Africa provides storyline for next generation of Hollywood blockbusters

The success of Hotel Rwanda and Constant Gardener has spurred on directors
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The Independent Culture

Last year's unexpected new trend in Hollywood was the political film. This year, it may turn out to be that most neglected of continents, Africa.

A clutch of titles, covering a range of subjects and time periods, has triggered excitement at film festivals and started a movement by directors and producers to travel to Africa in search of compelling stories.

The latest release is Catch A Fire, set against the fraught backdrop of apart-heid in 1980s South Africa and based loosely on the story of Patrick Chamusso, an ordinary black man who thought he could stay out of politics but becomes radicalised by the sheer enormity of the events transpiring around him. It has Derek Luke, who starred in Antwone Fisher, with Tim Robbins as a white racist.

Later this year comes the hotly anticipated, and controversial Blood Diamond, a thriller depicting the violent backdrop to diamond mining in war-torn Sierra Leone in the 1990s. It stars Leonardo Di Caprio as a South African mercenary and Djimon Hounsou, a farmer pressed into forced labour in a diamond mine.

Already, Blood Diamond has prompted De Beers, the world's leading diamond company, to complain that the film might depress demand for its products. The company is launching a huge PR campaign to make the argument that trade in so-called "conflict diamonds" has dropped dramatically since the 1990s.

On top of that comes The Last King of Scotland, Kevin Macdonald's story of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and his relationship with his Scottish doctor, which was a hit at the Toronto film festival and has generated Oscar buzz for its leading actor, Forest Whitaker.

Next year, the acclaimed Algerian film Indigenes will be released in the UK and US. It Tells the story of four North Africans who fight for recognition as they join in the struggle to liberate France from the Nazis during the Second World War.

It is too soon to say how enduring this trend might be; Hollywood is notorious for latching on to a fad one minute, only to drop it the next when the box-office figures do not turn out the way studio executives hoped. None of these films, with the possible exception of Blood Diamond, is exactly in the blockbuster category.

But the film industry's interest in Africa is certainly a sign of the times, as film stars led by George Clooney lobby for an end to the genocide in Darfur and a robust western response to the Aids crisis ravaging the continent. The interest goes well beyond the movies: the rapper Kanye West has a song called "Diamonds from Sierra Leone", continuing what is by now a long trend of African influence on western popular music.

The seeds of the new fad were sown over the past couple of years, thanks to the commercial success and Oscar nominations associated with such films as Hotel Rwanda and The Constant Gardener, both of which were critical looks at post-colonial Africa and the often baleful influence of western powers.

There are signs too of an indigenous film revival. The South African film Tsotsi, based on an Athol Fugard novel, won last year's foreign-language Oscar. And the film's director, South African Gavin Hood, is working on a hotly political film about the US policy of "extraordinary rendition". His film, Rendition, is due out next year.

But film trends often start surprisingly and then succumb to a certain overkill. The fad for political movies was fuelled last year by successes such as Good Night, and Good Luck, which no studio wanted to finance, and Syriana. This year, the record has been spottier, one big disappointment being a new version of the Robert Penn Warren novel All The King's Men, starring Sean Penn, which was panned by the critics and died a rapid box-office death.

The attraction of Africa to film-makers is due, in part, to the fact that it is so under-explored cinematically speaking. Kevin Macdonald said: "Film-makers cast around. Should I make another film in New York? It'll be the 10,000th film to shoot in New York. Or should I go somewhere else that hasn't been filmed, where it's literally a different landscape, different people, different kinds of stories?''

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