Chop Cassava

Five filmmaking collectives from the African continent that are reinterpreting and reinvigorating notions of collaboration and distribution.

Elmogran via Flickr (CC).

Theatrical release is the holy grail of filmmaking. Well, it was until relatively recently. But, since the internet, DVD’s, digital files and all the other ethereal modes of sharing and circulating became available to the masses, alternative modes of film production and distribution began to challenge the studio system, the distribution system, and perhaps even cinema itself. We’re all well aware of the nearing doomsday of celluloid, the “end of film.” Yet, this is only a fraction of what constitutes ‘film’. The challenge to the cinematic system comes, arguably, and perhaps most provocatively from the African continent, where whole industries, most notably Nollywood, have both anticipated – and eclipsed – a future of moving image circulation that Western countries are still approaching with fear, still scrabbling, prosecuting and asserting copyright, when clearly the way in which we consume images and film is changing radically.

In the light of these changes, I assembled five filmmaking collectives that are reinterpreting and reinvigorating notions of collaboration and distribution.

Chop Cassava, Nigeria: Marie Antoinette declared ‘let them eat cake!’ (apparently), thereby revealing her obliviousness to the plight of normal people in 18th century France. Chop Cassava, a filmmaking collective in Nigeria, attribute their name to the same sentiment; implying that the removal of fuel subsidies by Minister of Finance Okonjo-Iweala, revealed a similar such obliviousness, ‘let them chop cassava!’ Chop Cassava was a series of web films and a blog that documented the January 2012 fuel subsidy protests in Lagos, Nigeria. Where the rest of the worlds media were either woefully ignorant, or hesitant to report on the protests, Chop Cassava documented marches and interviewed individuals, providing in-depth and consistent coverage. Each day, they compiled footage from various mobile phones, video cameras, and their own film crew. Their coverage was dispersed, meandering, at times polemic and others entirely observational. They provided immediate documentation of the protests where elsewhere, this – the largest peaceful protest in Africa for many year – was ignored. This powerful statement from their website captures their aims as a media collective: “It was clear that something had shifted in the Nigerian consciousness, which requires a different sort of documentation. Our challenge was, shall we just stand back and document or shall we have an opinion. Should we editorialize history as it unfolds?”

The Mosireen Collective, Tahrir Square, Egypt:  Mosireen is a non-profit media collective born out of the explosion of citizen journalism and cultural activism in Egypt during the revolution in 2011. Similarly to Chop Cassava, Mosireen assembled footage from mobile phone and video cameras throughout the protests, editing short films together that documented the vast protests that were gripping Cairo, indeed the whole of the Arab world at the time. And again, where news agencies and journalists were hesitant to enter the crowds, or were offering neutered, Mosireen grouped together to produce their own documentation of events. One of the key members of the media collective, filmmaker Khalid Abdalla says of the project;

The majority of the footage is amateur, but a lot of it is filmed by us or by our friends.

It’s part of the culture of creative commons, an open sourcing for film that allows us to share our stories. We did an open call for people to make films which we were planning to have screened on TV but then the sit-in started again and three days ago we decided to start screening in the square.

The Mosireen collective is vital for it addresses ideas and practices of archiving, open source filmmaking, collaboration and cooperation in a cinematic and political context.

[The] archive we’ve built is not ours, it’s the Egyptian peoples; it was filmed by the Egyptian people, it’s their story and it’s our story but a lot of people haven’t seen it. This country is going to be unpacking what happened here for generations and you never know what’s important and what isn’t. There are two things happening- there’s a duty to the present and a duty to the future and we’re trying to fulfil both.

Slum TV, Kenya:  Slum TV are a media collective that ‘provide a means of expression to informal settlement communities in Kenya by providing the pertinent tools for this.’ They predominantly work in the Mathare slum in Nairobi, providing training and production support for residents wishing to make films. As a result, Slum TV has helped to develop a new visual culture, one that is both entertaining and educational; the narratives always feeding back into the community and offering some light and perspective on the lives lived in informal settlements like Mathare. You can watch many of the films on the Slum TV website, here. In August, the Slum Film Festival will run in both the Kibera and Mathare. Sam Hopkins, one of Slum TV’s founding members describes the screening process:

The material is collated and screened on a monthly basis in public space in Mathare. Thus it functions like a ‘newsreel’ and affords the slum dwellers a form of local news. Having been screened locally, the content is then uploaded onto the website, which functions both as an archive of this oral history and a means to access a secondary, international audience.

ZaLab: a filmmaking collective that ‘hosts participatory video and documentary workshops in intercultural contexts and situations of geographical and social marginalization.’ Particularly powerful is their commitment to telling the stories of migrants who cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy and Spain, and their dedication to outing the horrific practices of the Libyan police when migrants are returned. I initially came across ZaLab after reading this wonderful article by Maaza Mengiste, the Ethiopian writer, who published a moving article in Granta magazine about the journey of one particularly man, Dagmawi Yimer. Mengiste writes about the torturous journey that finally led to Dagmawi’s arrival to the Italian island of Lampedusa, over a year after he set out from Addis Ababa. Since settling in Italy, Dagmawi became a member of ZaLab, making documentaries collaboratively with other migrants about their experiences, to drawn attention to the journeys that are made. In a year when reports of the dehydrated dead, exploited and left floating at sea have dominated headlines, the activity of ZaLab is all the more important. Their films are engaging, moving, informative and a vital resource to make known what people will endure for the hope of a better life in Europe. Dagmawi also helped to found The Archive of Migrant Memories, in Rome.

The Otolith Group:  The otolith is the part of the inner ear that establishes the body’s sense of gravity, orientation and balance. Taking its name from this bodily compass, The Otolith Group seek to use moving image to orient themselves, and us, within a wider cultural and theoretical context. They want to ‘build a new film culture’. At times their films are difficult to penetrate and draped in theoretical references that escape many viewers, however their work that deals with Africa, particularly the work of John Akomfrah (formerly of the Black Audio Film Collective), militant filmmaking, ‘audio poverty’ and migration is powerful, thought provoking visual art. You can see an inventory of their work here.

Further Reading

Beyond the headlines

Recent violence across the Eritrean diaspora is being instrumentalized by populists. But the violence is a desperate cry for attention and requires the Eritrean opposition to seize the moment for regime change.

Action required

Held in Nairobi this month, the inaugural Africa Climate Summit is an important step for the continent’s response to climate change. Still, the disasters in Libya and Morocco underscore that rhetoric and declarations are not enough.

The strange non-death of Bantustans

That South African political parties across the spectrum were quick to venerate the politician and Zulu prince Mangosutho Buthelezi, who died last week, demonstrates that the country is still attached to Bantustan ideology.

Shifting the guilt

Even though Israeli novelist Agur Schiff’s latest book is meant to be a satirical reflection on the legacy of slavery and stereotypes about Africa, it ends up reinforcing them.

Banana Republics

Western leftists are arguing among themselves about whether there will be bananas under socialism. In Africa, however, bananas do not necessarily represent the vagaries of capitalism.