Where is Africa? By Jürgen Kiontke

in 57th Berlinale

by Jürgen Kiontke

The question is: “What has been produced?” If you want to know these days, where really is Africa at the Berlinale you will get a question for an answer. Because Africa, nearly, doesn’t exist: It is like Wieland Speck, Head of Panorama, said: “We are mourning Africa. But there simply weren’t any good films.” — “I can’t explain”, said Berlinale speaker Anja Franke for the Competition.

Nevertheless, in the Forum section there was one film to be found, Faro, Goddess of Water (Faro, la reine des eaux), a co-production from Burkina Faso, Mali, France, Canada and Germany. The story is about an engineer who travels back to the village on the river Niger which he left as a student. It is a journey into the past and he finds himself trapped between tradition and modern times.

“Generation”, the festival for youth and children included the Kenyan short Kibera Kid by Nathan Collett about a 12-year-old-boy who is living in one of the greatest slums of the world, Kibera, which makes up a quarter of the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

From Ethiopia — again a co-operation with Germany — we had the short film Menged by Daniel Taye, a father-and-son-tale. That was it — on first sight you couldn’t find anything else. Asking the heads of the Berlinale’s sections for a reason, you were told: “Don’t know, hard to say, we worked as usual, bad offers, nothing to select”, a.s.o. “No movies were submitted, I assume”, said Florian Weghorn from the “Generation” section. The Berlinale scouts have screened 5,000 films for this year’s festival. However, in 2006 there were a total of five films from Africa even though in 2005 the South African U Carmen by Mark Dornford-May won the Golden Bear.

It is not like there was no authority on African cinema within the festival’s ranks. The question that kicks off this text comes from Dorothee Wenner, Berlinale’s own agent for sub-Saharan Africa. Wenner has been on her job for three years and this year she is even head of the Berlinale Talent Campus. But there were only very few relevant films, “and festivals all over the world wanted to get them”, is how she describes the situation.

Wenner and her colleagues of the other Berlinale sections also had a very sympathetic view of African cinema. But the conditions of production of film in Africa are often very hard — “dramatic” is how Wenner puts it. Very often films simply don’t get finished; like in the case of Monique Mbeka Phoba’s Kinshasa film Entre le coup et les elections. And Faro was the first entry from Mali for the last three years.

Another problem is the fact there are specific characteristics of local markets: Nigeria produces more than 1,400 films per year but a lot of them are parts of series, and that, says Wenner, “doesn’t fit for a festival.” But how could they get more fitting? That was the big issue at the Talent Campus panel “Filming in the Eye of the Storm”. Directors like Monique Phoba, Eyas Salman, Rakesh Sharma discussed filming in economical and technically insecure territories. Bianca Jagger, in her role as NGO-campaigner, joined the meeting, talking about strategies. “NGOs and directors don’t like each other — at least not particularly”, Wenner explains.

Representatives of NGOs would prefer a view point from the West and to them, which means Northern industrial countries. Wenner: “The directors tell us: Sometimes we get money from them, but they want us to make films about HIV. That’s not what we want to show and to make movies about.”

The festival did not want to forget Africa, under no circumstances. Berlinale helmer Dieter Kosslick even secured Peace Anyiam Fiberesima onto the short film jury. The Nigerian producer founded the African Academy, which is responsible for the most important film prices on the continent. Anyiam Fiberesima also plays a leading roll in the Nigerian home movies market; films made quickly and cheaply which are sold on DVD.

With many of the co-productions, the Berlinale acts as an important interchange particularly where money from the World Cinema Fund is concerned. The festival is working together with Germany’s international radio “Deutsche Welle” in coordinating trainee programs. “Deutsche Welle” will also continue its co-operation with the Sithengi film festival in Capetown, South Africa. Productions co-financed with money from the World Cinema Fund are shown on German TV-channels like Arte. “Maybe those will be screened at the Berlinale in the next one or two years”, Wenner says. The way in which films from Africa take to Europe, or more to the European audience, is already very much on spot. Sometimes Africa has been more a topic of the Berlinale than it seemed, and that is especially the case when you look not only at the country of production but at all the other films containing African content: Drowned in Oblivion (Le cercle des noyés) from Belgium tells the story of political prisoners who in 1986 had been sentenced to jail for many years in Mauretania because of their fight for the equal rights of black people.

In Invisibles, a collection of short films from Spain, Fernando León de Aranoa portrays the plight of children in Uganda. Mariano Barroso describes the different using of the active pharmaceutical ingredient Eflornithine in Africa and in France. The German director Wim Wenders also contributed a short documentary, about mass rape during the civil war in Congo.

The co-production (from Germany, France, Belgium, United Kingdom, Italy) that resulted in Goodbye Bafana, the competition film contributed by Bille August, tells the story of South African racist James Gregory who has been working as prison warder on Robben Island. His life was stirred up by meeting a famous prisoner he had to guard for more than 20 years: Nelson Mandela.

Only a little collection this year, sure. But ‘special agent’ Dorothee Wenner is convinced that the number of African films will increase and because of continuous networking there should be less “mourning”: “All sections,” Wenner says, “do their best.”