Visualizing spaces: Accra’s first Francophone film festival
For two weeks in March, the Accra Francophone Film Festival showcased new spaces, cultures and stories from across the continent and beyond — from Mali to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from France itself to short films from across Ghana. Through the means of 13 Francophone films and 10 short films from Ghanaian filmmakers, the festival transported audience members to new spaces more locally, as well as internationally, showcasing diverse narratives, landscapes and time periods. The film festival was sponsored by the French Embassy of Ghana, the Institut Français, Alliance Française, and the National Film and Theatre Institute (NAFTI).
Fuel shortages, corruption, and the uglier side of the informal city
In the heart of present-day Kinshasa, an upstart smuggler named Riva finds himself entangled with foes from all sides, in a city gripped by fuel scarcity, where constant power outages choke the city’s development and citizens’ daily lives. The film is Viva Riva! (2010). The film opens to gridlock traffic and a sweaty, hot day where fuel has completely run out in the city. Riva, a young “entrepreneur” who has been able to smuggle a tankful of fuel into the city, dreams of the riches he’ll make by selling it for three, even four times the normal price, given the immense shortage.
It’s hard to watch this film and not certain draw parallels between the challenges faced by Kinshasa citizens and Accra’s own denizens.The the film’s narrative tells the stories of more than just Riva and those like him, but of Kinshasa shows that for many, to make ends meet and to thrive, can often necessitate working outside the lines of the formal, the scrupulous, but comes with its own challenges and repercussions. From the current load shedding (power rationing) program across Ghana’s cities due to production shortages, to the everyday street hustle regular people employ to make ends meet, the film parallels stories told each day in Ghana, and even in Accra. In addition, the film, apparently the first major feature film shot in the city of Kinshasa in nearly two decades, stands out not only for its accolades (which include recognition at both Toronto and Berlin film festivals), but also for the fact that it employed almost completely a Congolese cast. It adds a new narrative to our stories on Kinshasa, and on Congo.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…
In the Mali Empire, somewhere deep in the vast savannah landscape, Nianankoro, a young Bambara warrior, meets his powerful father as a foe, but not before leading an amazing adventure that brings him in touch with new peoples and cultures, and finally, his own fate. The film, Yeelen (Brightness, 1987), produced by Malian director Souleyman Cissé, was just one of the jewels of the film festival. It was also selected in 2012 by the New Yorker as DVD of the week. It’s a fantasy story, similar to Star Wars (I think), that pits good versus evil, father against son, and questions the use of power and violence, for good or ill.
The film itself gained notoriety when it came out — the film’s director was arrested and the film itself was banned from Mali due to the sensitive topics in Malian society that he touched upon, explained the French Embassy’s Cultural Attachée, Stephanie Soleansky, before the film. Since then, Cissé has gone on to win accolades and awards for his films, including from FESPACO and Canne film festivals. In fact, it was this film that first gained real recognition globally for African cinema, she said. Cissé himself comes from what Soleansky described as the “second wave” of African filmmakers, and his approach to cinema is unique: “He’s not interested in asserting anymore African identity or highlighting a position between modernity and tradition,” she described. Rather, “he was interested in debating the contemporary reality of Africa and overall the Malian society; he’s interested in denouncing the violence in society and abusive powers in general.”
In this film, Cissé has created an “out of age and mythical Africa,” she said: “There are no historical reference points. He wanted to show the cultural foundations of a people… that the violence and abusive powers are not only in the social order but also in the human being.” Rather than an ethnologue, the film is a political critique of African society.
Local wisdom and resourcefulness, embodied in a child named Kirikou
In a remote village, newborn baby boy Kirikou uses his wits and wisdom to foil the evil actions of a sorceress, her fetishes, saving his village from disaster time and time again. The film, Kirikou and the Wild Beasts (Kirikou et les bêtes sauvages, 2005) is part two of the animated story of the precocious, yet courageous and resourceful African child. The story, based on West African folk tales, depicts a simple African village plagues by everyday challenges of water access, food access and health for its children and mothers.
A local film about death and life
The local Ghanaian short film Tso Me Manya by film maker Moses Woezor demonstrates how the unexpected death of a primary breadwinner can send a family careening. In this brilliant short film, a fisherman is in an accident and dies in the hospital. In a limbo space, he is still able to observe flashes of how life continues for his wife and their small daughter, who work to survive despite this major economic shock to their household. Money is a central issue, from paying the costs for his burial, to debts, to the daughter’s school fees — after his death, he sees that those that he trusted most, including his best friend, become unreliable when called upon by his wife for support. See shots from the film during its screening:
Breaking it all down, generating a local conversation
The film festival demonstrates the rich film outside of Accra and Ghana, but what about this local environment? On Sunday, March 24th, the final day of the festival, the festival screened the Ghanaian documentary Perished Diamonds by Anita Afonu. The film follows the lackluster development of the Ghana film industry, through lack of government support, outright sale, to continued struggles in the present. The majority of the film focuses on lack of support for the industry’s development.
But like any industry, it’s about supply and demand. Accra was once home to a set of local movie theatres — including the Palladium at James Town and the Rex Theatre near Tema Station to a host of other ones around the city — but the popularity of the pirated DVD market and the cheap availability of DVD movies has posed a serious threat to its survival. Today, the main theatre in the city is the Silverbird Cinema, located at Accra Mall.
Within the film, one theatre operator/projectionist speaks to this, saying that when he was forced to double his ticket prices, his audience decreased dramatically: “The day I increased prices from 35 to 70 pesewas, was like I sacked all of them,” he said. One also has to question the priority that residents place on film and theatre as a cultural resource in the city. Similar to the projectionist’s challenge, at its beginning, this very film festival struggled to fill the 100-seat preview theatre that NAFTI generously offered for all movie screenings — this is despite the fact that the entire film festival was free to anyone interested in watching the films. At one film showing the first week, there were only eight people in the entire audience. Numbers improved as the film festival went on, but building attendance numbers, like a critical mass of independence and foreign film enthusiasts, is critical to seeing the success of festivals like this in the future. In addition to promoting and showcasing local art, the city’s residents have to patronize these as well.