The 55th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival in 2005 was special to me in the sense that it not only focused on Africa, but that the world’s second largest audiovisual event imparted self-organization and event management skills on twelve players in the African audiovisual media field. With an estimated 150,000 tickets sold, Berlinale does not only enjoy the largest audience of any film festival in the world but can also be said to comprise many festivals rolled into one.
I happened to be one of 12 Africans drawn from film, television, media and arts fields to train at the Deutsche Welle Television Academy that coincided with Berlinale. We observed how our theoretical training was implemented at the Berlinale festival and its European Film Market and how we could incorporate this in our own work back in Africa. Besides attending classes at Deutsche Welle and watching films, the trainees were introduced to the evolution of Berlinale, starting from its humble beginnings to its transformation into a global event. Berlinale began in 1950 with the Official Competition with the Forum of New Cinema coming in 1960. The Panorama, Kinderfilmfest, and Talent Campus came up in 1985, 2002 and 2003, respectively.
With a budget of 40 Million Euro (6.5 million Euros of which comes from the government), Berlinale has no shortage of funds. In fact, it turns away sponsors falling over themselves to fund it. The European Film Market grows every year and will move to the spacious Martin Gropius Bau in 2006 in order to meet growing demand. Each of the twelve training Africans shadowed a head of a section of Berlinale to learn how the latter spent one’s working day.
I was attached to Thomas Hailer and his Kinderfilmfest/14 Plus children’s festival that swept me off my feet. The magic of children’s films was too captivating for me. Although Kinderfilmfest/14 Plus features children’s films, they are neither simplistic nor do the filmmakers attempt to patronize children, but instead to present to them productions that speak directly to their world. I particularly enjoyed watching Cirkeline og verdens mindste superhelt (Little big mouse) by Danish animator Jannik Hastrup, Bluebird by Mijke de Jong of the Netherlands, and Pelikaanimies (The Pelican Man) by Liisa Helminen of Finland. Whereas Bluebird revolves around a 13-year-old girl who is bullied by her classmates, Little Big Mouse tackles gender stereotypes and The Pelican Man deals with divorce, love, and suspicion.
The Kinderfilmfest screens films in the original languages with English subtitles and the translation in German is done as the reel runs. One may also get headphones if one does not want to hear the German translation. Eleven children aged 4-13 years sit on the jury for the children’s film festivals as do five aged 14-16 years on the jury of adolescents known as 14-Plus.
Stressing the importance of a children’s film festival, Hailer said one must target parents, teachers, kindergartens and schools to succeed.
“Never allow sponsors to throw about things parents don’t like or disappoint children and their minders,” Hailer advised. “Be focused on quality, taking them seriously. Never look down on children.”
Out of the 48,000 catalogues printed, 8000 are sent to schools at least three weeks in advance. The festival sets aside 1000 tickets for children who cannot afford the three Euros per head for the Zoopalast theatre.
Our ‘godparents’ were Padhraic O Dochartaigh of Deutsche Welle and Dorothee Wenner of Berlinale’s International Forum of New Cinema. I think the highlight to African film business was February 15, 2005. It was on this day that Wenner and Professor O Dochartaigh, organized a day-long series of workshops dubbed ‘We Want You to Want Us’ to enable players in the African audiovisual media sector to present their case to the world and persuade it to put African film on their agenda. (I think this was important because 55th Berlinale was watched by an estimated 80 million television viewers and attended by 17,000 accredited film professionals and covered by 3,700 official journalists!) So, African players in the audiovisual sector shared their ‘Smart African Ways of Marketing Cinema’ in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal, Tanzania, Benin, Zimbabwe, and Cameroon.
Panelists, drawn from production, funding, distribution, marketing, exhibition, and management sectors in Africa, examined the challenges facing African audiovisual productions in terms of funding, technology, audience development and distribution. It was generally agreed that Africans have to invent strategies of film business that are uniquely African and not Western. They acknowledged that African cinema is opening up to new challenges and that strategies to gain audiences, use of new media, and ways of story-telling have to be different from the Western cinema model.
Among the issues tackled on producing and directing films for new audiences in Africa, panelists shared the African alchemy and magic they use in making films without adequate funds, reliable statistics, and opinion polls on consumer habits.
Representatives of bigger and small film festivals from various African countries discussed strategies they are using to reclaim public spaces in their countries. Among those who addressed the audience in a session titled Reclaiming Public Spaces, were Monique Mbeka-Phoba (Benin), Francis Nouaktchom (Cameroon), Ogova Ondego (Kenya), Fidelis Duker (Nigeria), Hamet Fall Diagne and Oumar N’Diaye (Senegal), and Zimbabwean Rumbi Katedza. Among the new ways highlighted in this session were filmmakers taking their productions to the people in neighborhoods, church halls, schools, community centres, video screening rooms and other outdoor areas around the city, translating certain films into the widely used local language or commentating during the screening for Nigerian films in Kikuyu and Kiswahili in Nairobi, establishment of film clubs where people watch films and discuss them from a layperson’s perspective, and African film festivals sharing films as they did during the 6th African Cine Week of Nairobi when films from FESPACO and Zanzibar International Film Festival were screened in 2003.
The ‘We Want You to Want Us: Smart African Ways of Marketing Cinema’, was organized by Berlinale’s International Forum of New Cinema, HAU and Deutcsche Welle with funding from the German Federal Agency for Civic Education. Its three sessions focused on producing and directing films for new audiences, challenges facing African film festivals, and what it took to make U-Carmen eKhayeltsha.
While in Berlin, we explored and/or sampled the pleasures of neighborhoods like Kreuzberg, Schoeneberg, and Prenzlauer Berg where, unlike the chilly Potsdamer Platz, restaurants, gay clubs, pubs, cafes and boutiques appeared to carry on around the clock.
This is an edited version of 55th Berlin Film Festival Focuses on Africa, an article written by Ogova Ondego for ArtMatters.Info in 2005.
An ArtMatters.Info article.