Africa film festival aims to be continent’s Cannes

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The Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) opens in Nigeria on Sunday and although it is still in its infancy, organizers hope that with time it can become the continent's Cannes.

Seventy films from across the continent will be screened in a series of venues over seven days in the southern coastal city of Calabar, which Nigeria has tried to promote as an emerging cultural hub.

“For an African film to come out in Cannes or at (the) Toronto (International Film Festival) it has got to be pretty exceptional,” said festival spokesman Julian Nwagboniwe.

“But on our platform, we can increase exposure” for artists who may struggle for recognition in Europe or North America, he told AFP.

“We are looking at Cannes and we think that AFRIFF can be the Cannes of Africa,” Nwagboniwe went on, referring to the glitzy annual festival on the French Riviera that attracts the world's top film stars.

Nigeria is a logical host for a continental film festival: its cinema industry -- known as Nollywood -- pumps out about 1,000 titles every year and is thought to generate some $500 million (370 million euros) in annual revenue.

In 2007, Nigeria was the world's number one film producer with 1,559 titles, according to UNESCO figures, ahead of India (1,146) and U.S. behemoth Hollywood (789).

Nollywood films, most of which are straight-to-DVD productions and are often hawked by roadside vendors for a dollar or two, are popular across Africa but their wider appeal has been limited by plotlines and performances which can be excessively dramatic and sometimes absurd.

And while such films remain the dominant commercial force in the African market, the Calabar festival seeks to highlight different kinds of work, said Nwagboniwe.

“We think Africa has a lot of talent, so many voices,” he said. “We don't want the focus to be just Nigeria” or stories the could be considered typical of Nollywood.

Engaging Africans in the diaspora is a key to boosting exposure, Nwagboniwe said.

The 2013 festival's programmer and jury coordinator is Keith Shiri, a Zimbabwean-born film curator and advisor to the London Film Festival.

The AFRIFF however suffered a significant blow last month when the producers of “Half of a Yellow Sun”, based on the bestselling novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about Nigeria's 1967-1970 Biafra civil war, pulled out.

The film with British producers premiered in Toronto in September and opened in London on October 19.

Calabar had been tipped as the site of its first African viewing and significant parts of the film were filmed in the city.

The AFRIFF said it was “shocked” by the producer's decision to withdraw.

The film's producers did not respond to AFP's queries on the reasons for its withdrawal.

Nwagboniwe said that alongside the screenings, the third AFRIFF will include a series of workshops on cinematography and acting for camera aimed at young people seeking to break into the industry.

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