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As Africa’s artifacts start to be returned, what about its films?

Film reels are scattered in a cinema hall.
While African artifacts have been housed in European museums, classic African films have been held in the hands of Western companies through their distribution rights, which has created several barriers for screening these films across the continent.
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In a hauntingly memorable closing scene for the film La noire de…, by the “father of African cinema” Ousmane Sembene, a young Senegalese boy hides behind a ceremonial mask as he follows a white man through the streets of Dakar in a newly-independent Senegal. The white man hastens his pace, eventually running, but the young boy, unperturbed, keeps pace with him, always there, always watching.

This image is strangely emblematic of the position that Europe finds itself in right now as calls for the return of Africa’s looted assets escalate. Up to 90% of southern Africa’s material cultural legacy is outside of the continent, according to the French government-commissioned 2018 report by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, and French historian Bénédicte Savoy.

No matter which way the former colonial powers turn, they cannot escape the calls for restitution. This year, amid fresh scrutiny, several European countries started returning certain art and artifacts taken from Africa during the colonial period. At the end of October, France handed back 26 works of art to Benin. A Cambridge college and Scottish university quickly followed suit. These moves were hailed by activists and officials as turning points in the long battle by African countries to recover their stolen artwork.

African film has recently joined the restitution debate

While the focus of the recent debate on African cultural restitution has been on artifacts, some activists are now turning their attention to other works from Africa that remain in the hands of Western institutions: films.

I don’t like seeing art in cemeteries–be it libraries that are inaccessible or about to be run down, but I also don’t want to see art suffocated in placelessness.

While African artifacts have been housed in European museums, classic African films have been held in the hands of Western companies through their distribution rights, which has created several barriers for screening these films across the continent. As a result, many of them remain unknown to African audiences.

“I think about art as children. If you are going to return something, it should feel safe. It shouldn’t feel as if it’s going to be suffocated or abandoned. I don’t like seeing art in cemeteries–be it libraries that are inaccessible or about to be run down, but I also don’t want to see art suffocated in placelessness. People that don’t fully understand it–the language, the context. Many of these films are decontextualized when they are not available to those whose culture they come from.” This is according to Sheila Chukwulozie, a Nigerian creative producer and artist, who also recently starred in an award-winning short film, Egúngún (Masquerade), which will be showing at Sundance 2022.

Funding is the main explanation for why African classics are owned by the west

Much of the reason why these films are sometimes virtually unknown to Africans and mostly available in the west has to do with funding. Many post-independence African films were funded, if not partially, then fully, by European governments and production companies, giving them the rights for screening and distribution. However, experts from the film industry in Africa are now calling for these films to be made accessible to the continent as African audiences are missing out on historical films of cultural importance.

“African cinema proliferated between the 1960s and 1980s and it is crucial for these films to be screened,” says Amil Shivji, a Tanzanian film maker. “We can’t understand where we are and where we are going without understanding where we have come from.”

African directors would agree. Ousmane Sembene famously said “Europe is not my center.” His most renowned film, Mandabi, which was shot entirely in Wolof, was restored this year by StudioCanal and released on home entertainment across its territories, including France, UK, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. Criterion Collection, meanwhile, released Blu-ray/DVD editions of the film in the US.

“African films have been owned, distributed, and copyrighted in the West without looking to the territory of the continent,” continued Shivji. “When the rights get bought, they get bought for territories in the West and Africa is not part of the conversation.”

Across Europe and America, companies have extensive catalogs of classic African films. Hyena, a film by Senegalese great, Djibril Drop Mambety, which was restored in 2018, is owned by American company Metrograph Pictures. Mambety’s first film, Touki Bouki, recently brought back to the global consciousness by Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the run II world tour poster, is owned by Criterion. Cameroonian filmmaker Jean Pierre Dikangoue Pipa’s exhibition rights are controlled by Trigon Films, a Swiss company, while Niger filmmaker Oumarou Ganda’s classic Cabascabo exists in the catalogue of Cite Films of Paris.

“Very few people, especially African audiences, know about the continent’s cinematographic heritage,” explains Unesco’s recent report on African film (pdf). “The best surviving elements for historic African films are found in the national film archives of France, the UK, and other European countries, and at various Western universities and African film departments.”

Screening these films in Africa is not only difficult, but expensive–with a one-off screening priced anywhere between 200-1,000 euros ($225-$1,130). In rural areas, where audiences often watch films in small, informal cinemas, these screening costs make the film virtually inaccessible. In Tanzania, informal cinema spaces, known as vibanda umiza, charge $0.10 for entry. Larger cinemas and festivals on the continent have also found it challenging.

“Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) has found many difficulties in screening African films,” said Martin Mhando, Chair of ZIFF. “Access to many African films is hard because our distributors are still transfixed towards Europe for markets.”

High screening prices are in part to do with the technological work that has gone into digitizing the film or restoration. Film preservation and restoration is expensive, and it is typically only done by a few companies and agencies based in Europe and the US.

“Restoring films can cost around 1,000 euros a minute, so it is difficult to give screening rights for free,” said Ellen Schafer, Head of Libraries and Technical Delivery at Argos Films, a French production company. “It is also about technology – if the material is restored and is available on digital it is much easier to share. If not, upgrading it can also have a high cost, and if the demand isn’t there, most companies won’t bother.”

The future of Africa’s oldest films

Practitioners argue that a different business model is needed.

“We just need to come up with a suitable income generating model, as our film industry is still maturing,” said Nyambura M. Waruingi, a cultural activist and producer based in Kenya. “At the very least, there should be affordable educational rights for African learning institutions and these films should be made available online.”

One African film collective is actively experimenting with new models. Ajabu Ajabu, operating out of Tanzania, has recently re-released a classic Swahili film, Maangamizi, screening it across the local, informal cinema spaces where the large majority of the population accesses film.

Co-founder Jesse Gerard said they have been able to do this as the distribution rights of the film have remained with Tanzanian director and chair of ZIFF, Martin Mhando. After the film was digitized to mark its 20th anniversary, Ajabu Ajabu distributed it via flash drives across the country.

“When you talk about history and memory it can’t be a financial argument, it is a moral and emotional argument,” said Gerard. “Western companies have ownership of these films because of a power imbalance and perpetuating that through restriction of access is problematic. These are African stories, voices, and perspectives, which need to be seen.”

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