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Meet Martin Scorsese’s partner in saving African cinema

DAVE MCGINN

7/27/2017 12:00:00 AM

Aboubakar Sanogo spent years trying to track down a copy of Soleil O, one of the most important African films ever made.

"There is before and after Soleil O in the history of African cinema," said Sanogo, an assistant professor of film studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The movie, the directorial debut of Med Hondo, about an immigrant who moves to Paris in search of a better life, only to encounter racism and humiliation, has popped up in theatres here and there over the years, but never received wide distribution after it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970. Imagine not being able to find a print of Mean Streets. This isn't just the sad state of Soleil O, but of much of African cinema itself, Sanogo said.

It's why he's so excited about his latest undertaking, the African Film Heritage Project, launched in partnership with Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation World Cinema Project and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The goal of the initiative will be to not only preserve and restore African cinema, but to help raise awareness of African films by getting them shown in theatres and at film festivals around the world.

"Preservation is only half the battle," Sanogo said. "The real battle is: Get it seen."

Scorsese's involvement in the project is a personal dream come true for Sanogo, who counts the director among his favourite filmmakers. But more importantly, it gives the project a profile it might otherwise lack.

"He's a Hollywood filmmaker, yet he's acutely aware that Hollywood is simply not enough, that our experience of the world is incomplete if we only see films that Hollywood offers us," Sanogo said.

Scorsese's World Cinema Project, which aims to preserve and restore neglected films, has restored, preserved and exhibited 31 films from around the globe, including Africa, since its launch in 2007.

Hollywood's offerings are so well promoted and vastly distributed that they often push other movies from our sites, intentionally or not, which has certainly been true of African cinema, Sanogo said.

"It has been marginalized precisely because the screens of Africa and the screens of the world are dominated by the cinema of one country primarily," he said.

It's an unfortunate state of affairs for all, regardless of where they come from or call home, Sanogo said.

"The world is not complete if it does not have the African lens to it," he said. "It is a truism that the world was born in Africa. And therefore, to know Africa is to know oneself."

But, he cautioned, "It's important that people don't keep in mind only the historical aspect, but Africa as it moves, as it lives today."

There is a rich tradition of documentaries and experimental and feature films made in Africa, as well as films that date back as far as the early 1900s, but unfortunately many of them are hard to find or are in poor condition, Sanogo said. Just visit the archives in many African countries and you'll see for yourself, he added.

"It brings tears to your eyes."

While it is important to preserve these films and show them to a global audience, it is profoundly necessary to make them available to Africans themselves, Sanogo said.

"The act of seeing oneself on screen is an affirmative act," he said, adding that when we see ourselves on screen, we are able to recognize so much about our lives. "This is the beauty of the culture, this is the beauty of the way we have invented to the world – in our own manner, in our own language, in our own cuisine, in our own music – our own stories, our own institutions, our own ways of being together. That is what cinema does that really makes it a life-affirming medium."

Sanogo was finally able to watch Soleil O after meeting Med Hondo in person.

The African Film Heritage Project has already made it easier for others to see the film. Thanks to the efforts of the project, Soleil O screened in the Cannes Classics section of the famed film festival earlier this year, and then was exhibited at a film festival in Italy last month.

Fighting Hollywood is certainly no easy task, but like every struggle for equality, it is one that benefits us all, Sanogo said. "If all cinematic traditions were treated equally, if the distribution processes and institutions were open to all cinema, the world itself would be much richer."

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Shine a Light: Scorsese’s Film Foundation Leads a Charge to Preserve 50 Endangered Gems of Africa’s Cinema History

Ryan Stewart

7/21/2017 12:00:00 AM

Having touched on the rich cultural heritage of West Africa with “Feel Like Going Home,” an episode in his 2003 documentary series The Blues, which explored the African roots of the Delta blues, Martin Scorsese had another fortuitous opportunity to engage with the continent’s artistic offerings in 2007.

That year, he was invited to Mali by Souleymane Cissé, a celebrated Malian director who shared with him the joys of African cinema, as well as its struggles.

“Cissé was very urgent in expressing the need for African cinema to be preserved,” said Margaret Bodde, executive director of Scorsese’s preservation-focused nonprofit organization, The Film Foundation. “The great flowering of African cinema of the 1960s and ’70s has not really been available where the films were made. So we’ve always had it on our minds to try to tackle this issue.”

The right circumstances were ultimately initiated by FEPACI, or The Pan African Federation of Filmmakers, an organization formed in 1969 in North Africa to be a continent-wide (and diaspora) voice for promoting African cinema interests. Concerned with the urgent need to preserve African film heritage, FEPACI developed an idea for a program to identify and select 50 films across the continent for preservation. They also began having discussions with The Film Foundation about joining the effort.

“From that point on it became clear that this was a world heritage cultural patrimony issue, so we sent a proposal in to UNESCO,” said Bodde. UNESCO—the Paris-based agency of the United Nations dedicated to cultural, educational and scientific endeavors—responded two months later.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova explained: “Protecting African audiovisual heritage is inseparable from the safeguarding of African cultural and natural wonders. It is a source of pride and dignity. It is a driver of social cohesion and belonging. It is also an accelerator for economic growth, job creation and revenue generation. Films shape our opinions and the way we see the world. They give confidence and courage to transform societies for the better.” Bokova sees the project as “a source of enrichment for humankind.”

A letter of agreement between the entities was formalized on June 7, 2017, with the creation of the African Film Heritage Project initiative.

Going forward, the partners will rely on the expertise of a FEPACI advisory board of archivists, filmmakers and scholars tasked with seeking out the initial 50 films. The alliance already has a success under its belt that predates the letter of agreement, with the restoration of celebrated Mauritanian director Med Hondo’s 1969 drama Soleil O (Oh, Sun). A critique of neocolonialism, the film was shot over a period of four years and tells the story of an African immigrant’s journey to Paris to find his ancestors.

The film’s restoration took place at the L’Immagine Ritrovata lab in Bologna, Italy and was financed by The Film Foundation and the George Lucas Family Foundation, with the work being completed in time for a screening at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Having seen the film, Bodde describes it as “a film of righteous anger…poignant and heartbreaking.”

“The partnership with the Film Foundation will help further increase the visibility of Soleil O, not only in Africa but across the world,” said Aboubakar Sanogo, North American Regional Secretary for FEPACI. “This film more than ever contributes to bringing us together in a world where misunderstanding among peoples is increasing.”

Sanogo also stressed that an overarching goal of the partnership will be bringing the film heritage of Africa to Africans themselves. “One of the objectives [of FEPACI] is always to have a conversation with African audiences through the cinema,” Sanogo said. “That conversation before was made difficult by the fact that African screens were occupied by Hollywood, Bollywood, Hong Kong films and European films. Part of this partnership is about putting these films back into the circuit in Africa itself.”

The films selected for preservation will include narrative features, documentaries, avant-garde works, shorts and newsreels and will be broad enough in their temporality to paint a multifaceted portrait of a 20th-century Africa both independent and under colonization. By confining its selection timeframe to the hundred year period from 1889 to 1989, the partnership hopes to reconstitute, in the words of Sanogo, “a really credible history of African cinema.”

“We have to go far back to be able to reconstitute the complexity of the narrative of African cinema, and resituate it properly in the general history of cinema itself,” Sanogo said. “Those who write the history of cinema tend to begin African cinema history with independence in the late 1950s and early ’60s, but even in colonial times and around the time of the Lumières, Africans were making films.” MM

Photograph: (L-R) African Film Festival director Mahen Bonetti, FEPACI’s Aboubakar Sanogo, Martin Scorsese, UNESCO’s Irina Bokova and New York University associate professor Yemane Demissie launch the African Film Heritage Project. Photograph by Dave Alloca/ Starpix / Courtesy of The Film Foundation

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue.

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American Director Leads Project to Protect African Films

7/20/2017 12:00:00 AM

American filmmaker Martin Scorsese is supporting an international project to preserve African movies.

It is called the African Film Heritage Project. Its goal is to protect the work of Africa's most important directors, and restore some of the films.

The Film Foundation, a nonprofit launched by Scorsese, created the project. According to Scorsese, its goals are similar to the Film Foundation’s World CinemaProject.

"The idea of the world cinema foundation was to restore and make available as best as possible films made in areas that really don't have the infrastructure, the archivalinfrastructure to take care of these films and take care of that cultural heritage."

The project will locate, restore, and preserve these films. Many important films from the continent are difficult to find, especially for the average movie viewer.

The Film Foundation is partnering with the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and UNESCO in this project.

FEPACI’s advisory board is identifying 50 films for restoration. The board is made up of archivists, scholars, and filmmakers who are active in Africa. Scorsese says the films are a hidden part of the continent's history.

"Those films were made by Africans, about Africans for Africans, for the world and it is time to take that as another facet of the culture. The creative thinking, the creative action of the entire continent."

Director Yemani Demissie teaches filmmaking at New York University. He says:

"Many African films that were made in the previous century don't have the opportunity to be screened by filmmakers all over the world.”

Demissie adds that this project will allow a wider audience to see these films.

Irina Bokova is UNESCO director-general. She says the project will “give justice to the African history” and encourage creativity among young filmmakers.

Scorsese agrees:

“I think it is something that could be very fruitful, for young people who are beginning to make their own films or are making their own films."

In the past ten years, Scorsese's World Cinema Project has helped restore films from Egypt and Senegal as well as from India, Armenia, Brazil, and the Philippines.

I’m Phil Dierking.

 

Arzouma Kompaore reported this story for VOA News. Phil Dierking adapted the report for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

Are there important films from your country that you think everyone should see? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

 

archive - n. a place in which public records or historical materials are kept​

cinema - n. the film industry​

fruitful - adj. producing a good result​

infrastructure - n. the basic equipment and structures (such as roads and bridges) that are needed for a country, region, or organization to function properly​

preserve - v. to keep (something) in its original state or in good condition​

restore - v. to return (something) to an earlier or original condition by repairing it, cleaning it, etc.​

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Rosita by Ernst Lubitsch: Pre-inaugural Evening of the 74th Venice Film Festival

7/20/2017 12:00:00 AM

Rosita, famed as the single collaboration between two of the giants of the silent screen, the director Ernst Lubitsch and the star Mary Pickford, is the film that has been chosen for the Pre-inaugural evening of the 74th Venice International Film Festival

Rosita, will be screened in a new 4K digital restoration effected by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, with the support of The Film Foundation; this will be the restored version’s world premiere. The screening of Rosita will feature live music played by the Mitteleuropa Orchestra of Friuli – Venezia Giulia, directed by the musicologist Gillian Anderson, who has reconstructed the film’s original score by working on scores recovered at the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C. 

Rosita is set in a mythical Spain where an engagingly lecherous King (Holbrook Blinn) has cast his eye on a popular but provocative street singer (Mary Pickford). She, in turn, yearns for the handsome young nobleman (George Walsh, brother of the celebrated director Raoul Walsh), who has rescued her from the angry king’s guards and has been condemned to a dungeon for his troubles. Following the American success of his German historical epics (Madame DuBarry, Anna Boleyn), Ernst Lubitsch was invited to Hollywood by Mary Pickford to direct her in what would become her first adult role, as a street singer of Seville who attracts the flattering but inconvenient interest of the King of Spain (Holbrook Blinn).  

The film was, by all accounts, a major critical and commercial success on its first release, but in later years Pickford turned against it, for reasons that still remain mysterious, and decides to allow the film to decay (she did, however, preserve reel four, for reasons no less mysterious). Rosita vanished from circulation until a nitrate print was discovered in the Russian archives and repatriated by the Museum of Modern Art in the 1960s. A safety preservation negative was made from the nitrate print, but no further work was done on the film because of the expense and difficulty of recreating the English intertitles.  Happily, a copy of a complete continuity script, which includes all of the intertitles, surfaced in the collection of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Using the titles in Pickford’s preserved fourth reel as a template, new intertitles have been created to match the original.  

Working with this new material, MoMA has recreated this celebrated but severely damaged film in a form as close as possible to its original release. Musicologist Gillian Anderson has recreated the original theatrical score, working from the music cue sheets surviving at the Library of Congress. The Mitteleuropa Orchestra belongs to a long musical tradition focusing on central and southern Europe. In the early 2000s, it was institutionalized by the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region and supported by several municipalities and provinces in the region. It currently counts 47 stable orchestra professors and a solid independent management. Its headquarter is in the Loggia della Gran Guardia in Palamanova, a historical building dating back to the XVI century, facing the marvellous square of the famous star-shaped city. 

Since January 2017, the Orchestra Music Director is Master Marco Guidarini. His versatile repertoire goes from baroque to contemporary, from classical to cross-over music. The Mitteleuropa Orchestra played successfully both in Italy and abroad – France, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania. It participated in many international events, from Venice Music Biennale to Mittelfest, from the Pordenone Silent Film Festival to the concert for the beatification of John Paul II.

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