Opening Address By Minister Pallo Jordan to African Film Summit, Pretoria
Thank You Programme Director,
Deputy Minister Ntombazana Botha,
Mr Eddie Mbalo, CEO of the NFVF,
Mr Mfundi Vundla, Chairperson of the Board of the NFVF,
Mr Gadala Gubara, the Doyen of African Film,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I once again have the honour to greet you on behalf of the people of South Africa and their government. In opening today’s proceedings I am extremely mindful of the challenges that we are called upon to address.
Film and the cinema differ from the other disciplines because they are so eminently democratic. Film is comprehensive, combining the visual with the aural, and with the advances made in technology, can even harness the tactile.
Film-making entails the harnessing of virtually all humanity’s achievements in the sciences and technology, skillfully combined with our achievements in the arts. Cinema is quintessentially a modern medium, dependent on myriad contributors – some of whom are recognized but with thousands of others not even acknowledged. The platform on which the film industry stands is an industrial economy that extends far beyond the set and the studio.
The value chain involved in the making of a film is amongst the longest. I suppose it begins with the creative person/s that conceive and write the script. But for it to move further it needs people who can conceive and build the sets. Then it embraces those who are responsible for the lighting, those who compose the music and play the score. Besides the directors, the producers the actors, the scriptwriters and cinematographers who receive most of the acclaim, there are a host of other role-players who contribute towards the realization of the product. Film and film-making are inconceivable without the numerous industrial processes of the modern age that we take so much for granted.
The human family is unique in its ability and desire to externalize itself through acts of creation reflecting on its experience, its environment, and its own life as a species and to toy with the products of its own imagination. Humans sing, dance, sculpt, carve, paint, recite poetry, tell stories and we record our memories because nature endowed us with certain unique abilities. As a species we are also obsessively curious, always posing the question: why? By consistently posing that question, the human animal arrived at a second, and perhaps more significant question: Why not?
Our quest to answer that second question spurred us to change and constantly transform our environment, and by so doing to make and re-make ourselves. Artistic creation is an important dimension of that search and of our urge to create a better world.
The earliest attempts to record and preserve the words, thoughts, ideas and feelings of a human were executed on African soil, along the Nile River valley. The depiction of our activities, of the world around us, of the events that impact on our lives through graphic art and writing brought about what was probably the most profound Cultural Revolution experienced by our ancestors. Both were extremely empowering. Their consequences have shaped and reshaped our universe in ways that none of those early humans could have anticipated. They freed communication and the transmission of information and knowledge from the constraints of space (distance) and time. Freed from the need for direct contact, it became possible to communicate and to receive accurate communications uninhibited by distance. They gave humanity the ability to commune with the present, the past and the future. The thoughts, opinions, emotions, beliefs, values and experiences of people acquired infinite mobility, even immortality.
Africans have recorded their thoughts and emotions in verse, in rock art, in sculpture, in music, in dance and in writing for centuries. Recall, memory and speech were the ways we transferred these from one place to the next. The story-teller was that purveyor of experience, employing memory as the chief tool of her/his trade. The story-teller also relied on memory amongst her/his audience to preserve, recycle and to re-tell the stories to new listeners.
Being quintessentially collective property, the tale was passed down from generation to generation and owed its authorship to a number of tellers. The film-maker is our modern day dramatic story-teller who invites his audience to view reality through her/his eyes. Because of its immediacy, film has proven to be one of the most effective means of mass communication – capable to informing the widest circle of people simultaneously. Because films can be produced and reproduced over and over, their reach is virtually infinite. Not surprisingly, film has also been very effective, employed as the cheapest and most effective means of mis-informing, misleading and indoctrinating masses of people.
Our images of the past and of present-day reality are shaped in large measure by information we receive from others. And, as any good story-teller knows, how that information is received and processed depends in large measure on how it is packaged. No other medium lends itself as readily to such manipulation as film. Light, sound and a host of other effects can be employed to signal threat or comfort.
Africans, on the home continent and those in the diaspora, should know from first-hand experience how these devices have been employed since the earliest days of film to de-humanise, degrade, demean and otherwise strip us of our humanity. All colonial people have been at the receiving end of such treatment, and the film industry shares a great measure of responsibility for that. We have all seen it on the silver screen at one time or another: In the words of a latter day American troubadour Bob Dylan :
“The cavalry charged,
The Indians fell,
The cavalry charged,
The Indians died,
The country was young,
With God on its side!”
Which one amongst us has not had their image of the North African shaped by the repeated remakes of Beau Geste? Do the older participants recall the image of the wily, cunning, and essentially evil, oriental purveyed in the movies about Dr Fu Manchu? The African and people of African descent continue to be stigmatized in this manner like no others, precisely by the film industry, especially by Hollywood.
By entering this space, the African film-maker is writing and perhaps rewriting Africa’s history by producing the kinds of films that relate our own stories, from our own African perspective. Our ability to produce films that portray the reality of our people’s experience without compromising our dignity is fundamental to the vision of a truly African cinema.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Since the late Thomas Sankara convened the first summit for African film-makers in Ouagadougou, this is second occasion on which we are coming together to map out the way forward. The African film and video industry could be the mirror in which Africans can be afforded the opportunity to self-critically look at ourselves. It must assist us to explore and dissect our experience, in all its complexity, and give expression to the African imagination, while being entertaining, enthralling and uplifting. We are not pleading for a cinema that will induce complacency through self-congratulation. Africa needs films that portray us as we really are, warts and all. We need cinema that will challenge us to strive even harder to attain the goals our continent has set for this century. We want an industry that is involved with development and that can provide a medium through which the creative and technical talents of Africans can be showcased around the world.
I want to pose again the questions that our summit must address if we are to move forward from this summit. Whom are we making our films for? How are we going to ensure that our films reach our African audiences? What do we as film-makers have to do, in our individual countries and across the continent, to make it possible for our industry to grow, develop and prosper on a continent that is still largely un-electrified and where most countries still await the industrial revolution?
The inextricable linkages between industrial processes and the film industry compel film-makers to address these questions. I would submit that as long as Africans are not in a position to carry the process of making a film from conception to the edit suite, so long will ours be an industry that is dependent on others. We know from bitter experience the consequences of dependency.
It is one of our hopes that from this summit we will emerge with a network that not only links the players in African film, but that will enable us to expand the floor of opportunity on the African continent and amongst Africans by maximizing the use of the resources available on the continent. Among other things, that will require us to undertake a serious audit of what is available here in Africa and among the Africans in the diaspora. I pose the question:
• Why should an African film company search the studios of Europe, America or Australia for a skilled director when there are so many on our own continent?
• When will the wealth of acting talent we have on the continent be properly harnessed while we still feel that big name Hollywood stars should be cast in African roles?
• If the cost of making films is so high that co-productions are the only viable route, how many co-production agreements are there among African countries?
• What role do we see African public broadcasters, many still dependent on wares from London, Hollywood, Paris and other developed countries, playing in the development of an African film and video industry?
• How many African film distributors have explored the potential of the new technology that have come in stream during the last twenty years to offer Africans in the villages of our continent access to this important medium of communication and information?
It is through a frank and honest dialogue amongst ourselves that we will find the answers to these questions.
Audiences in other parts of the world have expressed their confidence in African film by voting with their wallets and with their feet. It is time that the financial institutions of the continent and its business community displayed the same degree of confidence in our industry’s capacity.
African film professionals have come together in a summit to take stock of the state of African cinema in the context of a global economic order. Last October, in Paris, the general conference of UNESCO adopted a Convention on the Protection of Cultural Diversity. Given the immense power wielded by the cultural industries of the developed countries, Africa’s youthful film industry must define its role and its future within that environment. I am pleased to note that African governments recognize the value of this initiative and support it.
The creative economy of this continent has great potential. Its growth and development will depend in large measure on the interventions film-makers and African governments make. If this is to be the African century we aspire to, that aspiration must be under-girded by our willingness to encourage, affirm and support Africa’s creative artists.
Mr Programme Director,
The Ministry of Arts and Culture will follow the deliberations of this week with keen interest. We wish you all every success. And, may we emerge from this summit with a viable strategy and a shared vision of our future.