We kept staring at all of the elderly men in elegant robes, hoping one of them was Ousmane Sembene, Senegal’s most admired filmmaker and the acknowledged father of African cinema. None of us knew what he looked like. But he would be coming, we were told, to celebrate the opening of this year’s African Film Festival, the nine-day extravaganza of screenings and panel discussions in New York City that, since 1993, has allowed Americans to experience some of the best of African filmmaking. His new film, Moolaadé, a blistering attack on female circumcision, was to be shown during the festival.
Ousmane Sembene did not arrive before the opening night’s screening at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. We were disappointed, but the night was still young. There would be a Q&A after the movie and food and dancing later upstairs. He could still show.
But we did not see him that night in April. We did see, however, Forgiveness, the achingly poignant South African film about the politics of reconciliation and healing after apartheid. Forgiveness has been amassing awards worldwide since its release in 2004.
Filmmaking in Africa is thriving, albeit on a landscape of challenges that have plagued it for decades. The industry has its own equivalent to Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Awards (the Oscars), the Africa Movie Academy Awards. Many countries have an annual national film festival, some, like South Africa, more than one. Rwanda is the latest to join the list with the debut of the Rwanda Mini-Film Festival in March. And every two years, beginning in 1969, anyone who is anybody in African film and thousands of lovers of African cinema make their way to Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. Here, in this city that dates back to the 11th century, when the country was known as the “Land of Warriors,” the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou takes place.
Popularly known by its French acronym, FESPACO (www.fespaco.bf ), it is the world’s biggest and oldest showcase of African screen works. For one week, attendees immerse themselves in screenings, dealing in stock footage, film archives, publications and workshops.
There are 22 official prizes and 22 special awards, including the Paul Robeson Award (PRAI, www.robeson  award.com) for a feature film directed by filmmakers from the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean. Competition for the Paul Robeson Award is open only to films presented in the Diaspora Films section of FESPACO. It was won this year by U.S. filmmaker Rhonda L. Haynes for her film Bringin’ in da Spirit.
Prestigious local schools feed the industry, among them the South African School of Motion Picture and Live Performance and the African Institute of Cinematography in Ouagadougou. To be sure, the dollar amounts in African film are small. “For every $1,000 spent in America to make a film, in Africa $100 is spent. You really have to love [acting] it to be an actor in Africa,” says Christo Davids, who plays the character Ernest Grootboom in Forgiveness.
Africa’s long-awaited economic revival, which was expected to invigorate the cultural sector, has yet to materialize. Mbye Cham, an associate professor of African Studies at Howard University, argues that budget cuts, diminished external and internal funding for production and the demise of movie houses as privatization sends local entrepreneurs into a frenzied pursuit of space to warehouse commodities, exacerbate “the perennial crisis of production, distribution and exhibition of African cinema on African soil.”
Organizations like FESPACO, African Film Festival Inc. and the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI), the international lobbying group that promotes independent film productions in Africa, work hard to promote and further develop the industry. African-American professionals are becoming more involved, although Europeans are well ahead of them. Spike Lee, for example, is a member of the advisory committee of Maisha, a filmmakers’ laboratory dedicated to developing and supporting visionary screenwriters and directors from East Africa and South Asia. Maisha was established this year by filmmaker Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Kamasutra, Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay) at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, or ZIF Festival, East Africa’s biggest.
Africa’s hip-hop talent is moving in as well. The Ouagadougou International Hip Hop Culture Festival, a giant two-week bash of workshops, performances and concerts, has already yielded a documentary, “Ouaga Hip Hop 3,” shown at last year’s African Film Festival in New York, and a short fiction work Rapbizz (2002). Launched five years ago, Ouaga Hip Hop takes place every year in October.
With its pool of acting talent, film crews and support services, the African film industry is a low-cost but quality resource for African-American filmmakers. The opportunities for Blacks of the diaspora are simply enormous.
By Rosalind McLymont