‘My Octopus Teacher’ Is Having Moment in the Sun, but More African Documentaries Are Rising to the Surface

The unexpected Academy Award run of “My Octopus Teacher,” Netflix’s hit, heartfelt documentary about a filmmaker’s unlikely relationship with an octopus living off the coast of South Africa, marks a rare Oscar nomination for an African documentary. But perhaps it should come as no surprise.

These are widely hailed as boom times for documentary filmmaking, driven in part by streaming platforms’ relentless appetite for content, as the coronavirus pandemic has left millions of homebound viewers across the globe glued to their screens. Despite the hurdles they face, it stands to reason that African filmmakers would also reap some rewards.

For the continent’s documentary filmmakers, however, it’s a movement a long time in the making. Recent years have seen the emergence of grassroots efforts to grow the African documentary community, such as the Nairobi-based DocuBox film fund, the Ouaga Film Lab, in Burkina Faso, and the pan-African DocA initiative. Collectively they’ve helped to bring together filmmakers from across the continent, building a far-flung network while also bolstering opportunities for African filmmakers to tell their own stories.

“If you look at the last 50, 60 years, most African documentaries have been financed out of Europe,” says Steven Markovitz, the South African producer behind docs such as Toronto players “Beats of the Antonov” and “Silas,” and this year’s Hot Docs premiere “The Colonel’s Stray Dogs.”

“We’re starting to see more financing coming out of Africa, which is contributing to more independent filmmaking, more original filmmaking, and also African producers having more ownership over their docs.”

European and North American institutions and film funds, such as the IDFA Bertha Fund and the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Docs Fund, have also played a key role, and remain instrumental in supporting African documentary filmmakers hamstrung by limited local and regional capacity.

Earlier this month, the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Docs Fund unveiled its eight latest recipients, who will receive a total of CAD$120,000 ($96,000) in development and production grants, while also announcing an additional CAD$1 million ($960,000) in support over the next four years that will bring the fund’s total to CAD$3.35 million ($2.7 million). Founded in 2011, the fund has awarded grants to 78 projects from 24 African countries.

“What we’re seeing is where resources are directed, the talent is following,” says Hot Docs director of programming Shane Smith. “The talent is being developed. It’s not rocket science. You invest in developing the voices and the talent, and you’ll see the incredible work that they’re able to do.”

That work is being recognized more widely than ever before. Festival programmers, increasingly on the lookout for a broader and more diverse range of storytelling perspectives, particularly from long overlooked and marginalized communities, have given African filmmakers a vital global platform.

Recent festival standouts include “Downstream to Kinshasa,” a 2020 Cannes official selection from acclaimed Congolese documentary filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi; Kenyan director Sam Soko’s “Softie,” which won a Special Jury Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival; and “Talking About Trees,” Sudanese director Suhaib Gasmelbari’s 2019 Berlinale prizewinner.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a gold rush for African filmmakers. “[Foreign] broadcasters are more interested in African-based directors and producers, but there hasn’t been a huge surge in commissions or co-productions with African-based producers and directors,” says Markovitz. While global streaming services have upped their documentary spending elsewhere around the world, in Africa, for the most part, “we haven’t felt it yet,” says producer Tiny Mungwe of STEPS, a non-profit media company based in Cape Town.

To create a sustainable documentary industry in Africa requires a shift in the traditional way of doing business, with financing flowing from north to south, but little energy being put into the development of institutions at the local level. “There isn’t enough of a recognition of the need for institutional capacity development,” says Mungwe. “To build an industry, you need to build an ecosystem, but also then start to trust organizations and institutions in the Global South to be the ones leading the capacity development that’s needed.”

That holistic, pan-African approach is in the DNA of Generation Africa, an anthology of 30 short, medium-, and feature-length documentary films about migration told from an African perspective, which are being co-produced by STEPS along with partners in 17 African countries. ARTE has come onboard to co-produce seven of the films, and will broadcast all 30 across either its channels or digital platforms, offering a model for how European broadcasters can serve as collaborators in support of African-led initiatives.

The first two Generation Africa feature films arrive this month. In “Zinder” (pictured), which premieres in the international competition at Visions du Reel before screening in the Change Makers program at CPH:DOX, Nigerien filmmaker Aicha Macky returns to the titular hometown she left years ago to explore the harsh inequalities and divisions in the desert city’s impoverished Kara-Kara district.

“The situation in Kara-Kara reveals the fate of a wasted and abandoned youth who struggle to find their place in society, their identity and their dignity,” says Macky. “The problem is inherent to all societies in the world. The struggle of these young people is not far from that of the youth of the ghettos in the U.S.A., those of the European suburbs who fight for racial equality, social justice, the right to education.”

A title card in the film’s opening sequence states: “I am a daughter of Zinder.” That insider’s perspective is central to the films being produced by Generation Africa, and is the key to changing narratives about the African continent, according to veteran South African producer Don Edkins of STEPS. “As soon as you start telling stories from the inside, you find a very different storytelling approach,” he says.

Another Generation Africa title, “The Last Shelter,” by Mali’s Ousmane Zoromé Samassékou, premieres in the main competition of CPH:DOX before heading to the World Showcase strand of Hot Docs. Samassékou’s film unspools at the House of Migrants on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert, where weary West African refugees hoping to reach Europe in search of a better life prepare for the long journey ahead.

“For me, it was necessary to approach the subject of immigration from another angle than the one vilified by the media,” says Samassékou, who has a personal connection to the story: his uncle Amadou left Mali for Europe years ago, disappearing without a trace. “I believe that if these people were allowed to come and go as they are allowed to do in the West, there would be less of the immigration disaster that we see.”

Western journalists have chronicled the punishing trans-Sahara route to Europe, and the difficult lives awaiting African migrants there. But Samassékou brings a distinctly local perspective to the migration narrative, in order “to lift the taboos and to dare to talk about the failure when you leave, and the difficulty of returning because of it.”

Migration is also at the heart of “The Colonel’s Stray Dogs,” from the London-born, South African-Libyan director Khalid Shamis. The film, which recounts Shamis’ father’s dangerous life as a Libyan exile in the U.K. with a million-dollar bounty on his head, premieres in the World Showcase strand at Hot Docs.

In the intimate portrait of his relationship with his father, the director questions the cost of his father’s decades-long opposition to Muammar Gaddafi and eventual return to an unrecognizable Libya on the brink of civil war. Shamis nevertheless sees his as a widely relatable story.

“I feel that the second-generation migrant in the West could identify with the experience of exiled parents and what they allow their children to know of their past lives, so that the kids can concentrate on their assimilation in the new land,” he says.

“Stray Dogs” was a journey many years in the making, partly owing to the challenges facing most directors of “long-term personal films,” says Shamis, but largely due to the hurdle of getting the rights to archival material “that was vital to the film and personal to my story, but was in the hands of the archives gatekeepers of the world.”

His success is perhaps a fitting metaphor for a generation of African documentary filmmakers looking to wrest back control of their own narratives. And in the end, Shamis learned a valuable lesson that—in spite of their many gains—still holds true for his peers: “Perseverance is key.”