It’s a new direction for UNESCO, getting involved in movies, so to speak. The United Nations’ cultural agency and Netflix – the global streaming and production company – have partnered to “support” and “promote” Africa’s new generation of filmmakers, and the results will be revealed to the world from March 29, when six short films by young directors will be available in 190 countries via the video-on-demand platform.
The films are the winners of an “African Folktales, Reimagined” competition that was launched by both entities in 2021, attracting more than 2,000 entries, according to UNESCO.
Ernesto Ottone Ramírez, the agency’s assistant director-general for culture, said the joint initiative “pays homage to Africa’s centuries-old tradition, passing wisdom from generation to generation, from elders to the youngest”. He acknowledged that this is a departure for UNESCO whose work with streaming platforms have mostly focused on regulatory and policy issues.
Meanwhile Tendeka Matatu, Netflix’s director of film for Sub-Saharan Africa, said the company believes that “great stories are universal and that they can come from anywhere and be loved everywhere”. He said that what Netflix and UNESCO have in common is the desire to “promote the multiplicity of expression”.
The submissions to the film contest went through a first selection process, before being narrowed to 21 candidates, who presented their projects to an international jury. The judges – including film mentors – then selected six finalists: from Kenya (Voline Ogutu), Mauritania (Mohamed Echkouna), Nigeria (Korede Azeez), South Africa (Gcobisa Yako), Tanzania (Walt Mzengi Corey) and Uganda (Loukman Ali).
Each finalist won $25,000 and a production grant of $75,000 to create their short movie with a local production company, UNESCO said. The films were completed earlier this year, and their streaming (as an “anthology”) will begin with the 6th Kalasha International Film and TV Market in Kenya, a three-day trade fair taking place March 29 – 31.
Speaking at an in-house “advance” showing of the films at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Ottone Ramírez said the agency was “particularly pleased” that the short films captured “not only the culture of Africa, but also the cultural diversity within Africa”.
Some observers privately expressed concerns, however, that any association with global streaming platforms could lead to formulaic storytelling or could undermine local film ventures – a fear that Ottone Ramírez said was unfounded.
He told SWAN that the filmmakers had complete freedom, and that the films were their own vision. What Netflix “put at their disposal”, he said, was access to an experienced film partner, as well as financial and technical support. (The “Netflix-appointed supervising producer” was Steven Markovitz from Big World Cinema, an African production company based in Cape Town, South Africa.)
UNESCO says the partnership illustrates a “shared commitment to the continent’s audiovisual industries, which generate jobs and wealth” and that the creative industries “are an asset for the sustainable development of the continent”.
The creative industries are also an opportunity for companies seeking to expand into new markets, which could be mutually beneficial, observers say. While Nigeria and a few other countries have well-established filmmaking sectors, many African directors might benefit from international support.
Anniwaa Buachie, a Ghanaian-British actress and filmmaker, told SWAN that “budget” is one of the biggest constraints for independent films. “You cannot go back and re-shoot, money is tight, which also means time is limited. You just have one chance to make sure you get the right shots, the right lighting, etc.”
Some of the industry challenges are highlighted in a report UNESCO produced in 2021 on Africa’s film sector, titled The African film Industry: trends, challenges and opportunities for growth. The report found that the sector could create some 20 million jobs and generate 20 billion dollars in annual revenue on the continent. With the survey, UNESCO could identify the need to create capacity building and to “scale up” efforts by policy makers – using Nigeria as one model, Ottone Ramírez said.
It was on the completion of the report that UNESCO decided on the current project, Ottone Ramírez told SWAN. At the same time, Netflix was also seeking to launch a project in Africa, so talks began on a partnership, with “months” of discussion about the format and the call for applications, he added.
As for “priorities”, UNESCO hoped to include indigenous languages and gender equality in the project, he said. Alongside English and French, the winning films are made in a variety of languages including Hausa, KiSwahili, Runyankole, Hassaniya Arabic, and isiXhosa – reflecting the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032).
Many of the stories also centre on women characters, with topics including domestic violence and the struggle for equality within patriarchal structures.
“It shows us how important this subject is for the young generation of African filmmakers,” Ottone Ramírez said. “I would say it was the main theme in each of the 21 pitches before the final selection. We’re seeing another way of storytelling.”
Part of the aim was equally to boost opportunities for women filmmakers – something that has already been happening with the long-running FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso – and to focus on directors living in Africa, Ottone Ramírez told SWAN.
During the selection of the winning pitches, UNESCO and Netflix acted as observers, leaving the choice to the international jury, he said.
Aside from being able to produce their films, perhaps the biggest advantage to the winners is that they have access to a global platform, which Netflix said it is “proud” to provide.
“We know Africa has never lacked in talent and creativity” said Matatu, the Netflix director. “What has been in short supply, however, is opportunity. Emerging talents often struggle – they struggle finding the right resources and the visibility to fully unleash their potential and develop their creative careers.”
The winning short films will potentially reach some 230 million subscribers of the video-on-demand platform around the world, he said – an unprecedented opportunity for these young filmmakers. – SWAN
Industry mentors were Bongiwe Selane, Jenna Bass, Pape Boye, Femi Odugbemi, Leila Afua Djansi, and Tosh Gitonga.