Laurent Million, responsible for the programming of the Annecy festival, spoke to our microphone about the retrospective devoted to African animated cinema during this 2021 edition!
How did the idea come about to devote a retrospective devoted to African animation cinema?
The French Institute is devoting a section dedicated to Africa this year. The Annecy Festival is used to putting the culture of a country or a continent in the spotlight each year, but the choice was completely independent of the functioning of the Institute.
In 2021, however, the opportunity arose to join forces to present a program around Africa. But I still remember that this is not the first time that Africa has been in the spotlight in Annecy.
What will be the highlights of this retrospective?
It is made up of eight or nine programs, and will trace the origins and pioneers up to today’s news via the new wave of contemporary artists. A focus will be on the career of the immense William Kentridge, who is for me one of the greatest artists in Africa.
Several feature films will be offered, both for adults and children. In the end, a nice range of what Africa today can offer in terms of animation. Among the films on offer, we will notably have the very first Nigerian animated film.
The cinema of Nigeria is nicknamed “Nollywood”, it is about the African country with the greatest cinematographic activity, mainly in real shots, but also with a lot of animated short films unfortunately of rather poor quality, not sufficiently successful. so that we can select them in Annecy.
Annecy Festival 2021: African animation cinema in the spotlight for the 60th anniversary
We will also present documentaries, in particular on two pioneers of African animation: the Frenkel brothers who arrived in Egypt, driven from their native Russia because they were born Jews. They made a career mainly around a very popular character Mish Mish Effendi, who is considered the African Mickey Mouse.
The Egyptian independence movements in 1948 again pushed them to change country, they took refuge in France to continue their cinematographic career, unfortunately without ever meeting success again. The documentary also tells how these films were found and their restoration. It is through their history that animated cinema began to develop in Africa.
A documentary will be devoted to another pioneer, Moustapha Alassane who is originally from Niger. He is nicknamed the African Méliès; he was an assistant to the famous documentary maker Jean Rouch and when the latter left Niger, he offered him a camera.
Alassane then improvised as a filmmaker and began to train with the greatest, in particular the Canadian Norman McLaren. After his travels around the world, he returned to Niger to get down to making animated films shot on low budgets. It’s a pretty touching documentary. One of Alassane’s sons will also be present in Annecy to tell us about his father.
Are there specific aspects of African cinema? How would you carve out its industry within the continent?
I would cut it in two: the north and the south! (laughs) Africa is a very contrasting continent, with immense desert areas. The history of cinema in Africa follows that of the independence movements, to sum up. The first country to take advantage of this is Egypt, which has a real cinema industry with a past, studios, schools and above all authors. The Maghreb then developed fairly quickly, as did Niger precisely thanks to Moustapha Alassane.
The Congo, like many former colonized countries, has kept cultural cooperation links with France. But in the middle of the continent there is almost nothing, you have to go directly to South Africa where the cinema has already been established since the 1920s. At the end of Apartheid, the South African animation industry has not weakened to the point of being considered today as the most developed in Africa.
The first African animated feature film in history is the Zimbabwean feature film The Legend of the Sky Kingdom (2003), produced by Phil Cunningham, the founder of the Sunrise company which produces the Jungle Beat series in particular. The other studio very active in the African animation industry is Triggerfish which subcontracts the animation of many European productions, notably the productions of the British studio Magic Light Pictures (The Witch in the Air, The Whale and the snail …).
To make animated films, you certainly need a lot of money, but above all you need peace. And unfortunately, African countries are in constant search of democracy. A lot of things are done from the outside. Moreover, the artists who have the chance to study abroad (in the United States, in Europe, in India…) continue to produce their films via their networks because it is much easier. Here again, the documentary devoted to Alassane allows us to really understand how animated cinema works in Africa.