Interview: Africa in Motion Festival

Edinburgh’s Africa in Motion festival celebrates African film with the theme of movement – Litro spoke to two of the festival’s organisers

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Twende is the Swahili phrase for “Let’s Go!” and is the theme for this year’s Africa in Motion film festival, Edinburgh’s very own African film festival. Movement is a particularly striking theme that the organisers hope will go some way to capture the richness of the continent, and embody “all types of movement, literal and metaphorical, from the movement of people across regions and borders with films about immigration and asylum, to political, cultural and social movements, the movement of goods and products, to movement in its more literal form with films about sport, dance and the vibrancy of African cities and street life” (www.africa-in-motion.org.uk).

The festival first began in 2006 when Lizelle Bisschoff, having just finished a PhD in African cinema, started the festival to act as a platform for African filmmakers to exhibit their work and open Scottish audiences’ eyes to the vibrancy of African cinema. African cinema is often overlooked in British film-going audiences and the festival has, since its inception, continued to present alternative depictions of the continent to audiences in Scotland, and challenge mainstream representations of Africa, such as The Economist’s infamous front cover “The Hopeless Continent”

I met with Lizelle, the founder and chair of the festival, and Justine Atkinson, the Fundraising and Programming Assistant, to discuss this year’s Festival and the philosophy of Africa in Motion.

This year’s theme (Twende: Africa on the Move) picks up on a particular motif that most people who have visited the continent will relate to, what was the inspiration of using this as this year’s theme?

Justine: It covers so many aspects of African life- physical movement, religious movements, political movements- it’s a really all-encompassing theme for a very broad and diverse area. Also it’s about the distribution of African films and how they are disseminated.

Lizelle: In terms of how we interpret it [the theme] is in a literal form, we have films about African sport and dance, so physical movement; also movement of people across borders, many films focus on migration, and also because of that idea of not living in the country of your origin and having a mixed-identity, or at least plural identities, is very much an integral part of the African experience that we want to capture. African cinema is not a category that can be categorised very simply and we recognise that World Cinema also influences African films, a lot of directors have studied in Paris or Moscow even, and what they do is obviously influenced by the movement of film.

Were there any particular films that are going to be shown which really inspired this idea of movement?

Lizelle: Yes, one of the first films that I selected for this year’s festival was a film from Senegal called La Pirogue, by Moussa Touré and it is a film about Africans trying to leave the coast of Dakar, Senegal, and get to Europe by boat and most of it takes place on this boat, so apart from the fact it is a really good film in terms of characterisation, it is quite a challenge to shoot a film on quite a small boat and that was one of the first films that we saw and thought works really well as developing the theme of movement.

Justine: Also Touba (www.toubafilm.com), which is about a Sufi Muslim religious pilgrimage in Senegal, looking at a different face of Islam- and is shot on celluloid film, which is really beautiful.

Lizelle: Another film on religious movements was a film about Jews in Africa, so Jewish communities living in different places in Africa- Ethiopia and parts of East Africa, so it’s a lesser-known phenomenon of black Jewish communities.

Mainstream depictions of Africa at the moment are very much preoccupied with this idea of ‘Africa Rising’ and it seems representations of Africa flitter between quite romanticised images and at the other end, quite bleak and violent narratives. Do you see this concept of movement as a counter-balance to these representations of Africa?

Lizelle: It’s essentially the shift from Afro-pessimism to Afro-optimism. When we were talking about the different interpretations of movement, I was thinking about the programme and how we are trying to show the different sides of the realities of modern Africa. For example we are talking about movement of people, like La Pirogue, which is quite a tragic film in many ways and is dedicated to the 5,000 Africans who have mostly drowned trying to cross to Europe in the last five or so years. But then on the other hand, another reality of Africans leaving Africa is that some leave to live in America, become very successful and are pioneers in their own way. For us, those different sides of the story are important and trying to avoid stereotypes of course, and the festival is primarily about countering those incorrect representations you find of Africa and those created by outsiders and trying to show more, I don’t want to use the word “authentic”, but…

Justine: It’s Africa told by African people rather than just outsiders.

Lizelle: Yes, those stories are of course joyful and happy stories sometimes, sometimes they tell challenging and complex stories and I guess we are just trying to show all those different realities. Although I have to say I am quite cautious, because when you are working with Africa it is quite easy to go into the whole “war, famine, corruption”, but on the other side you find it completely avoided and it is also part of contemporary Africa so it’s just striking a fine balance between that. I think we do have some responsibility in what representations of Africa the festival portrays.

Do you think African directors make their films for Africans or are they primarily looking outwards to the world?

Lizelle: I think that depends on industry, and country by country, because you are talking about a vast continent where, certainly West African Francophone filmmakers like Sembène, have historically and even now been courted by the European film festivals, and Mahamat Saleh Haroun, a director from Chad, (his film Grigis is showing at the festival), has been very celebrated at Cannes.

Some filmmakers have been criticised for making films that portray Africa in the way that Europeans expect to see Africa- there’s the whole strand of pre-Colonial films who make these village films that have also been called “Calabash” films, because they are set in villages in a pre-colonial romanticised Africa, before colonisation and any foreign intervention. Those films have also been criticised because they play to a certain idea of what Westerners looks like or should look like. You then have local filmmakers who couldn’t care less what the outside world thinks, such as the Bongowood industry in Tanzania which makes films in Swahili. That mindset is completely for local markets, as they can’t travel, they’re not internationally accessible because they are so specific to their local context, so it really depends.

I think also perhaps another problem in the South African context is that there might sometimes be a mismatch between popular, mass appeal and the work of arthouse directors and auteurs; and I think that is what happens in South Africa, because some of the really great directors such as Ramadan Suleman, want to make political stories about the DRC and then South Africans want to see slapstick and comedies or musicals- they say we are confronted by the politics of post-apartheid South Africa everyday and we go to the cinema to escape. A lot of these auteurs and filmmakers are part of the educated elite, so they don’t necessarily make films that are going to appeal to a mass audience.

We were in Durban at the film festival in July and in one of the industry events this guy was giving advice to young filmmakers and was saying, when you develop your film, imagine that it has to sit alongside Man of Steel in the cinema. This is the worst advice because what he was saying was that African filmmakers have to make films for mass appeal and audiences, forget about their own story, their own creativity, their own voice. They should be making films that they think will sell.

Festival runs 24th October- 1st November. Programme available from 23rd September at www.africa-in-motion.org.uk

Jonny is a writer based in Edinburgh, with an interest in African current affairs and culture, having studied a Masters in African Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies; and is currently working on continuing the research he began at SOAS and also working on a novel based on his experiences in Africa.

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