Outside of Africa, audiences and streaming services generally spurn the thousands of films made in Africa each year. But that could change.
A scene from the movie “Vuta N’Kuvute” (Courtesy of Kijiweni Productions)
Tanzanian film “Vuta N’Kuvute” (Swahili for “Tug of War”) has generated a buzz of excitement after being entered for an Oscar for best international film.
History, however, suggests that Africans hoping for the continent’s first win at the Academy Awards since 2006 would do well to temper their hopes with realism.
The producers describe the movie as a “coming-of-age political drama about love and resistance set in the final years of British colonial Zanzibar.”
Set in the 1950s, the film has a compelling, if not quite original, plot about romance across cultures during a period of racial segregation.
It tells the story of Denge, a young African man involved in the liberation struggle against British rule who meets and falls in love with runaway Indian-Zanzibari bride Yasmin. Needless to say, the romance that ensues has more than its fair share of turmoil.
The film has already garnered accolades within and outside Africa, including best feature film at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, winner of the special jury prize at the Seattle International Film Festival and the Tanit d’Or at Tunisia’s prestigious Carthage Film Festival.
The Oscars have long snubbed African films.
If “Vuta N’Kuvute” were to walk away with an Oscar, it would be a feat Africa has not managed since “Tsotsi” — a South African film about a young thug who discovers a baby in the back seat after he steals a car — won the accolade in 2006. It was the first African film not made in French to do so.
As reported by Deutsche Welle in March, the Academy Award for Best International Film, previously known as the Best Foreign Language film, has gone to an African production only three times since its inception in 1948, in a category dominated by Europe.
Two of the three African winners were French co-productions with former colonies Algeria and Côte d’Ivoire, which benefited from the strong influence of the French film lobby in Hollywood.
In fact, nearly all of the films about Africa that have enjoyed Oscar glory have been Hollywood productions, such as the 1994 American animated musical drama “The Lion King,” which was set in a fictional kingdom of lions in Africa.
“Tsotsi” was written and directed by South African filmmaker Gavin Hood and set in Johanneburg’s sprawling Alexandra township. Purists will, however, point out that it was a joint South Africa-United Kingdom production.
Western backing seems crucial to success.
Nigerian film critic Steve Ayorinde, a juror at international film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin and Toronto, believes African films will always struggle to garner global attention and nominations without funding, collaboration or technical support from Western institutions.
“Yes, a number of African films are always on the sidelines of major festivals,” he told Deutsche Welle. “But then, who pushes them? Without collaborations, without support, without a major European and American institution or production companies investing in such a film, it will be difficult to market such a film to the world.”
African filmmakers are certainly prolific in their output.
Market and consumer data company Statista says Nigeria, home to the booming Nollywood film industry, pushed out 2,500 films in 2020. Ghana produces 600 films per year, while Kenya and Tanzania each manage about 500. On average, Africa produces about 5,500 films per year.
But these productions have struggled to resonate with viewers abroad, particularly in the United States.
A growing American appetite for international films
In April, CNN Entertainment reported that Americans were consuming more international art than before, including the 2019 South Korean thriller “Parasite.”
The dark comedy won at the Golden Globes, before going on to capture Best Picture at the Oscars.
Similarly, some of U.S. streaming service Netflix’s most-watched shows are foreign language ones that are either dubbed or subtitled in English.
But African productions have yet to gain a foothold among American audiences. This is mainly because the majority of Americans hardly ever think about Africa.
Even when they do, their perceptions tend to be negative.
African films have yet to penetrate American TV screens.
A 2018 study by the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center found that stories about the continent appeared infrequently on U.S. television.
Out of almost 700,000 hours of news and entertainment, there were only 25 major scripted storylines about Africa.
Only 13% of entertainment storylines that mentioned Africa included an African character, and 80% of the roles were small.
When African characters did appear, 46% spoke 10 words or less. Over one-third (35%) of African mentions in scripted entertainment were about crime, and many of these stories were told on America’s most popular shows.
Meanwhile, fans flock to ‘Wakanda.’
The study, however, noted that films like Marvel’s “Black Panther,” set in the mythical country of Wakanda, were helping audiences imagine an Africa that was different from the usual depictions of poverty, war and crime.
“Black Panther” and its sequel “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” as well as “The Woman King,” which was released in September, could go some way towards sparking more interest in Africa among global audiences.
But while these films tell African stories, depict real and fictional places on the continent and feature African as well as African-American actors and actresses, they were all made in the United States, not Africa.
Another reality is that the bulk of the thousands of films made in Africa annually do not meet international quality standards.
A 2020 conference paper jointly written by Obiora Chukwumba, from the University of Abuja in Nigeria, and Dili Ojukwu from the Federal University Ndufu-Alike Ikwo of Nigeria said the rapid growth in the number of Nigerian films produced per year is not matched with a similar increase in quality.
“Between 2014 and 2017, when film aggregators and distributors in the country started prospecting for the international market, only about 19 Nollywood films have been acquired by reputable international platforms such as Netflix, the global film market’s flagship,” the pair wrote. “One of the main reasons for this rather poor level of international acceptability is the perceived poor technical quality of these movies.”
African films are underfunded.
A 2021 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on the challenges and opportunities for growth in the African film industry said it remains historically and structurally underfunded, underdeveloped and undervalued, generating only $5 billion in annual revenue out of a potential $20 billion.
The game changer for the industry will be the ongoing digital revolution that started some 20 years ago and was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report noted that a new generation of filmmakers in countries like Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Senegal are now able to live from online revenue generated by their work.
“Today, technology, affordable digital film equipment and the new ability to distribute but also monetize content directly to consumers via online platforms … is giving rise to a new economy for African content creators which bypasses traditional gatekeepers,” the report said,
Filmmakers such as Tunisia’s Kaouther Ben Hania, Côte d’Ivoire’s Philippe Lacôte, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Dieudo Hamadi, Kenya’s Wanuri Kahiu, Nigeria’s Kenneth Gyang, Lesotho’s Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese and Zambia’s Rungano Nyoni are attracting both local and international attention.
“Through the growth of digital platforms, African films … are available for the whole world to discover and enjoy for the first time in history,” the UNESCO report said.
New technology comes as we are seeing more diversity on movie screens around the world, and this opens new markets for African filmmakers, the report said.
“As African stories become more globally appealing, African producers are attracting the interest of new, non-historical partners such as the United States and China,” the report said.
Three questions to consider:
- Why are American audiences not particularly interested in Africa?
- What was the last African film to win an Oscar?
- Why is there cause to be optimistic about the future of African films?
Stella Mapenzauswa is a Johannesburg-based journalist, media consultant and trainer who has covered economics and politics in southern Africa, namely in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, Botswana and Malawi, for more than two decades.