Last week, Unifrance hosted a special Filmmaker Talk with directors of African films co-produced by France in the IDFA 2020 program. Myriam Bakir of Mothers, Mohamed Said Ouma of Red Card, and Dieudo Hamadi of Downstream to Kinshasa spoke about the benefits of co-productions with Europe, but also of the risks and downsides this often-necessary production approach entails.
The talk was opened by IDFA Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia who reminded us that the term "creative documentary" was coined in France in the early 1980s, probably by the Paris-based Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán.
"When we say documentaire de création, we think of a particular history of defending the author, l'auteur, in cinema in general and in documentary cinema too," he said. "When we think of that, it immediately becomes a question of international collaboration.
"France has been one of the countries doing the highest number of international co-productions in the past decades. We must give French cinema its place. In this sense, it's not only about French cinema, because the role of French cinema is actually promotion of cinema d'auteur and documentary filmmaking on the global level."
Nyrabia then gave the floor to Daniela Elstner, Director General of Unifrance, who emphasized the importance of letting filmmakers talk about their experiences.
"I think it's very important that we leave this floor to the filmmakers to express their difficulties and their experiences. The films you make are more important than ever to be seen in this world," she said.
Moderator Tessa Boerman then asked the three filmmakers about the scope of their European relations.
Bakir, whose film Mothers stood out in the Mid-Length Competition for tackling the topic of single motherhood in Morocco, noted that this issue is well known in the country, yet it's still difficult find financing there.
"Meeting a French producer really helped kickstart the financing, open doors, and get additional funding in Morocco," she said.
For Said Ouma, the situation was somewhat different. His film Red Card (pictured on top), which had its world premiere in the Luminous section, follows the women's basketball team of the Comoros Islands as they train for the Indian Ocean Island Games.
"I've already made a fiction feature through a co-production with France, but this project is specific because it is a collaboration through Île de Réunion," he said, referring to the small French island in the Indian Ocean.
"It's difficult making films in Comoros because you are far away from where decisions are made. So it was important for me to make this film with people from the region: editor Nantenaina Lova is from Madagascar, DoP Azim Moollan is from Mauritius, and co-producer Bérangère Condomines is from Réunion. This feeling of knowing one another was extremely important," Said Ouma explained.
Hamadi, whose Masters entry Downstream to Kinshasa follows victims of the 2000 war in the city of Kisangani in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo as they seek compensation, said he had made all his films in co-production with European countries.
"In DR Congo this is the only possibility to get funding, and then it gives you the chance to start shooting and look for more financing," he said.
Said Ouma noted the situation is the same in his country.
"In Comoros, cinema is something new. There is no national film fund, so when you're making a film you have to find the right producer and get the money where you can get it, whether it's France, Sweden, or China," he said. "But this has a cost which is sometimes huge."
Bakir immediately knew what he was referring to.
"It can be a risk that the cultural aspect has to be clearly understood and agreed upon by the author and producers, so that was a slight worry for me," she said. "I was lucky to be able to find a woman producer from France who did understand what I was working on. The topic of single motherhood is an important cultural aspect. There's always a risk that the foreign producer won't understand what your main issue is."
This (lack of) awareness of European producers and funding systems about African specificities is indeed a key point in this discussion, prompting Said Ouma to relate a telling anecdote.
"I remember some 10 or 15 years ago, I was with a friend from Mauritius and he was pitching a project in Amiens. I remember the commission asking him questions like if they had electricity and cameras in Mauritius. What they project unconsciously onto us is sometimes so totally remote that you spend half of your time explaining where you are coming from, almost like a professor of geography," he recalled.
"You have to understand where we're coming from," he continued. "When it comes to cinema, Europe used cinema for many decades as a soft power tool, especially in 1960s and 1970s, to keep hold of African countries.
"And then you have to understand that our governments have neglected cinema. So from that space, how can you manage to have a transparent relationship with your partner? You are in a safe space when you find a producer. At that point the film is a dream. You dream with your producer so you're going to go and fight to get that film done. But when it comes to money, to where you're going to screen your film... People are going to see the film at IDFA tomorrow, but are they ever going to see it in the Comoros? I don't even know."
Bakir had a very good connection with her French co-producer Cécile Vacheret of Sedna Films even before they found the funding.
"It would've been much more difficult for me if there was a huge budget but there was also a misunderstanding with the producer. I think as filmmakers we can also play a role in creating bridges because on both sides of the divide there is a misunderstanding," she said.
Hamadi was more blunt: "One is always aware of the fact that the hand that gives the money is in a superior position to the one who is receiving. It's what one feels and as an African filmmaker you have to deal with conditions and requirements that have been decided upon without consulting you specifically. When you work with a European partner, there's always this condition that 70% to 80% of provided money has to stay in Europe. That's a mechanism that's simply put in place and it's take it or leave it. That always plays a role."
He then compared the system of co-productions and its effect on African filmmakers to the political systems on the continent.
"For one, we live in a country where war continues and politics are very difficult, so it also means we are a country where a lot of NGOs work," he explained. "It's good in many ways because obviously it helps save lives, but on the other hand, it makes our country and government depend on help from outside, and they don't need to do things because NGOs will do them. It's similar to what happens in cinema. Of course we have this financing from Europe and we need it, but at the same time it may mean we are not developing mechanisms in our own countries."
The impact on specific films being made is huge, Said Ouma believes.
"Take a young African filmmaker and an experienced European producer and throw them into the system," he mused. "This first-time filmmaker obviously has no tools to be able to sustain his vision through all of this process, because the financing system happens through commissions that consist of people reading the projects and scripts. Sometimes they don't even know that your country exists. It's not a direct impact, but from their feedback you realize that these people don't understand what I'm trying to say about my country.
"It's a very funny situation when you have people sitting at a table 20,000 km away from you telling you how you have to portray your country. At some point we have to find a new system because this doesn't play for us, especially for countries that don't have national film funds. You spend three or four years on a project and then it is in hands of five people who never heard of Kisangani in their lives, and they're going to tell you how to film Kisangani."
The cultural gap goes way deeper than that—into the very fabric of making a film—according to Bakir, who was born in France.
"OK, the money has to stay in France so I work in France, and half the crew are French. Sometimes I might have a preference to work with someone from Morocco, not only because of their nationality, but because they're good professionals," she explained.
"So you have to explain a lot to the producer, and when you're in post-production you have to explain once again to all the technicians that you're working with what is it you want to do. There's always this tension between two countries, two political systems, two reasonings, so you have to be very much aware and take care that you stand up for the film you have to make."
Boerman then asked, what can be done to help fix this system so it works better for everyone?
"One of the solutions could be to open up these commissions a bit more, because you can't only have people who know so little about the subject and about the country making these financial decisions," Hamadi offered.
Said Ouma added that there are now funds and initiatives such as Documentary Africa or Ouaga Film Lab that help African filmmakers find financing, but also put pressure on decision makers.
"They have the solutions. Maybe not this generation of politicians, but we hope someday we'll have some who understand. But until we get to those, we have to keep up the pressure so they understand this is a very important cultural industry and it can benefit them, bring jobs, and help the image of the country. So we should open up the commissions but we need to keep our leaders accountable and try to push them to make the decisions.
"I'm really optimistic. Right now it's an exciting time to be an African filmmaker despite what we've been saying for the past hour. We have countries that are starting. Senegal now has a national film fund. My film is an example because I applied to the Senegalese post-production fund. I've been rejected by all those commissions and Senegal saved me. This is a concrete example of South-South collaboration. That is also a way forward," he concluded.