The Guardian has published yet another of its lists of the Top 10/20 films/songs etc. of a particular artist or genre. Most of these are just bits of fluff to pad out the pages of its arts supplement and readers will probably find these lists online. The lists are mildly irritating because they ‘rank’ titles – an exercise seemingly aimed simply at generating interest and argument and ‘beneath the line’ comments. In this case, however, the ‘African films list’ does perform a function that could be useful.
‘African Cinema’ is a contradictory concept. As one of the comments on this particular list points out, the continent is diverse with many languages and cultures. It has three significant film industries, in Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa (the latter two themselves covering different cultures) and many other sometimes isolated producers across the continent. Africa is also an attractive location for stories and productions funded from Europe and North America. But given all of this diverse production, very few African films make it into distribution in the UK. Very few ever appear in cinemas. Some make it into film festivals and some are now becoming available on DVD and/or online platforms. Because of this general lack of access, the Guardian list should at least raise the profile of African films.
The single most useful aspect of the list is to offer a link to TANO. ‘Tano’ is the Swahili word for ‘five’ and here refers to the UK’s five African Film Festivals (in Scotland, Wales, Bristol, London and Cambridge) which have joined together to offer an online festival of African films from the last ten years – one per year as chosen by audiences at the festivals (not ‘classic films’ as the Guardian implies). The online festival runs from 1st October to 20 October and the first film on offer, Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man (Chad 2010) is still streaming today – and it is very good, so do try and watch it. After that there is a new film every couple of days. I’ve seen only two of the films and I’m pleased to see the others getting a screening. I think the films are available for a “Pay as Much as you think appropriate donation” from £2-£10. The only drawback is that the timing, in Black History Month, clashes with the London Film Festival and a couple of others. There just isn’t enough time to watch them all! Half of the 10 films on offer come from South Africa or Kenya, often with European support. This reflects the shift in support for African productions. In the 1970s and 1980s, nearly all the African films which reached the UK were from West Africa or North Africa, often part funded/distributed by French cultural agencies.
The Guardian’s promotion is a list ‘written by’ Peter Bradshaw. He lists A Top 10 in the print version and this is extended to a Top 20 online in ‘rank order’. It’s an odd list in some ways. The Top 10 are all reasonably well-known, but the next ten include half a dozen titles I haven’t seen and in most cases wasn’t aware of. I wonder how Bradshaw saw them? Probably, they were screened at festivals, sometimes as restorations or archive prints. Unfortunately the list loses some of its usefulness if readers can’t find the films. The list includes two titles going back to the 1950s and several much more recent titles. It’s certainly worth a look and if you can find any of the films online, I hope it spurs you on to look for the others (several of the Top 10 exist on UK DVDs). It does seem a list designed to attract comment and as commenters have noted, it includes District 9 as a South African film, so why not Tsotsi from Gavin Hood or Chocolat, Beau Travail or White Material by Claire Denis? What is an African film after all?