Africa's budding film festival circuit keeps its filmmakers on the map, despite onslaught from Hollywood

Festivals provide spaces for interesting and unique African stories, and for rich networking.

AS the 9th edition of the “Africa in Motion” Film Festival gears up to run from October 24 to November 9 in Scotland, this year’s theme is all about looking back and reaching forward, drawing inspiration from the Adinkra symbol of the “Sankofa bird”, which means “reach back and get it”. 

The event programme focuses on retrospectives of the past and explorations of the present and the future of African cinema, including contemporary and classic feature films, insightful documentaries and stunning animation. This festival is just one further demonstration of the incredible amount of feature, documentary and short films that African filmmakers are producing each year. This is something that is hard to realise unless you attend film festivals. 

Festivals are the best place to watch creative and contemporary African films because many cinemas in African tend to prefer to screen Hollywood blockbusters. With the exception perhaps of Nollywood, which produces a large number of straight-to-DVD films, many African filmmakers have a distribution problem. Piracy is rampant and so understandably, many filmmakers guard their films as they try to figure out how to make money from their work.

When an African film makes it into a prestigious European or American festival, it tends to create enough buzz about the movie for viewers on the continent to go in search of a copy. Films like the Congolese hit “Viva Riva” (2010), the South African success “Tsosti” (2005) or Kenyan hit “Nairobi Half Life” (2012) all had impressive runs at global festivals, winning numerous awards. 

The fact that they are all crime or drama or action thrillers, might say something about how the world wants to see Africa. Nevertheless, there are spaces interested in unique and different types of African stories, and that is the budding film festival circuit on the continent. African film festivals have started to provide much more than just a place to see new work, they are places to network and often receive training opportunities, geared to take African film to greater levels.

Here we take a look at some of the continent’s most renowned events: 


In its 35th year, The Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) is one of the biggest and most renowned festivals in Africa. It is a place that scouts talent and open doors for those lucky enough to have their film accepted there. Concurrently, the festival also holds the Durban FilmMart; in its 5th year, the Film Mart brings film financiers and industry players together to view 10 documentaries and 10 feature films, with the potential to form a co-production partnership. In its 7th year, Talents Durban is a pan-African networking and development initiative that brings 40 emerging filmmakers from all around the continent to meet, train, and harness their skills. The month of July sees the beautiful South African coastal city in the province of KwaZulu-Natal awash with film enthusiasts.


The Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), or The Festival of the Dhow Countries—as it is also known, is East Africa’s largest film event, as well as a music and arts affair. Each year it puts out a call for short and feature films around a particular theme and then screens and awards the most successful submissions. The city of Stone Town in Zanzibar and the island in general come alive with music, parties, exhibitions, workshops, and a host of other cultural events. Aside from its incredibly scenic locale, ZIFF’s popularity stems from the multiplicity of arts events that it caters for. The festival is a gem for African filmmakers but it is also a gift to filmmakers and film lovers around the world, who come in their thousands to experience the Tanzanian island at this time.

Burkina Faso

The Pan-African Film & TV Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) is a biennial film and television event, which privileges African filmmakers and producers. Founded in 1969, and initially catering largely to Francophone West Africa, the festival now sees submissions and features screenings from all over the continent and globe. The festival still primarily caters to Francophone Africa, but subtitling foreign language films has allowed them to screen more films in different languages.


To the north of the continent, the 17th annual African film festival of KHOURIBGA took place in June this year. Another primarily Francophone enterprise, this Moroccan city also hosts a documentary film festival later in the year. While Morocco has a number of other larger film festivals, this festival’s charm is that it brings alive a city that has not experienced the same amount of hype and infrastructure as Marrakech, which hosts the much larger Marrakech International Film Festival. This year, the festival awarded prizes to films from Egypt, Morocco,  South Africa and Cameroon, with special mention going to a Rwandese and an Ethiopian filmmaker.


Countries undergoing massive political and cultural transitions have not stopped making art that speaks of or responds to turmoil in the nations. In its second year, the Luxor film festival was keen to ensure cultural dialogue did not cease, as the political climate in Egypt remained unstable. Along the Nile and in the southern part of the country, the city of Luxor does not have the same cultural caché as Cairo or Alexandria, which have a long history of their own festivals dating back four decades. With a focus on Egyptian and European cinema, the Luxor film festival might be a good venue for attracting Egyptian artists, but only time will tell if it becomes a space that welcomes art from other African countries.

- The author is a Ugandan multidisciplinary performance artist and scholar who was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya

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