This year we continue with the framework that has powered the conversations at IREP since its inception- “Africa in self-conversation.” An important strand of that conversation forms the theme of this year’s festival – #CHANGE – Documentary as agent provocateur. Simply put, #CHANGE is about connecting our emerging vibrant cinema and creative industries to the realities of our communities. It is about impact filmmaking. It is about embracing the power and promise of documentary to do more than archive history, but to facilitate history. We are delighted to present close to 50 films in 3 venues that show in different ways the essence of this theme.
Today, Africa’s journey to political maturity is best expressed by the fact that democracy is beginning to find its feet across the continent. There is now a clear rejection of coups and military tyranny, despots and people of power, the essence of democracy’s promise, has also been demonstrated in a more vibrant contest of ideologies and political activism. Clearly, the people of Africa are keen for democracy to mean something more than an opportunity to choose political leaders or political ideologies. They want a democracy that translates to development, improvements in their quality of lives, better education, better healthcare, better economy, constitutional guarantees of their liberty and freedom in their pursuit of purpose and prosperity.
This year’s IREP festival comes at a time when it is most important to take the African storytelling experience to a new level of reckoning and celebration. The post-colonial issues of identity and inequitable sharing of economic resources have created constant tensions and armed conflicts in many of Africa’s nations, with devastating impact on politics, governance and development. The landscape in countries where bitter civil war and armed struggle raged for decades is littered with experiences needing articulation, especially as regards its impact on young people. In countries like Nigeria the absence of armed conflict has not always meant peace, given the violence and corruption of our politics and its adverse effects upon development.
The dimensions of documentary as a tool for deepening experiences and mediating history makes it a powerful tool to unpack what we need to grow our nascent democracies. The proliferation of digital equipment and the ease of use of modern camera equipment have created immense activity in the fiction-film genre amongst the young and restless across the continent. Nollywood in Nigeria is now a globally acknowledged phenomenon that has engaged the attention of audiences, scholars and filmmakers across the world with guerrilla filmmaking styles and street theatre content. Because it is articulating the socio-cultural and political experiences of Nigeria, some have argued makes them as well, in some form, documentary.
In reality however, a fictional film has a different contract with the viewer than a documentary. Fiction promises entertainment first and reflection second. In fiction you invite the viewer to suspend disbelief. It is an invitation to go into an imaginative world. Documentaries offer reflections first and foremost.
It invites debate.
Perhaps, therefore the foundational value of the process of engaging in this discourse is to project the question of WHICH CINEMA FOR AFRICA? Clearly Africa needs cinema that does more than entertain. We need cinema that deepens democracy, strengthens Governance structures, advocates responsibility, elevates accountability, fights disease, poverty and illiteracy. The critiques of corruption, poor governance, ethnic divisions, economic paralysis can find a stronger footing if filmmakers turn to their cameras to engage the issues of their realities. These are issues of depression for the viewers.
But they’re also issues of INSPIRATION: We need to interrogate the evolution of cultural identities fostered by globalization. What are the Influences of new technologies? We need to reflect on Issues of Civil societies and the emerging economies of Africa? What is our development ideology? Development is a conscious agenda that requires mass mobilization. Documentaries must be at the centre of these conversations.
The complication of documentary of course is the intersection between art and activism. The perspectives of the filmmaker are formed by his background, heritage and experiences. Objectivity is remote. The answers offered are a function of the questions asked. It is possible to distort the answer by the question. The narrative of reality and “truth” does not allow for simple answers. But because its content is about shared experiences, its capacity for emotional connections cannot be contrived.
That is why the people of our countries have for so long found the existing models of propaganda documentary structures offensive. We have to engender a new consciousness that reframes documentary’s image as a tool for the documentation of personal experiences and an important platform for deepening our democracy, development and empowering human rights.
We must craft intervention strategies that forge audience engagement and exposure of the audience to various genres of documentaries that explore experiences and subjects that align and respects with the hopes, aspirations, history and cultures of the people of Africa.
It is important that the interventions that emerge are able to create a robust awareness for the power of the documentary as an important tool in this new century. The audiences have to see documentary as a voice for the people to create the change they want: to foster “self-conversations” about the state of their communities and their unique experiences as Africans. There is a need to find an outlet to document the “truths” of our experiences for historical purposes and hopefully, the negative chapters of that history, when documented in powerful narratives, will be slow to repeat itself. Also as many African communities transform from autocratic regimes to full form democracies, there are many gaps of understanding especially in complex issues of governance, development, accountability and freedom of information.
The very survival of these fragile democracies begs for public engagement tools that advance understanding and values of transparency, integrity and institutional development. Documentary today must be about engineering open and more vibrant democracies.
Director & Co-Founder of IREP International Documentary Film Festival