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A Primer on African Film

Here in the non-African world, we hear so little of African film and film makers, it may come as a surprise to know the industry is alive and well on the continent, and made up of a number of film centres, including the second largest film business in the world. This isn't a big list, but here are a few reference points, and ways to start checking it out.

Respected as a writer of international note and often called the "Father of African film", Ousmane Sembene (sometimes called Sembene Ousmane,) was born in Senegal on January 1, 1923, the son of a fisherman in a Muslim household. After serving in a corps of the French Army in WWII, he came home to take part in the 1947 railroad strike that became the genesis of his best known novel, Les bouts de bois de Dieu (God's Bits of Wood). Later that year, he ended up in France, working as an illegal immigrant on the docks and in factories, eventually joining the Communist party. His works are infused with his drive for social change. It led him from books to film, and his first feature, La Noire de.. released in 1966 and based on his own short story, was the first feature ever released by a sub-Saharan African director. His films deal with the realities of life in Africa, in fact much of the time, of his own life, and common themes include postcolonialism, a critical view of religion, and an admiration of African women. 1975's Xala based on his well known novel, is considered a classic. His final film, Moolaade a 2004 feature, won awards at Cannes. He died in 2007 at the age of 84 in Senegal.

Check out a discussion of his films, along with those of Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian filmmaker responsible for the award winning Teza (2008). Born in 1946 in Gondar, Ethiopia, Gerima caught the film bug in 1970, and immigrated to California, eventually earning a BFA and MFA from the University of California in film. His films, too, deal with the realities of the human condition. Teza tells the story of a young Ethiopian who returns from a university education in Germany to live under the Marxist regime of Mingistu Haile Mariam. Gerima has been a professor of film at Howard University in Washington, D.C. since 1975.

Nollywood - the Nigerian film business is second largest in the world, second only to India's, and yes, you heard that right, larger than that of the United States. Profiled in 2007's Welcome to Nollywood documentary, the $250 million a year Nigerian film business produces a staggering 200 videos for the home video market every month, according to reliable media sources. While its roots trace back to the 1960's, the advent of cheaper digital filmmaking gave a the industry a huge boost, and it has grown exponentially over the last twenty years or so, virtually replacing foreign media on store shelves, with huge exports across the continent and in fact the world.

With so many videos produced, it's natural that there's a range of films. The struggles of modern Africans, often torn between traditional ways and the modern world, are a common thread across the continent, and in films like young director Tchidi Chikere's Show Me Heaven. Traditional values often win though, in contrast with North American sensibilities, in films like The Prostitute. Ghana rivals Nigeria with another burgeoning film scene, with South Africa's film business is another growing success.

Here are some recent films, made by up and coming filmmakers to keep your eyes on:

Bamako - a beautiful and award winning 2007 film about Africa and globalisation by filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, born in Mauritania and raised in Mali.
Clouds Over Conakry Guinean director Cheick Fantamady Camara's impressive feature debut, a romantic comi-tragedy that deals with the traditionalist/modernist divide with a supernatural twist.

Film is very much a part of African cultures - a million people attended the 25th Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in 1995, profiled in the clip below.

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