LAFF 10th Anniversary: Discovering African Cinema

in 10th Luxor African Film Festival

by Elena Rubashevska

The sunny, adventurous, and authentic continent of Africa has a lot of wonders to offer to an eager spectator. But when it comes to cinema, what does the outer world know about this part of the world? Each year, the major festival venues dig out hidden pearls and present the African film masterpieces to the wider audience. But there are also the festivals which focus specifically on pan-African filmmakers, and the Egyptian festival based in the ancient city of Luxor is one of them. As this year LAFF celebrates its 10th anniversary, we decided to have a talk with a festival founder Sayyed Fouad and take a look back at the event’s past years, as well as to draw a map for everybody curious to discover the wonders of the African cinema.

Elena Rubashevska (ER): Recently I had a talk with a colleague from Central Africa, and I’ve asked her how many African countries she’s been to. After counting about seven of them, she exclaimed: ‘Oh, and also I’ve been to Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt!’ It happens so often that these countries are not recognized as Africans by the biggest part of the continent. How much and to what extent do Egyptians associate themselves with Africa and its identity? And why was the festival of African films established here, in Egypt, and in Luxor in particular?

Sayed Fouad (SF): There is a problem of an emotional separation between the North African and Sub-Saharan countries. Usually, you would have this feeling that Sub-Saharan Africans don’t consider the Northern countries a part of a continent, and it goes both ways. But that is sheer nonsense! If we go back to the history, to the roots of the culture, we can easily find that the countries of this continent are very well-connected: same circumstances, same problems. Egypt itself was very well-integrated in the African culture back in the 50-60th, but starting from the 70th these ties started to fade, and some people, and that was the time when some people started to question if Egypt is an African country. But I personally always believe that Egypt is a part of Africa, and this should also be reflected in the Egyptian cinema (by the way, the oldest cinema on the continent), it started here more than 125 years ago. The big industry was founded back then, it developed, and it cannot be isolated from the rest of the continent. When I decided to have an African Film Festival here, I couldn’t think of a better option than Luxor, which is Egypt’s gate to Africa.

ER: How many sub-regions can Africa be divided into, and what are the differences and similarities between them?

SF: Officially, Africa can be divided into a group of countries, like West Africa, the East, the middle of the continent, and the South. But this geographic division isn’t really applicable. The thing with Africa is that every country here has its own identity and culture, and even more, and even inside the same country (for example Nigeria, Sudan, or South Africa) you can find some cultures that differ within each country. But we have this problem even here in Egypt: people think of Africa as the whole, and it’s a big mistake that the festival is trying to solve, or at least to shed light on the fact that Africa is very rich, and consists of different cultures and identities.

ER: Culturally speaking, what are the most powerful features of Africa at the moment? What can it offer to the world?

SF: Africa already contributed greatly to the world’s culture: for one, many music genres originated in Africa, and you can say the same about many forms of art. But still, it remains hugely rich in resources, either natural (like oil) or human. The youth here is full of talents and power that can help the world. At the same time, many parts of the continent lead very simple, primitive life, and they don’t have the complications we have in modern life. They don’t have all those things to calculate before expressing their emotions. So people are freer to express themselves. Maybe that is the thing that the whole world is in need of now.

ER: What are the main sour spots of Africa?

SF: if we’re speaking about the current situation, Africa is in a very bad position: countries are suffering economically, there is so much corruption and a lot of political problems; many countries faced a long history of civil wars, struggles for personal freedom, and female rights, and that also shaped the African cinema. For example, in Rwanda after the very sad and catastrophic war in the 90th between Hutu and Tutsi, the society raised the sign of ‘We don’t forget, but we forgive’, and it was also reflected in the films. They are very emotional and considerate about what role cinema can play in the reconciliation process.

ER: Let us talk about statistics. How many submissions does the festival receive annually, and how has this number changed over the course of years?

SF: Actually, it’s ironic, because when the festival had just started ten years ago, they used to receive between 350-400 submissions, but the policy of the festival has since changed. Now we are trying to make the most number of the countries represented in the program, so we grant space to films from countries, so as to have as many representations as possible. In the first three editions of the festival, 38 countries were represented (and Africa is 54, so it was 80% of the continent). But after it started to receive between 400 to 600 submissions annually, the festival decided to be more selective, and to rely on the quality and aesthetics, and consider mainly how deeply the film represents African identity and if it sheds light on the problems important to the continent. That resulted in the numbers of the countries represented having been slightly decreased, so now we have about 28-32 countries in every edition.

We are working on making the festival an annual point of attraction for African filmmakers, and here something interesting happened. There are two other main African film festivals that have started more than 50 years ago (Fespaco Film Festival in Burkina-Faso and Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia). They  rely mostly on big names, famous African filmmakers who already went to Cannes or Berlin; but the filmmakers who are just starting their careers are a bit afraid of submitting to these festivals. As a result, they started to put their trust in Luxor instead, they sent their film here before submitting them to those two big events. So the Luxor Film Festival became known for presenting young talents. It is a festival which screens the most number of debut films, and it was the starting point of many talents that later became big names in the African filmmaking industry. Such were Philippe Lacôte, a filmmaker from Côte d’Ivoire, his last film was shortlisted for the Oscar; Joël Karekezi from Rwanda; Amjad Abu Alala from Sudan. The festival also has a big workshop that starts two weeks before the festival and goes on until the closing, and for the several editions, it was supervised by Haile Gerima, the famous Ethiopian filmmaker. This also was a starting point for a lot of African talents. That’s how the festival builds ties with the filmmakers, and that’s how it is granted that it will be receiving more and more high-quality submissions.

ER: How would you describe the situation at the African film market? Are there any specific tendencies, trends, most crucial topics?

SF: There are some recurrent topics that appear in African cinema, like the dilemma of roots versus westernization, you will find people who are either losing their African identity by immigrating from Africa to the West or people who are coming back from Europe or the USA; also, filmmakers voice a lot of women’s issues, how economy and traditions can affect women’s daily life and cause their suffering. Civil wars, child labor, human issues – these are the most important topics for African filmmakers. But in parallel, you can always find new voices, trends, and ideas. For example, in the last 10 years, one more topic that was on the list, is illegal immigration, all those stories about poor Africans trying to escape the continent.

ER: Like many other parts of the world, African countries are suffering from being overwhelmed with Hollywood movies. But apart from blockbusters, what is the demand of the audience? What people are looking for?

SF: It’s difficult to speak for the whole of Africa because the case with African cinema is that varies greatly from one country to another. In Egypt, there is a local industry that well-loved by the audience. The Egyptian films are still the number one box-office gainer in the local cinemas. We have big production companies and studios, and Egyptian films are distributed more or less to 20+ countries in the region. The same with Nigerian films – there are more than 1000 of them produced each year. South Africa is very well-developed: they have a big infrastructure, a high number of screens. The situation differs a lot with African countries, but there are 5-6 African countries that have big industries, where there is a direct relationship between filmmakers and local audience, but the rest of the 54 countries have huge logistics problems and very few screens, and even those screens prefer to exhibit the American or Indian films. And there is one more problem, which is a lack of distribution between African countries. It is a very large continent with a huge population, so it is enough for a film to succeed inside it, it doesn’t have to be transported. The festival once started a project to have one screen in every country, so we had 54 screens, but such a project need a political decision to make it happen. There is a problem when filmmakers try to make a film that would be loved by western festivals. But there are authentic artists who have their own voices and who tackle important African topics, feelings, emotions, and they manage to succeed internationally. There were Ousmane Sembène, Haile Gerima, Abderrahmane Sissako, Moussa Touré.

ER: When it comes to co-production, how much the outer world participates in creating the shape of African cinema?

SF: I will not call it a co-production, there are mostly supporting funds, big rich countries who help projects from poor ones. Filmmakers have this ‘superiority complex’, because they have to come up with the projects that the funds will like, and the funders look for projects that have their own agenda and thinking of the continents. Some filmmakers manage to utilize western support to do well-made artistic films, but the whole process has to be revised. What this continent needs more is an African-African co-production before speaking of European- or American-African co-productions.

ER: For those who know nothing about African cinema but want to discover it, what is the best place to start?

SF: I can advise two things. One is to start watching the films of the pioneers, like Ousmane Sembène, so as to understand how the cinema started on the continent. And at the same time, you have to keep in mind that ‘African cinema’ is misleading terminology. It has to be ‘African cinemas’. For example, Egypt borders Sudan. In Egypt, the industry started more than a century ago; at the same time, last year Sudan celebrated the 10th anniversary of their own film history. So you need to dig deep into different industries and different countries, and watching pioneers is the very best place to start.

ER: What are the next goals for the Luxor International Film Festival? Should we have this conversation in 20 years’ time, what is going to be accomplished by then?

SF: When the festival has started 10 years ago, we never expected it to be that successful. At the same time, we suffered a lot, and we invested energy and time that no one can afford to invest in one project. In our country, it’s difficult to plan something for such a long term, and it’s difficult to imagine what it would be like in 10 year’s time. But I have this simple dream of getting a fixed budget for the festival and work according to it, and just waste 10 months of each year to make sure we’ll have money to provide the festival. I hope this festival will become more and more important for Egypt, as it is now for a lot of people outside of the country.

Elena Rubashevska
Edited by Savina Petkova