Images for Africa
by Bram Posthumus
Africa wants to see its own images. Simon Pierre Bell is determined to make this possible. He imagined Cameroon’s first documentary film festival into being.
Simon Pierre Bell has an excellent eye for sartorial elegance but underneath all that stylishness he's pure grit. He makes documentary films, he wants other young directors to do the same - and he wants to show them to the public. Excellent idea- except that this is Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, where cinemas have disappeared and the money you need to fulfil your dreams is in short supply.
But Simon Pierre soldiered on regardless. He already had a name for his festival: “Images en live”. He worked from a tiny room in his sister’s house on the city’s edge with a mobile phone permanently glued to his ear. Why so eager to get a local film industry off the ground? He has his answer ready: ‘Here in Cameroon, we are flooded with images from outside. We also see foreign directors coming in and making films about us. I thought it would be great if we could show our own images for a change.’
Indeed. Africa, and especially young Africa, is sick and tired of being told by outsiders who they are and how their continent works. They already have books and newspapers and the internet to talk to the rest of the world. But film, and especially documentary film, was missing. A big hole, which Simon Pierre Bell and his colleagues intended to plug. ‘It’s all about recognition,’ he says. ‘As filmmakers, you have to be credible to your viewers. If they recognise themselves in what you are showing them, you can also start asking questions and try to change their outlook, their mentality. That way, a society makes progress. You cannot do that with imported images.’ An eminently sensible idea, but how to convince the foreign donors? Because unfortunately, that is where the money comes from. And also unfortunately, donors were not interested in homegrown documentaries.
Save and suffer
So what next? Save and suffer. Says Bell: ‘The money for this festival comes from my own pockets. For three years, I have set aside every single franc I could. That’s not easy: like most of us I don’t have a job with a salary. But in the end, we managed. “We”, that is me, my friends, and the family.’ Some outside help also came. A French director gave a workshop on the basics of documentary film production and the German and French cultural centres promised that they would show the films, for free.
‘Well, here we are!’ It’s December 2009 and Simon Pierre Bell beams his happiness around the foyer of the French cultural centre on opening night. Three years of extreme thrift, hard work, getting things organised – and it is finally paying off. Especially on screen. Take Mohamed “Mama” Mbouombouo, who lives in a precarious part of town known as “La Briquiterie”. He shot a film of his own neighbourhood and defiantly calls it “My Eldorado”. Or take Babette Kouitchoumi, who went to her native village high up in the North of Cameroon and came back with a film about land reform. She has discovered that the old ways of land distribution have been swept away and replaced by – shock, horror! – Commerce. ‘Whoever has got money buys land. And that includes my mother,’ she tells me with a massive grin on her face. Yes, in her village the free market is serving women very well indeed. Who’d have thought?
The variety was big and so was the quality. Another standout: Félix Mbog-Len Mapout. He is in his thirties and will never walk again, due to polio, a disease he caught when he was two years old. Some of the close-ups made watching his film an uneasy experience and that was the intention. The last thing he wants is pity and he makes that very clear. ‘I am a film director first and foremost.’ He has suffered enough, has spent years on Yaoundé’s unforgiving streets and yet the name he has chosen for his film is....”Hope”.
These examples show that perception is everything and that was of course the entire point of “Images en Live”. Nobody else could have made these films. Félix, Babette, Mohamed and their fellow directors simply ask us to experience their take on their own world and learn something in the process. Here are three of their lessons: we’re not victims, we’re not waiting for outside aid to come and save us, we do not want to be put in categories that we don’t recognise as our own.
Everyone should see these films. But before Africa and the rest of the world, the capital city itself needed to be conquered. In line with his own convictions, Simon Pierre wanted the festival to break out of the elite bunkers that foreign cultural centres invariably are. ‘We must go to the areas where people actually live,’ he said on the opening night. ‘They want to see films that are relevant to their lives.’
Easier said than done. Picture an open space, close to the Tsinga area, next to a busy road. It’s six pm and an increasingly agitated group of festival organisers is worried that the showing of their films will not take place on schedule. A few disinterested shop owners look on as they talk among themselves: ‘They said they would be here now, there would be a screen and a video projector, where on earth are they...’ At seven, it’s all ready but the crowd has thinned. ‘This was not what we expected. But we’ll try again tomorrow.’
The next day, and it is much better. We are in another neighbourhood, close to a busy crossing. Everything is ready on time and the people wander in, stay and watch and discuss. The evening is a success. Simon Pierre is completely exhausted but he must press on, towards recognition. ‘We are young but we have created something here. We are the future. Look at what we have accomplished and have some faith in our abilities.’ Not too much to ask, or is it?
One year later and evidence is coming in that Bell’s bold project will have a sequel. December 2010: “Images en Live – second edition”. There are ten sponsors, local and international, government and private sector. A little later, he sends me an email: ‘You were greatly missed but you will be sorry you could not make it this time! It was wild, all shows sold out! We have shown our work everywhere, also in La Briquiterie, the area you know so well. I have also trained ten young directors who will start making documentaries. This is going to be huge.’
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