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Tracing the history of Africa's relationship to film festivals and exploring the festivals' impact on the various types of people who attend festivals (the festival experts, the ordinary festival audiences, and the filmmakers), Dovey reveals what turns something called a "festival" into a "festival experience" for these groups.



Introduction: Film Festivals and/in Theory

Egypt is the stark exception in Africa when it comes to the history of the production and exhibition of films. This is due to Egypt’s quite distinct experience of European rule, which meant that from the early days of British occupation (1882–1922), locals still had resources and power that people within other African countries did not at the time. While Egyptians started to make films from the early twentieth century, soon after the invention of the medium, for much of Africa the possibility of Africans making their own films arose only in the decolonization period, from the 1960s onwards. Similarly, unlike in Egypt, where cinemas played local films to local audiences, in most African countries local films—when they started to be made—were not screened in local cinemas or on television. The cinemas tended to be owned by foreign companies or people with commercial interests seeking to make a profit. For them, it was far more lucrative to play B-grade Hollywood films, which had already made financial returns on the international market, than it was to screen films by Africans that had yet to establish an overseas market or recoup their costs. Neither were these films by Africans welcomed by local television stations, which, until the liberalization of the media across Africa in the 1990s, were state-owned and usually operated within nationalist frameworks favoring government propaganda or cheap foreign content. Initially, film festivals—both international and African-focused—tried to fill the gap.
Lindiwe Dovey

1. Early Curatorial Practices, European Colonialism, and the Rise of “A-list” Film Festivals

If one situates the earliest film festivals within a two-millennia history of practices of collecting, curating, and displaying objects in Europe, their participation in “the writing of specific colonial and national histories” and the “universalizing of bourgeois views and visions” (Morgan 2013: 23) becomes overwhelmingly apparent. In his history of the museum, Jeffrey Abt locates its etymology in mouseion, an ancient Greek word referencing cult sites dedicated to muses. The early museum was a site imbued with aura, the home of original objects that could not be found elsewhere. Aristotle was the first on record to start collecting specimens and, in this practice, he “formulated an empirical methodology requiring social and physical structures to bring into contiguity learned inquiry and the evidence necessary to pursue it” (Abt 2011: 116). This is an important point, conjuring as it does the will to create knowledge that was also one of the foundational motivations behind the construction of museums. However, collecting and curating practices have always exceeded the desire to pass on knowledge to others through the content of the exhibits themselves; they have at the same time been invested in teaching “curated ways of seeing and behaving” (Morgan 2013: 23), forms of citizenship, belonging, and exclusion.
Lindiwe Dovey

2. Afri-Cannes? African Film and Filmmakers at the World’s Most Prestigious Film Festival

Film festivals’ whirlwind curatorial tours of the globe in the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century beg an important question: where are the great sub-Saharan African filmmakers who began their work in the early 1960s? Several films, made with some African participation, were featured in 1950s film festivals. For example, The Boy Kumasenu (1952), produced through the Colonial Film Unit of Ghana and shown at the Berlin Film Festival, won a diplomat at the Venice Film Festival (Garritano 2013: 33). The 1961 Berlin Film Festival screened and awarded two Senegalese films: Grand Magai à Touba (dir. Blaise Senghor, 1960), which received the Silver Bear for the best short film, and Une Nation est née (dir. Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and Mamadou Sarr, 1961), which received a special mention (Bangré 1994). Ousmane Sembenes Borom Sarret (1963) won first prize at the Tours Film Festival in France. The only African director truly and consistently venerated on the international film festival circuit from the 1950s to the 1990s, however, was the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine (1926–2008). Chahine began his career at Cannes in the 1950s (De Valck 2007: 94); was featured in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in the 1970s (Wong 2011: 24); was the subject of major retrospectives by the Locarno Film Festival (in 1996) and the New York Film Festival (in 1998); and won the first Lifetime Achievement Award at Cannes in 1997 (Wong 2011: 47).1 For African filmmakers other than Chahine—even the Senegalese writer and filmmaker Sembene, the so-called “Father of African Cinema”—international festival recognition was far more sporadic.
Lindiwe Dovey

3. “Where is Africa?” at the 2010 International Film Festival of Rotterdam

You are standing on the balcony of a hotel or a bar, looking down at a slice of a busy, dusty street. You are looking down at several men who are sitting on motorbikes, chatting to one another. You keep your eyes trained on them, for about a minute. They are clearly not aware of your presence. But then one of the men bristles, flicks a glance up in your direction, as though he’s felt himself being watched. Soon after, another of the men casts his eyes up towards you. And another. And another.
Lindiwe Dovey

4. African Film Festivals in Africa: Curating “African Audiences” for “African Films”

No celebration, no festival, could take place without a public, an audience, writes Odile Goerg (1999: 8–9). If this is the case, then it is quite remarkable that so little scholarly attention has been granted to considering audiences at film festivals.1 Although certain prestigious film festivals (Cannes, in particular) operate mostly as closed, industry events focused on the glamor and business of filmmaking, most of the thousands of film festivals around the world see their main beneficiaries as both filmmakers and audiences (see Peranson 2013: 193–196). In fact, “the curator Neil Young has questioned whether Cannes, which excludes the public from most of its screenings, qualifies as a festival at all” on this basis (Archibald and Miller 2011: 250). As a field of study, film festivals offer an ideal opportunity to observe films playing out in public contexts, with live audiences and discussions. The contested meanings of films in these settings challenge the dominant hermeneutic practice of close film analysis as it takes place in professional settings, such as universities and newspapers, where the contexts of a film’s screening are rarely taken into account in the critics judgment of the film. There is particular potential for research on the (dis)sensus communis surrounding African-made films in this respect, given that festivals are among the few public arenas in which such films are screened. Along with the exhibition of Nollywood movies at thousands of video halls across the continent, festivals are among the public spaces awaiting more in-depth research.2
Lindiwe Dovey

5. Moving Africa: African Film Festivals Outside of Africa

The first Third World, Black, and African film festivals outside of continental Africa began to appear in 1979, and include (in chronological order of their founding): the Festival des 3 Continents in Nantes, France (1979); the Festival International du Films d’Amiens, France (1980); the one-off Black Film Festival organized by Parminder Vir and Jim Pines in the UK (1981); the Verona African Film Festival, Italy (1982); the one-off Third Eye Festival of Third World Cinema, held in London and Birmingham in the UK (1983); Vues d’Afriques (Views of Africa) in Montreal, Canada (1985); Africa in the Picture in the Netherlands (1987); the Festival Cinema Africano Milano in Italy (1991); the Cascade Festival of African Films in Oregon, US (1991); the non-annual Africa at the Pictures screening initiative founded by Keith Shiri in London (1991); the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles (1992); the New York African Film Festival (1993); and the African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York (1993) [see Appendix 2 for complete list]. Mostly founded in Western Europe, these African film festivals can be interpreted in two broad ways: first, as relating to representational politics around the concept of “Africa” (particularly as curated into being through “A-list” film festivals and the mainstream news media); and, second, as relating to the increasing presence of diverse African diasporas in the post-WWII era. In the latter sense, these festivals can also be read alternately as responses to, and expressions of, African immigrant minorities.
Lindiwe Dovey

6. The Rise of “International” Film Festivals in Africa

As I write these words, in London, myriad festivals are underway: a traveling version of the Irish music celebration known as The Other Voices Festival is taking place at Wiltons Music Hall; the Spill Festival of Performance—a celebration of “radical live work” in experimental theatre and art—is on in east, south, and central London; the London Latin Music Festival La Linea claims to have brought the “who’s who” of contemporary Latin musicians to the city; the Underbelly Festival is advertising circus and cabaret entertainment in a rather unusual venue—an “upside-down purple cow”; and the Argentinian Film Festival is offering a fix of films about football, wine, and other aspects of Argentine culture. If I start to look further afield, I find more festivals beyond London, such as the 46th annual Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering, a celebration of Northumbrian music, food, history, language, and crafts. In fact, I find myself surrounded by advertisements for festivals wherever I go: the Rose Festival in Morocco; the Dubai Shopping Festival; a cherry-picking festival in Lebanon; Las Fallas Festival of the Torches in Valencia, Spain.
Lindiwe Dovey

7. Festive Excitement and (Dis)sensus Communis in Action at Two Film Festivals in Africa

A focus on the “international” dimensions of film festivals in Africa may lead analysts to overlook the way their intensely localized, domesticated elements do not necessarily correspond neatly to conventional definitions of film festivals, as “glittering showcases for films and people” and “vital nodes for global film industries” that “attract widespread global attention” (Wong 2011: 1). A group of very original film festivals on the African continent is contributing to disruption of the standard definition of a “film festival” that seems to be settling in all too easily within the scholarship. For all the contradictions that these festivals may exhibit (see Dovey, McNamara, and Olivieri 2013), they have rich potential to redefine local and international curatorial practices and discourses, as well as our understandings of the meanings of films. At the same time, any audience-centered approach to a festival drawing on ethnographic methods will reveal the degree to which all film festivals are potentially unique through the spontaneity through which (dis)sensus communis may be conjured at them, thereby revealing a very different image of the festival from the one that may be marketed to the world. I want to start with just such an example, drawn from my fieldwork at the 2013 Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), that shows the extent to which festival and film meanings are not stable, but constantly redefined by specific audiences. I will then move on to an analysis of the 2013 FiSahara Film Festival, searching for signs of dissent amidst the overwhelming “consensus” produced through this unusual festival—the only annual film festival in the world that takes place in a refugee camp.
Lindiwe Dovey


In the suburb of Rubaga, one of the least affluent parts of Kampala, Uganda, a “film marathon” is under way in one of the city’s estimated 2,000 kibanda (video halls), wood-and-tin shacks that usually serve up English league football matches and “VJed” Hollywood, Bollywood, and kung fu films five times a day to packed audiences. The “film marathon” has been organized by Dutch art historian Alice Smits and American filmmaker Lee Ellickson as part of the Amakula Kampala International Film Festival, which is now (in 2010) in its seventh year. The marathon consists of three films: a contemporary film from Cameroon (Mah Saah-Sah), a “classic” film from Ghana (Heritage Africa), and the first part of a film made by Smits herself in Uganda—The Video Crusades: Tugenda Mumaso! It is Smits’s film that is now playing in the dark, stuffy venue in Rubaga; in Luganda, it is about the video halls themselves—about how popular they are with Kampalans and how the Ugandan government is supporting a controversial union that is attempting to force them to conform to health and safety standards their owners simply cannot afford. The video hall is filled with people, but their eyes are glazed over. They are clearly not finding this indignant, worthy film about the type of place in which they are currently sitting very interesting. Smits is at a different festival venue and so is not there to see when some audience members ask the projectionist to take off The Video Crusades and put on a Chuck Norris film instead.
Lindiwe Dovey


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