A Decade of Scotland’s Africa-in-Motion Film Festival

2015 marked the tenth anniversary of the Africa-in-Motion film festival, the showcase for African cinema in Scotland, which its director Lizelle Bischoff has described as being a wider, more-encompassing arts festival. The festival’s home has traditionally been the Edinburgh Filmhouse, an independent cinema in the city centre. From 2007 onwards, the festival began to take its program to Glasgow, which is now a fully embedded element of the event. These two cities combined are home to 32% of Scotland’s minority population, although Glasgow is the city most associated with diversity. The program has in the past gone on tour in rural parts of Scotland, and participated in UK-wide touring programs, such as 2014’s South Africa at 20.

The festival works across multiple venues, from academic spaces and pop-up venues, to bars, restaurants, and community spaces. The festival is realized through an array of partnerships but principally funded through the arts council, Creative Scotland. The theme of 2015 was ‘Connections’ which was to be understood in a number of ways including ‘political connections, artistic collaborations, generational ties, lost and restored cultural links, and pan-Africanism.’ Additionally the ‘From Africa with Love’ strand featured a number of films and events programmed as part of the British Film Institute’s nationwide ‘Love’ season, and there were Nollywood industry events and premieres sponsored by the current British Council UK-Nigeria 2015/2016 initiative.

It might seem laborious to sketch out this kind of basic organizational framework here, but throughout my attendance of last year’s 10th edition, the question of how to review a film festival holistically was been at the forefront of my mind.  In such a programming format and location, where I am seeing the film, who I am seeing it with, who is producing the program, who is and is not speaking to me, and who is funding it (and why) are all very present components of the experience. I am unsure whether it will be of interest to the readership of Africa is a Country, but certainly for me on an individual basis at least, the positioning and responsibilities of Africa-in-Motion in its local context are also primary concerns. I have been going to the festival over this ten year period, and so this review is inevitably informed by an experience accrued over that period. It is worth saying that without Africa-in-Motion, my access to African cinema in Scotland then and now would be limited.

The stand-out film at this year’s festival was Phillipe Lacôte’s Run. The film follows our protagonist through his three lives, which in the question and answer session the director revealed came from a conversation with a former member of the Young Patriots, often classed as a youth movement and militia, active in the recent civil wars in Côte d’Ivoire. Our central character, Run, lives up to his name, and from each of these three lives, he ends up running. In Run’s first life, he is an apprentice and named as successor to the village rainmaker. Despite the role of the rainmaker being all that Run dreamed and wished for, the village elders soon demand that he kill his teacher, which he refuses. Fleeing the scene, he is picked up on the road by Greedy Gladys, a professional eater, who takes Run on as her manager and emcee. Her show tours from town-to-town, in an eating competition to consume as much food onstage as the locals provide her with. Gladys is depicted as being from Burkina Faso – a ‘foreigner’ – a fact which is to play its part in her downfall.

Lacôte discussed the film as being a portrayal of violence in the aftermath of the civil war, not yet able to discuss forgiveness and reconciliation. A major theme of the film was that of Ivoirité – a nationalistic term that took on xenophobic ideas during the civil war and was used as the basis to exclude the migrant population. I saw this aspect of the film as holding wider resonance, speaking to many nations worldwide currently struggling with the resurgence of right-wing movements and similar issues of rhetoric around nationhood and citizenship.

The opening film for the 2015 festival was Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Hyènes (Hyenas, 1992), which had previously been shown in the 2007 festival. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece and a satirical take on the relationship between post-independence Africa and neo-imperialism in a globalized, capitalist world. The film tells the story of Linguere Ramatou, an aging woman who returns to her home village of Colobane seeking revenge on her ex-lover.  The film was programmed in the Love strand yet despite the storyline, I read this film as neither about love nor revenge. Whilst it is always a welcome opportunity to watch the classics of African cinema, the opening film defines the tone, and in this sense, I found Hyènes to be an unsuccessful choice as it sat awkwardly within this thematic context.

The following evening the program continued with Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s biopic of Ousmane Sembène. Such a film is an important act and educational tool: a means to make the details of Sembène’s life accessible, public and to continue the process of historicizing his contribution and output since his death in 2007. The film was split into thematic chapters, with short animated markers separating these out, which I found to interrupt the flow of the film. Initially, the film felt one-dimensional; very much in praise of the film-maker, and in fact more a document of the biographer’s own relationship with the filmmaker than a document of Sembène himself. However towards the end, a more nuanced picture emerged, particularly through the interviews with his son and live-in housekeeper. His housekeeper was one of few female voices heard in this film; it is largely a film about a man, told by other men. Documentary footage is used of his second wife speaking about him whilst they were still married, his first wife is never named, and I found this female absence, somewhat ironically, very pervasive.

Still from Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène, 1966, Senegal.
Still from Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène, 1966, Senegal.

Sembène! was followed by a Q&A session with producer and director Samba Gadjigo, before a screening of the filmmaker’s first feature film from 1966 La Noire de… Frequently translated into English as ‘Black Girl,’ the translation misses the significance of the ‘de,’ implying ownership. It was a real highlight of the festival; the copy screened a recently restored edition. Shot in black-and-white, the film is saturated in style and is equally poetic and melancholic. The story follows a young woman, Diouana, who obtains her first job as a nanny for a French family in Senegal who move back to France, taking her with them. Cooped up in their apartment on the French Riviera, she is maltreated by her employer and suddenly burdened with all the household chores. Receiving no pay to send home and cut off without communication with her family, she commits the ultimate act of defiance. Relatively short for a feature at 65 minutes in length, the film is perfectly paced, deftly communicating all it needed to say and more in its succinct duration.

Another film of note was Rwandan director Kivu Ruhorahoza’s Things of the Aimless Wanderer. The film is accomplished and beautifully shot, using only a BlackMagic Cinema Camera on this small budget production. It has an unconventional structure, divided between four ‘working hypotheses’ all merging into one another with no resolution. We follow at a distance three nameless central characters: a local man, a local woman and a white male foreigner. The foreigner is visiting whilst producing a travelogue, and gives the film its title ‘from Bantu accounts of early European explorers renowned for getting lost in their wanderings.’

Still from Things of the Aimless Wanderer, Kivu Ruhorahoza, 2015, Rwanda.
Still from Things of the Aimless Wanderer, Kivu Ruhorahoza, 2015, Rwanda.

Described as being a deconstruction of ‘masculinity and territoriality’ and the ‘relations between “Locals” and Westerners… paranoia, mistrust and misunderstandings,’ it was set against the context of the Rwandan genocide by the director during the Q&A. A prominent point of discussion in the conversation afterwards was the silence of the female protagonist; unlike the two male characters, she speaks not one word during the entire film. There was a disjoint for me between how the director described her power and gender equality in Rwanda generally, and what I saw onscreen.

Mixed messages were overlaps in two of the films coming towards the end of the festival’s run, Dis Ek, Anna (It’s Me, Anna, 2015) and L’oeil du Cyclone (Eye of the Storm, 2015). Dis Ek, Anna follows a young girl Anna Bruwer, whose step-father sexually abuses her, eventually impregnating her, causing her as a teenager to flee the family home. Later, now working as a seamstress, she is found by her younger sister, who has suffered the same abuse and commits suicide that night in Anna’s home. In revenge, Anna returns to her childhood residence, and shoots dead her step-father. The film unfolds through flashbacks as Anna hands herself in at the station, discloses long-held secrets to her lawyer and psychologist, and in the duration of the court case. I found it difficult to balance this depiction of her harrowing childhood experience with the presence of certain privileges and the privileging of her narrative within the film and its South African context. Without money to pay for her lawyer, a schoolfriend turned lawyer steps forward (they later develop a relationship), she is bailed out of prison, accommodated in an apartment and sees two psychologists.

A second problematic narrative emerges, a sub-plot to Anna’s story, receiving a minority of screen time. The same police officer who first interviews Anna upon handing herself in is also investigating an instance of baby rape and murder in a black township. Despite the community knowing the perpetrator, a repeat offender, he is in hiding and protected. It was unclear to me whether this ‘sub-plot’ was within the original books or was added for this film adaptation. I think it is right that Anna’s experience was contextualized within the wider landscape of South Africa, but the manner in which this was done was very troubling. Furthermore both narratives here involved the rapists, killers and pedophiles being murdered, which I would consider to be an irresponsible message to send to audiences. At Africa-in-Motion the film was described as part of a new generation of Afrikaans filmmaking which also felt questionable.

In a similar vein, L’oeil du Cyclone tells the story of a defense lawyer, who successfully represents in court a rebel army leader against charges of war crimes. Their meetings take place in his cell, where he – at first silent – begins to communicate with his female lawyer. Through the process of defending him, the lawyer uncovers high-level political corruption, even implicating her own father. Despite their progress, the rebel continues to frequently and unpredictably burst out into violence. It again seemed to present a mixed message about reconciliation in a post civil-war landscape.

Exhibition, Ways We Watch Films in Africa, Edinburgh Filmhouse, 2015, Photo Credit: the author.
Exhibition, Ways We Watch Films in Africa, Edinburgh Filmhouse, 2015, Photo Credit: the author.

Out with the film-programming, events as part of the 2015 festival included musical performances, storytelling, industry events, public debates and an exhibition in the Filmhouse cinema café, titled Ways We Watch Films in Africa. The works in the exhibition were selected through an open call, for ‘photographers, professional or amateur, to capture film-viewing habits across the African continent [and which brought submissions of] stunning images of street pop-up cinemas, crowded film parlors, mobile phone cinema, film festival screenings and more.’ The exhibition was displayed in a seating area aside to the main café space, in which an exhibition of vintage Polish cinema posters was being exhibited, in line with a concurrent festival. It felt very problematic to me, to be invited in a voyeuristic way from the comfort of the independent cinema space to look at the different ways in which ‘the African continent’ watches cinema. I say this especially when questions are raised regarding the place of an African film festival in Scotland, and the responsibility towards the infrastructure of African cinema on the continent that should come with screening these films in the West.

Criticisms have previously been directed at Africa-in-Motion and African film festivals in Europe more generally, and these have been responded to substantially. However many of the questions already posed are different to my own, which are in a sense questions about how Africa-in-Motion sits within its locality and immediate, visible actions that could be put in place. And so I conclude this review, looking back on ten years and projecting towards a future ten years, with my own series of questions: where has the previous space for experimental films gone; how can the organizational team of the festival be diversified; how can Africa-in-Motion (and the wider film network in Scotland) work to promote more African cinema in other film festivals and mainstream programming across Scotland; and what opportunities can Africa-in-Motion offer to PoC filmmakers in Scotland, especially young practitioners? There may not be a substantial number of filmmakers of color in Scotland, but if this is not encouraged and invested in, it is unlikely to change.

Further Reading