Friday, March 25, 2005

African films go digital to buck system

For African film makers, the future is digital. Cash-strapped, creative and keen to reach wider audiences, the continent's directors have been turning to digital technology as a low-cost, viable alternative that also offers valid artistic reasons for its use. Several of the films on show this week at Africa's Fespaco film festival in Burkina Faso, for eight days the center of the continent's cinematic universe, are shot in digital.

"Digital is democratizing film in Africa," says Idrissa Ouedraogo, the famed Burkinabe director and backer of "Sous la Clarte de la Lune" ("Under the Moon's Light"), one of 20 feature films in competition for Fespaco's top prize. "Sous La Clarte de la Lune" is part of a wave of low-budget, critically-acclaimed African films that use digital technology. Digital cameras are cheaper and the film can be stored on computer hard drives, edited and distributed for a fraction of the costs involved with traditional 35 mm prints. Versatile digital formats have already revolutionized production. Kenya and Nigeria have developed prolific and profitable video markets of low-budget, low-quality films. And digital technology could also be an answer to distribution headaches.

African films make up just 1% of movies seen on the continent. Most cinemas from Cape Town to Nairobi to Lagos run Hollywood blockbusters, martial arts flicks or action movies. Now, African film makers working in digital have to undergo an expensive conversion to 35 mm film to screen their films. Ouedraogo's Association of African Directors and Producers aims to change that by converting cinemas in Burkina Faso to digital. Three have been done and a fourth is planned. "Digital is for tomorrow," said the director. "We have no choice if we want to see African films in the cinema." Getting the films onto screens is just part of the problem. For many Africans, a night at the movies is an impossible dream -- both because of cost and the lack of theaters. Burkina Faso, home of Fespaco, has just 55 cinemas for a population of 12 million and the latest survey from 2002 showed only 34 of those cinemas worked. "Zulu Love Letter," a South African Fespaco film about the truth and reconciliation commission, is looking for new outlets. "You've got to find new ways of getting people to see the film," said producer Bhekizizwe Peterson.

"We will show it in schools and churches on DVD. It's not only important commercially, but very enriching culturally."

One way to tackle the decline of permanent cinemas in Africa's remote rural areas is to use mobile cinemas. During Fespaco, four mobile cinemas have been used in Ouagadougou. Equipped with digital projectors, they are part of a donor-funded initiative to bring films to rural audiences. After the festival, they will go to neighbors Benin, Niger and Mali, visiting selected villages once a fortnight. Since 2001, 1.5 million West Africans have seen films this way. Fespaco's directors are also going digital for art's sake, like South Africa's Teddy Mattera, director of "Max and Mona."

"It gave Teddy a lot more freedom to experiment as a first-time feature film director," said producer Tendeka Matatu. "Digital technology frees film makers from financial constraints and allows them to perfect their craft and experiment with their creativity," he said. But for many young African film makers, digital will always be more a necessity than a choice. "I learned to work in 35mm, but it's an impossible dream today," said Ouedraogo.

"Today's digital cameras are so much cheaper that it means anyone can become a director. There will be plenty of bad films as well as good. But that's not what's important for the moment. First we need the quantity, after that, quality will come."

-Nigeria Today Online

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