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In 1941, William Sellers, a British civil servant who was the director of the Colonial Film Unit, authored a paper called "Films for Primitive People." In the paper, Sellers opined that African audiences were too primitive to understand films that had any complexity or depth. To him, filmmaking techniques such as panning, a lot of movement, flashbacks etc. were not to be used in films made for Africans since Africans supposedly lacked the sophistication and intellectual capacity to follow a story told in that way.
The Colonial Film Unit would go on to produce about 200 simplistic propaganda films targeted at African audiences and distributed via a network of their pop-up mobile cinemas across African countries which were under the British empire. The Colonial Film Unit was discontinued in the 1950s but the effects and economic impact of their regressive opinions and policies still affects the African entertainment industry today.
The under-development of the African entertainment industry is part of the legacy of the policies of people like William Sellers. The deeply entrenched and false beliefs about the inferiority of Africans in the media space is no longer overtly stated in derogatory and de-humanizing papers such as the one written by Sellers, instead it is silently and covertly played out through the chronic lack of investment in African content creators and their ideas. One must remember that under colonial rule Africans were not allowed, nor encouraged, to pursue careers in the entertainment industry. Africans were limited to choosing careers that served and maintained the white minority colonial rule of the day. Today, most of our African leaders who hail from that generation have no frame of reference about the importance or soft power of the creative industry. Their first experience of cinema was that of initiatives like the Colonial Film Unit.
It's no wonder that those of us who grew up in an era where we are now free to choose to become directors, producers, actors etc. find ourselves caught in limbo between the lack of investment from the international community and our own governments who see film and television as tools to either convey simplistic political propaganda or social messages as fashioned for them in their formative years by the Colonial Film Unit.
On the other side of the world, "diversity and inclusion" has been a leading and prominent conversation. Every month I read articles that celebrate certain wins, gains and strides towards leveling the playing field in the entertainment industry. However, from where I sit in my part of the world, I'm beginning to wonder if the movement and redress of inequities in the global entertainment industry only applies to certain parts of the world and not to those of us on the African continent? Africans are conspicuously absent from panels and platforms where global dialogue about diversity and inclusion is ongoing; our voices and perspectives have yet to be heard and more than likely may never be heard. We are not in the rooms where the business conversations are happening and at the tables where decisions are being made.
Africa is a continent with over one billion people; it is also the biggest source of population growth over the next 20 years. However, when it comes to film and television, we are largely limited to consuming copious amounts of foreign content and a bit of low production value local content. Every month millions of Africans across the continent pay satellite TV subscription fees and the satellite companies (mostly foreign owned or belonging to historically privileged white minorities) turn around and use the revenue to license more international content for us to view in our homes. The content we get is undoubtedly of high production value, the stories are well-crafted and very entertaining, but the problem is it leaves Africans as mere spectators and locked out of creative and real economic opportunities. It's difficult for us to work towards consistently producing high quality content that meets the standard of what the satellite companies provide while working with an unpaid cast and crew due to lack of monetary resources.
I personally can't reconcile the many articles I've read which hail this as a new era and golden age for content creators with the poverty, struggle and sheer desperation I witness on a daily basis in creative communities across the African continent.
We read about the big budgets and multiple deals that are happening in the global entertainment industry, but those opportunities remain very far out of our reach. I've worked in the African entertainment industry for 13 years now and I believe that unless we get allies from the more developed entertainment industries who are willing to intentionally wade into investing in the creation of homegrown African content, most of us will take our stories to the grave. Most African content creators live in a space of being dismissed as incapable of producing anything of worth, but no one considers the fact that we're expected to create high quality out of absolutely nothing. It's not unusual for us as African producers to be told by distributors to develop and create productions using 100% of our own money and then send it to them for consideration. Their standard position is for us to do it first, then they'll see if it meets their standards. Most often than not they'll find a reason to reject it after we've shouldered all the financial risk. As I look around our creative communities, I worry that time is passing economically for many of us African artists as we jump through endless hoops that never lead to any economic stability.
Every African who is endowed with creative talent shouldn't have to aspire to leave the African continent in order to find opportunities and to build a sustainable career. For those of us who hold African passports, traveling the world is not easy or cheap. Visas are expensive and we encounter a lot of red tape. True inclusion on a global level begins when all players are given an opportunity to be part of the conversation and full access to partake in the economic opportunities.