Africa’s Oscar-shortlisted films show an industry spreading across borders

CNN  — 

It’s an exciting time for filmmakers and movie fans around the world: Academy Awards season is here. And with several African films up for official nominations, people across the continent will be paying close attention when those nominations are announced on Monday.

“My Octopus Teacher,” a South African documentary about a man who formed an unlikely bond with an octopus, is on the shortlist for the Documentary Feature category, while “The Man Who Sold His Skin” – a Tunisian film about a Syrian man whose body is used by an artist as a canvas – is up for a nomination in the International Feature category.

The South African documentary film "My Octopus Teacher" is on the shortlist for an Academy Award this year.

As films from the continent continue to gain international recognition, Philippe Lacôte, Ivorian director of the 2020 film “Night of the Kings” (also on the shortlist for an International Feature Oscar nomination) says it is important for Africans to create movies that include their vision of the world.

His film explores themes across the physical world and the mythical one. Last year, he told CNN in an interview that it was key to show the world these themes because they are a part of Ivory Coast’s culture.

“Today, Ivory Coast is on the map of international cinema,” he said. “It’s important for me – even if it’s one film. We don’t want to be outside this map.”

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s film industry, Nollywood, will have to wait at least another year for its first chance at Oscar glory. The country, which has the largest film industry in Africa – and the second largest in the world – was disqualified in 2019 for failing to meet language requirements.

An evolving industry

African films are gaining more international attention as technology continues to remove some traditional access barriers – helping films flourish across borders and find new audiences.

Video streaming sites like Disney+, iROKOtv, Netflix, YouTube, and Showmax act as aggregators, helping Africans gather and share content online from across the continent and beyond.

iROKOtv has hundreds of thousands of subscribers who can easily access Nigerian and Ghanaian movies from any part of the world. And Netflix, in partnership with multiple African filmmakers and production companies, is showcasing African movies that are accessible to people in over 190 countries.

Jason Njoku, co-founder of iROKOtv, says streaming services like his remove obstacles for Africans that traditionally blocked access to films from other regions. “If you’re interested in Nigerian movies, you literally just have to go online and within a minute, you can have a complete, unlimited library for you to watch,” he says, for “anyone, anywhere in the world.”

“Streaming platforms democratized content and storytelling,” says Moses Babatope, co-founder of entertainment company FilmOne. “What they have done is to break down any barriers like travel and immigration. They allow us to appreciate human stories across races and borders.”

Challenges and opportunities

Even with streaming, Babatope says that cinemas still play an important role in getting movies across borders. His company has helped view and distribute several Nigerian titles, including the 2017 Nigerian romantic comedy “The Wedding Party 2”, which was viewed in cinemas across the continent. It has become one of the highest-grossing Nollywood films in the last decade.

That outlet is important because while technology removes some barriers, it can add others; according to the World Bank, less than a third of Africa’s total population has access to broadband. Meanwhile, only 272 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have mobile internet access – out of a population numbering more than 1 billion.

This means a significant part of the population is cut off from reaching video streaming sites such as Netflix and iROKOtv.

But Mary Njoku, director of the Nigerian production house ROK Studios, says it won’t always be this way.

“Most people in the upper-middle class can afford to stream, but it won’t be like that forever. Technological promise will catch up and then the market will explode,” she says. “So, we creatives just need to keep on creating amazing, compelling content and just wait.”

The potential is massive, with the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa with mobile internet access projected to increase to 475 million by 2025 – and as the industry continues to grow, international media conglomerates are looking to the continent for partnerships and original content.

In 2017, pay TV company StarTimes announced the listing of Nollywood movies as part of its offering for the Chinese market, signaling interest in Nigeria’s movie market.

Meanwhile, Netflix has appointed award-winning Kenyan film producer Dorothy Ghettuba as its International Originals manager. The streaming giant has acquired several films and originals including “Lionheart” and “Blood and Water.”

And just last year, Disney announced a “first of its kind” collaboration with Kugali Media company.

Mary Njoku – whose production house was acquired by French media giant Canal+ in 2019 – says these partnerships with international studios will create room for bigger and more ambitious stories to be told about the continent.

“The African creative industry is young, dynamic, and ambitious. They have collectively created so much with so little,” she says. “Imagine what the next decade looks like with major studio partnerships.”