Most people in the Western world have formed their idea of Africa from the movies. For decades, Hollywood portrayed white people in exotic settings: Johnny Weismuller swinging on vines through the jungle; John Wayne capturing big game in Hatari; Michael Caine's heroics in Zulu; Robert Redford romancing Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. There were a few Americans in the foreground, and a lot of Africans in the background.
This is still the case. Black Hawk Down was set in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. It was unfortunate that the inhabitants of Mogadishu didn’t look like Somalis. Not all Black people look as though they are from Harlem or the Bronx. In fact, the Somalis are not black; they are copper-coloured Cushites, with slender bodies and oval faces.
Tears of the Sun, about a rescue mission of US missionaries and other personnel, and refugees, one of whom turns out be the son of the assassinated Nigerian president, into neighbouring Cameroon, had intense, heart-rending moments, but the American rescuers and the nurse were the main characters, and their emotional and personal problems took centre stage. (about arms trafficking in West Africa), and (about the illegal diamonds trade), powerful as their messages are, come from Hollywood.
Perhaps the African film industry's break came in the late 1980s, when Hollywood turned its attention to South Africa. Cry Freedom!, The Power of One and A Dry White Season dealt with the evils of apartheid. But they were made from the viewpoint of outsiders, of non-Africans, sympathetic and insightful as this may have been. But finally Africans were no longer the waiter, the night-watchman or the peasant greeting his White boss with "Jambo, Bwana!" Even so, the main actors were from outside South Africa. Steve Biko was portrayed by the American actor Denzel Washington.
In the last few years, things have begun to change. Films are being made about Africa, not just set in Africa. One breakthrough was the critical success of Tsotsi (2004). This Oscar-winning film portrays an orphaned gang-leader in Soweto, played by Presley Chweneyagae, who becomes human again when he has to look after a baby he accidentally kidnapped in a car-jacking. The director and actors are South African, proving that a home-made production can turn out to be polished, professional, and as good as the world’s best.
Western producers are also becoming more competent at portraying Africa, even when the stars are foreign. Although made from the viewpoint of a German, Nowhere in Africa, which won the best foreign-language film in the Oscar awards in 2002, displays considerable understanding of local people, their customs and their ways. Its lack of melodramatics made it both enjoyable and believable.
Hotel Rwanda is another step in the same direction. This is a serious and moving film, made by a director who knows Africa, with a largely South African cast, apart from the lead role of hotel manager (Don Cheadle) who decides to save not only in his own family, during the genocide, but as many Tutsis as possible.
The Constant Gardener, directed by Fernando Meirelles, caught the flavour of the urban Africa. Its authentic portrayal of Kibera, the huge slum in Nairobi, with its squalor and colour; its vibrancy and tragedy – especially AIDS — even won the whole-hearted approval of the Kibera people themselves. Of how many movies made in Africa can that be said? Local Kenyan actors, in large and small roles, helped make the film come alive. The story, about dumping pharmaceuticals in the developing world, to keep unemployment down in the developed countries, struck a sensitive and recognisable chord too.
Africa has a wealth of untapped acting talent. Because of their rich oral tradition and practice, Africans are not camera shy. In a region where technology is still developing, verbal communication is still an art form. Africa also has a wealth of stories — and not just the ones American scriptwriters decide the world would like to watch. It also has a growing pool of imaginative writers. What is lacking is financial resources and a marketing network.
But even without these, a booming film industry has developed in Nigeria. Astonishingly, it is the world's third largest producer of feature films. Unlike Hollywood and Bollywood, however, Nollywood movies are made on shoe-string budgets. An average production takes just 10 days and costs about US$15,000. Yet in just 13 years, Nollywood has grown from nothing into a $250 million dollar-a-year industry that employs thousands of people. Currently, 300 producers churn out movies at an astonishing rate — somewhere between 500 and 1,000 a year.
This phenomenon is the subject of a recent documentary, This is Nollywood, which follows a Nigerian director, Bond Emeruwa, as he races to make a feature-length action film in just nine days. Armed only with a digital camera, two lights, and about US$20,000, Bond faces challenges unimaginable in Hollywood and Bollywood. "We are telling our own stories in our own way, our Nigerian way, African way," Bond says. "I cannot tell the white man's story. I don't know what his story is all about. He tells me his story in his movies. I want him to see my stories too."
"Look out, Hollywood," one exuberant Nigerian producer exclaims. "Here we come!" Well, not tomorrow, maybe, but soon…
Martyn Drakard is MercatorNet's African Contributing Editor. He writes from Nairobi.