The Film Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in 1990 dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history. By working in partnership with archives and studios, the foundation has helped to restore over 750 films, which are made accessible to the public through programming at festivals, museums, and educational institutions around the world. The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project has restored 28 films from 20 different countries representing the rich diversity of world cinema. In addition, the foundation's free educational curriculum, "The Story of Movies," teaches young people - over 10 million to date - about film language and history.
Martin Scorsese is the founder and chairman of The Film Foundation which this week, along with the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and UNESCO, finalized their agreement to identify and preserve an initial selection of 50 African films, identified by FEPACI’s advisory board of African archivists, scholars and filmmakers. Scorsese’s foundation signed a letter of agreement, formalizing their partnership on what has been titled the African Film Heritage Project, created to do what is very necessary work - locate, restore, and preserve African films; many of which are seemingly *lost* to history, or just not widely accessible and could greatly benefit from restoration and re-release/re-discovery. African cinema history is deeper than many outside of the continent might realize. But as has been noted on this blog in the past, some of the older films are impossible to get one's hands on, unless made by the continent's higher profile filmmakers like the late Ousmane Sembene.
Said Scorsese: “There are so many films in need of restoration from all over the world. We created the World Cinema Project to ensure that the most vulnerable titles don’t disappear forever. Over the past 10 years the WCP has helped to restore films from Egypt, India, Cuba, the Philippines, Brazil, Armenia, Turkey, Senegal, and many other countries. Along the way, we’ve come to understand the urgent need to locate and preserve African films title by title in order to ensure that new generations of filmgoers — African filmgoers in particular — can actually see these works and appreciate them. FEPACI is dedicated to the cause of African Cinema, UNESCO has led the way in the protection and preservation of culture, and I’m pleased to be working in partnership with both organizations on this important and very special initiative.”
Indeed. As noted earlier, this is very necessary and important work being attempted here, as Cheick Oumar Sissoko, FEPACI secretary general (and a Malian filmmaker), notes: “Africa needs her own images, her own gaze testifying on her behalf, without the distorting prism of others, of the foreign gaze saddled by prejudice and schemes. We must bear witness to this cradle of humanity which has developed a rich and immense human, historical, cultural and spiritual patrimony.”
SEMBENE OUSMANE and MED HONDO in the Afrika Filmfestival (1997)
This will certainly go a long way towards making African films - especially classics of African cinema - widely accessible, and hopefully help fuel budding filmmakers across the continent.
Plans are for the restoration of 50 films to start with which will be identified by FEPACI’s advisory board, which is made up of archivists, scholars, and filmmakers who are experts on African cinema and active on the continent itself.
What the first 50 films will be have not been announced yet. Although the first project to be completed under the initiative is Med Hondo's 1969 classic "Soleil O," about an educated Mauritanian man living in Paris who faces racial discrimination as he tries to find work.
While we wait to learn of the next 49 films that will be identified and restored, a book recommendation that will prep you for the African Film Heritage Project is "Dictionary of African Filmmakers." While a few years old (it was published in 2008), it’s maybe the most comprehensive database on African cinema that exists.
It was compiled by African film scholar Roy Armes – a process that involved plenty of research and years to finish, as it includes coverage of feature filmmaking within the continent, starting from the earliest days with the first locally-produced films decades ago, to recent titles and filmmakers (up to 2008; but, despite the 9 years that have passed since then, it’s still very much a requirement for every cinephile’s library, with a listing of over 5,400 films, and more than 1,200 filmmakers from 37 African countries).
It’s in an easily digested format, sorted, first, in alphabetical order, by the names of the filmmakers who made at least 1 feature film, providing other info on them, like date and place of birth, training and/or film experience, followed, of course, by the films they made. Part 2 lists, also in alphabetical order, the 37 countries to which the filmmakers are conventionally aligned. In each case, a summary list of filmmakers is followed by a chronology of feature film output. And Part 3 is an index of film titles, using both original titles and distribution variants, together with English translations where necessary.
It’s an absolutely essential reference tool that many of you who read this blog will appreciate. You'll find yourself reaching for it often. There’s an incredibly rich history of African cinema that’s not widely recognized nor appreciated, and that we’ve barely scratched the surface of - work that will provide some context for many of the African films and filmmakers we write about today.
Within the 400-page book, you'll learn about much that you've never heard of nor seen. And it’s doubly frustrating that many of these films are not readily available for the average person to watch if they wanted to. For example, good luck finding Beninese filmmaker Pascal Abikanlou’s only feature film, "Under the Sign of the Vaudon" anywhere. A lot of these films likely don’t even exist anymore, which is unfortunate. But this African Film Heritage Project will hopefully be mostly successful in its endeavor.
In the meantime, you can pick up a copy of the book on Amazon.com.
Following restoration, the 50 films will be distributed worldwide and eventually made available via digital platforms and other formats.
Watch Scorsese discuss the African Film Heritage Project initiative below: