Digital Africa: exploring new frontiers in TV and film

Film-makers from African backgrounds are bypassing traditional routes to building audience numbers and are using digital spaces instead. While this is by no means a revelation, what is interesting is traditional institutions that ordinarily would be the first port of call for film-makers to reach wider audiences are following in their tracks.

The film-maker panellists at Film Africa's annual industry forum - Digital Africa - were adamant that their creations would not have seen the light of day if it weren't for the democratising influence such platforms as YouTube, MySpace and Vimeo provide.
photographed from poster
image © MisBeee Writes
For Cecile Emeke, the creative mind behind web series 'Ackee & Saltfish', she only gained recognition from film festivals after her work garnered a strong YouTube following. 

“I remember I submitted my first short film to specific festivals and I am sure it didn’t get watched,” she told the audience at Southbank BFI earlier in November. “Once I put my film online and it got a lot of press, those same festivals invited me to come and show my film and to come and speak. So it is definitely a political thing, and it is clearly about who you know.”

B is for Boy’ creator Chika Anadu from Nigeria, got her break after gaining positive press from Shadow and Act (Indiewire) – a collective of film writers/critics and film enthusiasts that specialise in promoting non-traditional films.

Although she is immensely proud of her film, she didn't think her success was by merit alone.
"For me, there were no in-betweens," she told the audience. "Netflix [the on-demand Internet streaming media provider] came directly to me and iTunes approached me through the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)."

Based on conversations Chika has had with programmers over the years, she believed the sheer number of new films in circulation means most are not seen by programmers. This view was quickly rejected by fellow panellist Jemma Desai - a film programmer for the Independent Cinema Office and BFI London Film Festival (LFF).

Despite Chika's sobering words, she urged aspiring film-makers to persevere. “It doesn’t mean that you should lose hope because afterall, other people get their stuff out there," she said. ".... it is not necessarily that your work is not good enough, but it is just there is a system unfortunately and unless you go the direct route and then festivals approach you, it really is pot luck.”

Counter view
Edward Fletcher, co-founder and MD of film distributor Soda Pictures, provided a counter view, believing instead that opportunities were improving for non-traditional non-white film-makers. He used the Mauritanian film 'Timbuktu' as a case in point, highlighting that the film was nominated for the 2014 top foreign language films in 87th Academy Awards. It grossed about £300,000 in the UK.

He also argued that talent would be the defining factor separating good film-makers from bad ones, regardless of a person's skin colour. He later had to concede when challenged that what one person views as a good film remains highly subjective and does not necessarily translate into improved opportunities for film-makers of colour.

Alternative distributor
Desai suggested that a people of colour-led distributor in the UK, backed by professional industry support and with the right investment, could help to bring more ethnically-diverse film content to the public.
“There’s been a few occasions this year where there have been films audiences that have really got behind," she said. "... but they got really small theatrical releases or didn’t get to a wider audience," she said, using 'Girlhood’ as one example.

Investment versus popularity
But fellow panellist Femi Kolade, of Bushfire Digital Media, pointed out that investment needs to be balanced against the likely popularity of a film.
“It is not that efforts have not been made [with films from people of colour],” he said. “I don’t think it is to do with how good the films are or not. I think it is difficult to find an audience for these films relative to investment and marketing,” he said. “We all know how much it takes for even Hollywood films to punch through the white noise and get people to go to the cinema.”

For Femi, the digital space can be used to target and mobilise audiences that may be missed by conventional media institutions. He pointed to the polarised success of 'Beast of No Nations', which did very little business in the theatres but on video on demand (VOD) platforms was pretty much number one is many territories, he said.

Stepping stone
With some of the traditional 'gate-keepers' increasingly using the Internet as an aggregator in finding new viewing communities, I wanted to know if the film-makers saw the digital space as a stepping stone for accessing mainstream TV and film.

Their reactions suggested it wasn't.

Many of you will have watched the online success African-African Issa Rae had with her web series ‘Awkward Black Girl’, and the challenges she encountered trying to turn her online fame into an HBO TV series.

For Rwandan-German Amelia Umuhire, creator of web series ‘Polyglot’, Issa's experiences make the transition from the net to TV problematic.

"Personally, I would be afraid of that because I imagine, the more money you have, and the more people are involved, the more you have to compromise your idea," she said. "That is something that doesn’t restrict you on the Internet. So I think it can be ....but it can also be a stepping stone to having to compromise your work.”
Cecile was of a similar opinion. She believed there is some content - such as her docu-series ‘Strolling’ - that would not work anywhere but online because it explores subjects that gate-keepers in mainstream media may not want to air.

However, she acknowledged that the online space can open up opportunities for mainstream media. The challenge – as has been seen with Issa – was about knowing when to say no and having self-belief.

"This can be hard in this industry when so many people are telling you what they think people like and what they don’t," she said.

African audiences
Discussion during the day would not have been complete without a look at audiences across Africa and how they access the digital space. Both Cecile and Amelia highlighted that in their respective home countries, while there is an appetite for watching films made by Africans, poor infrastructure and Internet provision remained obstacles.
As a result, viewers tend to stream when they can or in the case of Nigeria use such apps as AfriNolly to access films, Chika said.

The annual African film festival - Film Africa - ran from 30 October to 8 November 2015 and was established by the Royal African Society. 

Review of N: The Madness of Reason - a Film Africa London Premiere  

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