It’s easy to see how the shared historical identities of both Africa and the Caribbean regions impact their film-TV industry, and hence why it is possible to have shared distribution.
The lower production costs in Africa make it easier to penetrate the Caribbean market. Not very many Caribbean producers have been able to penetrate the U.S. market, but some talent from both Africa and the Caribbean have made it onto U.S. screens. These include Sidney Poitier from the Bahamas, Harry Belafonte from Jamaica, Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o, and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Winston Duke from Trinidad and Tobago, to name a few. This crossover of talent, skill, and blockbuster success has given a new generation of actors hope that they too can impact not only their regions, but also Hollywood.
Caribbean TV outlets and operators, because of their geographical location, size, and unique culture, often find themselves caught in a conundrum wherein networks and studios clear Latin America rights for the region. Being predominantly English-speaking, they tend to favor North American and British content.
The African culture is deeply embedded in the modern history of the Caribbean, which began in the 15th century with the adoption of an economy based on sugarcane production.
Under this system, enslaved black Africans were used as labor. It is estimated that some 12 million enslaved Africans came to the Caribbean between 1650 and 1850 during periods of colonization by the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch.
The traumatic experience of slavery made the population adopt the artistic, musical, literary, culinary, political, and social elements of Africa.
Films were also influenced by the true historical identities of African cultural groups, such as the Igbo (Nigeria), Yoruba (Benin, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Liberia), Nupe (mostly in Uganda), and Malinke-Wangana (Ghana). Both North and Sub-Saharan Africa would play an influential role in Caribbean cinema.
Even though the Caribbean film market was dominated by the American film industry for decades, the region would eventually carve its own brand of cinema by making fun of the historical, political, and social similarities between the U.S. and the Caribbean.
In the Caribbean, parts of Sub-Saharan and Western African countries, such as Nigeria, used their common background of politics, social issues, history, oppression, and religion. This is why they also share similar ways of filmmaking and storytelling. Certainly, the most popular genre on TV is soaps. Other successful genres include dramas, comedies, and documentaries.
On the other hand, while the cinema of Egypt is one of the oldest in the world, it is largely known for comedies and musicals.
The first film screenings in the Caribbean were held in 1895, a little more than a year after the emergence of film, and soon led to the development of cinemas throughout the region. Going to the cinema would prove to be a popular local pastime, as films increasingly captured the imagination of the Caribbean people. Almost all films were made outside the region; some pioneering film directors lived in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and just a few lived in the English-speaking Caribbean. It was only from the 1950s onward that the Caribbean began to produce films on a consistent basis — first documentaries made mainly by government film units, and later independently produced feature films.
Only a few blacks can be found among the major filmmakers in Cuba, the region’s foremost film-producing country. Sara Gómez is important. She was not only the first black Cuban to direct a feature film but also the first woman. Her first and only feature film was De Cierta Manera (1974). This innovative film combined documentary and dramatic sequences, real people and professional actors, to describe the role of African-influenced religions and male chauvinism in post-revolutionary Cuba. Tragically, Gómez died of asthma while the film was being edited.
Haitian cinema has been dominated by the work of Raoul Peck, who, like many other Caribbean filmmakers, operates from outside of the region, where he has access to funding and distribution. Peck grew up in Haiti and in the Congo, and his work reflects a commitment to these countries. One of his films was about the first prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba became an award-winning feature in 2000.
In Dutch Antilles, producer/scriptwriter Norman de Palm from Aruba and director/designer Felix de Rooy from Curaçao have produced some of the most important Caribbean films. Two of their films were shot in Curaçao. Almacita di Desolato (1986) is a mythical story of Afro-Caribbean folklore and the fight between good and evil, and Ava and Gabriel (1990) is a critical depiction of such issues as race, class, religion, and sexuality in the Dutch colony of Curaçao in 1948.
The French Antilles have produced a number of filmmakers of African descent, with Martiniquans Gabriel Glissant and Jean-Paul Césaire making short films and documentaries in the 1970s. However, it is Martiniquan filmmaker Euzhan Palcy who has made the greatest impact as a director. She received international recognition as the first black woman to direct a Hollywood studio film, A Dry White Season (1989), which is set in apartheid South Africa in 1976, but it was her first film, Rue Cases Nègres (1983), adapted from Joseph Zobel’s novel of post-slavery plantation life, that established her as one of the foremost Caribbean directors.
In the English-speaking Caribbean it would be foolhardy not to consider Perry Henzell’s pioneering The Harder They Come (1972), Jamaica’s quintessential Caribbean feature film, because it was made by a white Jamaican. Similarly, American-born Hugh Robertson, who was married to a Trinidadian, made Bim in 1974, highlighting the tensions between the African and Indian communities as it portrayed one man’s struggle to come to terms with a society that alienated him.
Jamaica has produced the most Caribbean films by far, thanks in part to its aggressive marketing and to the international appeal and popularity of reggae, the music that seems to drive every one of its films.
Filmmaking by Afro-Caribbeans is largely a labor of love, since the logistical problems they face are almost overwhelming. Apart from Cuba (which has established a film institute and film school), most Caribbean countries are too preoccupied with more pressing economic matters to commit money to the relatively high-cost undertaking of filmmaking.
Foundation help is sparse and usually doled out for documentaries. Private industry looks at the poor returns on previous efforts and prefers to err on the side of caution, thus remaining in the shadow of Hollywood productions. Films made in Cuba and Martinique are hardly shown in Trinidad; films from the Dutch Antilles are more likely to be shown in Holland than in the Caribbean. Cuba, followed by Jamaica, has organized annual film festivals to showcase new productions. It is the hope that such efforts will eventually spread throughout the entire Caribbean and inspire local filmmakers to produce a body of work so the region can take its rightful place on the international stage.
The African film industry is primarily known as “Nollywood.” It originated in West Africa, primarily in Nigeria, but also includes Ghanian films that have Nigerian distribution. The creation of Nollywood started in the 1960s. That was when the first Nollywood movies were being created by historical filmmakers such as Ola Balogun, Hubert Ogunde, Jab Adu, Moses Olaiya, and Eddie Ugbomah. They are considered the first generation of Nigerian filmmakers.
The Nigerian film industry is the largest in Africa, the second largest film producer in the world. In 2016, Nigeria’s film industry contributed 2.3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Nollywood is a homegrown industry that is divided largely along regional, and marginally ethnic and religious lines. While English-language films are a melting pot for filmmaking and filmmakers from most of the regional industries, the Yoruba language from western Nigeria is of equal prominence.
In northern Nigeria, the Hausa-language cinema, known informally as Kannywood, is also a branch of Nollywood. Hausa audiences, however, find Bollywood movies more attractive and have therefore given rise to a popular cinematic synthesis of Indian and Hausa culture.
Nollywood filmmakers are very proud of what they have built and accomplished and do not seek approval or ask permission from other parts of the world, especially Hollywood. The Caribbean Film industry, on the other hand, faces different challenges due to its proximity to the U.S. These challenges are sometimes magnified, adding to the pressures of producing quality films.
(By Dianne Bissoon*)
* Dianne Bissoon
A former marketing and content executive for Comcast, she was recruited by Cable & Wireless to launch its TV service, Lime TV, in 16 Caribbean islands. It was the region’s first IPTV service. She is one of the pioneers of the region’s first subscription-based OTT platform designed for Caribbean filmmakers. However, 83 percent of its subscribers come from the African continent. Bissoon was the co-creator and producer of TV series Walk Sacred, filmed on location in the U.S., Caribbean, and South Africa. She’s a supporter of many charities including CARE Foundation.
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