A scene in Atlantics. Photograph credit: Netflix

How Netflix’s ambitions could change the continent’s cinema

It was the sight of donkeys carrying camera equipment that reminded Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese he was shooting in Lesotho. The director was filming This Is Not a Burial, It Is a Resurrection in a remote part of his tiny home nation, which has no cinemas and – unsurprisingly – zero film infrastructure. “It’s a bit daring to take a crew there and shoot because there’s no electricity,” Mosese says from his home in Berlin. “Especially when we go to the mountains – we had to rely on the donkeys because at some point we just couldn’t carry the equipment.”

The shoot ran on petrol-powered generators. Villagers pitched in as ad-hoc crew members. Many fingers were crossed. “We had to build everything from scratch,” he says. That approach didn’t harm the film. Critically lauded, the stylish mood piece about grief, community and egregious land development has been entered in the Oscars as the country’s 2021 candidate.

In truth, Mosese’s donkey experience is an outlier in the sub-Saharan African cinema world. Most films are made in hubs in Nigeria and South Africa, which have strong domestic scenes. The film industry in Nigeria is worth $600m (£430m) annually and is the continent’s market leader, while South Africa’s brings in about $35m and has a local scene led by directors such as Neill Blomkamp and Oliver Hermanus, the director of the critically acclaimed Moffie. But it is largely known for “facilitation” or hosting international film-makers who want to shoot in the country.

That approach requires government backing, something many African film-makers can’t rely on. “There were talks about how we should be set in South Africa because they have a film infrastructure. They have funds and tax rebates – they have all these beautiful things, and we don’t have any,” says Mosese of Lesotho, which has a sluggish economy and mounting debts.

Although the film was ultimately shot in Lesotho, his crew mostly crossed the border from South Africa, where many had learned their trade working on domestic television shows. But for people outside those two large bubbles, things are not as accessible.

Mosese and his friends who wanted to work in film had two options, he says: work domestically on films made by NGOs (invariably about the Aids crisis, which is still ravaging the country) or travel to Europe to forge a career in the diaspora. “I was always appalled by this idea that NGOs are dictating how the film should look and what the message is,” he says. “So me and some other friends of mine, we just took a different route, which is a slow one.”

There are growing options for directors on the continent. Africa’s film-making ecology can roughly be divided into three categories: domestic, fuelled by scenes such as Nollywood; arthouse, such as Mosese’s work, which has a home on the European and US festival circuit; and international, the increasing number of hits such as Kenya’s Rafiki that make waves at the global box office.

As well as the aesthetic battle for Africa’s image there are also more basic concerns for film-makers such as Mosese. On the whole, the continent’s film crews are localised and separated, meaning a camera operator who plies their trade on a Nollywood set is rarely seen on a Kenyan or South African shoot.

Further north in Uganda that lack of crossover led Imperial Blue’s British producer, David Cecil, to search for the crew for his drug drama from the Kampala film school at which he was teaching. Cecil says the main challenge was getting access to crew and equipment, while the upsides included less red tape and more freedom to shoot. “It’s great in terms of access to locations and getting stuff done. For example, if I want a certain type of face paint I can get it, now – there’s no kind of procedure or ‘let’s have a meeting about it’,” he says.

Semulema Daniel Katenda, the Ugandan co-producer on Imperial Blue, says that although film-making in Uganda is less bureaucratic, there is a “broken chain link” in the country, with directors not able to get their film shown at cinemas. “The biggest problem we have is the link between the film-maker and the audience,” he says. “We rely on our home audience to watch our films, but the distribution between the audience and the Ugandan film-maker is nonexistent right now.”

Netflix claims it wants to be one of the links in that chain. Last year, ahead of the release of Queen Sono, its African spy drama, the chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, and a team of executives travelled to Lagos to map out their plans, which included investing heavily in local talent. On a continent with 54 countries and more than 1 billion people, where internet access has leapt by almost 25% in less than 10 years, the attraction is obvious.

Ben Amadasun, director of Africa originals and acquisitions at Netflix, identifies a dearth of production facilities, post houses and soundstages as major hindrances to Africa becoming a major international player, plus the cost of technical equipment.

The other major hurdle is funding, which is hard to secure; even when it is found, distribution can scupper plans. “There’s not always a ready market for all those titles to be sold or to get a good return on investment,” he says.

Netflix is looking to buy content in all three main categories of African film. It recently acquired Mati Diop’s Atlantics, which was the first film directed by a black woman to play in competition at Cannes. It has also started to invest in remakes of classic Nollywood films, with Amadasun saying that, as it looks to build up an African audience, Netflix will be focusing on popular fare with a proven track record.

“I would say overall there is sometimes a slant to titles that are a bit lighter, like romance, action, comedy – programming categories that appeal generally to bigger audiences, especially when you’re in the early stage of growth in the market,” he says.

Whether that will work for African producers and directors such as Katenda and Mosese is debatable and Netflix still has no office on the continent, with operations being run from its Amsterdam base. Mosese is pleased with the investment, but it’s clear he sees himself as sitting outside Netflix’s orbit.

“Netflix is specifically interested in films that everybody can digest. It would be rad to have a film that’s a meditation about death or about a 70-year-old widow v God,” he says. “This will be totally impossible, but I’m very hopeful that in the future they would consider films that are not ‘typically Netflix’.”

Amadasun is keen to point out that Netflix is looking beyond the big two of Nigeria and South Africa. Kenya is interesting, he says, as is Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while Mozambique and Angola are on its radar. Furthermore, while Cannes and Venice are important, in the Netflix African equation so are the Zanzibar and Durban film festivals. Existential mood pieces may not be on the shopping list right now, but as Netflix expands it wants to take chances.

As difficult as conditions can be, the work of a new crop of directors including Mosese, Diop, Wauri Kahiu, Apolline Traoré and Rungano Nyoni is changing the image of the continent. Diop’s Atlantics tells the migrant story but reimagines it as an otherworldly horror; Traoré’s Moi Zaphira and Frontières are bracing female-focused stories about everyday life, while Nyoni has explored witchcraft and western biases surrounding the burqa. While the work of celebrated African film-makers such as Ousmane Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty and Souleymane Cissé was toasted at European festivals, few of the earlier directors had the potential to reach such a wide audience.

Alongside that, there’s the Afrofuturist, predominantly African American vision of the continent that can be seen in the grandeur of Beyoncé’s Black Is King, and in the outlandish worlds of Black Panther’s Wakanda and Coming 2 America’s Zamunda. But some are wary of that Afrofuturist fantasy of advanced tech, opulent isolationism and problematic royal bathers.

Katenda says he is cautious about people from overseas creating a standardised image of the continent based on Black Is King and Black Panther. “Then everybody’s going to try to adopt Africa’s image to this,” he says.

Last year, Africa produced its first animated feature, made in Nigeria and self-funded. Micro-budget projects have taken off in South Africa, as traditional funding routes become blocked off because of the pandemic. The kind of improvisation and innovation seen on Mosese’s set is a constant on a continent that is – in many regions and areas of cinema – still developing. A new scramble for Africa’s cinema has only just begun. – The Guardian