‘Leadership Advocacy in film in Africa and the power of authenticity' - A keynote address by Femi Odugbemi at the Creative Producers INdaba South Africa held on Saturday 5th September 2020.
I think we must begin this conversation by recognizing that we live in a golden age of storytelling where the world is ready to embrace African stories of Africa and by Africans. There’s an openness to the nuances of our history, our cultural experiences, our worldview and what constitutes our ambitions as a people. The success of the Black Panther film and the global response seemed an inflection point that has awakened something that is prompting deeper conversations like this about representation and the authenticity of what constitutes an ‘African story’ as against a story from Africa.
So we find ourselves at an interesting space in an interesting time where the images of Africa most available to the world on the news is that of African youths risking their lives and dying across the Atlantic or Mediterranean Ocean or internet fraudsters being arrested by the FBI in Dubai. These stories of course find prominence on global platforms easily and they are simply the latest episodes of the ‘poverty-porn’ African narrative so ingrained in the global information order. Yet it is also a time where international distributors like Netflix and CoteQuest and several major film festivals across the world now hunger for African stories and are asking us, daring us, to show them the ‘Africa’ we wish to sell.
Our challenge, unfortunately, is that we have come to this historical juncture somewhat unprepared. Outside of South Africa, and perhaps North Africa, our storytelling communities across the continent are passionate but unprepared. Many in the profession of filmmaking can’t be Professional because they are in need of education. Not just of the technical kind, but of the consciousness kind. The opportunities and privileges of being allowed the uninterrupted attention of a viewing global audience for the length of the content we showcase is far too weighty for the ambitions of many of our Producers and storytellers. Beyond being successful, the world is inviting us to be significant. The world is asking us to shape the stories of Africa that are real and genuine and to project a clarity that is missing when the ‘African story’ is authored by the ‘others’ outside the African experience.
The further dilemma emerges when we also understand that the continent is averagely populated in the majority by humans under the age of 60. The youth population often have no deep connection to the history of their tribes or the heroes of their cultures. The schools they have attended and the books and curriculum they have read have paid more attention to the learning of histories, cultures and heroes of Europe and America. They have not prioritized how to embrace any indigenous identity or cultural representation. So we have to understand that in coming to this space, many of those who are our storytellers are not as equipped as they need to be. Historically. Culturally. Ideologically.
Which is why this conversation about authenticity in African Stories cannot be simple. What makes an African story genuine, authentic? Is it the costuming, the language, the locations, the cultural references or the appropriations of symbols and subliminality? Does authentic African stories mean a white washing of reality as they exist; because the truth is that the news images of young Africans dying on the seas in search of a better life, the stories of the Hush-puppies from Nigeria fleecing innocent people through online scams, the daily stories of government leaders who siphon the public treasury are all real too. They are not manufactured. They exist. They are the ‘stories’ of Africa. They do not make up the sum total of the ‘African story. ‘ Along with the Hush-puppies of our world are also many stories of enterprise and innovation, of exploits in entrepreneurship, technology, medicine, literature and sports. Many innovators and ‘solutionists’ are all over the continent creating wealth through ideas that are home-grown and primarily serving local communities. For every young man who has chosen to ride a floater across the seas to France or Italy or the UK, there are others that are choosing to harness opportunities locally and to build a different reality than they met on ground. So the stories of Africa only conflicts the African story through whose lens it is told.
The real truth is that the ‘African story,’ historical or contemporary is complex. Sometimes confounding. But full of options. In my early days as a storyteller I went everywhere with a still camera. I did a lot of filming and saw my environment through my lenses. I began to pay attention to stories, conversations, characters, sounds, lines, shapes, colours and textures. I observed faces in a crowd and tried to isolate and capture moments that spoke to something about our universe or humanity. I went to far flung places across the continent and simply embraced experiences. Because I was paying attention I also found magic in the contradictions, the mundane and the beauty in the ordinary that can be found African communities. That is how and why I have been able over a 30-year career as a Producer to always be excited by our stories and the dramatic nature of our history and our worldview. 10 years ago when I joined a couple of my colleagues to start the IREPRESENT DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL our debates ended with a decision to anchor the content of the festival on the theme ‘Africa in Self-Conversation.’ Our conclusion was that the colonial era ended with Africans mostly conscious about wanting self-determination. They wanted to decide their own future, to captain their own destiny, to represent their own best ambition in world affairs. Yet beyond legal documents and platitudes of self-determination, a concise and consistent conversation was left unattended that addressed with clarity what that future looked like in relation to who they were, culturally and historically. Not who they think their former colonizers wanted them to be. We received political independence and for the last half a century have struggled with how the stories and images of our contemporary experience have not been much different from the ones our colonizers made, and are still making.
So when we speak here about bringing authenticity to our stories, we speak first and foremost about bringing ‘balance’ to the narratives, to the imagery and the subliminal elements of our stories. It is about acknowledging the complexities of our history, the conflicts of our contemporary experiences, the unarticulated disadvantages of our economic systems and our enduring capacities as a people, in these globally open times, to project our humanity, and to express faith in our values as a culture, to build honest capacities in our pursuit of happiness and prosperity. Balance. Showing two sides of the coin so to speak. Accepting responsibility as an African storyteller to entertain the world with the drama of our stories yes, but to also embrace the opportunity and privilege to educate the world, within those stories, about our humanity, our compassion, our community, our spirituality; and our capacity to enrich the world beyond our gold, minerals and oil. The true wealth of Africa is beyond what’s beneath our soil, it has always been what’s between our ears.
Secondly when we speak to authenticity, our stories must articulate and foreshadow a future we desire. Too many stories of Africa are reflections of our worst instincts and not enough to foreshadow how we want to see our communities, our governance, our infrastructure and our leaders. We need to empower ourselves with our stories. African communities have a heritage of passing moral and cultural values through storytelling. The village square, the markets, and thee courtyards were spaces filled with folklore. These stories were always deliberately crafted to offer guidance and insight that shape the future of our communities and modified behavior. They invented heroes and told tales of uncommon courage and selfless sacrifice in service of community. They fostered tribal pride with poetry and songs that detailed the history of a thousand sojourns and valiant progenitors. They created realms of metaphysical existence where their forebears translated into unseen protectors and guardians of the tribe. They built into every story a foreshadow of the future reputation and sustenance of the peace and prosperity of their tribes. They were conscious always to choose the future they desired by imbibing it in the imagination of their audience today. Insight. We absolutely have to be far more deliberate and conscious about the insight we leave in the subconscious of our audiences about what is ‘Africa.’ Because what we imagine and story-sell becomes our reality in the fullness of time. Again, let’s make clear that this is not about white-washing our realities as it is, it is about being true to the ambitions of representation.
Finally we must build better storytellers who understand that beyond the passion of storytelling, there is a purpose. That is exactly why I joined the MultiChoice Talent Factory as Academic Director (West Africa). In the last couple of years I have worked with a dynamic team across the continent to give 120 young and passionate storytellers guidance and support. We have especially focused on mentoring them to understand the power and purpose of their art. Filmmaking is tough and requires talent and hard work. It also requires a continuing education and re-education, especially of our young generation of storytellers. This Indaba is an amazing opportunity to learn and network and find opportunity for your careers. I hope you also understand that because only so few of you could be selected, you owe many more that are not here the benefit of what you have learned. I say that because part of the reasons stories out of Africa are all over the place in their explorations and representation is because many young artistes lack oversight and mentorship. Too many African storytellers are in competition not in collaboration. And the sum effect of that seems to be a futile common struggle for validation from persons, spaces and institutions outside the continent. If we collaborated more, we can build value-chains and systems that will prosper and validate our stories, and our storytellers. The key is more systems-thinking and less individual fiefdoms and personal advantages.
For you as individual Producers I leave with these few thoughts that have helped shape my humble career. Decide a creative philosophy for your career. The ‘why.’ Because being successful, decide why your work matters and why the world needs what you bring to a global conversation like cinema. Envisage a successful career. And plan on what you wish to make of that success. Paying it forward in some measure MUST always be part of that plan. Finally embrace your mistakes. They are part of your growth plan. If you are humble enough to admit them, there’ll enough helping hands to get you back on your feet. My best wishes are to everyone for a future filled with your best dreams. Thank you!