This year heralds the eighth edition of Film Africa in London celebrating the best in African cinema from the continent and the wider diaspora. The programme offers a range of first time features, talks and live music for all ages over ten days across the UK capital. Tega Okiti is the talented festival programmer and producer behind this year’s festival. With a committed dedication to cinema and visual cultures from the motherland, she previously worked for the British Film Institute on its landmark BLACKSTAR season and also served as Lead Curator on Unbound: Visions of the Black Feminine showcasing films created by and about black women.
A recent six-month adventure across sub-Saharan Africa, exploring the nuances of race, gender and aesthetics in African Cinema and Arts—connecting with growing scenes within Nigeria and Kenya in particular—further shows what it means to be of African descent in the 21st century.
We spoke with the Nigerian-British producer on the importance of owning the narrative, reflecting the diaspora on screen and what exciting new films to watch out for at Film Africa 2018.
What were your early memories of African cinema and what impact did they have on exploring your own creativity?
My earliest film memory was from the guy who invented Nollywood Okechukwu Ogunjiofor and he made the first VHS Nollywood film called Living In Bondage but it was his second film called Evil Passion. My aunt had the VHS in her house and she didn’t have very many but I would watch it all the time. It was the classic Nollywood storyline about a marriage. I think it was about this woman who was really jealous and has lots of lovers. It was basically a Nigerian femme fatale and she was just on a rampage of stealing people’s husbands and poisoning people. I probably should not have been watching it at that age but that was my earliest memory of African cinema and just really loving the drama. Loving the sound effects (laughs). I guess at that age the really simple kind of stories where the binary is good versus bad.
If I reflect back, I watched it quite a lot so I think if anything that kind of cinema where you had VHS and just re-watch it was very early stages of the genesis of what I do as a writer and curator in terms of my study and intrigue in stories and really breaking images down. I came to know the stories inside out and it definitely did allow me to develop that level of criticism and analysis as sometimes watching films with my family was not enjoyable because I’d be able to figure stuff out before the end!
How does having a dual identity inform your practise as a writer, festival producer and programmer?
I think inevitably duality makes me want to find connection points. I guess what’s at the heart of a dichotomy is an inherent shifting back and forth but I think where I am now as a diasporan practitioner is wanting to know or be able to identify the connection points. At the same time also being acutely aware that the experiences of cinema and imagery and how it’s created in the diaspora and on the continent are different. They are different for very valid reasons so it’s also trying not to be the same.
It’s rare and well overdue to have someone like you who has lived experience at the intersection of two cultures leading an important festival. What was the research period across Africa like and how did you go about building those personal connections?
It was really fruitful as there was a lot of verve and energy and people are just mobilising themselves. There is a lot of young people who are picking up their cameras and making work. It was also fruitful in the sense of each region having it’s own identity. For instance, I was in Nigeria and there was a collective of filmmakers out there called Surreal 16 who are basically trying to infuse the national cinema with arthouse cinema or just start a conversation of what Nigerian Cinema really is through arthouse filmmaking and genre filmmaking. They are all doing that off their own backs self-funded. In Kenya, you have amazing storytellers and production value, so it just felt really inspiring as there was a lot of diverse content.
I did a lot of research and I created a map about different cultural events and happenings that had screenings attached. Also there is a lot of connection between diaspora filmmakers out here and on the continent but mainly it was about going to festivals and approaching people. People were really keen to speak about their work and find out what I do.
This year Film Africa will be focusing on the growing cinematic epicenters of Kenya and Nigeria via the “AFROBUBBLEGUM: Kenya’s Movie Mavericks and Naija New Wave” strands. Why did you select these two in particular and what themes are represented that resonate with you?
I think at the moment they are the most prolific and diverse. The Naija New Wave was really inspired by my time at Afro Film Festival where as part of that presentation, the collective I mentioned Surreal16 they basically did an intervention in some senses where they screened their anthropology of short films and they had a discussion where they outlined their manifesto about the type of films they wanted to make. They created a really intriguing provocation about how we engage with cinema from Nigeria as in general it’s called Nollywood cinema but that label isn’t really attached to Hollywood.
Akin Omotoso’s A Hotel Called Memory is a silent film and it’s partly set in Nigeria, Zanzibar and South Africa so it’s looking at this movement intercontinentally and it’s something distinct in itself. I thought that that would be an interesting kind of frame to look at these films. So there is a lot of different storytelling outside of what we would perceive as Nollywood.
It’s a similar thing with Kenya as there is a lot of amazing talent from screenwriting to directing from Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafaki is a big moment for Kenya in terms of the subject matter that is covered in the film and the aesthetic as well. A couple of years ago she defined this term called AFROBUBBLEGUM which is again a distinct African mode, style and aesthetic of filmmaking which is really concerned with moving away from conventional representation of Africa. It’s African storytelling that is vibrant and has a lot of energy which is created and within that strand you’ve got narrative filmmaking. So the stories still touch and there still not superficial but they touch on real life issues and scenarios in a beautiful and engaging way.
A common thread I’ve observed is that a number of filmmakers were born in Africa and completed their education in the West. How can those behind the camera improve the production value in Nollywood without losing the cliché–yet often comical—narratives that is synonymous with West African cinema?
I feel like the production value is definitely there and that has been a longstanding criticism of Nigerian cinema in particular. I think people are really honing in and working on the narrative structure and how stories are being told…that is definitely something that is coming through and people have been doing it but I don’t necessarily think that work has been reaching us. For example, C.J.’Fiery’ Obasi who is in the Surreal16 collective has been working in this way for many years. Also Daniel Oriah whose film is in the programme but he made a film called Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo (in 2015) which is a play on the original but it still very much has a Nigerian sensibility. In the Shorts Programme, there is a filmmaker called Abba T Makama whose part of the Surreal16 collective and he made a film called Shatian. One of the tenants of their manifesto was that local languages will be used where possible, so their films have use of Pidgin or local dialects as well in them.
From my perspective, I would really like to see more festivals that are geared toward filmmaking from the continent and also alterations within the distribution strategy so filmmakers like CJ or Abba have their films distributed in cinemas more widely. I feel like the onus is slightly less on filmmakers in a sense but it’s more about space. I would also like to see more connection points how an audience in Nairobi get to see work like Surreal16 or the work of the Naija New Wave. It’s always dangerous creating a canon as certain things can really stick but how do we really exalt this work. Cinema is a repository for knowledge and understanding.
“Cinema is inherently a medium which is created to…allow us a dimensional space to express ourselves and our stories.”
In this information age, I feel like we’re constantly unearthing history about ourselves but at such a rapid rate we can’t fully recognise it’s significance as the majority of us are physically absent from the African continent. What’s the importance of cinema as a safe space to reflect the reality of diaspora as part of the second generation?
In the same way that our languages are receptacle for culture. I think diverse cinema from different nations has the capacity to do that and create more of an understanding and also a challenge to our own perceptions of each other of what home is like. I think that at the moment, it’s those connections as we go deeper into our diaspora experiences generationally the potential for that connection becomes wider and I think cinema is one of many ways which can stimulate a connection without us being there. A better outcome would be that more people would go back often…I think in the absence of that just being able to really have a connection I think is the importance of it in the diaspora.
Also just real tangible ways of supporting is by consuming our content, so Nollywood is a huge multimillion pound industry and it’s content which is created directly for us and it isn’t really concerned about other structures or being ingratiated into a Hollywood model. I think economically that is potentially very powerful if the industry was structured in a particular way.
Cinema is inherently a medium which is created to do the opposite to allow us a dimensional space to express ourselves and our stories.
What groundbreaking films and talented filmmakers should we look out for in Film Africa this year?
I would say Icaysha for me is a brilliant film. Kasala! which we have chosen to close the festival and it’s a first time feature by a Nigerian filmmaker Ema Edosio. She is doing something completely new and really challenging but she’s not turning her back on the sensibility of Nollywood cinema. I think how you have diaspora as a cultural blend she has created this perfect synthesis of various cinematic influences but it’s still very much a Nigerian film and it’s really funny and challenging. I love the Nest Collective and we are showing a collection from their web series We Need Prayers. I think their capacity for satire and humour is really on point. Their work is about African realities but what it is like to live as a modern urban citizen and I think those things are seen as being mutually exclusive from any African experience. We have an amazing documentary from Gabon called Boxing Libreville and it’s by Amédée Pacôme.
I recently went to a talk by Jenn Nkiru and she referenced a quote from Margo Natalie Crawford “Fanon insists that the most radical black aesthetic movements are always anticipating the next step “beyond blackness” and actually shaping whatever blackness is around the impulse to imagine the unimaginable.”
What does the future of cinema lie in Africa and if so what does it look like?
I would say yes and the future of Africa lies in Africa but when we say Africa we must always include the diaspora as well as we are one step physically removed. I would say a future that encompasses all of those realities: the African descendant in the UK, the African descendant in Latin America and the newish African descendants in Eastern Europe and China. There is a huge African community in China. Our future also depends on the curiosity we have about ourselves and how much power and spontaneity lies in that. I feel like sometimes we forget that and curiosity is really important for those us in the diaspora and fearlessness is important.
Film Africa 2018 runs from 2nd November to 11th November 2018 in numerous venues across London. Check out the full programme here.