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The road to AFFNZ

Originally from Mali, Boubacar Coulibaly has been a champion of the culture of his homeland and continent for many years and via many initiatives.

When Coulibaly had the idea to create the African Film Festival NZ, he happily admits he had no idea about the film industry. Coulibaly wasn’t interested in film per se, but was interested in finding ways to form connections between people from different cultures, to exchange and share knowledge. He saw film festival as a vehicle for achieving those broader goals, and delivering on that larger goal has contributed to the years it’s taken to get the African Film Festival NZ off the ground.

Like the answer to the old riddle, how do you eat an elephant, the African Film Festival has come together slowly, the result of determination and patience. Over the last several years, Coulibaly and the festival team have learned quite a bit about the film industry – distribution in particular.

Last year the festival held its inaugural edition. This year’s edition offers the chance to build on the first, to consider what worked and what didn’t about the first, what might be different, how better to deliver on those goals.

Practically, one of the biggest challenges has been how to programme a festival that aims to represent a continent of over 50 countries and many cultures.

Another challenge, Coulibaly explained, was finding the best ways to provide some context for some of the titles to help build audiences. Giving NZ audiences some understanding of the cultures and societies from which certain films hail may increase both the audience size and their enjoyment of or connection with certain titles.

Boubacar Coulibaly

Boubacar Coulibaly

Some films, like last year’s festival opener Hear Me Move, required little explanation. Hear Me Move was a universal story, told locally in South Africa. Not a million miles from Born to Dance, and other many films that travel well internationally, it was a crowd pleaser – unless you don’t like music.

Some people don’t like music, and one of this year’s AFFNZ selections addresses that. From Coulibaly’s home country Mali comes They Will Have to Kill Us First, about Malian musicians’ resistance to the banning of music in a large part of the country in 2012. Among the musicians fighting back were Songhoy Blues (“the love child of Ali Farka Toure and US Bluesman John Lee Hooker” per one review) who played WOMAD in New Plymouth last month.

As a respected DJ himself, Coulibaly has an obvious affinity with music and the musicians’ plight. It’s reasonable to assume most NZ audiences would share a similar reaction if the present government decided to ban music, so there’s not too much need to provide audiences with a lot of context for that title. They Will Have to Kill Us First will play across the ditch in the upcoming Human Rights Arts & Film Festival.

Other films in the festival programme do benefit from some cultural context, and it’s around those titles Couibaly sees opportunities to connect with potential audiences.

Like most of the national or cultural film festivals in NZ, the AFFNZ doesn’t have the funds to bring in filmmakers. Even if it did, such a move might be a case of preaching to the choir. Few African filmmakers have significant international profiles. Those who do, for example Cannes winner Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu), tend not to make their films available for cultural film festivals until they’ve done as much business as they’re going to do on the international film festival circuit.

Last year the AFFNZ team did a good job of creating a profile and attracting media attention to the event, not least by bringing on some local star power as sponsors and supporters, including Sam Neill and Oscar Kightley. This year, Witi Ihimaera (from whose Bulibasha Lee Tamahori’sMahana was adapted) does the honours.

It helps drive attention, as another of this year’s festival selections, Ethiopian title Difret, demonstrates. The film’s profile has been helped considerably internationally by having Angelina Jolie among its producers.

For the AFFNZ, relationships which have been key in developing the programme have been with other festivals rather than with individual talent. Coulibaly credits Burkino Faso’s FESPACO and the African Film Festival New York in particular. The New York festival runs only a few weeks after the NZ festival, so titles coming to the attention of one are of interest to the other.

Francois Akouabou, director of the biennial FESPACO, will be in Auckland for this year’s AFFNZ. During his visit, Akouabou and Coulibaly will sign an MOU for closer co-operation between the two festivals.

Direct relationships with filmmakers are beginning to play a part in programming. Coulibaly notes that this year a number of filmmakers have approached the festival to offer their titles for consideration. Embassies and High Commissions from various African nations have also been able to offer make introductions when the festival team has been seeking particular titles.

While the AFFNZ organisers are keen to make efforts to demonstrate Africa’s diversity of cultures in their programming, Coulibaly is equally keen that the programme is made up of “the best films we can get at the time”.

The African Film Festival New Zealand runs 7 – 13 April at Rialto, Auckland.

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