By Ogova Ondego
Published September 11, 2008
Though cinema was introduced to Africa–as early as 1896 in Algeria and South Africa, 1897 in Morocco and Tunisia, and 1903 in Nigeria–almost at the same time that the Lumiere Brothers are said to have pioneered it in France and the first feature film was made in South Africa in 1910, no entity known as ‘African cinema’ exists on the mother continent, so begins the 420-page Dictionary of African Filmmakers written by Roy Armes. Published by Indiana University Press in 2008, this reference book covers African feature film-making, listing more than 5400 films by more than 1250 filmmakers in 37 countries. OGOVA ONDEGO reviews the tome.
Saying he has used the nationality of the filmmaker to identify and group the films, Prof Armes adds, “Certain films regarded as nationally significant in Africa have not been made by Africans. Even after the founding of the Misr studios in Egypt (where the first feature to be produced, Weddad, was directed by the German Fritz Kramp), foreigners have continued to play a part in Egyptian film making.”
While “Japanese, American and Lebanese names figure among the directors of officially listed Egyptian films,” he writes, “South African producers have imported English and American directors for their own productions or been involved, as co-producers, in films a directed by foreigners. Thus the listings by South Africa critics and historians include routine films by British directors, many of which, from a UK perspective, would seem essentially British films shot on location.”
RELATED: Kwani?2 Boosts Kenyan Literature
He adds that three of the films “which are key to any definition of filmmaking in South Africa were in fact directed by foreigners.”
Saying these films include De Voortekkers (1916), Cry the Beloved Country (1915), and Come Back Africa (1958), Prof Armes contends that to omit them from South African films would “distort totally the development of filmmaking in South Africa.”
He however admits that “the ‘Africanness’ of these films can be endlessly debated.”
South Africa may have produced more than 1400 feature films but “there is no national cinema in South Africa, even though some cinema might seem-or seek-to represent or evoke a sense of the ‘national’. ”
Prof Armes writes that about one third of films listed as Algerian are made by French nationals.
Save for Egypt that has produced 56% of feature films in Africa, in most African states production levels are too low for the notion of a national cinema to be meaningful.
Contemporary Egyptian cinema has an organized infrastructure and a direct link to its national audience, as well as a thriving export trade. It is not an elite cinema shaped by foreign funding, critics, and festivals, but rather a popular medium of expression which became central to mid-twentieth-century notions of Egyptian identity.
This tome is divided into three main sections. While the first part presents information on filmmakers, providing their date and place of birth, training or film experience, their engagement in other creative activities and a list of feature films made, part two presents a national chronology, filmography and bibliography for each country producing feature films. I think this comprehensive bibliography is particularly more useful to scholars, researchers, critics, journalists and students of African film.
Part three, on the other hand, indexes film titles, providing translation into English or French where appropriate.
Prof Armes’ other books include Arab and African Film Making, Dictionary of North African Film Makers, Postcolonial Images, and African Filmmaking.
RELATED: Kwani? Flouts Writing Rules
It was in Egypt, the land of the pharaohs, that the first experiments with filmmaking occurred in the mid 1920s.It may therefore not be surprising to note that with 3082 listed feature films, it has the highest number of full feature films made on 35 mm (accounting for more than 50% of African feature films). South Africa, Algeria, and Tunisia come a distant second and third with 1434 and 102 feature films, respectively.
Other countries that rank highly include Nigeria (89 films), Morocco (80 films), Senegal (50 films), Burkina Faso (46 films), Cameroon (40), Mali (27), and Ivory Coast (22).
By the time of going to press, Ghana had made 14 feature films, Benin 12, Angola and Zimbabwe 10 each, Somalia and cape Verde 4 apart, while Kenya and Ethiopia each had 3 feature films made on celluloid.
While Tanzania, Central African Republic and Burundi each had one feature film, most countries, including Uganda, do not count as far as feature filmmaking on celluloid is concerned.
Filmmaking in Africa began in former French colonies in the 1950 with the first locally produced feature films made by foreigners.
Elsewhere in Africa, the writer says, the beginnings of indigenous film production occurred in the wake of independence: Algeria, Ghana, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Morocco, Senegal, Sudan, Somalia and Tunisia in the 1960s; Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Gabon, Libya, Mali, Madagascar, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria and Zimbabwe in the 1970s; Guinea-Bissau and Kenya in the 1980s; Burundi, Cape Verde, Chad, Tanzania and Togo in the 1990s; and most recently, the Central African Republic in 2003.
This Dictionary of African Filmmakers, Prof Armes reiterates, “is concerned with fictional feature films (16mm or35mm or shot on video and subsequently transferred to and distributed on-film) made by Africans in Africa or in exile. Not listed are films shot purely for television screening; what the French call tele films. Also omitted are purely video works of feature-length fiction. This is due in part to the logistical difficulties caused by the Nigerian situation (Pierre Barrot gives an estimate of seven thousand video features made between 1992 and the beginning of 2005). Generally omitted are feature length documentaries.”
The book poses thought-provoking questions: Are films made by foreigners to be excluded from a list of African films? Should the work of Afrikaners in South Africa be also excluded bearing in mind that Afrikaans is a language spoken only in Africa and many Afrikaners have roots in Africa?
The fact that films made in Africa by foreigners, the writer contends, “have absolutely no possibility of recovering their costs…means that they must of necessity be shaped to meet the demands of European audiences.”
“If the nationality of a specific film is problematic,” Armes writes, “the notion of a national cinema is even more so. In most African states production levels are too low for the notion of a national cinema to be meaningful.”
Why would Maangamizi: The Ancient One, a film directed by an American and assisted by a Tanzanian be classified as a Tanzanian film? Why are 100 Days by Nick Hughes and Munyurangabo by Lee Isaac Chung be categorized as Rwandan productions and not Sometimes in April by Raoul Peck or Hotel Rwanda? Why are Nowhere in Africa and Out of Africa not ‘Kenyan’ films?
One may also take Prof Armes to task over his inclusion of Riches, a 26-minute television film by Ingrid Sinclair, Tsitsi Tambrembga’s 30-minute Kare Kare Zvako and the M-Net/Zimmedia six-short film series, Mama Africa in the list of long features of Zimbabwe. Each short not only runs 26 minutes but is directed by a different director from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Tunisia. Are these not telefilms, are they not South African by the fact that they were produced by a South Africa-based company, M-Net?
Ras Star, a 26-minute tele film directed by Wanuri Kahiu of Kenya, is also an M-Net production and therefore belongs not to Kenya but South Africa.