Journalism in the service of society

UNFILTERED: The significance of African stories

PERHAPS at no other time in human history has the vital importance of documentary been made manifest than now.” says Femi Odugbemi, founder and director of iRep Documentary Film Festival. For many decades, film documentaries have chronicled the stories, lives and institutions of different societies. In 2010, Odugbemi cofounded iRepresent Festival, (iREP) where he is also executive director.

The festival was established to promote independent documentary filmmaking in Nigeria and Africa while also emphasising training and skill development to the benefit of the young, aspiring and practicing filmmakers in Nigeria.

Odugbemi explains, “For me and my partners at iREP, – Jahman Anikulapo, Makin Soyinka, Theo Lawson, Prof. Niyi Coker, Prof Awam Amkpa, Lanre Olupona, Toyin Poju-Oyemade, Wale Orosun, and the legion of volunteers that make the festival happen every year, our greatest ambition is to take documentary filmmaking out of the hands of institutions, where for all these years it was used as a tool for misinformation and propaganda and put it in the hands of individuals as a tool for exploring and projecting our collective desire for progress and prosperity.

“I believe iREP‘s humble efforts have contributed in no small way to fostering this awareness. The wonderful thing about the art of documentary filmmaking is that primarily it causes you to think. Whatever the subject matter of any documentary you watch, it changes you. You are certainly better informed because it gives you a deeper perspective than you might have otherwise. It influences your understanding of issues and can very much provoke you to act. The documentary is that nexus between fact, opinion and point of view. It offers narratives that document and open up new spaces, inspire new ideas and create social movements. Documentary film is the ultimate ‘agent provocateur’. And that is really because documentary is not a deliberate form. It starts from questions, not answers. That, in a nutshell, is why we founded the iREP Documentary Film Festival because we believe that the creative revolution in Nigeria and many other countries in Africa, provides a unique opportunity for documentary filmmaking.

“If we can encourage the young creatives to understand and embrace its power, then its impact could strengthen our democracies and bring accountability to many areas of governance and development. Delightfully, that is exactly what is already happening in Nigeria and many countries across the continent. More young people are using documentary film to interrogate the realities of their experiences in ways that are demanding answers from leaders in government institutions and civil society. They are using documentary film to explore important development issues like education, healthcare, the environment, technology and many other areas of their life experiences”.

Documentary films play an important role in how we see and position ourselves in the world, especially as Africans. According to the Africa Documentary Film Fund report by Bertha Foundation, Nigeria has witnessed the development of extremely active video film industries which offer an example of the possibilities in film. However, documentary filmmaking is not fully developed, a set of initiatives is emerging, one of which is the iRep International Documentary Film Festival. 

Odugbemi states, “A good documentary is a journey of understanding and insight. It should make us better informed and expand our understanding of an issue, a question, a place or a person. A good documentary equips towards a decision – it might be to decide on one side or the other of an issue, or to act towards the actualisation of an objective. At the end of any good documentary, we are not the same. Our world is expanded, our mind is richer and hopefully, we are inspired to act in the interest of fighting for a better world in some measure. A good documentary is also the same as any form of storytelling- it should be a layered visual experience. Beyond narrations, it should embrace the nuances of imagery and subliminal messages in the context of the world of its subject. The artistic impact is what retains its message in our consciousness.”

With Africa being one of the most diverse continents in the world that has 54 countries and approximately 2,000 languages spoken by its inhabitants, it is often viewed with a monolithic lens with a narrative of “Africa the Country” where poverty and underdevelopment resides. “The visions of Africa still sustained in many places is one captured in the stories of National Geographic magazines – a jungle reeking of great dangers and lacking civilisation. These are the ‘stories of Africa’ nurtured by some global news organisations that have permanently married the name of the continent with wars, disease, poverty and instability.

“Yet the truth of the ‘African story’ today is different. It is by no means perfect but there is emerging a new order, identifying new voices and leaders, propagating new values of creativity, enterprise, transparency, fair competition, social justice and economic empowerment. It is a revolution of significance that should bring optimism and pride about Africa’s future. The question is who has been telling our story and from what perspective? We have needed to tell our stories to counter the one-dimensional understanding of the continent. And that is exactly what began with the emergence of Nollywood. In its guerrilla drama and imperfect storytelling, a cinema culture emerged with representation that has documented the African story with far more balance and authenticity.

“The dimension of documentary films to document and deepen our identities as Africans through our stories is a vital conversation we hope to explore with this year’s theme. UNFILTERED: African stories. Stories of Africa. It is about understanding the distinctions and dissections that aid, preserve and protect a balance in how we are represented as Africans beyond the tired stereotypes that we find in the global news media”, adds Femi Odugbemi.

According to a report by the United Nation’s cultural body, Unesco, the general film industries in Africa could quadruple their revenue to $20bn (£15bn) and create an extra 20m jobs in creative industries, according to a UN report about cinema on the continent. The booming film industry in Nigeria – Nollywood is the world’s second-largest film industry in terms of output for local film productions, which are increasingly sought after by television and streaming services such as Netflix, Apple TV and Disney+. Increased partnerships and collaborations with international institutions and media are also on the rise.

“The 2021 virtual festival brought a new diverse and far-reaching audience to the IREP experience. We saw participation from South America, the Caribbean, North America and so many other places. We held the virtual festival in collaboration with the Africa World Documentary Film Festival (AWDFF) in San Diego California and through them, we reached a wide audience of students and faculty in several universities. We had close to 5,000 participants over 4-days. We want to keep that reach and build on it. We also partnered with the AWDFF for the 2022 edition. We have sustained partnership with German Films for over 10 years and hosted many prominent European filmmakers. We have also had films and filmmakers from across North America and the United Kingdom. Our support has come from institutions like Ford Foundation, Goethe Institut, British Council and the French Cultural Centre.

“More satisfying is the fact that many African anglophone and francophone filmmakers converge annually at IREP to attend our Producers Roundtable events. We create the perfect opportunity for collaborations and co-productions through various networking events. We hope we can continue to offer these important platforms going forward as the public health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is controlled.”

Odugbemi sees documentary as a sober art form that fosters reflections on culture, politics, ethics, philosophy, society, science, spirituality and addresses questions of day-to-day life.

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