Friday, February 12, 2016

The Malawi Way to Film Prominence

The aim was to establish their presence in a crowded and competitive cultural sphere.

In the end, or mid-way through the journey, that presence seems to have been established, and film makers seem to have received more than what they bargained for: They have managed to sneak their interests in national discourse.

This is the story of film making in 2015. To some degree, film makers managed to add colour to entertainment-starved Malawi by interpreting social, economic, cultural issues and giving them a sense of local significance.

While the holding of festivals such as the Lake of Stars Festival and the Blantyre Arts Festival did not come as a surprise in 2015, as some of these events have been on the local arts calendar for a while, film makers— through the Film Association of Malawi – came with a bolt from the blues when they organised a film festival in Lilongwe between October 23 and 25.

As Film Association of Malawi president, Ezaius Mkandawire, observed, the event was a first in the history of the baby industry.

“We are not duplicating issues. As far as we know, there is no festival that has given film space. We are also looking at the festival as a development project for the industry,” Mkandawire told Weekender.

However, Mkandawire also cited the venue for the festival as a point of departure from other arts festivals.

“We are looking at using Lilongwe, which has no festival in terms of geography, in the Central Region of Malawi. In terms of objectives, we are looking at building a pool of future film makers. The festival has a component of training,” he observed.

The aim, according to Mkandawire, is long-term: To cultivate “a cinema going culture; something that can spur the growth of the industry”.

Of course, being a baby industry, it was always going to be a tall order to host an all-Malawian films’ festival. No wonder, festival organisers also beamed films from Senegal, South Africa, Mali, among other countries.

The highest moment at the festival was when ‘Lilongwe’, a film by Joyce chavula, was premiered. Another film, produced by a Ghanaian and titled ‘South Valley’, was also premiered.
Building from nothing

Fifteen years ago, it would have been wishful thinking to imagine that film makers would have a festival dedicated to the art.
More so when the intentions of the film makers who came up with the idea of establishing the grouping had other reasons for doing so.
“The idea to establish Film Association of Malawi was mooted in the early 2000s when a group of people decided to establish an association with a specific purpose of lobbying the then sole television station, Television Malawi [now Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Television], to provide cheaper rate for broadcasting material,” recalls Mkandawire.
But, like many of the local film maker’s dreams, the idea [to lobby MBC] did not work. Nevertheless, the film makers can finally have solace in the fact that some of their ideas, including the one to hold the Malawi International Film Festival in 2015, materialised.
Indeed, over the years, local film makers have chalked one success over another.
In 2013, for example, Blantyre-based Chimwemwe Mkwezalamba won Best Emerging Director award for her film, ‘The Designer’, at the Silicon Valley African Film Festival held in California, USA.

Another Malawian, Mwizalero Nyirenda, won the Sembene Ousmane Award in Zanzibar (Tanzania) after his film, ‘Umunthu’, won the hearts of judges. Shemu Joyah’s ‘Seasons of a Life’ and the ‘Last Fishing Boat’ have been nominated several times.

Misses, losses

Despite making headway, however, Malawian film makers have lost out on a number of opportunities.
For example, while 2015 came with a host of opportunities for film makers, the chance bypassed locals. One of the festivals that made headlines is the African Film Festival held in New York, USA.
In addition, Greenpop hosted ‘Forest in Focus’, a film festival fundraiser in celebration of forests, in Cape Town, South Africa from 6 to11 June 2013. This was part of an integrative media event that screened a selection of winning short films from the United Nations Forum on Forests and Forests for People awards.

In association with the United Nations Forum on Forests, Forest for People awards, the programme screened five award-winning documentary shorts by “fusing” activism and culture, arts and environmentalism” and, as usual, no Malawian film maker made it to the top.

It is unclear whether local film makers will patronise the Amakula International Film Festival, Uganda’s oldest independent film festival, which will return and celebrate its tenth anniversary this year.
Its objectives are to contribute to a vibrant local film industry, by broadening access to and developing audiences for quality African film production; inspiring local film makers to produce quality local films based on own stories; facilitating, presenting and promoting local film productions; and offering a professional networking platform for the film making community in East Africa and beyond.
A statement from the organisers reads: “After nine consecutive successful festival editions from 2004 to 2012 and a period of reflection, the Amakula International Film Festival is now set to return to the scene and screen to celebrate its 10th anniversary edition in March 2016 in Kampala, Uganda.
“We are now accepting film submissions, especially from African filmmakers, including African diaspora, in all categories (feature films, documentaries, short films, animation). Only films completed after 2013 will be accepted. Films from African filmmakers will automatically enter the Golden Impala Award competition. Films by other filmmakers are submitted out of competition. There will be a special Maisha Screenwriters Award for Ugandan submissions as well as a Student Film Scholarship Award for student submissions.”

China also has film parties lined up, most notably The Chinese-based FIRST International Film Festival which has since called for African film and documentary makers to submit their entries to compete for the Crystal Brick Award during their 10th FIRST International Film Festival Xining 2016 to be held from July 21 to 30, 2016 in Xining, Peoples Republic of China.

The festival, which is aimed at enhancing China-Africa cooperation by introducing African films to Chinese audience, is targeting films produced from June 1, 2014 to date.

According to a statement released by organisers of FIRST International Film Festival Xining, the festival is premised on the idea of “enhancing the development of contemporary film culture and providing opportunities for young filmmakers” by focusing “on the early work of emerging filmmakers all around the world and would love to introduce outstanding African films to Chinese audience”.

However, Mkandawire justified the absence of Malawians at most foreign festivals.

“Most Malawians do not participate in the festivals indeed. The biggest problem is that most film makers in Malawi are not aware of such opportunities. [Of course] The film association helps in making available such kind of information on the various festivals taking place worldwide. As an association, I am not certain if we can participate [in such events] as an entity,” said Mkandawire.

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