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African Cinema: From Margins to Mainstream?

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Something I have been pointing out for the past few years is the simple fact that African filmmaking is woefully under-represented in the mainstream of UK cinema going and indeed television viewing. If you look at 2011 there were a total of 558 films released in UK cinemas over the year.

Of that total two were from Africa: The documentary Benda Bilili about the Congolese street musicians rise to international stardom and from Chad Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Screaming Man a richly observed film about family life and the relationship between fathers and children. That represents less than 0.004% of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2011: A startling statistic given more magnitude given that Africa is a pretty big continent. There is a bigger piece of research to be done as to why this is the case, for example we know that most countries are dominated by Hollywood, economics obviously have a key role in film production. Indeed both films listed above were part or fully financed through Europe. However it is quite a figure to reflect upon.

Given that cinema along with television are two of the most important and influential platforms through which we get images presented to us and understand the world it is surely significant that images of Africa are limited: limited to either conflict, crisis or natural history. The refreshing thing about Mahamat Saleh Haroun's A Screaming Man was that it told an African story from an African filmmaker: a rare phenomenon for UK audiences to see.

There is however no shortage of African films and African themed film festivals. Just Google African films and see the list that comes up. Our own festival in Bristol, Afrika Eye, is one such festival. The aim of the festival's organisers is to present just some of the new work coming out of Africa and over a weekend in early November we had sell out audiences and positive responses to the range of work screened. One such success was festival opening film by Senegalese director Moussa Toure's La Pirogue which played in competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival and which to date has no UK distributor prepared to invest in it to get it wider into UK cinemas.

Another aim of the festival is to build direct links with some of the African filmmaking communities and to work proactively not only to get their stories onto screens in the UK but also to explore possible co-production opportunities and develop creative exchange. This has been done primarily through attendance at some of the key African Film Festivals such as Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ougadougou and the Durban International Film Festival.

However an exciting development in this year's Afrika Eye was to use the infinite possibilities of digital technology to make that collaboration across continents more tangible. In the session African Interactive we had on screen in Watershed's cinema in Bristol three practitioners live from ihub in Nairobi discussing with Bristol filmmakers and festival curators the shared issues and challenges of developing films and getting their stories onto cinema screens.

The power of this moment was to have on screen a live image and sound of very real African filmmakers and creative practitioners discussing how we get more African stories told and disseminated and made me feel that we might just be able to make inroads into increasing that shameful figure of 0.004% African films released in the UK?