A Short History of West African Cinema
The history of West African cinema is rooted in the tradition of European representation of Africans and their cultures. From the moment sound came to film (around 1927), the French, wary of its influential power, proactively took measures to control film production in their colonies. In 1934, then governor of the colonies, Pierre Laval, issued a decree that required filmmakers to get French government approval prior to filming in the colonies and banned Africans from making films about themselves. The long-term effects of this decree are best quantified by film historian Georges Sadoul.
In 1960, sixty-five years after the invention of motion pictures, there hasn’t been, to my knowledge, a single feature film that is truly African; I mean a film that stars Africans, is cinematographed, written, directed, edited, etc., by blacks, and speaking, of course, an African language. Thus, two hundred million men have been denied the use of this most advanced of modern arts.1
Sadoul believed this “scandalous situation” would soon correct itself and become but “a bad memory”. Yet despite the majority of the French African colonies gaining independence by 1960, and thus releasing filmmakers from the paralyzing constraints of the Laval decree, feature films by Africans remained rare. Though freed from the colonial government policy that forbade their production, African feature films were now at the mercy French economic controls. Because local governments never made investing in cinema a priority and the French government, being so conscious of the persuasive power of the moving image, did, African filmmakers were forced to rely heavily on financial assistance from the French Ministry of Cooperation. And even if African filmmakers could drum up the resources to produce their movies, distribution and exhibition remained the exclusive monopoly of two French companies, SECMA and COMACICO, that were too focused on their own fierce competition over building movie theatres in urban areas across French-speaking West Africa to consider the circulation of works by African filmmakers.
Presence of Cinema in West Africa
Instructions: Hover over each country for information about numbers of historical cinema and CNA showings. Click the three text links above to see how where cinema is located historical and in the current period by each “distribution company”
Throughout the sixties and early seventies, distribution and exhibition of cinema in French-speaking West Africa remained the monopoly of SECMA and COMACICO. As these companies continued to grow their desire for profits started a new implicit ban on films being produced by Africans. In the eyes of SECMA and COMACICO, theater-goers did not like African films so they were not great enough revenue generators to put them in their cinemas. This hunger for money is what led to some of the first real positive changes for African filmmakers. On a holiday evening in 1969, SECMA and COMACICO unilaterally decided to jack up the entrance fees to cinemas in the Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) that led to a major disagreement with the government and the eventual nationalization of all theatres in the country. Emboldened by the move of the Upper Volta government, filmmakers in other Francophone countries increased pressure on their government to follow the Upper Volta model, and they did. In Senegal, for instance, a national society called SIDEC replaced the French companies and expanded theatres to most secondary cities throughout the country. By 1975 Senegal had over 75 operational theatres nationwide. SIDEC became a major player in the economy in terms of income generation, and on a good year, it was second only to the Dakar international port.
Yet these acts to seize control of cinemas were not purely driven by economics. Slowly, African intellectuals and politicians began to see the power of cinema to create a national identity. 1969 was also the year The Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) was created. FEPACI’s focus was on the promotion of African film industries through improved production, distribution, and exhibition. The federation concerned itself with the role of film in the politico-economic and cultural development of African states and the continent as a whole. From its inception, FEPACI emerged as a critical organization to the continental Organization of African Unity, now the AU, and played a large part in developing a new African identity in the Westernized world.
However, these developments were short-lived. The implementation of the Structural Adjustment Programs mandated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in the early 1980s forced heavily indebted governments, formerly referred to as the Third World, to privatize education, health, and culture (including cinema). This led to the immediate liquidation of SIDEC and sale of most theatres throughout West Africa to private entrepreneurs who had no vested interest in cinema and quickly transformed them into warehouses, shopping centers, and places of worship. By the mid-80s, there were almost no theatres left in West Africa. Although African filmmakers could still make movies, granted they were able scrounge up the money, these films could only be seen at festivals, which were often outside the filmmaker’s country, inaccessible to their countrymen, and provided little economic or cultural benefit to Africans.
A Short History of Cinema Numerique Ambulant
The development and expansion of new communication technologies, such as cellular phones, digital cameras, email, and social media, has provided the logistical resources to resurrect another kind of cinema viewing experience prevalent in the mid-20th century in parts of West Africa. While the French were creating policies and developing distribution monopolies in their colonies, the British were using mobile cinema to spread public health awareness and British Empire propaganda in places like Nigeria and Ghana.2. It was this history that influenced French film technician, Christian Lambert, to co-found Cinéma Numérique Ambulant (CNA), as means to reintroduce West Africans to motion pictures and their African film history.
Lambert went to rural Benin to shoot a film, only to realize that the people who were to be shown in the film were never going to see it, because, as [Lambert] said, ‘there was no screening facility in the village, and the villagers did not even know that forty kilometers away from their village, in Cotonou, there existed a projection room at the French Cultural Center (FCC), where they could watch it; but again, they could probably not afford the taxi ride to the FCC’. Therefore, after shooting the film, Lambert took it upon himself to rent an electric generator, a television set, and a video player to show the film in the village. ‘The process was very complicated,’ he admitted, ‘but to observe people seeing themselves on the big screen for the first time was worth the trouble.’ After he returned to France, he urged his family and friends, who were already active members of CNA France, to start a project in Africa. The excitement that ensued led to the creation in 2001 of the first CNA unit in Benin.3
As a result of Lambert’s efforts, CNA has grown into an international network of mobile cinema associations that, over the past decade, has spread to Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Niger, Togo, Tunisia, and provided more than 5,000 mobile showings. To raise funds for these many showings, CNA partners with local and international humanitarian organizations (e.g., UNICEF, Francophonie, Plan International etc.) to put on cinema-based public health campaigns around themes, like malaria prevention, child labor and trafficking, AIDS and other transmissible diseases, etc. Given that the local governments allegedly have little interest in and certainly no means of supporting such campaigns, CNA turns to the international organizations operating locally for support. These organizations typically have their headquarters in the nation’s capital, but their target populations live in remote rural areas. Because of this geographic difference there are linguistic and cultural barriers which makes it hard for these organizations to get their desired message across effectively. CNA, on the other hand, operates mainly in the rural areas and understands better the cultures of these rural audiences, as well as has their growing trust. Moreover, as CNA’s popularity among these rural populations grow, the humanitarian organizations have in CNA the mechanism to most successfully and effectively provide a venue for disseminating educational documentaries without having to go into the countryside themselves, and so gladly pays CNA for its service.
But rather than just deliver the humanitarian organizations’ public service messages, CNA provides these often resource-poor communities with their first exposure to cinema and African films. A CNA showing takes a similar form to the earlier British mobile cinema - mixing in music and American films to pique the audience’s interest before delivering the public service announcement - with the added feature of screening an African film that CNA has purchased the rights to or received permission to show.4 Here’s what a typical CNA event involves:
CNA’s mobile cinema units are small organizations usually composed of a four-person crew (a driver, a projectionist, an animator, and an administrator (director) equipped with a truck, a film projector, a portable screen, and an electric generator. When the organization receives funding to put on a program, the crew travels each evening to different villages screening films in areas where theatres do not exist. Screening days typically start with the loud and spectacular arrival of CNA in the village at about 5 p.m. The crew then unloads the truck and mounts the screen, installs the projector, and turns on the generator to play familiar music clips. The loud music, together with the children screaming, dancing, and running around soon turn the village atmosphere festive, and this continues until dark, about 7 p.m., when the unit starts showing silent short films featuring Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or Harry Langdon. These silent films last about 20 minutes. After the silent film, they screen a public service documentary followed by lively and sometimes passionate discussions. The evening ends with the screening of a feature-length African film. By the time credits have finished rolling, the audience is ready to go to bed and the CNA crew to head back to the city. At that point, the crew gets help from local volunteers to pack up and head back to the city.
These events are the only exposure to these Western technologies for some of the audiences, and CNA does its best to celebrate their cultures rather than use these technologies to suggest the inferiority of Africans or subject them to standards of the Western world. A good example of this is how CNA tackles one of its biggest challenges, having to show public service documentaries that are not always culturally sensitive. Because CNA has no control over the content of the documentaries and does not always have the luxury of previewing them ahead of the event or finding an alternative options if inappropriate, they find themselves in pretty uncomfortable situations occasionally. More than once, CNA has seen their requests to screen movies in a village denied on grounds of suspicion of corrupting the local culture. In response, CNA has taken to making their own social service documentaries with a project known as VideoFada, first implemented in Mali in 2009, which takes advantage of the typical schedule, screen in 10 villages twice 10 working days (no weekends) apart. How this works is:
village A receives CNA on the first night, village B receives them on the second, and village C on the third, etc., until village A will host its second screening only fifteen days after the first. Village B, village C, etc., will then have their second showings in the following days. VideoFada capitalizes on these fifteen days between by installing in each village a team of film professionals who, in collaboration with the local population, produce short documentaries or fictions. Each film produced is screened among the ten villages during their second CNA showing, and the best films are made available to all the other CNAs units.
Press the play button up above to see CNA showings posted on Twitter visualized over time. The cluster explosions at particular times display the 10 X 10 CNA schedule in action. Hit the pause button to stop the visualization once it has been started.
Due to programs like VideoFada, CNA has begun to develop the most robust cinema education and production operation West Africa has ever seen. Not only does CNA work with local villages to expose them to storytelling and film, CNA also has an academy that trains locals to be future CNA facilitators and projectionists. Beyond offering locals much needed jobs, these programs provide basic education about cinema, its benefits, and the history of African filmmaking.
This development is timely. As the world continues to globalize, West Africa, like all other regions of the world at the mercy of these global forces, is threaten by a urbanization process that has the potential to eradicate African cultures far faster than colonial occupation. CNA’s use of social media and modern technology to fight, and even affect, this process is one of the few potentials African populations have to develop their own identities, sensitive to their cultures and heritages, in the face of this global threat. With this in mind, my project has become more participatory research. The more that I comprehend about CNA’s significance to and potential impact on African culture, the more I want to help them succeed. To that end, I have been working hard to communicate with CNA groups to advise them on their social media use as means to increase funding and the public’s awareness about them. To show them potentials of new social media platforms, I have created a website called, Project Megotage, which collects images from CNA events on Instagram.5 As technologies like camera phones and the Internet continue to disrupt the motion picture industry, the more locals use social media and become familar with its power increases their ability to offer counternarratives of African existence. This ensures that Africans take a more active role in the media portrayals of themselves and, despite globalization, carving the images of the African experience they want the world to see.
1 Sadoul, Georges. 1961. “Le marche Africain,” Afrique Action, Tunis, May 1, 1961. Accounts of the history of cinema in Africa usually mention two productions as signals for the beginning of black African cinema. Mouramani (1953) is a little known and seldom seen documentary film made by Mamadou Touré, a filmmaker from Guinea about a cultural event in Guinea and was not commercially released and currently nowhere to be found. In 1955, an association called “Groupe Africain du Cinema” based in France and comprised of two Senegalese, Mamadou Sarr and Jacques Mallo Kane, one Dahomean (actual Benin) Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, and one Caribbean, Robert Caristan, made Afrique-sur-Seine. The film was shot in Paris, directed by the four men, and describes the experience of blacks in France and their nostalgic relationship with home (Africa), this film was not commercially distributed and may probably be found in film archives in France.
2 Rice, Tom. 2016. “British Empire’s forgotten propaganda tool for ‘primitive peoples’: mobile cinema,” The Conversation. Accessed March 8, 2017, May 1, http://theconversation.com/british-empires-forgotten-propaganda-tool-for-primitive-peoples-mobile-cinema-64275. See also: Fofana, Amadou. 2011. “‘Cinefication’ in West Africa” (2011). Critical Interventions, 5:1, 54-63.
3 Fofana, Amadou. 2011. “‘Cinefication’ in West Africa” (2011). Critical Interventions, 5:1, 54-63.
4 See Rice’s “British Empire’s forgotten propaganda tool for ‘primitive peoples’: mobile cinema” for more information about British mobile cinema. For more information about CNA film licensing, go to https://www.c-n-a.org/Films.htm
5 For more information on how Instagram is taking hold in some parts of West Africa, see CNN’s article, “Dakar Lives: Using Instagram to show off the ‘real’ Senegal”