Film
Still from Film Africa trailer.

Film Africa 2018 Is a Vibrant Celebration of Cinema from the Continent and the Diaspora

We speak with Film Africa's programmer and producer Tega Okiti about championing African narratives and what to expect from the eighth edition of the festival—currently underway in London.

This year is the eighth edition of Film Africa in London celebrating the best in African cinema from the continent and the wider diaspora. The programme offers a range of first time features, talks and live music for all ages over ten days across the UK capital. Tega Okiti is the talented festival programmer and producer behind this year's festival. With a committed dedication to cinema and visual cultures from the motherland, she previously worked for the British Film Institute on its landmark BLACKSTAR season and also served as Lead Curator on Unbound: Visions of the Black Feminine showcasing films created by and about black women.

We spoke with the Nigerian-British producer on the importance of owning the narrative, reflecting the diaspora on screen and what exciting new films to watch out for at Film Africa 2018.


What were your early memories of African cinema and what impact did they have on exploring your own creativity?

My earliest film memory was from Okechukwu Ogunjiofor who is credited as making the first VHS Nollywood film called Living In Bondage but it was his second film called Evil Passion. My aunt had the VHS in her house and she didn't have very many but I would watch it all the time. It was the classic Nollywood storyline about a marriage. I think it was about this woman who was really jealous and has lots of lovers. The character was basically a Nigerian femme fatale on a rampage, stealing people's husbands and poisoning people. I probably should not have been watching it at that age but that was my earliest memory of African cinema and just really loving the drama. Loving the sound effects (laughs). I guess at that age the really simple kind of stories where the binary is good versus bad.

If I reflect back, I watched it quite a lot. That kind of cinema, where you had VHS and just watch and it was the genesis of what I do as a writer and curator in terms of my study and intrigue in stories and really breaking images down. I came to know the stories inside out and it definitely did allow me to develop that level of criticism and analysis as sometimes watching films with my family was not enjoyable because I'd be able to figure stuff out before the end!

How does having a dual identity inform your practise as a writer, festival producer and programmer?

I think inevitably duality makes me want to find connection points. I guess what's at the heart of a dichotomy is an inherent shifting back and forth but I think where I am now as a diasporan practitioner is wanting to know or be able to identify the connection points. At the same time also being acutely aware that the experiences of cinema and imagery and how it's created in the diaspora and on the continent are different. They are different for very valid reasons so it's also important for me to recognise that when I'm curating programmes of writing.

It's rare and well overdue to have someone like you who has lived experience at the intersection of two cultures leading an important festival. What was the research period across Africa like and how did you go about building those personal connections?

It was really fruitful. There was a lot of verve and energy and people are just mobilising themselves. There are a lot of young people who are picking up their cameras and making work. It was also fruitful in the sense of each region having it's own identity. For instance, I was in Nigeria and there was a collective of filmmakers out there called Surreal16 who are basically trying to infuse the national cinema with arthouse aesthetics. Surreall16 have started a conversation about what Nigerian Cinema as something distinct from Nollywood really is through arthouse and genre filmmaking.

In Kenya, you have amazing storytellers and production styles, so it just felt really inspiring as there was a lot of diverse content to enjoy.

I did a lot of research and I created a map about different cultural events and happenings that had screenings attached. Also there is a lot of connection between diaspora filmmakers out here and on the continent but mainly it was about going to festivals and approaching people. People were really keen to speak about their work and find out what I do.

This year Film Africa will be focusing on the growing cinematic epicenters of Kenya and Nigeria via the "AFROBUBBLEGUM: Kenya's Movie Mavericks and Naija New Wave" strands. Why did you select these two in particular and what themes are represented that resonate with you?

I think at the moment they are the most prolific and diverse. The Naija New Wave was really inspired by my time at AFRIFF Film Festival where as part of that presentation, the collective I mentioned Surreal16 basically staged an intervention where they screened their anthropology of short films and lead a discussion outlined by a manifesto about the type of films they wanted to make. They created a really intriguing provocation about how we engage with cinema from Nigeria in general it's called Nollywood cinema but that label isn't really attached to Hollywood or other nations in the same way.

Akin Omotoso from Nigeria has made A Hotel Called Memory is a silent film partly set in Nigeria, Zanzibar and South Africa so it's looking at this movement intercontinentally and it's something distinct in itself. I thought that these strands would be an interesting kind of frame to look at the innovations from these places. There is a lot of different angles to storytelling from Africa that we we would not perceive.

It's a similar thing with Kenya as there is a lot of amazing talent from screenwriting to directing from Wanuri Kahiu's Rafaki is a big moment for Kenya in terms of the subject matter and the vibrant Afrobubblegum-ist aesthetic she has pioneered.. A couple of years ago she defined this term as a distinct African mode and aesthetic in filmmaking that is really concerned with moving away from typically negative reflections of Africa. It's African storytelling that is vibrant and has a lot of energy. Within that strand there are lots of interesting forms spanning documentary, fiction and direct to web content. Despite the focus on visual quality these stories are superficial they touch on real life issues and scenarios in a beautiful and engaging way.

A common thread I've observed is that a number of filmmakers were born in Africa and completed their education in the West. How can those behind the camera improve the production value in Nollywood without losing the cliché–yet often comical—narratives that is synonymous with West African cinema?

I feel like higher production value has been around for a while that has been a longstanding criticism of Nigerian cinema in particular. I think people are really honing in and working on narrative structure and how stories are being told…that is definitely something that is coming through. People have been doing it but I don't necessarily think that work has been reaching us. For example, C.J.'Fiery' Obasi who is in the Surreal16 collective has been working in this way for many years. Also Daniel Oriahi whose film is in the Film Africa programme. Daniel also made a film called Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo (in 2015), which is a play on the original (Taxi Driver), but it still very much has a Nigerian narrative sensibility. In the Naija New Wave Shorts Programme, Abba T Makama also of Surreal16 has made Shatian. One of the tenants of their manifesto was that local languages would be used where possible, so their films are spoken a lot in Pidgin (which I love) or local dialects as well.

From my perspective, I don't think the onus is solely on filmmakers. I would really like to see more festivals in Africa geared toward showcasing filmmaking from the continent and also alterations within the distribution strategy so filmmakers like CJ or Abba have their films distributed locally. For me it's more about space. I would also like to see more opportunities to connect. How can audiences in Nairobi get to experience home grown talent, or work from Nigeria or any other region. It's always dangerous creating a canon as certain things really plant roots but we really exalt this work. Cinema is a repository for knowledge and the understanding of the lived experience of our culture.

"Cinema is inherently a medium created to...allow us a dimensional space to express ourselves and our stories."

In this information age, I feel like we're constantly unearthing history about ourselves but at such a rapid rate we can't fully recognise it's significance as the majority of us are physically absent from the African continent. What's the importance of cinema as a safe space to reflect the reality of diaspora as part of the second generation?

In the same way that our languages are receptacles for our culture. I think diverse cinema from different nations has the capacity to create more of an understanding and also a challenge to our own perceptions of each other and what is actually happening at home. As we go deeper into our diasporic experiences generationally, the need for that connection becomes more urgent . I think cinema can stimulate a connection without us being there. A better outcome would be that more people would go back often (without your parents).

Also, a real tangible way of supporting is by consuming our content. Nollywood is a huge multimillion-pound industry and it's content has been created solely for us. it isn't really concerned about other structures or being integration. I think economically and politically that attitude is potentially very powerful.

When cinema first appeared it was a medium intent on doing the opposite of allowing us a dimensional space to express ourselves and our stories – today that has changed.

What groundbreaking films and talented filmmakers should we look out for in Film Africa this year?

Kasala! which we have chosen to close the festival and it's a first time feature by a Nigerian filmmaker Ema Edosio. She is doing something completely new and really challenging and at the same time not turning her back on what's great about Nollywood. In the same way that the diaspora exits as a cultural blend she has created this perfect synthesis of global cinematic influences it's a really funny and challenging film. I love the Nest Collective and we are showing a collection from their web series We Need Prayers. I think their capacity for satire and humour is really on point. Their work is about African realities but what it is like to live as a modern urban citizen and I think those things are seen as being mutually exclusive from any African experience. We have an amazing documentary from Gabon called Boxing Libreville and it's by Amédée Pacôme.

I recently went to a talk by Jenn Nkiru and she referenced a quote from Margo Natalie Crawford: "Fanon insists that the most radical black aesthetic movements are always anticipating the next step 'beyond blackness' and actually shaping whatever blackness is around the impulse to imagine the unimaginable." What does the future of cinema lie in Africa and if so what does it look like?

The future of Africa lies in Africa with Africans. When we say Africa we could be mindful to include the diaspora although one step physically removed. A future that could somehow manage to encompass all of our realities excites me: the African descendant in the UK, the African descendant in Latin America and the newish African descendants in Eastern Europe and China. Ultimately, given the circumstances of what it means to be Black presently and where that term originated our future also depends on the curiosity we have about ourselves and how much power lives within that. I feel like sometimes we forget that curiosity and fearlessness are important.

***

Film Africa 2018 runs from 2nd November to 11th November 2018 in numerous venues across London. Check out the full programme here.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

get okayafrica in your inbox

popular.

Tanzanian Filmmaker Amil Shivji is Making History with a Story of Love and Resistance

As the first Tanzanian film to be chosen for TIFF, Shiviji's film is sure to get the African country a seat at the table.