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TV documentaries and development

The Africa Express experiment

By Richard Synge

The 'Africa Express' documentory series mounted by Channel4, an independent British TV station, has done more than just put a new slant on news provided by state-run African channels. it has also created jobs for African producers and reporters.

Television viewers in Africa will soon get the chance to see documentaries on African current affairs and development topics which have hitherto only been seen on British TV sets.

Channel Four's Africa Express programme has recently concluded its third series to much critical acclaim in Britain. it included items on a surprisingly diverse range of topics. One film showed how a cash-strapped Congolese prison saves money by sending its prisoners home one day in every month, and included lively interviews with the governor and the prisoners themselves as well as footage of the grim prison conditions. Others focused on the flourishing free currency market in Zaire, the spread of South Africa's 'shebeen' culture into the country's upmarket suburbs, political battles in Namibia over the rights to manage historic tourist sites and the Nigerian military government's blatant attempts to censor television reporting.

The latest series supplemented the work of British film crews by incorporating several documentaries that were made entirely by African production teams. Special funding for this element of the Africa Express project came from the environmental television distribution agency TVE. As a result, Africa Express hired four African directors and used African-based crews to film half of the 24 films in the series.

The other innovative part of the project was that the programmes are now becoming available to viewers in Africa at the lowest possible cost. To promote this concept of 'media feedback', TVE has been actively marketing the series to non-governmental organisations and facilitating arrangements for the distribution of the cassettes to African broadcasting stations, both state-owned and private.

'It is a way forward for us, because nothing like this has been done before,' says Raphael Tuju, a Kenyan film producer who runs a video resource centre in Nairobi, marketing documentaries to local broadcasting stations and the educational sector. 'There are too few opportunities for producers in African countries to break into the international networks. The subjects we cover are rarely of interest to the distribution companies, the differences in technology are too wide and getting wider, and there are not enough African producers who have reached the professional level to compete with their counterparts abroad.'

Peter Gill, who edited Africa Express for Channel Four, welcomed the opportunity to help promote the independent film industry in Africa. 'It was thoroughly stimulating,' he says, adding that one of the constant challenges was 'finding ways to bridge the gap between what is technically possible in Africa and the standards required for a European television production.' The four African directors hired for the series were two South Africans, Eddie Mbalo and Teddy Mattera, a Zimbabwean,

Albert Chimedza, and a Namibian, Bridget Pickering. They all worked directly under Peter Gill's management and in contact with a producer in the field. Gill was impressed with the level of journalistic and technical expertise available in Africa and the dedication of the teams working in difficult situations.

Even where the production teams were British, all the 24 films in the latest Africa Express series used African journalists and presenters. They researched and organised most of the films in advance of the actual shoot by the visiting film crews. Cameroonian journalist, Emmanual Wotany, played a prominent role in the films on Congo and Zaire. Kenyan reporter Joseph Warungu proposed and presented a film on the hazards of skin-bleaching in The Gambia. The presenter of the programme on Nigeria, Toyin Fane-Kayode, bravely challenged the censorship of the country's military regime.

An all-African camera and sound team led by Lawrence Mbada and Mandla Mlambo was responsible for the four films in the series that were shot by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). In the extremely difficult conditions of Angola and Namibia, an experienced SABC cameraman was used. Here there was a need to ensure that the less experienced directors were not further challenged by having to work with an inexperienced crew.

For TVE's Robert Lamb, one of the main breakthroughs made by Africa Express was in the agreement of Channel Four to collaborate both with the SABC and with TVE itself, which insisted on the involvement and participation of African journalists, film-makers and technicians. He was impressed by the results and hopes that thee could be 'an even greater African involvement in another series, if one is commissioned.'

The latest series was a success, being regularly watched by up to two million viewers.

Channel Four granted broadcasting rights for the series in lowincome countries to TVE and Worldview International Foundation as well as the non-broadcast rights to TVE and its partners in the third world. These agreements allow TVE to provide the tapes at nominal cost to a network of video resource centres, similar to that run by Raphael Tuju in Nairobi. Such centres seek to get development-oriented documentary films shown by the local broadcasting stations but survive by supplying the needs of schools, colleges, non-governmental organisations and other categories of 'multipliers'.

One of the most successful documentary centres is the Film Resource Unit (FRU) in Johannesburg. From its origins as a way of sharing bootlegged foreign films and TV programmes during the political repression of the 1980s, FRU is now a major distributor of educational and documentary films.

To overcome the inexperience of state-owned African broadcasting networks in showing programmes of developmental relevance to their societies, video resource centres have to provide their own sponsorship. 'It is difficult for us to compete with the likes of Coca Cola, which will sponsor programmes like soap operas,' says Raphael Tuju, 'but one way round this obstacle is to sponsor a programme and at the same time advertise our services. The business we generate this way usually means that we can at least break even.'

Film-making capacity in Africa has been severely limited by most governments' domination of the broadcasting media and a deep and institutional reluctance to encourage independent local productions. The mainly government-owned television stations rarely have a policy to buy in locallymade programmes and tend to look to Britain, France or the US for outside material, which is often dumped on the market at low prices, making it an even harder challenge for local producers to generate the funds to make their own programmes.

The decline of the once-active film industry in Nigeria, in particular, means that in English-speaking Africa, the field is now dominated by South Africa and Zimbabwe. In French-speaking Africa, the continuation of subsidies has kept an 'art house' tradition alive, especially in Senegal and Burkina Faso. In most of the continent, however, the only development-oriented programmes shown to the public tend to be made by the governments' own propaganda departments rather than by independent film-makers.

Where there is a lack of access to local broadcasting media, African film-makers continue to experiment with making their own dramas and documentaries, showing their work on video in village halls and schools. 'At the grassroots, African film-making can be stimulated simply by consumer demand,' says Russel Honeyman, who publishes the African Film and TV Yearbook in Harare. 'But local products do not usually translate into international products. Film and television is a global industry and film-makers should not insist on being too parochial. There is room for greater international collaboration.'

Based on the experience of the latest Africa Express series, TVE now plans to build on its achievements. In May 1996, it exhibited the series to the directors of African television stations at a conference in Windhoek, Namibia, and discussed arrangements for distribution of the cassettes. It is also planning to participate in a workshop for French speaking West African nations in Senegal under a grant from the European Union's human rights division. The consultative process will continue with a meeting of the African video resource centre network at the end of 1996.

TVE's Robert Lamb hopes that the success of Africa Express might encourage international funding agencies in Europe to take up the challenge of funding films made in Africa for African consumption. He doubts that Channel Four on its own would take such a risk. Constraints are, perhaps inevitably, imposed on TVE's concept by the fact that programmes produced for European audiences use a production and editorial structure that requires 'post production' in European capitals. 'Although we came out owning the rights to the programmes in Africa, Channel Four still had 80% of the control over the production and editorial decisions,' he acknowledges.

Robert Lamb is fully aware of the challenges that lie ahead. 'National broadcasters are in a parlous financial position and are still, for the most part, stifled by government controls,' he notes. 'Africans who have received formal training rarely find the funds to apply their newly-acquired skills.' But Mr Lamb and his TVE organisation are convinced that there will be increasing demand for more programmes like Africa Express, as much from Africa itself as from European audiences.

R.S.

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