New Internationalist

Where is the real cinema?

December 2010

Malcolm Lewis finds quality beyond Disney and exotic settings…

Ten Canoes was the first full-length film made entirely in an indigenous Australian language.

Out of the 500 top-grossing films just six are set in Africa, but none are about Africans. Two are cartoons from Disney and Dreamworks – The Lion King and Madagascar. Then there’s The Prince of Egypt, about Moses, two Mummy films, and Black Hawk Down, about an American army raid in Mogadishu. Apart from there being a few lions and lemurs about, you wouldn’t learn much about Africa from any of them.

The experience of a person in an African village or township doesn’t figure high in filmmakers’ priorities. It’s not just Africa that misses out. The four top-grossing films set in South and Central America are one Indiana Jones adventure and three trips with Pirates of the Caribbean. You get the picture – we don’t actually get pictures which are about the place.

In mainstream film, the world’s poorest regions are simply a setting, with all sorts of threats that someone like ‘us’ has to escape from. The highest-profile ‘African’ film of recent years, The Last King of Scotland, is a little more serious, but, as is the norm, it’s about The White Man abroad. Forest Whitaker as the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin won the Leading Actor Oscar yet there’s little interest in what motivated Amin or in post-colonial Uganda.

Is this excessively gloomy? Slumdog Millionaire was a massive hit last year and ‘The White Man’ is not centre stage. That’s a huge step forward. But where are the others?

The children’s film Africa United, now on release, is about Africans in Africa. Sadly, like much of the mainstream (and TV) it patronizes its audience and takes any stings out of the tale. It probably wouldn’t have been made without Slumdog – producers and distributors tend to take their lead from the market.

The recent London Film Festival (LFF) showed more than 50 films from Africa, Asia and South and Central America, and over 100 shorts. Running alongside it, The Native Spirit Festival, ‘promoting the cultures of indigenous people’, showed 45 films. But only four from the LFF and none from Native Spirit had cinema distribution deals.

One of the best at The Native Spirit Festival was a conventionally unclassifiable short, Native New Yorker, about a Native American following an old trail to a burial ground. Its opening brilliantly captures the energy and hubris of the transformation before we see the twin towers of the World Trade Center on fire. In 13 minutes it brilliantly encapsulates aeons. It ought to be – but hasn’t been – widely seen. (

Maybe things are starting to change. State-subsidized festivals to some degree stand outside the market and reach the parts that the mainstream shuns. Some, to reach a wider audience, are starting to put films online. This month the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) is launching IDFA TV to webcast films, including the superb Tehran Has No More Pomegranates, about the world’s most polluted city. The Rotterdam Film Festival in January is showing shorts on YouTube. In March, the Women’s Voices From The Muslim World festival is happening in Los Angeles – and online. Check them out.

10 great films from the Global South available on DVD: Abouna; A Time for Drunken Horses; Bamako; City of God; Lumumba; Mooladé; Not One Less; Story of the Weeping Camel; Ten Canoes; Tsotsi

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 438 This column was published in the December 2010 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 438

New Internationalist Magazine issue 438
Issue 438

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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