It’s no surprise that streaming services are growing on the African continent. Although Africa is treated as the final frontier of global internet connectivity, its fortunes are fast changing, indicated by heightening efforts to improve digital infrastructure and make data and broadband more readily available. So, as more Africans become digital denizens, streaming services are taking notice – the decision by Netflix in December to appoint Strive Masiyiwa to its board (a Zimbabwean businessman who founded of Liquid Telecom, Africa’s largest independent fibre operator), announces their serious intention to gain a foothold on the continent.
This seems like a good thing. Now more than ever, Africans have access to not just content, but also big-budget content that is locally produced. Netflix, for example, is using original programming as a way to attract African audiences, a market which could grow to 13 million subscribers by 2025. Shows like Queen Sono, Blood & Water and recently, Namaste Wahala, have globally trended and made Africans feel like for once, they are the ones exerting cultural influence on the West rather than it being the other way round. But how true is this actually? As an AIAC contributor pointed out in a review of Queen Sono not so long ago, “Since Hollywood cinematic conventions have been entrenched as hegemonic cinematic conventions, the possibility for international filmmakers to work outside of that mold is almost impossible.”
Consider another recent intervention, this time by the acclaimed American director Martin Scorsese in Harper’s Magazine, suggesting that some artistic integrity can be salvaged through streaming if it’s structured around curation rather than content: “Curating isn’t undemocratic or ‘elitist,’ a term that is now used so often that it’s become meaningless. It’s an act of generosity—you’re sharing what you love and what has inspired you. (The best streaming platforms, such as the Criterion Channel and MUBI and traditional outlets such as TCM, are based on curating—they’re actually curated.) Algorithms, by definition, are based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else.”
So joining us on AIAC Talk to discuss how digital technologies are changing African film and TV are Mahen Bonetti, Dylan Valley, Sara Hanaburgh and Tsogo Kupa. First, we’ll be joined by Mahen, a pioneer in bringing contemporary African films to Western audiences. In the early 1990s, Mahen started the New York African Film Festival, which changed the way Americans consumed films from and about Africa. Mahen has also firsthand experienced the transformation from primarily offline viewing to being available on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Showmax, Iroko TV or Criterion Collection. We want to ask, what does the film festival look like in the age of streaming? And what stories are African filmmakers trying to tell, what makes one worthy of being showcased, and who is watching them anyway?
Then, we’ll talk to Dylan, Sara and Tsogo, who all happen to be AIAC contributors, with Dylan also serving on our editorial board. Dylan is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and lecturer at the University of Cape Town, Sara is a scholar of African literatures and cinemas at St John’s University, and Tsogo is a writer and filmmaker based in Johannesburg. It was Tsogo who made the observation about Queen Sono cited above, and with the three of them we’d like to explore the general prospects and limitations of streaming on the continent. While the more popular offerings on streaming platforms could crudely be seen as simply “candy floss entertainment,” more “content” in the ocean of mass culture–as distribution mechanisms, do they make it possible to, as Sara asks in a recent piece, “conceive of a future where African auteur films can enjoy shooting and editing on the continent, uninhibited by national and international politics…can African cinema find distribution beyond the festival circuit?”
And actually, what do we make of the category “African cinema” to begin with? Monolithic description, or useful shorthand?
Last week’s AIAC Talk was about decolonizing the COVID-19 response. We spoke to Sakiko Fukuda-Parr about how places beyond the West (like say, Bhutan or Vietnam), were able to respond to the virus in a way that didn’t choose between lives or livelihoods, and what lessons we can draw from these experiences.