This year’s version of Berlinale Talents has ‘Courage: Against All Odds’ as its slogan, a reference to the odds filmmakers must overcome to produce their work. Itch spoke to some African participants to get their view on the state of play for emerging filmmakers from the continent.
“I worked in Lagos for 18 months, and I soon realised I wasn’t able to tell the stories I wanted to tell,” so begins Ulan Garba Matta, producer and screenwriter from the small town of Jos in Nigeria. “Being in a small town, I can do things at my own pace. I can tell the stories I want to tell.” In turns out her words will come to summarise most of the feedback I get from other African talents in Berlin.
Catching these participants turns out to be my biggest challenge here, as they are pulled from one room to another in what appears to be one of the busiest schedules yet of the ever-growing platform for emerging filmmakers. Echoing stairwells, crowded breakfast rooms clanking with conversation and cutlery, and the hush of pre-screening cinema seats form interview space with the itinerant talents. It’s all they can muster in their frenetic few days in the German capital, and meeting outside is out of the question as this February is no different from any other: Berlin is characteristically Arctic.
So, what are these stories these filmmakers want to tell? A quick look at some of the African talents suggests that the stories are as complex as the filmmakers, and indeed the continent, itself. A general consensus is that there is a fatigue from filmmakers at what has become an certain expectation from the West in terms of how Africa should or might appear – indeed even within Africa there is a chronic inability to use the cinema to express the complexities in the ordinariness of everyday lives.
“All I want to tell are stories that are real – and reflective of Nigerian people’s existences, which is very different from person to person, ” Ulan continues. “This is very difficult to do because of how films are supported.” But if this is the case, where does something like Berlinale Talents come into it? Its many satellite bodies around the world notwithstanding, how can a European-based initiative like Berlinale Talents really offer assistance in what seems like a problem with regional funding and storytelling.
Ulan’s self-belief is in many ways a question of personal provenance. When she talks about her hometown of Jos, Nigeria’s ‘tin city’, her voice softens – there is genuine love for a place she says is known for producing some of the country’s finest international artists. The place punches above its weight, a bit like Berlin, Germany’s cultural if not commercial capital. And Berlinale Talents is the ideal place for someone with local stories and international ambition: “it gives me the ideal platform for networking and making connections for someone like me, because it’s really hard not being in the mainstream to have people understand what it means to not be in the mainstream and to start something from the ground up.”
Ulan’s words certainly echo once more this year’s slogan, whose variants include exasperating phrases dotted about the festival venues such as ‘Better Leave it to the Big Boys’ and ‘Why Don’t You Get a Real Job’. But what about filmmakers who do believe in the commercial approach? Is there a place for them in Berlinale Talents?
The short answer is yes, embodied by Ulan’s compatriot Daniel Oriahi, a director-producer from Lagos. He approaches the whole thing quite differently. He is insouciant to the point of diffidence, but his quiet confidence is energising. He is also unashamedly “influenced by mainstream cinema” and, as an economics graduate, is “passionate about the film business.”
For Daniel, whose primary interest in the production side of filmmaking and who has already produced two successful films within the Nollywood mode of production, success breeds creativity. He explains how the success of Nollywood has led to the construction of new cinemas in Nigeria, which in turn will lead to the demand for more content. This will pave the way for his kinds of production – and those from the creative minds hibernating in Jos.
And perhaps that is the crux of what African filmmakers can get more than anything out of Berlinale Talents, and perhaps why it has chosen to remind its participants not only that they will require foolhardy courage but that they probably have it already: the problem of distribution.
An example is in the South African film The Wound, directed by John Trengrove. This film might be pitched somewhere between the arthouse ambitions of Ulan’s oeuvre and the film-as-business model of Daniel’s. The controversial film, which tells the story of a gay love triangle at the traditional circumcision ceremony of young Xhosa boys in rural South Africa, won support from the NFVF, South Africa’s film funding body, and has shown at Sundance and this year’s Berlinale as a Talents alumnus.
And yet for director Trengrove and producer Cait Pansegrouw, its biggest test might come in the way it is received in its home country once it establishes distribution there. South Africans may or may not be ready to tackle such material, but the fact that it has received funding and (not unwarranted) recognition and praise is a step in the right direction.
In many ways the challenge for African filmmakers remains one of receptivity rather than production. The number of films coming out of the continent is steadily growing, and the range of stories steadily deepening, yet the familiar obstacles to exhibition and distribution – censorship, lack of infrastructure, ticket costs, access to cinemas, cultural sensitivity – remain obdurately in place.
For now, Berlinale Talents is there to foster the voices coming from the continent. In spite of his business credentials, Daniel, he explains, remains at heart a filmmaker: “I want to socialise with the international filmmaking community and I went to film school in Jos. Being able to go to Berlinale was every filmmaker’s dream because I feel it is the meeting hub for all of us.”
“It’s also important because it allows us to tell stories that aren’t quintessential African stories,” Ulan adds. “Normally the only stories that make it to Europe from Africa are about suffering and death. They expect a certain kind of story to come out of Africa. We are here also because we want to change this.”
As Ulan and Daniel dash off to their next appointment, I leave Berlinale Talents feeling a great sense of optimism about cinema across the African continent. Its regional industries are riven with as many hindrances as any in the world, but there are signs that it is beginning to shape its own creative, cultural and commercial destiny. Berlinale can only ever be a vessel for talent – the rest is up to the makers themselves. And the future seems to be in good hands.