It’s a paradox. As cinemas close across Africa, homegrown blockbusters are actually eclipsing Hollywood on the African market as for the first time in 13 years an African feature competes for the top award at Cannes.This weekend, “A Screaming Man” by Chad director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun joins 18 other movies selected to contend for the prestigious Palme d’Or, awarded May 23 at the close of the 12-day film festival.
Yet cinemas across the continent are pulling down screens, converted to pentecostal churches, night clubs or warehouses.The average rate of closure is estimated at one a month — an endemic trend blamed on ticket prices too high for the average African as well as on the proliferation of cheap pirated DVDs at any street corner.Around 50 cinemas remain in business — most in South Africa and Kenya with a few in Nigeria — thanks to mushrooming city shopping malls.In Ivory Coast, west Africa’s cultural crossroads, “cinema is dying, if it is not dead already”, said award-winning producer Roger Gnoan M’Bala.In Senegal, home to some of the continent’s most renowned early filmmakers such as the late Ousmane Sembene, cinemas have all but shut down. “Senegal is one big black screen,” said local weekly La Gazette.
A vestige of film resistance in West Africa is the Oscars’equivalent, FESPACO, Africa’s biggest film festival held every two years in Burkina Faso.But Africa’s most populous country Nigeria 18 years ago burst into production with affordable movies now shot with digital cameras that shun the more expensive classical 35mm format.Known as Nollywood, the Nigerian movie industry has in recent years galloped ahead of Hollywood to be ranked second in the world in production terms after India’s Bollywood.A UNESCO study last year placed Nollywood second to Bollywood in terms of the numbers of films produced, with Hollywood trailing in third position. In 2006 for example, Nigeria churned out 872 productions against 485 in the United States.
Film-makers say the digital camera has helped boost African film production, with Nigerians releasing what some dub “microwave” movies that can be ready in under a month.Nollywood “has taken over completely” from Hollywood, said Nigeria’s film producer and director Teco Benson, saying it is the latest “superpower” in the movie industry.“It’s Africa’s new rebranding tool”.The good news is that African film-lovers go for Nollywood.“Africans watch more Nollywood than Hollywood,” commented another local director and producer Zeb Ejiro. Most Nollywood movies depict societal ills — corruption, fraud, drugs and human trafficking, love triangles and witchcraft — and almost all go for happy endings.