By Anote Ajeluorou
So, how did you start the African Film Festival in New York?
It started in 1989, but the official registration happened in 1990, but I had no funding then; but my friends and my husband giving their time pro bono; and their were many people who believed in this dream of mine, I felt I had to do something even without the funding. There were people who were giving their time who believed in it. I said even if I have to do something on my own, I couldn’t do it without the funding. Then I started sending out proposals. And we did a research; we didn’t just started out blindly, if there was an audience that would sustain this work, how much material were there to the production, who are the people who are the people who have been doing business with Africa? Let’s start with them. And we did very neat packaging.
Within a short period I began to get responses, some saying, ‘Your proposal is very brilliant and interesting, but unfortunately we are able to be of help’. Before I opened most of the letters, I already knew the answers from the feel. Then one day, the guy at the Lincoln Centre, who had accepted to co-present it with us by donating the pace and expertise and all that; he said to me, ‘don’t be discouraged; don’t give up now’. And then one day, their Development Director told me, because what had happen was that between 1990 and 1992, they were always seeing me in their office; so, they thought I was one of their students at Columbia University because the guy also took part time prorammes. So, the Film Society of Lincoln Centre became our co-presenter of this huge inaugural festival that everyone was talking about but we hadn’t found money, and no one knew.
So one day, they got a call at the Film Society of Lincoln Centre asking about us although unbeknown to me. The Development Director woman there, who raises funds asked her boss, ‘who the African Film Festival’. Then she called me to say although she’d seen me coming to the centre, but that she didn’t know who I was, but that the Ford Foundation called asking to know who we were; she then asked if I was collaborating with the Lincoln Centre and I said yes. She hung the phone up on me and demanded to know from her boss what was going on.
That was how the Ford Foundation gave us backing; they didn’t promise much, but that was how we got our first seed money. Then the Rockefeller Foundation came on board. For me, it was just how I approached it; I researched deeply about it; everything we did, we did to the best of our ability. We researched our culture; we researched policy on culture at every level. So that together with the quality of our presentations endeared us to people across board; so, in our own little way, I’m proud of what we’re doing. I think what impressed those foundations were that we had done our research thoroughly; in the presentation, they saw the right things. I had on board all these different volunteer lawyers for the arts under the not for profit umbrella; I just had my baby then; I just walked around with my child; sometimes, I had her on my back in the middle of New York and people were amazed at us.
And I met all these people who believed in what we were doing. I guess in my other life, I must have been a huge gambler and I must have been good at it. And the hand, I probably was a big politician from Africa who had come to correct all my past sins.
Now, do you have a filmmaking background? How did the idea come to you?
Not at all; I was born before independence in Sierra Leone and my parents were very active in that political process of transition from colonial rule. My father, and when you think of that generation of politicians and that of today, they were gentlemen compared to what we have today. They were nationalistic; they were educated; they had a sense of both the traditional and the formal education. So that was the period they brought me up in, the respect of the self and respect of the extended family. I mean, I listened to my dad speaking to paramount chiefs about the need to change from colonial system to independence and how they would go about managing all the mines. I saw all of that.
My retention of what happened; and every holiday, we would be taken to the south of the country to experience what life was there. To this day, I ask fir their forgiveness because I didn’t appreciate them enough when they were around; I’m who I’m because of them, you know.
So by training, what are you?
By training, I basically studied communication, and then administration. I’m what you might call jack of all trade! I did administrative studies, then media ecology that talks about new technology. Then I went to advertising for a while. After a while, I met my husband who was involved in the art trade and I sometimes help out in cleaning the artworks. And then at some point, I decided to do this. I was always someone who had a soft spot for culture, and New York is a sort of cultural playground for diversity. And I have that opportunity to express different cultures. And then I love the cinema; at lunchtime, I’d go watch a film alone. I’d just sit all by myself and watch a film.
When you set out, what did you intend to achieve with the African Film Festival?
The goal is to use it for communication, African cultural identity and dialogue. The goal is be able to provide as a platform where African people can rediscover, revisit something about ourselves. First and foremost, I think we need to revisit some things in Africa, and the power of the media in film, the accessibility of it is key. And we are amazing story-tellers, and we can tell about who we are, where we’re going, where we’ve been through the cinema. The cinema has become our recorder; we didn’t record much about ourselves; because of our oral tradition, we didn’t record much. The cinema plays that role because it becomes the gatekeeper of our memory.
So far, how would you rate what you have done with the festival in promoting African consciousness?
I think someone else has to do that! I want to say I keep doing my best; but you know, you keep raising the bar higher. I’m proud of what we’ve done, but I think you’d have to ask someone else; someone else who has seen our programmes would have to rate us.
Coming to Lights Camera Africa Film Festival!!! in Lagos seems to be one of the outreaches of your festival, to partner with promoters of African films. Could you tell us more about it?
We’ve had a longstanding association with festivals on the continent. We’ve done a lot with FESPACO in Burkina Faso and SITENGIS in South Africa; and others who organise film festivals in Uganda, Ethiopia. In fact recently, I had an amazing intern, who works in the area of preservation. It’s not that I’m rolling in money, but this guy was so fantastic and because he was getting credit for his internship, he couldn’t accept any money from us, but we gave a stipend because he did amazing work in our office. Then I said if he could buy a ticket to FESPACO, I’d hook him up to go work with FESPACO.
And when he went there, the people at FESPACO didn’t want him to return. In that sense, it’s a give and take. I have his opportunity, you know; FESPACO is like the father of it all; they are huge. We need FESPACO, no matter what. We need it. When this festival came on, and it’s being done by women –Ugoma and company - I jumped at it. So, for me that was the biggest challenge. I said, ‘we can do it’. Nolywood is a non-cinema, but it’s about the image, but that is important; and it would always have its place.
I’ve seen quite a bit of Nollywood, and it’s good. We used to see something of Samora Machal, Tafawa Balewa in docu-cinema in those days. And then it died out. It can only get better, I mean, the production value of Nollywood.
If you were to advise, what possible direction would you want African cinema to go for it to make impact?
I would say that we should develop our own audiences locally, nationally and continentally. I think we should develop the audiences as much as we can because the young generation is doing a fantastic job. Five to 10 years from now, we’re not going to recognise our continent; the disillusion some of us felt is changing; this continent is changing. There’s a renaissance taking place, and I want to be part of that.
Why has the black image remained largely a marginal one even in Hollywood movies?
Why do you think I’m started doing this festival thing! I used to spend my lunch hour watching movies. I’m offended by a lot of what I see, the two dimensional characters. I’m like, ‘this is not what I know’ of African people. And even when black people go to the movies and laugh, I feel they are being insulted; even now there are very few movies I go to see; they have very few good things to say about us – American films, Chinese films, South American films, European films. What they show of blacks is not my reality, you know; I don’t know those people. This is why when people see how people are portrayed, say in Nollywood films, it’s like eating good food, you just eating that good food; you start feeling something good about you.
You said something earlier about Africa changing, the renaissance going, yet you can’t but cast your mind back to the continent’s politics that has caused several wars like it happened in your country, Sierra Leone and other places till date. Do you still see optimism, a bright future for the continent?
I can still speak of Sierra Leone; I’m a guest of Nigeria, so I can speak bad about her. In Sierra Leone, I think there are two paralell units that exist – the people are just emerging fully from that war and navigating their way to the light and that of the political unit. Those children of the war are now adults of their own. As for the politicians, we have to be true to ourselves and talk about corruption in Africa. It’s so embarrassingly disgusting. Even in Western societies, politicians are thieves. But they still build their countries while they are stealing. Their thoughts are on, ‘oh my God, I have to leave a legacy; what sort of legacy am I leaving behind? Even if I steal half, let me leave half of it for infrastructure, for education, for health’.
In Africa, it’s just so crude; there is a crudeness to it that is disgusting. I think our presidents should try to clean up our houses; we really need to. It’s embarrassing. I’m not saying that in my father’s time it didn’t happen. But those guys were the educated class, who had a sense of proportion, a sense of patriotism, a sense of pan-Africanism.
And you know, Sierra Leone has always had a long relationship with Nigeria. But most importantly for me was that when the war happened in Sierra Leone, Nigeria did a lot to help. But then the UN moved them out and put Kenyans; then things got bad. They should have let the Nigerians who know terrains to continue the keeping the peace. Anyway, that is history now, isn’t it? But we owe a lot to Nigeria in that war.