Current trends in African documentary filmmaking.
Maia Lekow and Christopher King, The Letter
2019 |81 mins
Beryl Magoko, In Search…
2018 | 90 mins
Aïcha Chloé Boro, Le Loup d’Or de Balolé
2019 | 65 mins
Tamara Dawit, Finding Sally
2020 | 75 mins.
All films unrated.
‘THE EUROPEAN MARKET often tells stories about Africa through Europeans’ lenses,’ says Judy Kibinge, a critically acclaimed Kenyan filmmaker, during an interview at the 2019 International Documentary Film Amsterdam (IDFA) festival. In 2012, Kibinge established the film fund Docubox in Nairobi to nurture filmmaking talent in East Africa. ‘Africa will only be properly represented when we tell our own stories well,’ she says. ‘For Docubox, it’s critical that we support films authored by authentic and diverse local voices.’1
One of the first projects funded by Docubox was The Letter, directed by Maia Lekow. It tells the story of an elderly Kenyan woman, Mama Kamago, accused by members of her family of witchcraft. Allegations of sorcery are a serious business, and can result in elders being driven from their homes and even killed. The documentary includes stills of newspaper cuttings reporting the murder of ‘witches’ in the area where the film was made. The motivation behind these attacks is usually younger family members wanting to take possession of land. The film was five years in the making, and had its world premiere during the 2019 IDFA festival. It was also screened at the recent Film Africa 2020 festival in London, now in its ninth year. This year online viewing via the British Film Institute’s BFI player was made available.2
The story of The Letter is told from the viewpoint of Kasia, Mama Kamago’s grandson. He lives in Mombasa on the Kenya coast, and first hears of the claims of witchcraft via Facebook. Concerned for the old woman’s safety, Kasia travels to the family home in Kaloleni, inland from Mombasa. Through Kasia’s conversations with his grandmother, aunts and uncles a picture emerges of grudges and family tensions which have been building for a while. His grandmother is a second wife and one of her stepsons, Kasia’s uncle Furaha, claims he was mistreated by Mama Kamago as a child. He says he’s started noticing things going wrong in his family, and he suspects the old woman of using charms. These beliefs have been encouraged by a ‘priest’ he has consulted, who he wants to bring to the house to perform an exorcism. The family is divided about what to do.
In the past, suspicions of witchcraft were resolved through oathing ceremonies, but with the arrival of Islam and Christianity such practices have been discouraged, though they still continue. Kasia explores the oathing possibility with acquaintances in Kaloleni, but is warned that it’s a dangerous thing to meddle with. Anyway, it is unlikely his grandmother would consent to such a ceremony as she’s a prominent member of the local Anglican Church. Eventually Kasia’s aunt, Zawadi, who worked for the UN for many years, and Tatu, who lives in Nairobi, agree to Furaha bringing his priest for a ‘cleansing’.
On the allotted day, Mama Kamogo and the members of the family supporting her, along with the pastor of her church, assemble for the event. Furaha arrives a few hours later, and finally in the early afternoon the ‘priest’ he has engaged shows up with an entourage of helpers. A bizarre ceremony ensues in which some of the priest’s followers appear to be wrestling with demons. The two aunts are accused of being in league with Satan. There’s a tense standoff and the priest eventually leaves, announcing that if there is evil doing ‘something will happen’ within seven days. Three months later nothing has occurred.
This is Maia Lekow’s first film. She’s best known as a singer with an international following. With her co-director-cinematographer Christopher King, she’s created an impressive piece of work. The off-centre narration and gradual unfolding of the story gesture towards some of the characteristics of ‘slow cinema’. The static distant shots with a figure moving through the frame, the inclusion of footage of swarming ants, and the occasional use of slow motion, foreground our experience of time, of living with insecurity, of waiting.
FOUR DOCUMENTARIES FROM Film Africa 2020 were streamed during this year’s festival, along with a fifth film, slated for cinema viewing only, and screened briefly online following the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. I asked Aseye Tamakloe, one of the curators of this year’s programme, about the process used to select films for the festival. Tamakloe has a background in film directing and editing, and in curating local film festivals in Ghana. She is a lecturer at the National Film and Television Institute, studying for a PhD, and founder of NDIVA Women’s Film Festival in Accra, Ghana. This is her first time curating films for Film Africa. Because of Covid-19 the number of films being shown was cut back compared to previous years, making the selection process especially tough.
‘It’s a very complex process,’ Tamakloe tells me, ‘and involves lots of discussion among the curators.’ The festival receives submissions from African filmmakers based in the continent, African directors living in other places, filmmakers of African descent who have never lived in Africa, and non-Africans with a familiarity with the continent (or not). The programming team tries to strike a balance on the basis of subject matter, and sometimes regional representation or country where the film is made. But any film selected has to be of high quality. ‘Our aim is to try to represent the diversity and complexities of the continent and its diaspora,’ she says.
ANOTHER DOCUMENTARY FEATURED this year also came from Kenya. In Search… is the powerful personal story of first-time filmmaker Beryl Magoko. She was circumcised as a child and the film shows her wrestling with whether to have reconstructive surgery. Through its diaristic approach, including self-shot handheld footage, Magoko takes us with her on her journey, consulting African friends in Germany where she’s studying, visiting a German doctor, crying on the shoulder of her cinematographer, Jule Katinka Cramer, struggling with feelings of guilt, and worrying how her mother will react.
The physical and emotional impact of the mutilation is shown graphically when she experiences severe menstrual pains caused by her scarring, and when she talks about the impossibility of entering into a sexual relationship. During a visit to Nairobi to film an American doctor carrying out reconstructive surgery in partnership with local surgeons, Beryl is talked into having the operation herself. In post-surgery recovery she talks to the woman in the neighbouring bed, an older woman with children, who says she elected to have the surgery because she wanted to restore ‘what she had lost’, wanted to regain her womanhood and her dignity. ‘It’s a healing process when someone can talk about it,’ Beryl says.
‘It helps,’ agrees the woman, ‘and it helps even more now there is a solution.’
Beryl makes the trip up country to tell her mother about the surgery. Her mother did not want Beryl to be circumcised, but at the time she felt powerless against the strength of family and community feeling. She’s amazed at her daughter’s news, ‘Wow,wow,wow,wow,’ she says, asking for details of the operation and laughing with confusion.
‘Do you think I brought shame on the family?’ Beryl asks.
‘No, what shame?’ her mother says. ‘I don’t want my grandchildren to be circumcised. Never!’
Tamakloe tells me that the film began as a coursework project while Magoko was studying at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. Magoko and her cinematographer became friends when she got to the Academy. This meant they were friends before the start of the project, and Cramer accompanied Magoko on her journey. The documentary’s power comes from this, she says. ‘We’re living the trauma with her.’ Tamakloe attended the Nairobi premiere of the film. ‘It was unbelievable,’ she says. ‘People were blown away. This was a conversation people wanted to have.’
LE LOUP D’OR de Balolé, directed by Aïcha Chloé Boro, shares the sense of optimism communicated by Magoko’s film. It centres on a stone quarry in the capital of Burkina Faso, once worked by a foreign company using machinery but taken over by local people after the overthrow of the Blaise Compaoré regime in 2014. Boro, who now lives in France, grew up near the quarry. The film documents the efforts of the men and women mining the stone to wrest control of the gravel they produce from a group of middlemen. They do this by organising themselves, and dealing directly with customers from the construction sector who come to the site. These gains are threatened when a key leader, thirty-year-old Ablasse Patnam, falls sick. But the film ends on a triumphant note when, restored to health, he returns to the quarry. Ablasse is the ‘golden wolf’ of the film’s title.
The labour of the workers is dwelt on at length, men firing the solid rock and smashing off large chunks to be broken up, women and children breaking smaller rocks into stone chips and gravel. The jingling of metal striking stone threads through the soundtrack. Interviews with quarry workers reveal the physical toll this work exacts on the human body. There’s a moving scene when Adama Nana, a middle-aged quarry worker, describes how because of a damaged back he cannot make love. Nor can he catch a rabbit, ‘or even a chicken,’ he says. Embarrassed at having spoken so openly, he turns from the camera and draws on his cigarette.
It was the overthrow of Blaise, brought down by a popular revolt, which inspired the quarry workers to organise and take control of their situation. Archive footage of the 2014 uprising includes images of the burned out presidential palace. If a president backed by military force could be defeated by ordinary citizens, the middlemen could also be overthrown. Blaise has gone, but the quarry workers say they have seen no improvement in their lives since the regime change, other than what they have achieved through their own efforts.
Like The Letter, this documentary exhibits some of the marks of ‘slow cinema’. The film includes spectacular drone shots of the quarry, a landscape of strange and surprising beauty. The attention to beauty serves to valorise the lives of the quarry workers. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière, writing about the filmmaker Pedro Costa, observes how the politics of the Portuguese director’s accounts of the lives of Cape Verdians who have migrated to Lisbon ‘involves using the sensory riches – the power of speech or of vision – that can be extracted from the life and settings of these precarious existences.’3 Something similar is achieved by Boro in Le Loup.
The film includes frequent reminders of the presence of the film crew. At one point, two children are filmed talking about the way some workers in the quarry have been ‘hamming it up’ in the hope of being filmed. They joke about ‘being on TV in Europe’. The documentary opens with Nana querying why the filmmakers want to talk to him, a man to whom no one listens. Boro asks him if the women in the background mind being filmed, and a humorous exchange takes place, with Nana telling the women to move because they are ‘half-naked’. ‘Don’t worry, we’re only teasing,’ he says to the camera. Such moments reveal the documentary’s subjects as highly media conscious, the relationship with the film crew far from passive. Boro is an experienced filmmaker with two previous feature-length documentaries and one short to her credit, plus many years of work in television.
THE FOURTH OF the documentaries, Finding Sally, is Tamara Dawit’s account of her efforts to trace what happened to one of her aunts during a brutal period of Ethiopia’s recent history. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed by the military junta, the Derg, which deposed Emperor Haile Selasie in 1974. Dawit’s grandfather was a senior ambassador who served the emperor in a number of foreign postings, and who eventually settled his family in Canada. Dawit grew up there, and her debut film charts her attempts to uncover her cultural roots and unravel the fate of her aunt.
Selamawit Dawit – the ‘Sally’ of the film – travelled from Canada to Ethiopia on holiday in the summer of 1973. Here she became involved in the local political scene and fell in love with Tselote Hizkias, a young man from a modest social background who would later became a leader of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP). The couple married in a low-key ceremony. When the Derg seized power in 1974, all opposition groups, including the EPRP, were ruthlessly suppressed. The film reveals how Tamara Dawit uncovers the fates of her aunt and her revolutionary lover.
The repressive rule of Derg leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, which ended in 1991, was so traumatising that people are only now beginning to speak about what happened to family members during those times. Darwit’s film is an attempt to open up that conversation, both within Ethiopia and among the Ethiopian diaspora, many of whom live in Canada. It also has potential appeal for a broader Canadian audience.
The film had its world broadcasting premier on 30 April 2020 on Hotdocs at Home, hosted by the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Hotdocs is a Canadian non-profit which provides funding and training for documentary filmmakers, runs an annual festival and offers online streaming of a library of titles. One of the curators working on the Hotdocs festival was Nataleah Hunter-Young. She believes strongly that there is demand for films like Finding Sally.
In a 2018 interview in Variety, in conjunction with that year’s Durban Film Mart, Hunter-Young said: ‘This awakening amongst audiences has led to a hunger for African stories, told by African people, in ways that ideally no longer have to conform to the traditional genre tropes. The challenge, I think, is more with supply than it is with demand. In a city like Toronto – one of the most multicultural cities in the world – demand for African stories is never short. We programmers know the demand is there, so it’s our job to fill it and ensure audiences are aware of it.’
FILM AFRICA, DOCUBOX, the IDFA and Hotdocs are all part of a broader nexus of organisations helping to develop, fund and distribute documentaries made by people from the African continent. In the UK four other festivals offering screenings of African cinema (apart from Film Africa) take place each year — in Edinburgh, Bristol, Cambridge, and Wales. The five UK organisations have formed a consortium called Tano (Swahili for ‘five’). This year, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Tano consortium has been offering free online screenings. The various festivals within the African continent, and across Europe and North America, have always been key to how these films reach an audience, mirroring the experience of independent cinema generally. But the availability of films through online streaming services is expanding access. The free streaming service Afridocs, an initiative of the South African film incubator STEPS, is another channel through which potential viewers can experience the work. The platform is viewable across Africa.
‘In the past decade there’s been a paradigm shift,’ Tamakloe tells me. ‘The new generation of filmmakers has become very bold, capitalising on new media. For a long time we’ve been fed on Hollywood but that’s changing, though there is still a battle for that space. In the last five years in Ghana and Nigeria, which are closely related markets, people are experimenting with all sorts of approaches.’ She mentions screenings of films by African filmmakers as part of the inflight programmes of various airlines. Negotiating rights sales in other African and non-African countries, a growing professionalism in the way film rights are managed, increasing proficiency generally are all important. Netflix, with its expanding presence in Africa, is another game changer, she says. The global streamer carries both documentaries and fiction films made by Africans.4 Social media is increasingly significant.
But distribution remains a challenge. ‘Internet access in Africa is expensive,’ says Tamakloe. ‘Watching a ninety-minute documentary like In Search… online uses a lot of data. Most people can’t afford that. For me as a professional, Afridocs is a very useful documentary platform. The material is there and I can access it. Another medium of access for me is through the film library of the film school where I teach. But for many people, even though some of the films online are free, the cost of accessing the internet is prohibitive.’ Tamakloe has worked with Alliance Française d’Accra in collaboration with the Ghana Academy of Film and Television Arts (GAFTA) on monthly screenings. Judy Kibinge at Docubox also collaborates with Alliance Française in Nairobi, organising monthly screenings of films. ‘The audience for non-commercial films used to be confined to festivals,’ Tamakloe says, ‘but more options are now opening up.’
One positive sign of this shift towards enabling African filmmakers to tell their own stories is the recent announcement by the UK charity Comic Relief that it intends to stop sending British celebrities to Africa to front its reports. This move followed criticism that stars like Stacey Dooley of Strictly Come Dancing were being portrayed as ‘white saviours’. From now on, its fundraising appeals will be made by local African filmmakers with a ‘more authentic perspective’. Comic Relief is already helping to fund Docubox in Kenya. The comedian Lenny Henry, one of the founders of Comic Relief called it a ‘huge move’.
Nataleah Hunter-Young anticipated this kind of shift in her 2018 Variety interview when she said: ‘I think international audiences have woken up to the fact that they’ve been fed a lot of lies about the continent through film and television – something that the documentary genre can certainly take a lot of credit for – and I am still hearing filmmakers and funders talking about how ready they are to move away from films commissioned by NGOs, or made by non-African filmmakers with little to no investment in the communities they’re portraying.’
Inspired by the tie-up with Film Africa, BFI player has extended the viewing availability for several of the films featured this year as part of its subscription service. In addition it is offering a selection of highlights of both drama and documentary films from previous Film Africa events via its rental channel. This is a first for the BFI, and another indicator of how things are changing. Le Loup d’Or de Balolé is not available, but the other three documentaries described here are.
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Café Irreal,Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. An archive of his work for The Fortnightly Review is here. His latest book, Why Are You Here?, is forthcoming from Odd Volumes, our imprint.
- Interviewed at the 2019 International Documentary Film Festival.
- Film Africa is an annual festival organised by the Royal African Society to showcase new films from Africa.
- Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso Books, 2011, p.81.
- Some of these trends are described in more detail in my review of Mati Diop’s Atlantics.