Image courtesy of Maori Holmes

The OkayAfrica Guide to Getting Your Movie Into Film Festivals

We spoke to industry professionals and composed an ultimate guide on how young Africans can break into the film industry.

African and diaspora filmmakers face some of the biggest obstacles to becoming successful filmmakers. Yet recently, African and black filmmakers have begun to rise in the Hollywood film and TV industry. There is an influx of great stories finally being starred, shot, directed, cast, and written by people from, and of, the continent.

If you're a first time filmmaker, and have any dreams of going further in your filmmaking career, you may be wondering where to start? Film festivals are not just a space where you can make your debut as a filmmaker. They are a place where you can establish your voice, introduce yourself to the world as a visual artist, groom your skills, make connections, and most importantly, have fun and soak in the creative atmosphere.

Bryan Green and Carrie Hawks taken by Daniel Jackson - pic courtesy of Maori Holmes

As Aidah Z. Muhammad, the Associate Festival Director and Senior Programmer of the Urbanworld Film Festival in an interview with OkayAfrica put it, "they create this really beautiful kind of one stop community. It's everybody that gets excited about what you get excited about in one place. It's the same model of a conference or a shoot, or even a concert. It's bringing people together in this one space and curating their experience so that they can either walk away feeling like they got something from it, or connect with someone that they could potentially build something later with."

To become a successful filmmaker, you have to start by putting yourself, and your work, out there, which is why film festivals are often the first way to go.

We spoke to some of the most prominent filmmakers, festival programmers, and filmmakers for their advice on how you, as an African/African diaspora filmmaker, can approach the film festival circuit and change the perennial lack of inclusion. We will not only challenge this issue in this guide, but also foster solutions to the problem.

You can view our step-by-step festival guide below.

1. Finish the Film Completely

"We, a lot of times, have many ideas kind of bubbling in our brains and in our hearts around what we wanna see on the screen, or whatever our medium is, and we don't always get it to completion." (Aidah, Urbanworld)

Yes, some film festivals accept film submissions that are near completion, as long as the film is completed before the festival start date. However, many do not. Although many film festivals like to boast they do not heavily weigh acceptance based on aesthetic, here's the trickery— they do. How can a film be fairly judged if it's not complete? Would you want to watch or judge a film that is hardly completed when you have hundreds, if not thousands of other films to watch that are ready to go? If you won't be out of post-production by the time the particular festival comes around, just wait until next year.

Image courtesy of Maori Holmes

2. Identify Your Target Audience + What You Want to Get Out of Being in Film Festivals

"And then once you have that idea, then you can really pitch or sell or convince anyone else that your work needs to be heard by someone." —Aidah, Urbanworld

Image courtesy of Maori Holmes

Maori Homes, founder of Blackstar Film Fest, gave us insightful advice. She says, "They should know that festivals are only a piece of distribution. Sometimes getting their own press or social media buzz can land them the same effect—so they should consider why they want to get into a specific festival. Is it to gain connections, go on vacation, build an audience? And go from there."

If you don't know who your film is for, how will you be able to get people to watch it and accept it in their own festival? Consequently, if you do not know who your film is for, you may have a bigger problem on your hand and probably should ask yourself, what was the point of making your film?

3. Solidify Your Pitch

Unfortunately, filmmakers, and I include myself when I say this, tend to hate speaking and especially formulating their creative vision in one sentence. Yet it is something that simply has to be done. When you attend the film festival, or try to gain your audience, you have to hook them and it can't take several minutes just to do that. Additionally, your pitch will have to accompany your submission under your film's synopsis. You don't want to be the filmmaker whose film is endlessly passed around by festival programmers due to procrastination because your film summary is irrelevant, drawn out or not interesting enough.

Blitz the Ambassador taken by Victoria Ford, photo courtesy of Maori Holmes

4. Come Up With A Budget

This really should be completed during the pre-production stage of your film project when you are conducting a budget for the film. However, not to worry, if you skipped this part, as this budget will contribute to festival submission costs. Yes, unfortunately, you'll have to spend more money, but luckily, it's not all that bad.

Most film festivals have several deadlines to submit your film to them. The earlier deadlines are usually cheaper, while deadlines closer to the festival date have risen prices. The good news? Many festivals have no submission fee, while others have discounts according to potential status.

Tip: Don't be discouraged if you are submitting your film after you're no longer a student. Most film festivals allow you to submit under the student discount as long as your film was created when you were a student —unless specified. If you're not sure, just ask.

5. Shop and Narrow Down Festival Choices

Deciding which festivals to submit to is actually one of the hardest parts of the submission process. There are thousands of festivals to choose from, but your final list should contain a few. Although your personal budget may dictate how many you'd like to submit to, I'd say on a practical note, pick around ten film festivals, at the most.

The next most important part in this process is to carefully read the requirements for submitting to each. There is a phrase called, "premier status" floating around, and can be both a dream and bank killer.

Many festivals will not even consider accepting a film if the film has had certain premiers outside of its guidelines. Some examples of these guidelines would be, "New York Premier," "World Premier," "Regional Premier" etc. Although some festivals do not have any preference, others will take your money and stay quiet about you submitting with no chance simply because you didn't read the fine print. Fortunately, it's not "rocket science."

Nine-year festival runner, director of the Silicon Valley African Film Festival, actor and filmmaker, Chike C. Nwoffiah gave us the brutal truth from his side of the fence.

"When a film festival puts out a call, they have a guideline. That guideline says, 'This is our film festival, this is who we're looking for.' Over 50% of submissions we get are films from all over the place that have nothing to do with what we requested. Don't start sending letters and emails to festival curators trying to bend them to take your film. It doesn't help you, and as a matter of fact it becomes a nuisance. Film Festival directors sometimes talk to one another, so when filmmakers extend that to me, I sent it out to somebody else, and within six degrees of separation people are talking and then all of a sudden you become that filmmaker that is out garaging everybody with your films."

So here's a tip. When a lot of your festival interests have conflicting premier restrictions, and run around the same time, simply pick your favorite festivals to submit to first. If you don't get accepted into them, just submit to the ones you had to pass on the next year.

Image courtesy of Chike C. Nwoffiah

Nwoffiah is obviously a fan of filmmakers doing their research, going to the film festival's website, looking up their past line-ups and talking to past accepted filmmakers. As he hinted, apparently so are most festival heads.

Once you've compiled a list, truly consider your work. As African/African diaspora filmmakers, Aidah notes in the decision making process, "there needs to be some vetting that filmmakers of African descent do with festivals. They shouldn't be so willing to just let their content live in spaces that are not sacred, places where they don't care or treat these films worthy of being elevated. And that's something that is up to the filmmaker." She also points out that festivals have a pattern.

"So as a filmmaker, I would be looking at some of the slate from previous years to see, oh, okay, well, this film festival in 2015 had a range of international projects and films that they were presenting. Why would I spend my hard earned money submitting my project to this festival that does not, based on their history, show any care or concern for the type of content that I'm creating. Everybody is in some type of category. I don't care if it's a genre, or if it's a demographic, or whatever it is, you are placed into a category. And if that festival is not treating that category of films that you're so vested in as important, then why would you spend your $60, $70, or however much money it costs to submit your project there? Because the likelihood of it not being accepted is very high if historically they haven't shown any interest."

Secret: If you find you are submitting around the more expensive, later deadlines to most festivals you're interested in, just wait until you can submit earlier next year. Films usually have a 2 year lifespan in the festival circuit. Save your money!

6. Submit

By far, this is the easiest step. The best thing to do—follow any and all posted directions.

Don't know where to submit? FilmFreeway and Withoutabox are the two main websites to find both information on existing film festivals and submission requirements to thousands of festivals around the world.

7. Prepare & Wait

Probably the most important piece of information to remember is that festival programers are human. They work in the festival circuit because they care about filmmaking. A big takeaway from Nwoffiah's words is that festival programmers hate harassment just like anyone. Sometimes the best impression is to be humble, passionate and confident in your first interaction with the festival— which should be when you've first submitted your film.

Simone Missick by Victoria Ford, courtesy Maori Holmes

8. Enjoy The Experience!

This may seem self explanatory, but it is important to evaluate what you are trying to get out of the film festival experience. As Chike put it, "You need to be clear about what you're doing, and don't just put it in film festivals for the heck of it...because the film festivals offer you so many layers of opportunity."


Bonus Tips:

  1. Don't post your film online, or show your film in any public spaces or any other public medium before submitting!
  2. Keep an expirable password on your film when uploading online (don't share it).

To make things simpler, we've curated a list of our top favorite diverse film festivals worth submitting to.

View our full list below:

  • Black Star Film Festival
  • American Black Film Festival
  • Pan African Film Festival
  • Urbanworld Film Festival
  • BronzeLens Film Festival
  • International Black Film Festival
  • Harlem International Film Festival
  • Hollywood Black Film Festival
  • Silicon Valley African Film Festival
  • Toronto International Film Festival
  • Reel Sisters Film Festival
  • Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival
  • Montreal International Black Film Festival
  • Toronto Black Film Festival
  • Toronto International Nollywood Film Festival
Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

Photo (c) John Liebenberg


"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.


Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.

The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:

mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.

This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:

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