Despite the fact that there are no cinemas left in Cameroon to screen her debut movie, director Mireille Idelette is one of the the country’s film industry’s success stories. Though her debut film, “Shadow Witness”, never saw the big screen, she sold 18,000 DVDs, enough to live on, if not fund a second project.
“We didn’t have a big producer, we didn’t have a big company behind us, we worked with what God gave and we have now a project that 98% of those who have seen it like,” she says.
Cameroon wasn’t always such a difficult environment for filmmakers. According to local historian Alasambom Benedict Nyingchuo, the in the ’60s, Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, had six or seven cinemas.
“Mostly the middle class and the bourgeoisie would take their kids at weekends. They’d come to watch American films – cowboy films were very trendy at the time,” he recalls. Introducing the films were short documentaries to bolster nationalism.
The industry started to falter around the ’80s, when movie production became prohibitively expensive and fewer families went to the movies at the weekend, choosing instead to wait for films to come out on cable TV channels.
Today though, the country is witnessing a movie-making revival, spurred on by cheaper digital technology and inspired by the success of Nigeria’s film industry, aka, Nollywood. Cameroon even has a film festival to call its own: Ecrans Noirs, or “black screen.”
“(I called it) black screen because when I was looking at the Cameroon screens (and) African screens, you have no black images,” says Bassek Ba Kohbio, a veteran director who launched the event.
It is just one of many examples of how Cameroonians, passionate about film, are carving out a nook. Soon, locally-made films could be common place, thanks to mobile cinemas. One of these, Cinema Numerique Ambulant (CNA) travels around the country screening mainly African films. CNA started in Benin, in 2001. In Cameroon, the organization runs two mobile cinemas that are fully-equipped with their own generators for power, seats for the audience, and screens for the night’s entertainment. Valerie Tchuente, who travels the length and breadth of Cameroon with CNA, speaks of its popularity:
“In the far north part of the country, people love this project. There are always hundreds of people (who come), you can’t even count them! When we leave, people say, ‘why are you leaving? When are you coming back?’ It’s really nice to hear that.”
What Cameroonian cinema lacks in resources and style, it aims to make up for in substance.
“The cinema industry in Cameroon must be made of good movies – films that have a vision. That (will) sell our cinema all around the world,” says Idelette. And she may not be far wrong. With Cameroonian films showing – and winning awards – at more international films than ever before, there is hope yet for her and other budding directors.