Industry Insights: Film Africa curator Suzy Gillett

Industry Insights: Film Africa curator Suzy Gillett

Running from November 1 to November 10 at half a dozen venues across London  – namely BFI Southbank, Brixton Ritzy, Ciné Lumière, Hackney Picturehouse, Rich Mix and South London Gallery – Film Africa promises to be one of the most exciting events in our fair capital’s packed festival calendar.

Leading the 2013 programming team is curator Suzy Gillett, who kindly took time out from a phenomenally busy schedule (she’s also International Relations Manager at the London Film School, as well as a film essay director and workshop producer) to chat to BEV reporter Manish Agarwal about her work…

BEV: This is the third year proper of Film Africa. How has the event evolved?

SG: There has been over the years some form of African film festival [in London]. I worked on an antecedent in 2003/4. Then three years ago the Royal African Society came into play, as it were, and they relaunched the whole thing. It’s the third year, but it’s been reincarnated again and again. This year we’ve tried to make it very cinematic by putting more images out there. Make it feel like a real film festival – something alive and dynamic.

We have a tendency in the West, often through the unhelpful filter of our media, to process what is a diverse and massive continent as one country.

It’s an entire continent’s festival, so it’s huge! We’ve been very open, so North Africa is included – sometimes people draw a sub-Saharan line. There’s definitely not a homogeneous feel. Every single film is an individual piece made by an individual coming from a particular country. Sometimes that has a relationship with the project and sometimes it doesn’t. There are universal stories that could have been made anywhere, but they were made in Africa.

Is it a challenge balancing the desire to represent as many countries as possible with what you’ve actually got available to programme?

I got the job in June and started running, working seven days a week throughout the summer. I had to deliver the programme by the start of September. What happens is you start watching films and you have to respond with a sense of audience: I’ve just paid £10 for a ticket. Am I happy? Do I want to see another film made by that director? It’s about trying to find cinematic films that work in cinemas.

The thing about trying to have a geographic range was unconscious. I did warn everybody that I would have a tendency to put lots of Francophone films in the programme, because that’s my area of speciality. And there are quite a few North African films in the Crossing Borders shorts strand programmed by Rosa Abidi, because Maghreb cinema is her thing. Last year there were 17 films from South Africa because the festival director was South African. My area of expertise is somewhere else. That said, the opening film [Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s Of Good Report] is South African!

Were there countries you couldn’t find movies from?

I’m a Mali music and cinema fanatic – 20 years of my life has been spent considering Malian culture – and there was nothing. That was quite tragic. On the other hand, there’s been a surge in Senegalese women making films, as showcased at Toronto. B for Boy [Nigeria, written and directed by Chika Anadu] was at the London Film Festival. We could have that next year. We’re not in a festival race. We’re more about nurturing and curating a space, rather than being competitive. Film Africa’s not an industry-led festival. It’s about sharing this work with an audience. But we do have an industry day, with speakers discussing The Business of Film in Africa. And there’s a whole Nigerian panel, debating the Nollywood brand versus something like B for Boy, which is more of a ‘festival film’.

For the uninitiated, which includes myself, let’s talk about Nollywood!

Nollywood is a particular kind of cinema that has a very fast turnover. They’re more like soap operas – there’s definitely a series-based feeling to them – and they can go on for hours and hours. They used to be primarily Yoruba movies, but now you have Nollywood from all over. There are some similar things happening in Ghana. It’s basically a homegrown industry. Nigeria has such a huge population and they’ve got this infrastructure, so they’ve just been churning it out. The problem, then, is that it can be quite hard to watch. Back in 2004 I programmed an entire afternoon of Nollywood cinema by trawling through DVDs for hours and hours and hours to find the ones I could get into.

Because there’s so much it can be quite daunting, so for Film Africa this year we got a specialist programmer: Phoenix Fry, who runs the Deptford Film Club. He did the first UK Nollywood film festival in 2010 and is passionate about celebrating it. He knows who all the directors and actors are. Nollywood for me is something apart – less about cinematic vision, more about telling stories and community. We’ve got some of the classics of Nollywood cinema, including the first film from 21 years ago [Chris Obi Rapu’s straight-to-video shot Living in Bondage, screening in a double bill with its 1993 sequel].

In complete contrast, you have the fabulously titled Bonfires & Revolutions strand.

That’s from my little anarchist side! Inspired by the mass demonstrations UK Uncut hold on  the 5th of November. I think Bonfire Night is a good time for it. That’s the only strand I’ve put in as a sort of collective of films. Which are more or less post-traumatic stress films! Not necessarily a call to revolution, more there’s been a revolution and look what’s happened. So you’ve got Babylon, about the camp for displaced persons after the Libyan war kicked off, which is just an astonishing film. Shot by three Tunisians over a long period period of this camp being built, being populated and then being dismantled. There are no subtitles. It’s complete immersion into this world, where you feel as close as you possibly could to actually being there. There’s a repetition of days going by and this babble of voices. Occasionally you hear an English voice. But otherwise you’re just in this mass, being pushed along in the queue to get food. [It brings] this amazing feeling of being displaced to the cinematic space.

And then The Battle of Tabatô was the first one I bought. I used Festival Scope because I didn’t have time to go and ponce around festivals. So I sat in front of Festival Scope and went through the films I had on my radar. The Battle of Tabatô is quite an astonishing film by an Angolan-born director [João Viana] who’s very much in the Portugese art cinema vein of Pedro Costa and Miguel Gomes.

Watch the Film Africa 2013 trailer

There’s a pan-global dimension to the festival: not all the filmmakers are based in Africa.

I did ask the Royal African Society at my interview if it was okay to have films made by Europeans in Africa. And they said yes, that was fine. But those are quite minimal in the programme, only four or five, because the films are so strong. But we didn’t want that idea of, Here we are in Africa again! I was aware of my position as an English-based curator, bringing African films to the UK. Thinking about what our relationship to those films is.

Katrine Riis Kjaer’s adoption documentary Mercy Mercy sticks out, in that regard.

Mercy Mercy is the most problematic film of the festival! Lemn Sissay sent the film and I literally shook for a couple of hours after watching. Because of what it’s telling you, and also because it poses an enormous problem about the role of the documentary filmmaker. So then I had a discussion with Lemn, who himself was adopted. For him, this is the most important film ever made about transnational adoption. The most raw film. Without giving too much away, Katrine Riis Kjaer set off from Denmark with the intention of making a happy documentary about the adoption process… She ended up following the families for four years. We have the director coming over for a Q&A with Hannah Pool, who herself was adopted from Eritrea into an English family. She’s going to contextualize that screening.

Female filmmakers are well-represented at Film Africa.

I was looking for very good films by female directors. We’ve got Leila Kilani’s On the Edge, which received its UK premiere at Birds Eye View. I think that’s an incredibly important film – by a woman and about women. Jeppe on a Friday has been made by a group of women but it doesn’t necessarily have a female-led story. It follows five characters on the same day. And we’ve got one family film, Aya de Yopougon. That’s by Marguerite Abouet, who does very successful graphic novels. This is her first animation and it’s very, very nice! Set in 1970s Ivory Coast, with incredible music and cartoon characters watching real adverts from the ’70s on TV. It’s very evocative – quite a simple story, beautifully done. That’s a sort of hidden jewel, the only animation among all these features.

You’ve also got a night dedicated to Mati Diop.

Mati Diop is an art-based filmmaker whose films are cinematic. More for cinema screenings than galleries. This year is the 40th anniversary of Touki Bouki, directed by her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty. Mati’s made a tribute to his film called Mille Soleils, in which she tracks the main actor. It’s labelled a documentary but actually it’s a very beautiful fiction. She’s created an amazing Western, really. We’ve got that playing on the same evening as Touki Bouki, which is one of the most important films in the canon of African cinema. It’s unique: a French existential movie that’s also completely Senegalese. That’s one of my all-time favourite films. Martin Scorsese’s done a beautiful job reconditioning the print, so we’ve got an amazing copy of it. That’s a film which should be screened every month. Everyone should see it.

Is it important to you that African cinema becomes a greater part of our ongoing dialogue about film in general?

Completely! My understanding of cinema really started with Sembène Ousmane. The first French book I read was by him. It’s obvious to me, but for other people it’s not. So there’s a necessity to include classics as well. We’re partnering with the BFI to screen Alain Gomis’ film Tey on the same bill as Sembène Ousmane’s short Borom Sarret, which was the first film made by a sub-Saharan African. And then there’s La noire de…, which was his first feature. It’s important to be able to add these to a contemporary, ‘now’ programme. For people to understand what cinema was and is, the ongoing dialogue. We’ve also got three films by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who is the only African director who is consistently distributed in the UK. Dry Season and A Screaming Man, which are very powerful, plus his most recent feature Grisgris. They form a loose trilogy. A Screaming Man won the Jury Prize in Cannes in 2010. He’s a big player on the world scene.

And at the other end of the spectrum there’s the Baobab Award for emerging African filmmakers.

I work at a film school and see a lot of shorts, so I said let’s have 15 at Film Africa. The team spent their summer watching shorts, then we all looked at the ones they felt were worth sharing. That random original number, 15, eventually stretched to 34 shorts! These became as important as features: the young talent of tomorrow, making work that needs to be seen.

You can keep up to date with Film Africa via their website, Facebook or Twitter.



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