preserving african (and women's) cinema


Director Ousmane Sembene (1923-2007)
As a third year film student at NYU Grad Film, I designed an independent study course in African Cinema. My syllabus comprised readings and films, a long list of directors from Ousmane Sembene to Djibril Diop Mambety and Mahamet Saleh Haroun. (View my African Cinema syllabus.)

Thankfully, women's empowerment has long been a staple theme in the work of renowned African directors (and other proponents of Third World cinema) which meant I did not have to compromise my core African feminist values in order to complete the course.

I can remember vividly scrawling the names of the African women directors into my notebook, determined to watch (and know and love and critique) their work. Safi Faye. Tsitsi Dangarembga. Claire Denis. Although I was not yet familiar with their film work, I imagined I'd discover kindred spirits, long lost sisters in whose path I was destined to follow.

Yes, in the course of my studies that happened. But it was a long, circuitous path getting there. What happened first was an unforeseen obstacle, that many of the films by African directors were not available on DVD or at all, and those that were still in distribution were largely on VHS tape. This created the dilemma, as a student, of having to watch them on site at the campus library (specifically, the Avery Fisher Media Center) in one of those ancient viewing carrels with faulty headphones and irresponsive control buttons that rewound or fast forwarded at a snail's pace. (And believe me, watching a VHS of Haroun's Bye, Bye Africa is a sign of true love.)

In some cases, the tapes didn't work at all or cut off at a certain point, the image disintegrating into staticky noise. Then, of course, AFC decided to move all the VHS tapes that hadn't been watched in awhile to an offsite storage facility, which meant that most of these African directors' works could not be viewed "instantaneously," but rather after a lengthy request process involving forms, departments, and interlibrary mail.

What occurred to me then was that these works needed to be digitized and catalogued in an easily accessible way that made a shred of sense to a lay person.

But what also occurred to me was that the African women film directors faced a specific problem of disappearing into the ether, as it were, given that their works were less likely to be requested.  This means their tapes will not be kept onsite and, if it happens, nobody knows when a tape goes missing. If a tape goes bad, nobody knows either. And the only (yes, only) copy available for circulation to one of the topmost film universities in the world would cease to exist, the director's name stricken from the available records, and the story untold.

Given that many of these films are no longer in distribution, the odds of obtaining another copy were next to zero. And even if the tape did exist, and worked, the percentage of folks willing to fill out the form, wait for the request to be filled, and return to the library when the tape arrived was very low.

If we can move past the issue of films not being accessible, the African films available at NYU more heavily represent Francophone African directors whose work has reached critically acclaimed global acceptance. Nollywood is not well represented at all (ie, there isn't a single Kunle Afolayan feature film available in the entire AFC catalog), nor (as already stated) African women directors across the board. The latter was a deep personal failure of mine, that I could not scrounge up more women directors' films to watch and critique and write about in my final paper. Even worse that I had read about so many of them in books, but simply could not watch their work.

I don't really know how to explain any of these things. I don't know what is the process for a film being included in a university library. I definitely had the thought that Kino International, California Newsreel, and other foreign language film distributors need to take this issue up (perhaps iROKOtv, that distributes a steady diet of contemporary films can make room for the classics?).

But then I had to ask myself where the directors themselves are on the issue of making sure their works continue to be preserved and seen by academics and audiences alike. I suppose the latter is often our main concern--festivals, a theatrical release, DVD or VOD distribution. We do not often think of libraries. I do not know why it matters so much to me except to say it is one's inclusion in these catalogues that ensures your work will never die.

And as a writer (prose and films alike) and director, I aspire to immortality.

I do hope that the newer distribution platforms that are emerging will help to eliminate this problem for the younger crop of African (and women) film directors who are coming up, but something must be done for the ones who paved the way. I had a long conversation with a festival programmer about FESPACO, in which I learnt of the accidental destruction of 1500 reels following a series of floods in Burkina Faso.

It is the kind of thing we practitioners might lament at the cocktail bar at a film opening, but it is really one of those dire problems that we need to address. A real and very serious problem that affects African women and male directors alike and, as a matter of historical record, humanity. --AL.

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