Any African filmmaker will tell you how difficult it is to get production funding. However, it is even more difficult to secure finances for one dabbling in the art of animation. So difficult is the situation, OGOVA ONDEGO contends, that many leading animation producers and directors(Burkinabe Cilia Sawadogo and Ivorian Vincent Gles live in Canada and Congolese Jean-Michel Kibushi Ndijate Wooto is based in Belgium)are forced to set up shop abroad.
But Moustapha Alassane of Niger who is said to have made the first film “not just animation” in black Africa in 1962, continues to trudge on despite the odds stacked high against filmmakers in the mother continent.
Alassane was a special guest at the second Amakula Kampala International Film Festival in 2005 where he also headed the Golden Impala Eastern Africa Film Competition Jury.
He also commented on UNESCO’s initiative that seeks to produce culturally-appropriate animated cartoons for children in Africa.
The lack of local content, says the Nairobi-based UNESCO’s Eastern Africa Regional Communications Advisor Alonso Aznar, is mainly caused by the absence of cost effective production, lack of ICT equipment and facilities and a dearth of people with skills in computer animation.
UNESCO’s Africa animated!, launched in 2004, wants to encourage the production of programmes that allow children and young people to hear, see and express themselves through cartoons that reflect the regional culture, language and life.
The first hands-on training workshops were held in June and July 2004 in Zanzibar and Nairobi while the 2005 training was held in Durban, South Africa.
Some of the trainers included Sawadogo of Burkina Faso, Nina Paley and Anezka Sebek of the United States of America, and Paula Callus of the United Kingdom. Also featured were US-based Kenyan illustrator and storyboard artist Kwame Nyong’o, Kenya-based Tanzanian cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa (GADO), and Kenyan performing artist Sally Mshai Mwangola.
One only hopes the fifteen artists from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania who went through the course will make animation films while based in Africa. This is especially so when one takes cognisance of the fact that Africa’s first full animation film, LEGENDS OF THE SKY KINGDOM, was made by Zimbabwean producers Philip and Jaqui Cunningham and director Roger Hawkins, between 1999 and 2002.
With sets and characters made entirely from pieces of junk and running 90 minutes on 35mm, Brent Dawes was the director of animation while Tabitha Crowe was the animator.
Alassane’s film, AOURE, may have been made a year ahead of Ousmane Sembene’s, but it is the latter who has come to be credited with being called “father of African Cinema”.
So, why don’t we give the microphone to Alassane, the pioneer of film in sub-Saharan Africa? The only hitch is that he has to speak through a translator.
Perhaps you could start by saying something about your background.
I was born in Djougou, Niger, in 1942. I am the director of the Film Department at the University of Niamey and I continue to make films.
But how did your journey into film making begin?
I had been interested in film since childhood. I had a shoebox with a hole in it that acted as a camera for making film. I initially worked as a mechanic and then designer in the National Museum in Niamey before I finally decided to get into film after getting attracted to the work of Jean Rouche and other foreign filmmakers who visited Africa. After making my first film in 1962, I left to work in a film office in Canada where I got attracted to animation through Norman MacLaren.
You made a film in 1962. But when exactly did you embark on filmmaking?
Much earlier than 1962. I had joined the Cine Club in my youth. This was to enable me learn how to operate a camera the organisation owned. I used to borrow this camera and practise on it.
From what you are saying, it is clear that you made a film in 1962, the same year that Senegalese Ousmane Sembene is said to have started directing short fiction films. Why is it that Sembene (not you) is regarded as the father of African cinema? Would you consider yourself the legitimate holder of this title?
That I started making films before Ousmane Sembene and that I got a film prize before Ousmane Sembene is not in doubt.
Then why is Sembene regarded as the father of African Cinema and not you? Is it because his short film, BOROM SARRET, won a European award (Prix 1 CEuvre Festival Tours) in 1963 and he was in 1966 declared a ‘committed filmmaker’ following the release of LA NOIRE DE…,his debut full feature film?
I don’t know how Ousmane Sembene came to be declared the father of African cinema or what this means. Furthermore, it is not important who the father of African cinema is. What is important is that we are making films.
What is your filmmaking style?
I experiment with all kinds of film styles ranging from fiction to documentary and animation. But I like animation better because it enables me to give life to inanimate things.
Animation appears to give you the freedom to make political statements: satirising tyranny in an imaginary kingdom of toads.
It gives me the freedom to say many things.
Is animation only for children as widely believed? UNESCO’s Africa animated project, for instance, targets children.
No, animation is for everyone regardless of age.
How many films have you made so far in 2005?
I have made about 30 films. Among them are 90-minute TOULA and 75-minute WOMAN, VILLA, CAR, MONEY. Some of my animation films are LA MORT DU GANDJI, BON VOYAGE SIM, SOOLO, SAMBA LE GRAND, KOKOA, AGAISSA, and TAGIMBA. I have also made shorts like AOURE, KING KODA’S RING, THE ADVENTURER COMES HOME, and THE MAGICIANS OF ADER.
The number of your films seems to surpass Sembene’s 15. By 2005, Sembene has made long features MANDABI, EMITAI, XALA, CEDDO, CAMP DE THIAROYE, GUELWAAR, FEAT-KINE, and MOOLADE and shorts BOROM SARRET, L’EMPIRE SONGHAY, NIAYE, LA NOIRE DE…,TRAUMATISME DE LA FEMME FACE A LA POLYGAMIE, LES DERIVES DU CHOMAGE, TAW, and L’AFRIQUE AUX OLYMPIADES:BASKET AFRICAIN AUX J.O. DE MUNICH.
Yes, I have made more films than he.
Animation, according to Italian film writer and curator Maria Silvia Bazzoli who is serving on the jury you chair, says animation is an art that has been abandoned by institutions, ignored by production and distribution circuits, snubbed by critics and even considered with suspicion by many filmmakers. Do you share her view?
Yes, I do.
What challenges do you encounter in animation?
Though not rich, I have to fund my own films. I have a studio in Touha, Niger, from which I continue to make animation films. If I were rich, I would have been travelling to Kampala every weekend and eating tilapia fish from Lake Victoria. I would own a jet. The good thing about animation is that you can do it on a shoe-string budget. With the computer, animation is getting easier and any one can do it now. I want to encourage young Africans to use new technologies for animation.
Why is animation taking long to get rooted in Africa?
Good animation is very expensive and labour-intensive; animation films were not made in Africa before as European animation productions were readily available and given to African broadcasters almost for free. This worked against locally-made animation.
Then is it true that Africa has so far produced only two long animated feature films’ 90-minute LEGENDS OF THE SKY KINGDOM of zimbabwe and 75-minute KIRIKOU LA SORCIER France/Senegal?
I don’t know of any other apart from these two. No African producer is willing to fund animation films. When I did my films even the French whose support for film is almost legendary turned me down and I had to seek funding from Russia. It takes long to make an animated film as it depends on drawings that require many people to produce. National television broadcasters prefer to get animated films from Europe and North America because they are cheaper than what we produce as we lack the economy of scale enjoyed by the West. Unlike us in Africa, western filmmakers have access to funds and qualified human resources that enable them to produce animation films of better quality.
Since making animation films in Africa lacks economic viability-one struggles for years looking for money only to make a film that lasts for two to three minutes-perhaps Africans should just forget about them.
I could use a similar argument to describe commercial airline business in Africa. Should Africans also forget about airlines? Some companies(Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, South African Airways)are doing well while the majority are not. Some countries have even discontinued national airlines. We should not do the same for animation films.
UNESCO has launched Africa Animated, a project through which it aims to generate animation content for African children. What do you think about this project?
It is good as it is stimulating people to learn animation. However, UNESCO should find out what has already been done here instead of just launching into the project. Africa is too much used to donations which are not helping the continent much.
Doesn’t being one of the pioneers of animation in Africa and also being aware that UNESCO is working on an animation project give you the more reason to join the bandwagon without waiting to be invited along?
They are imposing things on Africans. I can’t change it though unhappy I may be.
In your opinion, does cinema art have a future in Africa?
I don’t know. This is a complicated subject.
This article was first published by ArtMatters.Info in October 2005.