Analysis of the History of Cinema Industry in Senegal

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Postcolonial Urbanisms

Professor Fredericks

July 20th, 2018

Cinema in Senegal


My initial interest in the film industry in Senegal sparked after the lecture and film screenings by Christian Thiam. Following this lecture, I set out to read more on the films that were created post-independence. Among these films was Xala by Ousmane Sembene. In this narrative, the hypocrisy of African leaders is explored through an exploration of modernity in the context of decolonization. In this film, the idea of an independent nation still struck by mismanagement and dependency on their former colonizers is interpreted through the curse of impotence. Using this film as the mirror into post-independent Senegal in the 1970s, my research looks at the political decisions that affected the production of films like Xala. This paper explores the history of film in Senegal through academic journals and a personal account by a film producer and cinema owner, Malick Aw. The questions central to the thesis of this paper are: What impacts did structural adjustment have on the film industry? What role must the Senegalese government play in the revival of the film industry to its former glory? Finally, is the reappearance of French film companies in Senegal a sign of neo-colonialism in the film industry?

Momar Thiam, a Senegalese film producer and director, writes that Senegal was exposed to film in the early 1900s, around the same time that the rest of the world was . The first film screening in Dakar was a Louis Lumiere production called The Sprinkler Sprinkled, observed by European traders . Following this screening, a creation of theaters and distribution networks spurred across the Senegal and other French West African colonies, primarily screening films by Europeans who used African landscapes as a backdrop for narratives that promoted the colonial mission . In addition to these films, documentaries were created at the time as propaganda material to be distributed in the mother land (France) to show the economic activities such as peanut production in Kaolack activities being undertaken in French West Africa. Included in these films were scenes that reinforced colonist stereotypes and supported the notion of white superiority that fueled the colonial government. The French also produced black-face films for pleasure such as the 1933 production of Bouboule the First, Black King by Leon Mathot. During this era, films were largely screened in urban areas mainly by the colonists and local wealthy elites. On the other hand, mobile outdoor screenings became the only way that the rest of the population could view films. These screenings were financed by missionaries, circuses and the colonial administration and targeted the people who could not afford to go to the theaters in urban areas.

The two French companies who controlled movie theaters in Senegal, COMACICO and SECMA, continued well after independence until Senegalese filmmakers pressured President Senghor’s government to nationalize theaters. The president created SIDEC (Senegalese Company for Cinematographic Importation, Distribution, and Screening) to replace the two French companies in 1973. During its operations, SIDEC built theaters in many secondary cities in Senegal in addition to numerous outdoor movie screenings. By the late 1980s, Senegal boasted of over eighty functional theaters. The increase in theaters also led to the rise in film production by Senegalese filmmakers. During this time, films such as Ousmane Sembene’s Xala were produced and competed on the international stage. SIDEC was however liquidated in the early 1990s by the government in accordance with the structural adjustment policies ordered by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Due to mismanagement of African economies through corruption and nepotism, many African countries succumbed to the conditionality tied to loans from the IMF and the World Bank. Some of the IMF conditions for granting loans included privatization of public agendas and workforce rationalization. Structural Adjustment Policies stagnated the industrialization of post-independent African countries, reverting them back to the exportation of cheap raw materials. In addition to this reversion, the IMF imposed budgetary cuts on social services, removed trade restrictions and facilitated a currency devaluation . These changes negatively affected public access to water, healthcare and education. An integral component of the SAP was the integration of African economies into the global economy yet countries that adopted SAP failed to increase in growth, reduce poverty levels and create sustainable jobs. Instead, under SAP, Africa’s external debts increased by over 500% after 1980, putting countries in a never-ending cycle of loans and debt repayment. Thomas Sankara said of the debt crisis; “Those who lent money to us are the same people who colonized us, are the same who so long managed our states and our economies; they indebted Africa with ‘donations’ of money. We were not involved in the creation of this debt, so we should not pay it we cannot pay it we do not want to pay”

Contrary to Sankara’s words, $229 billion in debt repayments have been transferred to the West since 1980, accounting for four times the region’s debt. Today, although Africa is considered the poorest region in the world, it pays $15 billion a year from debt to richer nations. Germane to the film industry in Senegal was the forced privatization of public spaces which saw numerous theaters sold to private bidders who in turn, transformed these spaces into real estate. By the mid-1990s, fewer than ten operational theaters remained nationwide. Following the mass extinction of theaters in urban spaces was the slow but sure downfall of the film industry in Senegal. In place of theaters came a rise in popularity of mobile theaters. One popular project, CNA (Digital Mobile Cinema) was created in 2001 in Benin. The project’s main goal is to travel to rural areas to showcase African films to people who have no access to theater spaces. This mobile film project not only aims to entertain, but also to educate rural dwellers on health issues such as sanitation, HIV/AIDS prevention, maternal health, and malaria prevention. By so doing, CNA is offered donations from organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the French Embassy, Plan International, and so on. With funds from these organizations, CNA is able to show screenings for free to people in remote areas. Due to the rise in popularity of CNA, the project has consequently been invited to show screenings in neighborhoods around Dakar, therefore creating competition between the mobile film screenings and the remaining theaters in the urban space.

An interview conducted by Amadou T. Fofana of Malick Aw in 2016, a cinema owner in Dakar expounds on this competition. Malick Aw is a Senegalese film producer and theater owner who inherited Cinema Christa from his father, the late Cheikh Tidiane Aw (most famous for his 1975 film The Bronze Bracelet). The cinema is an eight-hundred-seat theater in the peri-urban outskirts of Dakar. The cinema saw its hay-days in the 1970s and 80s during the film industry boom in Senegal but has since been affected by the SAP that reshaped the film industry. Currently, Cinema Christa faces many challenges that per Malick Aw, could be relieved with the help of the government. Malick Aw comments; “…I’m not asking the government for money. I’m asking the government to allow my business to exist and thrive. To do so, it behooves the government to fight piracy, not me. I’m not a police officer; that is the responsibility of the government…it is unfair competition. No one should be allowed to show a film right outside of a movie theater. It is the kind of competition that will eventually kill the theater because they show movies for free and I collect an entrance fee.”

Malick’s concerns highlight the change that times and policies have brought about in the film industry. The rise in availability in technological devices that play CDs or DVDs has created a trench between the people and the movie theater. For the people who lack the funds to attend movie screenings at Cinema Christa, the free screenings replace such luxuries. For Malick Aw’s cinema, this spells out a catastrophe for the business. Malick continues to lament; “ It is free that will kill the cinema. It is important to remember that making a movie requires a budget. It is not free! A film is expected to pay for its cost in retrospect because no one can rely on subsidies for both production and exhibition.” For Malick Aw’s, his concerns center around two prominent issues in the film industry in Senegal today; the lack of resources of the government to support projects and the competition created by free mobile screenings such as the CNA. For Malick Aw, the introduction of CNA into the urban space further denies movie theaters such as Cinema Christa of attendees, many of whom, according to Malick, would rather watch a film for free than to pay for it. In hopes of alleviating some of the increasing concerns associated with film production in Senegal, the government, in 2017, increased the budget allocation for film to about $4million dollars with extended eligibility for grants to cinema professionals. The underlying question is will money alone revive the film industry in Senegal to its former glory prior to SAP or will the government need to be more involved?

In 2017, a French company, Vivendi, opened theater CanalOlympia Teranga in the heart of Dakar, with the Senegalese government’s support. The same kind of theater has since been opened in four other former French West African countries with more to be opened. Senegal being a part of the Franc Zone, a collection of countries where the currency CFA Franc is ties to the French Franc, raises the question of neo-colonialism in the film industry. In the text, La France face au Sud by Jacques Adda and Marie-Claude Smouts, they argue that the Franc Zone remains a means by which France holds a privileged position in African affairs. They write on the issue; “La France tient sur le Tiers Monde un discours narcissique et cherche dans l’evocation de l’autre une construction de sa proper image: grande et genereuse, forte et independante. Avant d’etre considere en lui meme, le Sud d’abord le lieu ou l’on exprime les deux axioms au Coeur de l’imaginaire nationa: (1) la France est une puissance mondiale parce que son message est universel; (2) la France est une puissance politique parce qu’elle est presente partout dans le monde.”

In this text, Adda and Smouts argue that although the Franc Zone is no longer economically beneficial to France, the relationship affects the world market in that countries in the Franc zone are preferred by France in trading. This preference can be compared to the ‘civilization mission’ undertaken by France during the colonial era. In this continuation of France’s ‘ideological mission’ in Africa, France has become an intermediary position between the West and the Third World. The colonial method of creating a dependency on France by the colonies further led to the creation of the neo-colonial model of development. This model of development relies on membership in the Franc Zone by former colonies in order to sustain their individual economies. In relation to the film industry in Senegal, the question of consumption of Senegalese material in France is raised: Does France patronize Senegalese content in this pursuit of being an intermediary or is France instead encroaching on the cinematic space in Senegal?

Today, one of the few functional theaters in Dakar is the French Institute of Senegal (IFS) which primarily caters to small crowds of foreign citizens and locals who are able to afford the 1500 to 5000 CFA ticket fees. Amadou Fofana argues that the long-standing presence of the cinema at the IFS is owed to the different audience it caters to as compared to neighborhood theaters who rely on local patronage. He argues, “…Because CanalOlympic Teranga and the IFS cater to different audiences than neighborhood cinemas like Aw’s, it is unlikely these cinemas will disappear.” From this argument, it is inferred that local cinema owners, in order to save their businesses must cater to their individual audiences. Malick Aw further explains the necessity in cinema owners curating the film screening experience to attract their audiences. He comments, “…when I show African movies in this theater, nobody shows up. However, if I show an American movie, a French movie, a European or any Western movie, the room is packed. Do you know why that is? It’s because, and I always told this to film producers, they have to respond to audiences’ expectations. What does the public want? When they go to the movies, they want to have a good time, to see something different than their realities.” Malick Aw’s argument suggests that in his opinion, showing foreign films at his cinema instead of local productions attracts more local customers. This further begs the question of foreign preference and how that affects the Senegalese economy, specifically in the film industry. From Malick’s lamentations, it is understood that curating film selections to match the taste of local consumers takes patronage away from local film producers as their works aren’t as well received. So therefore, who do local film producers create for? Who is their audience?

The film industry in Senegal begun on a promising note with groundbreaking film interpretations such as Xala and Touki Bouki. However, the implementation of policies such as the SAP interrupted this film history in Senegal. Instead, film makers and producers were left to finance and distribute films at their own accord. Furthermore, the decline in film theaters around Senegal following the implementation of SAP has helped to create a culture where people are reluctant to attend local film screenings. The cost of tickets and location of theaters only in urban spaces does not do well to create an atmosphere for the every-day Senegalese to attend movie theater screenings.

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