African cinema: The fight is not over

From Tarzan to Blood Diamond, Hollywood's view of the continent has been slanted for white audiences. Thankfully, African directors have been making passionate and truthful movies of their own, says Keith Shiri
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The Independent Culture

Africa has featured in Hollywood dramas since the birth of cinema, although always as an exotic backdrop. Very little has changed since King Solomon's Mines or the numerous Tarzan sequels. Africa has been portrayed as one giant generic place that must be subdued or saved from despotic leaders, as in The Last King of Scotland, or from greedy blood-letting rebels in Blood Diamond.

Films about Africa produced in the US and Europe have promoted images of Africa dominated by American or European stars with whom Western viewers can easily identify. Director Kevin Macdonald's central character in The Last King of Scotland is Idi Amin's doctor, played by James McAvoy, who finds himself plunged into Ugandan politics. It is only through his character that we are meant to understand Idi Amin, played by Forest Whitaker.

In Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, a white Zimbabwean who smuggles conflict diamonds, so named because their sale subsidises civil wars. He is cast as the lead so that we can understand the story of Djimon Hounsou as Solomon Vandy, a terrified peasant who realises the precious stone he has found and hidden from the rebels might enable him to pay to find his missing family.

Humphrey Bogart won an Oscar for The African Queen, the Africa-set wartime drama. Ava Gardner was nominated for Best Actress for John Ford's 1953 safari adventure Mogambo. Out of Africa (1985) won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Sydney Pollack's film presents an Africa of the past – an exotic continent where contented Africans who have been dispossessed of their land happily serve their white masters. Elsewhere, great white hunters battle it out against vicious natives and beasts.

Almost 50 years ago, sub-Saharan Africa welcomed the independence of its countries with a wave of optimism. A new cinema was born, championed by Senegalese film-maker Ousmane Sembène. This new cinema would provide a conduit of expression for voiceless Africans – revealing social conditions and sharing stories. Sembène's first short film, Borom Sarret, was a watershed. It reached a worldwide audience with a plot based on the tale of a poor cart driver whose tragic life mirrored hazards facing many ordinary people. Borom Sarret's issues became dominant themes of African cinema.

Armed only with the belief that Africans should tell their own dramas, African film-makers have been battling against the legacies of colonialism. The Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako's 2006 Bamako is an imaginary tale revolving around a court case in which lawyers put forward arguments for and against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund's aid systems and their impact on Africa. Sissako won a prize at Cannes with Heremakono ("Waiting for Happiness") in 2002 and top prize at the Panafrican film festival of Ouagadougou in 2003.

With the brilliant Darrat, the Chadian director Mahamat Saleh Haroun challenges us to think about his country's civil war and its aftermath. The most creative African countries in cinema are former French territories. The reason is not hard to find. In the years preceding independence, France – unlike the British and Portuguese – adopted interventionist political and cultural policies in its colonies.

In South Africa, the early films were made by the mining industry. They were overtly racist and intended to civilise the majority black population. In the Fifties, classic anti-apartheid films were made by foreign directors – Zoltan Korda's 1951 movie Cry, the Beloved Country, and Lionel Rogosin's classic Come Back Africa (1959).

Today, 15 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is setting the cinematic pace. With an Oscar for Gavin Hood's Tsotsi, South Africa is now the continent's leading film location and has enhanced its infrastructure through foreign location work.

Nigeria is the centre of a lucrative home video industry – known as Nollywood. With some 600 to 1,000 titles released each year and a revenue of about £100m, Nigeria is positioning itself as the world's third largest film industry after Bollywood and Hollywood. Movies are made on the cheap and copies are distributed via increasing numbers of video clubs, or exported. The film-makers have to work fast and around the clock in their desperate attempt to fend off the pirates.

The London African Film Festival hopes to disrupt old perceptions about Africa as well as offering visitors the opportunity to see the compelling stories that African film-makers are bringing to the cinema. Included in the programme of more than 40 films are the Ugandan low-budget guerrilla film Divizionz and the UK premiere of Jerusalema, South Africa's foreign-language Oscar submission.

The London African Film Festival will run from tomorrow until 7 December ( Keith Shiri is the director of the festival

Forty years in African cinema: 10 post-colonial celluloid milestones

Xala - Senegal, 1974

Director: Ousmane Sembène

A businessman's social standing slips when he takes a third wife and finds that he's lost his touch in bed ("xala" means impotence).

Muna Moto -Cameroon, 1975

Director: Jean-Pierre Dikongue-Pipa

An unsparing view of village life that captures the fateful constrictions brought about by custom.

Karmen Gei -Senegal, 2001

Director: Joseph Gai Ramaka

An African take on the story that inspired the Bizet opera. 'Karmen Gei' deals with conflict, freedom, convention, desire, and the law. Prisoners use dance and music to resist authority and their prison's dehumanising conditions.

Touki Bouki - Senegal, 1973

Director: Djibril Diop Mambety

Mory and Anta (above) imagine freedom far from Dakar. Their dream city doesn't seem so far away, and the lovers embark on an exhilarating picaresque adventure.

Yeelen - Mali, 1987

Director: Souleymane Cisse

An Oedipal story mixed with magic, 'Yeelen' is luminous and beautiful film. Set in the powerful Mali empire of the 13th century, the film tells the story of Niankoro, a young warrior who uses his own magical powers to battle his evil sorcerer father.

Bamako -Mali, 2006

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako

In a poor section of 'Bamako', a beautiful bar singer (right) and her jobless husband are having marriage difficulties. In the courtyard of their shared house a court has been set up. On trial are the world's financial institutions,

Darrat - Chad, 2006

Director: Mahamat Saleh Haroun

A radio broadcast announces an amnesty on civil war crimes. But a boy, armed with a shotgun, is sent to search for his father's killer.

Soleil O -Mauritania, 1970

Director: Med Hondo

Black men line up before a white priest for baptism – the first step in a process that deracinates and subjugates them. In France, black people arrive to seek a better life.

Sarraounia -Mauritania, 1986

Director: Med Hondo

Sarraounia leads her people to victory against a neighbouring tribe. But her real trial of strength comes when the French army marches south to extend its colonial grip.

Mandabi - Senegal, 1968

Director: Ousmane Sembène

An elderly gentleman is well-served by his two wives. His life is turned upside down when he receives a money order from his nephew.