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Haile Gerima speaking to BBC News Online
"I wanted to recoup my past"
 real 28k

Zola Maseko speaking to BBC News Online
"We never really had the opportunity to tell our stories from our own perspective"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 7 December, 1999, 09:47 GMT
Africa's cinema: Setting the record straight
Sankofa, 20 years in the making, deals with slavery Sankofa, 20 years in the making, deals with slavery


By BBC News Online's Jatinder Sidhu

African cinema is finding its voice as leading film-makers turn to the past to explore the continent's own history.

The US-based Ethiopian director Haile Gerima says he wants to "recoup the past" by getting closer to historical truth in his films. He is one of a number of film-makers in Africa and across the African diaspora who is seeking to rescue black history for modern times.

"It's a recent phenomenon", explains Keith Shiri, the specialist responsible for bringing African films to the London Film Festival. Africans are preoccupied with setting the record straight, but the task is not taken lightly.

"They are taking on responsibility for telling their own stories and their own history", explains Shiri. And it's not just for the benefit of Africans. "Many people in the world haven't seen African history", he says.

Haile Gerima: Haile Gerima: "A pan-African cinematic movement makes practical sense"
Haile Gerima's latest film Adwa: An African Victory recreates the failed Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1896. A professional invading army was defeated by villagers armed only with spears. By nightfall, according to one contemporary account, the Italian army "no longer existed".

The war is celebrated amongst black historians and activists because it represents a setback in European colonial efforts known as the Scramble for Africa. The battle of Adwa became a rallying cry in the anti-colonial struggle and an inspirational event for the Pan-African Movement.

Mr Gerima, who is also a Professor of Film in Washington DC, went to Ethiopia and tracked down elders, historians, priests, poets and singers, who knew of aspects of the war lost to the history books. 20 hours of filmed oral history were distilled into a 90-minute film.

Adwa: An African Victory Adwa: An African Victory "was based on folkloric history"
The title of his 1994 film Sankofa, which means "we must go back and reclaim the past so we can move forward", illuminates his political message. Sankofa, a powerful film dealing with slavery, was successfully shown across the US, Europe and Africa.

For Gerima, Africans in the diaspora - "the critical population element of African descendants who live in the US, Caribbean, Brazil and Europe" - are an important part of the pan-African cinematic movement.

"The diaspora should be part of that because they need our stories for their cultural diet, and we need their know-how and potential capital", he explains.

The Hottentot Venus

Zola Maseko is a film-maker less comfortable with the idea of an African cinema. Born in exile to ANC activist parents, he is a South African returnee who struggles for "the opportunity to tell our stories from our own perspective - otherwise no-one knows who we really are".

The Life and Times of Sara Baartman: The Hottentot Venus From The Life and Times of Sara Baartman: The Hottentot Venus
His recent film, The Life and Times of Sara Baartman: The Hottentot Venus, follows the real story of an African woman abducted from the Cape to Europe where she was exhibited in freak shows and studied for her racial features.

"Even in our countries we are multicultural", he says, recognising the extraordinary diversity of indigenous African cultures and the long history of contact with Europeans. "You take the best from wherever you can get it", he explains.

"At film school they said every film has a beginning, middle and an end but not necessarily in that order. Our stories don't necessarily fit into that Western model", he says.

In the past "African cinema" usually referred to the thriving cinema of Francophone Africa. Their film industry grew out of continued close cultural relationships with France in the post-colonial era, but now the rest of the continent is beginning to catch up.

The biannual Pan African film festival, Fespaco, hosted since 1972 by the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, has seen ever greater entries from around the continent.

Festival chairman Baba Hama says he expects the festival to "promote African culture, and if we realise a real industry, an African film industry".

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07 Jul 99 |  Africa
Festival celebrates Zanzibar's cultural mix

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