinema, and they are only one facet of the treasure trove that is hidden in North African cinema. It is also extremely problematical and thus all the more intriguing to find any films, documentaries or critical work on films from or about Libya, let alone any in-depth analysis of the lack of a national cinema in that country in spite of its close cultural links to Italy and productive neighbours Tunisia and Egypt.

Recently however, arguably with the death of Yousef Chahine last year, and with the global gaze fixed so intently on the Arab world, films from those corners have slowly surfaced in a few festivals worldwide. FESPACO, the biggest film festival on the African continent in Burkina Faso, had in its programme for the 2009 edition many more North African films than usual. Not only feature-length films and documentaries from North Africa featured notably in the brochure and cinemas; the short film competitions featured predominantly North African films. The prominence of those films was acknowledged by their success with audiences and with the jury members: at least one quarter of the prize winners at FESPACO were North African. In that vein, Africa in Motion wants to expand its horizons as well, and therefore this year we have programmed a larger number of films and shorts from Algeria, Morocco and Egypt, with some of the filmmakers in attendance.

North African films are generally known for their mystery, sensuality and highly artistic and inventive form and style. In the past, the beauty of these countries has been used by Western productions as a backdrop for exotic adventures. Since their independence in the 1960s, films from the Maghreb countries and their indigenous artistic forms have served as social commentaries on colonial atrocities. The sense of national identity, fresh after the struggle for independence, was expressed in themes such as the balance between tradition and modernity, colonial history and independent future, and tensions between gender expectations and realities.

The Egyptian film industry had an incredibly early start compared to the other North African countries. Towards the end of the 19th century, when the medium of film began to be explored in Europe, the upper classes in Alexandria and Cairo were equally enjoying the moving image. Throughout 20th century however there was a noticeable pendulum movement between government intrusion into the industry and a successful foray into independent filmmaking. It still seems difficult for the Egyptian film industry to find a constructive balance between government supported melodrama, with song and dance, stock characters focusing on the bourgeoisie and realist gems by the likes of Youssef Chahine and Salah Abu Seif. Recent young talent however, working independently and often against the censorship odds, find more and more success at international festivals. It is a matter of time before independent film making, funding from abroad and the unequalled success internationally will force the Egyptian censor to the background.

While Morocco and Tunisia both became independent from France in 1956, their film industry did not reach its pinnacle until Algeria had had its period of success and had set the example. After the terrible War for Independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, the Algerian film industry blossomed, partly thanks to Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. Algiers, with its energetic Cinémathèque, its national production that worked effectively, was the hub of third-world cinema. Algerian cinema was hugely influenced and even defined by the war, as national identity and pride were the foremost topics dealt with in cinema for a long time. Yet in the 1990s this success was destroyed by another war, the one against Islamic extremism. Today however, new and independent filmmakers from Algeria or with Algerian roots return to sensitive topics such as the war, Islamism and women’s roles in society. The return to the homeland and the pride one finds in reconnecting with the country are themes very often explored by exilic or diasporic filmmakers.

The Tunisian film industry flourished in the 1980s and the 1990s, most notably with Ferid Boughedir’s Halfaouine (1990) and Moufida Tlatli’s The Silences of The Palace (1994). Today the Tunisian film industry is recognised in North Africa as one of the most liberal in the Arab world. After independence in 1956, the government controlled cinema and film production. But since the eighties, private and independent production companies emerged with large ambitions. Like the other countries in the region, films from Tunisia manage to reflect a new social dynamic, searching for a Tunisian identity within the clash between modernity and tradition.

Since the early 2000s, Morocco is the North African country producing the greatest amount of films. Between 2003 and 2004, more than forty films were produced. Morocco was the first Arab and African country to see such a rate of production. It even surpassed Egypt. This has signalled a greater visibility for Moroccan cinema in the region and worldwide. The success is due to two factors: the assistance of the public sector, e.g. the national film funds; and a thematic focus on Moroccan subjects, to which the local audience can correspond while diversity in style, content and form equally ensure the success rate of the Moroccan film industry.

The geography and history of North Africa contribute to the incredibly rich culture, as the region is often seen as the cradle of civilisation. Moreover, its hinge-like geographical position – is it Africa, the Middle East or part of the Mediterranean, or all of these – does not only provide an incredible wealth of transcultural and historical diversity, it could also be one of the causes of it being ignored inadvertently: one academic discipline presumes the other will cover it. It is precisely this richness in culture, and the status as a Muslim region, that puts the region (both the Maghreb and Egypt) in a specific situation that does not grant it the attention it deserves. There is moreover a recent revival of and growing interest in Arab culture and Islam, which arguably leads to two main tendencies due to a renewed exoticism. One result might be a fear and dismissal of the culture and its main religion on the grounds of an international paranoia, the other might be an overt and sometimes misplaced glorification that found its roots in Said’s Orientalism and a mythologisation of history.

We therefore urge our audiences to enjoy the North African gems that will be screened in our short film competition, and the feature length films integrated in the reconciliation themed as well as the contemporary programming: Forbidden Places by Moroccan Leila Kilani, The Yellow House by Amor Hakkar from Algeria and Française by Moroccan Souad El Bouhati.

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