Decolonizing African cinema in the time of Netflix

Filmmakers from Africa are making an effort to fight for the restitution of the graphic memory of their continent, long stifled and distorted by the colonial powers

Baron Thierno Souleymane Diallo in his film ‘Au cimetière de la pellicule,’
Baron Thierno Souleymane Diallo in his film ‘Au cimetière de la pellicule,’ in which he searches for the work of an African director in Paris.FCAT
Ana Carbajosa

When film director Alain Kassanda decided to tell the story of his grandparents under the colonizing oppression in the Belgian Congo, he set out to gather films from that time. The material that he found spoke about the Belgians civilizing the local population and building roads and schools, as well as about Black folklore. However, “the Congolese always appeared as ghosts. It was racist propaganda in which the Congolese perspective was never shown,” he said. To make matters worse, he had to pay €25,000 (about $27,600) to obtain access to that footage, which was distributed throughout various Belgian institutions. “They recorded us without our consent and now we have to pay for what they stole from us. They took the images in the same way they stole pieces of art that are now in European museums. The restitution happens in the first place by having access to those files,” he argued, visibly angry, in a bar in Tarifa, Spain, during the 20th edition of the African Cinema Festival, held in that city from April 28 to May 7.

Kassanda talks about physical restitution — that of access to the material — but there is also another battle, one that is more elusive but just as relevant: the one being fought for the graphic memory of the African continent. The film about his grandparents, Colette et Justin, which was released last year, recontextualizes those images through what some African filmmakers call the “reappropriation” of that narrative. It is the fight for representation, for the images of an Africa that was deformed and exoticized by the colonial powers; something that has gained new strength thanks to the movement for the restitution of art objects that is sweeping the continent.

A report commissioned by Paris in 2018 from Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy points out that more than 90% of the material cultural legacy of sub-Saharan Africa remains preserved and housed outside of the African continent. “Audiovisual restitution is also the fight for memory. The colonizers were fully aware of the power of memory and they dominated peoples that were not collectively aware of the importance of memory, which was above all oral,” said the Moroccan director Ali Essafi. The accusation that Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, considered the father of African cinema, made of his French colleague Jean Rouch, is well-known: “You look at us as if we were insects,” he snapped.

“Africa is the continent that has been told by others, by the colonizers,” added Farah Clémentine Dramani-Issifou, an expert in the decolonization of the visual arts who also attended the event in Tarifa. “Cinematographic heritage was uprooted, and that memory is essential to know who we are and where we are going,” she said.

Dramani-Issifou was the curator of an exhibition that showed in Benin the 26 works returned by France in 2021 as part of the new African policy started four years earlier by Emmanuel Macron with his famous Ouagadougou speech. “It’s about regaining control of how and where the images are shown,” she emphasized, citing the example of a recording of a voodoo ceremony made by the French missionary and ethnographer Francis Aupiais, whose exhibition, she said, violates the privacy of the people who appear in it.

The 1934 Laval Decree prevented African directors from filming in French-speaking Africa without permission from the authorities, in order to avoid the spread of anti-colonial messages. Only after 1960, with the arrival of independence, did a first generation of African filmmakers emerge to offer the world a postcolonial look. Among them, Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty and Désiré Ecaré stand out.

Studying in France

Still, the umbilical cord was never fully cut. First, because in the years that followed the independence many filmmakers went to study in France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. “They returned to their countries to make films, but they were highly influenced by aesthetics and themes that were again foreign to the cultural roots of the continent,” explained Léa Baron from Cinémathèque Afrique, an institution dependent on the French Institute.

Furthermore, much of the work done after the 1960s ended up in the hands of public institutions and private distributors from outside the continent. A comprehensive UNESCO report on African cinema noted that the best African films are almost never found in Africa, but rather in the national film archives of France, the United Kingdom and other European countries, as well as in Western universities with African film departments. This means that these pioneering films are not available in Africa’s educational institutions, and few people — especially African audiences — are aware of the continent’s film heritage. Western governments and production companies financed films that are now out of reach for many Africans. Post-production is still often done outside of Africa. Although the differences between the 54 African countries are immense, they all share that colonial heritage, as well as the economic deficiencies and the accumulated problems to produce and distribute their own movies.

There are countless initiatives to digitize, and in many cases restore rights, but there is still a long way to go. Baron Thierno Souleymane Diallo shows these difficulties in accessing this legacy in his film Au cimetière de la pellicule [In the film cemetery], where he embarks on the search for Mouramani, which is supposed to be the first ever made by a French-speaking Black filmmaker. He travels through Guinea-Conakry visiting old movie theaters and warehouses full of rotten tapes, always finding the same answer: “Surely they have it in France. They have everything in the archives there.” Diallo explains that in film school he learned a lot about European authors, but very little from what had been done in his own country. “It is essential that the new generations know and own their history,” he said, while focusing on the responsibility of African governments and intellectuals. “They can’t wait for the West to do that for them, too.”

Successful, but outside

The challenges of the past are intertwined with those of the present. “Young people in Africa are obsessed with making it abroad, and have little time to look back at their classics. Besides, they are too exposed to trash TV,” said the Mozambican director Pedro Pimenta, a UNESCO consultant on African audiovisual affairs. The result, he lamented, is that many end up making films with foreign festivals in mind, instead of the African market.

All this, in a context in which Western festivals and production companies are manifesting a growing interest in African content, as shown by blockbusters like the Wakanda saga. Nollywood, the very powerful Nigerian entertainment and commercial film industry, has also had a strong presence on platforms like Netflix for a few years now. “There have never been so many Afro-futuristic movies. The platforms have realized that Africa is a great market after having reached their limit in other continents,” added Pimenta. That presents an opportunity for the region, although experts warn that it is not without its dangers.

With the arrival of new options, the temptation to adapt productions to Western tastes and the demands of those who come from abroad grow. This also influences when it comes to decide which issues are relevant and how to deal with them. “The approach of the platforms continues to be neocolonial and condescending. We must redefine the way we collaborate. They may have the money, but we have the content. We must implement a new ethic in the exchange,” said Dramani-Issifou. Director Kassanda put it clearly: “Cinema is also a question of power – the power of who has the means to represent themselves.”

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