I recently attended the Durban FilmMart Co-Production market, which featured a diverse slate of documentary and narrative projects that are fostering collaboration between African countries and entities outside the continent. This is the third in a series of blogs about projects and issues related to co-productions in the South African industry. The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on Its Back, a documentary pitched at the Durban FilmMart by producer Atieno Odenyo and director Philippa Ndisi Herrmann, is about the impending construction of what will be Africa’s largest shipping port on the Island of Lamu off of Kenya. The film, previously titled We Want Development, will deal with the tension between globalizing commercial development and protection of local homes, culture and industry. Lamu Island is a historically rich center of Swahili culture and intersection with the Arab world. There are no cars; transportation there is by boat and transportation around the island is by donkey (hence the movie’s title). Judging from the trailer shown at Durban, this film will be an artful, allegorical look at Africa’s interaction with the rest of the world. (The port contract was recently given to a Chinese company and will feature in China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy of commercial bases across the Indian Ocean).
I spoke with Atieno Odenyo about her experience at Durban and other co-production forums, about Kenyan filmmakers’ reliance on European grant money, and about some of the work being done to foster local industry in Kenya.
For Atieno and Philippa, the Durban FilmMart 2013 was a chance to continue to foster relationships formed during development of their feature film Two Princes, which took them in 2011 to both the Durban FilmMart and the Produire au Sud Co-Production workshop in Nantes. Produire au Sud brings producing/directing teams from Africa, Latin America and Asia together with European financiers.
Since European production grants have been practically the only way to finance certain kinds of projects in Kenya, there is a need for more support for producers within Africa.
The Kenyan Film Commission hosted a pavilion at Cannes this year as part of an initiative to sell that country. They also signed Memoranda of Understanding with South Africa and France. These MoU’s are short of Co-production treaties but will allow formalized collaboration between Kenya and these two countries.
Atieno, who was part of the Kenyan delegation to Cannes, runs a Nairobi-based Production company called Mawe Moja. She underscored the need for support for Kenyan producers – since without that, the fostering of industry and crews may draw foreign productions without necessarily cultivating local voices.
As in many emerging film economies, skilled, affordable crews that can work beyond the limits of U.S. union parameters are attractive to foreign productions – but that alone doesn’t necessarily promote quality films of the kind that people in those countries want to watch.
Part of Atieno’s push for Kenyans’ ownership of their own industry is the development of that country’s first crowd-funding platform for film. Kenya was the first country in the world to widely use SMS bank transfer and donation technology, so it’s an environment well suited to such a venture.
The ‘development’ chronicled in The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on Its Back – and its questions of local voice and agency – will like run a strong parallel to the development of the Kenyan film industry. It will be interesting to see how both turn out.