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Telling Africa's Stories As Seen Through African Eyes

The FESPACO headquarters Ouagadougou.

By Melody Chironda

The film industry has undergone a massive transformation since the era of colonialism. Prior to African film content, the world saw Africa through the eyes of Western filmmakers, who stereotyped the continent and portrayed it in a negative light.

Now, many of the movies or series are told from an African perspective. Every creator brings a unique perspective to their films. They explore topics relating to women's rights, homophobia, migration, romance, self-identity, genocide, and even colonialism. Historically, the African narrative has been told through the lens of poverty, famine, and foreign aid. But now it's slowly moving away from this victim-to-victor storytelling method of depicting the African people and with good reason.

Young filmmakers are learning more and bringing their expertise to the industry, and with old talents bringing their experience, and new talents bringing their vision, the film industry is thriving.

The Nigerian film industry, popularly known as Nollywood, eclipses the rest of the African film industry. Nollywood is the second-largest film output in the world after Hollywood. But this is slowly changing and filmmakers from all over the continent are sharing their countries' stories. South Africa has the oldest film industry on the continent and is well-known for its quality crews, diverse locations, and fast-growing satellite distribution system. The country's satellite distribution system is probably the best on the continent, allowing access to additional digital and streaming content.

However, many filmmakers still struggle with low budgets and barely make a profit. Many of the filmmakers face significant barriers, from politics, limits on freedom of expression, patchy internet connectivity, and a lack of funding. But streaming platforms such as Netflix are giving a boost to African films. Over the past few years, Netflix has started to invest in the creative community, bringing African stories to audiences around the world. Filmmakers say the move by the U.S. streaming provider could give a welcome boost to its film industry on a continent that is filled with extraordinary talent and brimming with stories to tell the world.

For example, Nosipho Dumisa is a South African writer, director, and producer. She co-founded the production company Gambit Films. She wrote and directed her first feature film, the crime thriller Nommer 37, first as a short in 2014 followed by a feature version in 2018. Her debut feature film, Nommer 37, was praised by many reviews for being one of South Africans' 'world-class' films. The award-winning filmmaker is currently riding the success train with Blood and Water, a series she has written and directed for Netflix about a youngster who uncovers a dark family secret. The series also explores the scourge of human trafficking. Blood and Water has turned into an international streaming hit as it ranked number one not only in South Africa but a number of other countries including France, Nigeria, Kenya, and the U.S.

In Kenya, filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, has raised the bar. Her 2018 drama, Rafiki, was the first Kenyan film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Rafiki, which means "friend" in Swahili, traces a coming-of-age love story between two young women, who meet and fall in love. However, to Kahiu's frustration, it was banned in Kenya by the country's censor board for allegedly promoting homosexual content but that didn't stop the film from achieving success. Kahui is now off to Hollywood, where she will direct "The Thing about Jellyfish," based on the acclaimed novel by Ali Benjamin.

Somali filmmaker Khadar Ahmed in October 2021, won the top prize at the Pan-African Festival of Cinema and Television of Ouagadougou ( FESPACO) film festival in Burkina Faso for The Gravedigger's Wife, which he wrote and directed. The film is also Somalia's first official entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the 2021 Academy Awards. The film tells a story about the lengths a person will go to save the person they love. The gravedigger, Guled, played by Omar Abdi sits outside the hospital with his comrades, shovel in hand, waiting for a patient to die. Ironically, Guled must hope others die in order to earn money to prevent his wife's death from kidney failure.

These are just a few of African directors shaking up the world of film and TV with bold new narratives and aesthetics.

Netflix, in collaboration with United Nations Educational and Scientific Organisation ( UNESCO) is in search of the best-reimagined folktales by storytellers from the sub-Saharan Africa region. The competition also aims to help address the challenges and struggles young African filmmakers face in finding the right resources to enable them to utilise their talents. With this partnership, African storytellers can take a giant step towards showcasing their content to a global audience. The winners will also receive a US$75,000 production grant to create short films that will premiere on Netflix in 2022.

In addition, an exciting series of documentaries by African filmmakers, titled Africa Direct will debut on Al Jazeera English from November 30, 2021 until January 2022. The stories will give voice to African storytellers, who have so often been drowned out or overwhelmed by outsider mediation. The series will include 30 short documentaries curated into half-hour episodes.

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