Despite a “Black Worlds” focus and an “Africa Hub”, the continent still lacks representation.
Diversity became a hot topic at last year’s Berlinale when, at the opening day press conference, jury president Meryl Streep proclaimed, “Berliners, we’re all Africans really”. Part of a long-winded response to a question about Streep’s familiarity with Arab cinema, the quote was quickly taken out of context as a pitiful defence of the festival’s conspicuously all-white jury.
Presumably eager to avoid similar controversy this year, the organisers have been keen to stress both a “Black Worlds” focus within the Panorama strand and a “Berlinale Africa Hub”, a networking initiative taking place as part of the European Film Market. Is African cinema finally about to make a big splash on Potsdamer Platz?
With its politically aware reputation, Panorama is where you’d expect the Berlinale to shake off bad habits. But while “Black Worlds” promises “a fresh, historically reflective approach to the history of black people”, it doesn’t seem all that engaged with black filmmakers or sub-Saharan Africa. The Wound deals with the initiation rites of Xhosa men, but is directed by John Trengove, a white South African. Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is a study of race relations in modern America. In fact, there’s just one film about Africa by a black African filmmaker: the Hollywood-style drama Vaya from famous Nigerian actor turned-director Akin Omotoso.
The Forum strand fares slightly better with three African films out of 44, up from just one last year. Maman Colonel by Dieudonné Hamadi explores the fight against sexual violence in the Congo. The other two films are stories about African countries told by international directors: Portuguese filmmaker Filipa César visits Guinea-Bissau in Spell Reel, while Tinselwood sees French filmmaker Marie Voignier exploring living conditions in South East Cameroon. As for the Generation segment, aimed at younger audiences, it offers two African films out of a total of 62 this year: the Burkina Faso-set Wallaye by Swiss director Berni Goldblat; and Xalé Bu Rérr (Lost Child), by Senegalese director Abdou Khadir.
In the running for the Golden Bear is the Congo set Félicité, a French-Senegalese production about a mother searching for funds to keep her injured son from losing his leg. It marks a return to the Berlinale for French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis, whose 2012 Aujourd’hui was the most recent sub-Saharan African film to screen in competition.
So, a grand total of nine African films across the four main programmes, down from 13 last year. Yet Dorothee Werner, the festival’s African film scout, believes it’s a good year for Africa: “We have an extraordinary selection, which is something we can be proud of. There’s multiple regions represented with diverse narratives, topics and aesthetics.” When asked why the presence of Africa has decreased since last year, she argues, “It’s tricky – what is an African film anyway? Is a film about Angola from a second–generation black filmmaker whose family stems from Angola, but who lives and works in Portugal, not an African film? Is a film by a US citizen living in Ghana, made specifically for the Ghanaian market, an African film? You see, this is very slippery territory. I’ve heard fierce debate over whether white South Africans count as African filmmakers.”
“The Berlinale needs to wake up!” says Nigerian-German director Bränwen Okpako, who has presented her own films at the Berlinale and attends almost every year. She thinks these new efforts are well overdue. “The Toronto Film Festival had a whole section last year about Nollywood, and they brought out all its stars.” Cannes also has a better recent track record when it comes to championing African cinema: Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu won big in 2014, and African actors and filmmakers have featured prominently on the jury, with a total of six over the last five years. In Toronto last year, director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun from Chad was one of three platform jurors. At the Berlinale, the last black African juror was Somalian author Nuruddin Farah. Will this year be any different? So far, the only African announced is Ugandan filmmaker and activist Kamoga Hassan, founder of the first and only queer film festival in a country where homosexuality is still illegal, as a Teddy juror.
According to Alex Moussa Sawadogo, curator of Berlin’s Afrikamera festival, the problem lies with Germany’s lack of investment in African cinema. “Cannes focuses on the Francophone countries and filmmakers... there aren’t a lot of German-African co-productions.” When there are – like Félicité, The Wound, and Spell Reel – those films stand a much higher chance of making it to Berlin. More German investment would clearly change the picture, and that’s where the new Berlinale Africa Hub comes into play. This six-day networking event and marketplace aims to connect African filmmakers with the rest of the international film community, but there are no plans to make it a permanent Berlinale fixture.
Sawadogo emphasises the Berlinale’s potential to affect the African film industry. “If African films are successful at festivals like the Berlinale, they become successful in their home country,” he says, citing the positive impact of Aujourd’hui and Rama Thiaw’s The Revolution Won’t Be Televised (2016) on Senegal.“
What’s interesting about the Berlinale is that it’s a weird mixture of independent, politically conscious films and big blockbusters,” says Berlin-based South African director Oliver Schmitz. “It’s not just about the glamour; it’s about the issues. So it’s very relevant that the composition of the jury and the programme selection are questioned. That it’s not too elitist, sexist or racist.” While recent years have seen efforts towards gender equality – last year, seven of the 13 jurors were women – the international jury has remained ivory-white.