The New Politics of African Cinema at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Article excerpt

French efforts in lobbying for a "cultural exception" in world trade agreements have attracted much attention. Less noticed have been the long-standing French attempts to support the film production of individuals from around the world, for whom making films in their countries of origin is difficult for economic, political, and social reasons. One of France's areas of predilection for such cinematographic support has been francophone sub-Saharan Africa, specifically countries that were once former colonies. Shortly after most African countries in the region became independent, France created the Ministry of Cooperation and Development to administer relations with the African states; an important part of French support consisted of helping develop cinematographic production. In 1999 the French government decided to dissolve the Ministry of Cooperation and Development into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This decision signalled a potentially important change in France's Africa policy and provoked questions about the end of Africa's special status in French politics.

The aim of this article is to examine French cinematographic policy toward Africa within the context of this shift in control to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Is francophone West Africa losing its privileged position in French cinematographic policy? During the first two years of the new regime for cinema at the ministry, policy there appeared to reflect a dual dynamic of both uncertain change and historical continuity. (1) More recently, the politics of support for African cinema at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken a more discernible form. Let's first look at some of the central elements of the film policy under the Ministry of Cooperation and then focus on current policy within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, before situating these politics into French film politics in a more general sense.

The Ministry of Cooperation and Development was created in 1961 to provide technical assistance and services to the newly independent African states. Francophone African fiction filmmaking began to be promoted by the ministry's cinema office, created in 1963 through the establishment of a fund by the Secretariat d'Etat aux Affaires Etrangeres. One could argue that today we are seeing a retour aux sources. From that point on, the Ministry of Cooperation played a seminal role in francophone African film production. It assisted the production of over 300 long films (2) and 550 short films, fiction and documentary, by directors from sub-Saharan francophone and lusophone Africa, the Indian Ocean region and the Caribbean, or what was called the pays du champ. (3) Of thirty-six countries, cinema from the fourteen francophone West African nations was most actively promoted. On average they helped produce ten African films every two years.

An important aspect of the direct aid given by the Ministry of Cooperation is that it was always allocated primarily for post-production work and for obtaining non-commercial distribution rights. While there have been various efforts over the years to broaden the range of support to other phases of production and distribution, these efforts have been less substantial than aid for post-production. Most importantly, the Ministry of Cooperation aid was allocated to the director, via a French producer. The funds were above all to be spent in France on aspects such as technical services, purchasing materials, editing and laboratory costs. Being primarily disbursed in France, this form of assistance did little to benefit local African infrastructures and thus perpetuated African dependencies on France for film production. Such support was entirely consistent with the rationale behind most development aid, which is often designed to provide a reciprocal return to the donor country.

Apart from dispensing direct aid the Ministry also supported African cinema in other ways, including: assistance for African film festivals; facilitating the presence of African directors at these events and in particular at the Cannes International Film Festival; giving film prizes; and contributing to publications that provide information for African film professionals. …