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African Cinema at the 76th Cannes Film Festival: 10 Takeaways — Akoroko

The 76th Cannes Film Festival was indeed a watershed moment for African cinema, with the festival showcasing a record number of African films and filmmakers. This unprecedented representation indicates a growing recognition of the diverse stories that Africa has to offer. However, despite this noticeable increase — and mainstream media headline after headline eager to crown this year’s edition — questions linger about whether this truly signals a shift in the international recognition of African storytelling, starting with recognition at perhaps the most prestigious film festival in the world.

In 2022, Cannes director Thierry Fremaux faced criticism for the festival’s historical lack of Sub-Saharan African representation in the main selection categories. In response, he suggested that “it takes time for cinema to come into its own,” implying that Sub-Saharan African cinema hadn’t yet reached that point.

A year later, has this stance changed? It’s unclear. Fremaux wasn’t asked about his view on the progress of Sub-Saharan African cinema during this year’s pre-festival press conference. As such, it’s hard to gauge whether this year’s festival, with its significant African representation, is indicative of a lasting trend or a temporary anomaly.

One glaring worry is that while the 76th edition made a notable stride in recognizing African cinema, it continued a trend of mainly highlighting films from French-speaking African countries, such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, and the DRC, overlooking the broader diversity of African filmmaking. Despite Nigeria’s massive cinematic output (including the Nigerian diaspora), it has never had a film selected for the festival’s official competition. Additionally, the African directors of a good number of the invited titles tend to be based outside the continent — typically scattered across Europe. This year was no exception.

So, while the 76th Cannes certainly marked a significant moment for African cinema, the question of whether it represents a true shift in the global recognition of African storytelling remains. Perhaps the 2024 festival will provide a more definitive answer.

The films with connections to the continent included selections from Tunisia, Senegal, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, and Cameroon. Additionally, off-screen recognition was given to the legendary Malian writer-director Souleymane Cissé, who was honored with the Carrosse d’Or award for cinematic pioneers​. Additionally, British Zambian director Rungano Nyoni and Moroccan director and actor Maryam Touzani served on the main competition jury, further suggesting that the festival seems to be at least responding to criticism, seemingly demonstrating a commitment to recognizing and integrating African talent into its core processes.

This year’s festival also coincided with a time when African industries generally are experiencing unprecedented growth, partially driven by investment from international technology and media companies like Google and Netflix, all searching for new markets in which to expand.

Director Ramata-Toulaye Sy (C), actor Mamadou Diallo (L), and actress Khady Mane at the screening of BANEL & ADAMA (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP)

The following are 10 African cinema takeaways from this year’s Cannes Film Festival:

  1. Diversity of Genres and Styles: The selection of African films at the 76th Cannes Film Festival showcased a wide range of genres and cinematic styles, producing a variety of filmic experiences, not restricted to conventions. This could be an indicator of what lies ahead as African cinema broadly evolves.
  2. Strong Presence of Francophone Africa: This trend reflects the historical and cultural ties these countries have with France, as well as the co-financing and co-production arrangements many of these films have with French entities. However, it also raises questions about representation and diversity within the African cinematic landscape, which is much more linguistically and culturally varied.
  3. First-time Representations: The inclusion of “Goodbye Julia” marked the first time a film from Sudan featured in the official selection at Cannes. Increased participation from more African countries is a positive generally; specifically, it could mean Cannes is making strides in broadening its perspective and acknowledging cinematic contributions from more regions of Africa.
  4. Thematic Focus on Social Issues: Many of the selected films touched on important social issues — although African cinema has always done this (even taboo in some regions) — like gender, sexuality, sexual identity, and political unrest, reflecting a broader trend in global cinema.
  5. Women Filmmakers and Characters: The presence of films directed by women, and complex female characters in the films, underscores a growing trend of female representation by women storytellers in African cinema. This trend is not only important for gender equality in filmmaking but also helps bring diverse female perspectives and stories to the fore.
  6. African Cinema on the Global Stage: The historic year for African cinema at Cannes means increased visibility on a prestigious international platform — a potential indicator of the rising global recognition and appreciation of African cinema.
  7. Absence of Sub-Saharan Africa: Despite the increased presence of African films, there was a notable absence of films from Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly from English-speaking Africa. This discrepancy raises questions about the festival’s selection process and the factors influencing which regions of Africa get represented.
  8. Collaboration with International Entities: Some of the African films invited to the festival were co-produced and co-financed by non-French entities. This trend signifies the growing collaboration between African cinema and international organizations that can provide financial support and global platforms for these films. However, it also raises questions about creative control and the influence of these international entities on the depiction of African stories and experiences.
  9. Distribution Remains a Challenge: Even with a Cannes Film Festival laurel, African films still face difficulties in finding distribution and exhibition opportunities, especially in major markets like the United States. None of the African titles invited to the 76th edition have been acquired at this time. Once they leave the high-profile celebratory environment of the festival, they become less visible and harder to sell. A few will likely head to the Toronto International Film Festival next, in September, providing another Big 5 festival opportunity. Historically, European sales are a near guarantee for African titles at Cannes. Coveted positioning beyond Europe — especially in the U.S. — is significantly more challenging.
  10. Future Prospects: The success and recognition of African films at Cannes this year suggest a promising future for African cinema at the festival — even if it’s because Fremaux and company are now on higher alert after last year’s very public criticism, against an industry backdrop that’s hyper-focused on issues of diversity and inclusion. The diversity of stories, styles, and voices present in these films hints at the untapped potential of African storytelling. However, the disparities noted in representation and recognition underscore the need for continued growth.

African cinema in full bloom will reshape world cinema with its unique perspectives, styles, and originalities, reaching much wider audiences and markets, both within and outside Africa. However, challenges persist, and inconsistent Cannes engagements are only the tip of the iceberg.

Catch up on Akoroko’s coverage of the 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, which is now officially in the history books.

The 77th annual Cannes Film Festival is scheduled for May 14–25, 2024.

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