“When you see these films, you’re like, that’s different. Because it’s not that same image of the continent, but that’s also what’s great about it,” says Kisha Cameron-Dingle, the Program Director of Focus Features Africa First Program (above center, with filmmakers from the first class, Wanuri Kahiu and Jenna Bass).
Going into its fifth year, Focus Feature’s Africa First aims to support and nurture filmmakers from all over Africa. Through their open call application process, the program awards $10,000 to select filmmakers to assist with the pre-production, production, or post production of their short films, as well as film mentorship and support. Past and current filmmakers include Wanuri Kahiu (Pumzi), and Rungano Nyoni with the BAFTA-nominated Mwansa the Great.
I caught up with Cameron-Dingle to discuss her motivations for heading the program, what they look for in potential applicants, mainstream tropes of Africa, and why it’s so necessary for other stories to emerge from the continent.
How did you begin your work as an independent producer before you became involved with Focus Features?
My full background is as a studio executive after film school. I worked for about seven years, between New Line Cinema and Walden Media as a development executive, just developing films for studios, and my first independent film as a producer was in 2004. It was a film called Sometimes in April, and it was about the genocide in Rwanda and was financed by HBO. After I came back from Rwanda, I took my production company, which is Completion Films, and immediately started working with Focus on their Africa Initiative, which didn’t really have a title yet.
African cinema was something that I’d been talking to James Schamus about for years even before there was a Focus, and before it was my primary market, it was something I studied and had been a part of, and I was doing it more as a hobby because it wasn’t a part of my mainstream day to day job until I got to do Sometimes in April. I started to work with Focus right after I came back and started Africa First about two years after that as a way to crystallize what we were trying to do, and to identify and work with young talent coming out of Africa.
What was your main motivation for getting this program going, and highlighting African cinema?
It was a way to create a footprint and a lighthouse. I had been going around to festivals and still do, but very often there were the questions: What exactly are you guys doing, and how exactly does this work? It wasn’t like, oh we have a grant or X amount of dollars, and it wasn’t like an organized thing like that. So part of it was trying to create a brand for what we were trying to do.
And two, a lot of the talent that I’d been scouting and most of the directors that I was interested in, were still making shorts and were right there in that breakout situation where you were seeing these people doing really amazing work, and it was about trying to figure out a way to work with those filmmakers where they were, and how do I connect these filmmakers now as opposed to waiting until the feature and on the world stage, where I’m like “Hey, can we work together?”
Part of the reason we all strove for a certain transparency for the program was so everything was very clear, like here’s the deal: we’ll get you X amount of money, you get these rights in exchange, and you keep your copyright. Everyone’s very clear about what their situation is upfront, and everyone’s fairly straightforward- we’re trying to meet the burgeoning filmmakers coming out of Africa and here’s how we’re trying to create that relationship. Boom. Great, if you’re into it, awesome. If you’re not, not a problem.
Can you talk about the program’s mission in terms of Focus Features commitment to it, and do you think their commitment has been substantial so far?
It’s there. Any studio that’s this proactive in this market period, certainly says something. It’s not just acquisitions, there’s really nobody else doing this. I think that pretty much speaks for itself. In that sense, for going into our fifth year, 2012, and the good thing is that we managed to exceed everybody’s expectations with the actual films, and the quality of most of the filmmakers themselves. Mwansa The Great just got nominated for a BAFTA. I don’t know if we thought back, six years ago, that kind of stuff might be happening.
It’s also not just about the money because we have these great advisors who work with us and who know this market and know this world, so its sort of something that exists beyond itself. The filmmakers are meeting each other. A lot of these filmmakers are the only filmmaker that they know of in their country. It can be very isolating. So it can be a great way to laterally attract each other and the advisors give mentorships. I think in the same way that Focus Features brands its filmmakers, it’s the same for Africa First.
Can you talk about the selection process for the different films in the program?
We have an open call period and our application’s available online and filmmakers can download it, fill it out, and mail it in to us. It includes basic information, information about the film, director’s statement, their previous work, and things like that, which are certainly the more important components of the application.
I don’t want to go too much in detail about the behind the scenes- about how the selections work. I can say with broad strokes that we certainly look for filmmakers who are trying to do something a little bit outside the box. Filmmakers who very clearly have a voice or something to say, and who need help to execute what they are trying to do. Filmmakers telling stories about Africa that we haven’t seen before. We have a track record of that, of filmmakers who are showing a side of the continent that people haven’t seen before. Filmmakers who are doing science-fiction or musicals or comedies, dramas about children with imagination in Africa.
I just remember that very pervasive image of the African child with the flies around their face, but there are stories about growing up in Africa, happy, well-adjusted, filled with imagination, and having a family and that’s something that we respond to. We’re one of the programs that focuses all over the continent, so anyone from any country can apply and that includes race as well, and we have a strong track record with women.
What it’s not- it’s not conceptual. It’s not like oh, we need a drama or we want comedies or we want stories about this. That’s not what we’re looking for. It’s about what you want to say, about who you are and where you’re from, and how you see the world. Filmmakers don’t get approached like that very often, like “What do you have to say?” “So, what do you think?” The people who can express that clearly, and can do it in an innovative way, are people who we respond to most.
Expanding on that, given your experience, what would you say are some specific countries within Africa that we should be really paying attention to cinematically?
There’s so many different countries. Obviously, South Africa because they’re a more established film community and that’s always going to be a place to look because there’s equipment there, there’s crew there, there’s support there. It just generates more filmmakers than your average country. With Tsotsi and District 9, everyone’s first thought is South Africa. You have North Africa- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia. Other than that, Ethiopia is going to be quite exciting in the next couple of years, we have filmmakers like Haile Gerima who have already come out of there. We just had a filmmaker who is our first from Ethiopia and it’s a project I’m excited about. There’s a history there of filmmakers but I feel like they’re probably a ways coming. Senegal always, from Ousmane Sembene and that’s going to be a well-established country for African filmmakers and there’s certainly a history of filmmakers coming out of there and Mali. I don’t like to present one place over another because the second I identify three countries, there will be a filmmaker coming out of like where is that and who?
There’s certainly hubs in Africa- Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania. They’re certainly percolating with filmmakers. West Africa- you’ve got Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal. Rwanda has produced filmmakers as well. Rwanda, Uganda- there’s little hubs and you never know and things percolate at different times. One filmmaker may come from one place and it drives up that country. The East is coming- Kenya, Ethiopia, and that region. The region is warming up and filmmakers are coming out of there. For today, it’s hard to predict. It’s like saying, what filmmakers to look for in NY or LA, it’s all jumpin’ and the popcorn’s in there and one kernel might pop before the other but they’re all in the pan. Stuff is always in the pan.
You optioned the novel, Nnedi Okorafor's novel, Who Fears Death? What’s the status on that?
Wanuri (Kahiu) is working on the script and just working on the adaptation itself and I’m not sure how familiar you are with the book, but it’s a lot of material. There’s a lot of interesting themes and we’re working on what we’re going to feature. It’s a great project and it shows Africa in a really unique way. It’s an Africa you’ve never seen before. It can literally be three films, but we’re making one. It’s a lot of movie and that’s what we’re doing, and just working on the script.
Any challenges or obstacles that you see these filmmakers facing in getting their films made?
Besides being African?!
Yea, that too. Definitely, and how that plays into their making a film.
There are numerous challenges. There’s challenges to being a filmmaker anywhere in the world. It costs money to make films, to finish them, and post them. It’s hard, and culturally, it’s not considered to be a mainstream thing. People want to know what you’re thinking, what’s going on, what’s going on where you live, so there’s just inbred challenges to doing a film and training, and getting the right level of education and support. Filmmakers in certain countries just don’t have anyone around doing films or making a living off of it, so it’s not something that’s the most popular profession or something that’s one of the most stable professions.
We now work with 20 filmmakers, and its tough to raise money and the films aren’t as cheap as people think they are. People think, “Oh it’s Africa, didn’t the film cost 18 cents?,” and the answer is no. Actually because there’s not people around to do this type of work sometimes, you have to bring people in and it costs even more, and they are not necessarily small enterprises.
We got over 100 applications last year for five slots. People are out there and they are hungry. We can’t work with everybody but it’s a push that we’ve been able to work with who we have thus far and hopefully the quality of their experience really meant something. It’s not for the faint at heart. Even for black people in the business, this is not playtime. So you really have to feel the light at the end of the tunnel and walk towards it.
What has been the reception for the films that have been released through the program?
It’s a lot of surprise. People are surprised when they see our films, and they’re surprised with the quality of it and the general production, the quality of the storytelling, and the fact that people are saying these kinds of things on the continent, and its been tremendous. So the response has been really overwhelming to the films. And within that, there’s so much general shock with the level of sophistication that the filmmakers are telling stories, and people don’t know what to expect. And where people’s minds tend to go- you know this is going to be in the bush with people in grass skirts, and some drums in the background. And they see a film with special effects, and they’re like, where did this come from?
Where do you think that response comes from?
It comes from the fact that images of Africa are pretty sad, tragic, and horrible. When all you see of a continent is death, and AIDS, and starving children with flies crawling on their faces, and you see happy children or you see different ideas, you just think they can’t be coming from the same place. So, that’s why.
What I respond to is the films. I always look for films that reflect my experience of being in the continent and going to Africa over and over again, and having all of these great experiences, and you come back and see what Africa looks like, and it’s one very narrow version of the story, so a lot of what I respond to when I’m getting submissions, are things that are reflective of the place I experienced, and not just one story. I’m not saying those stories aren’t important, especially with the Rwandan Genocide and it did really happen and it was tragic, but there are other things that happen on the Continent. But in the same context, I think diversity of the image is very important and Africa is not a country, it’s a continent. If there can be 5,000 versions of the European story, there can be 10,000 versions of the African story. When people found out I was going to Africa, they’re like “Oh no, are you going to be alright? Are you going to make it out alive? Is a crocodile going to eat you?” People’s ideas of what it looks like and what the countries are like is just crazy.
When you see these films, you’re like, that’s different. Because it’s not that same image of the continent, but that’s also what’s great about it. It’s not just what you saw, it’s much more than that. Showing the diversity of countries and information is what’s exciting. There’s so much we haven’t seen.
Thanks to Kisha for her time and for sharing her experiences with, and enlightening us.
Over the next few weeks, S&A will profile each member of the current class of selected Africa First filmmakers, so watch for them all.