The films "Zinder" and "The Last Shelter" are no longer insider tips. They have been impressing moviegoers around the globe and have won numerous prizes. Both were made possible by a pan-African film project.
Aïcha Macky was born and grew up in Zinder, a city in Niger, West Africa. Extremist political groups recruit young people in Kara-Kara, a Zinder neighborhood, into gangs, forming a kind of anti-state. Aïcha Macky describes this as a ticking time bomb.
"As a child, I watched it happening from afar," she said at the opening of her documentary film. "But now, as a filmmaker, sociologist and activist, I can be a shadow daring to cross the border separating me from them, and can show the world these stories."
"Zinder" celebrated its world premiere in April 2021 at the international film festival "Visions du Réel". It has since won numerous prizes, including at "Encounters", the largest documentary film festival in Africa, and at the "Africa Film Festival", in Cologne, Germany. In Burkina Faso at the pan-African film and television festival FESPACO, Macky was recognized as West Africa's "Best Director" and as an "Ambassador of Peace".
Macky’s protagonists Ramsess, Siniya and Bawo are gang leaders. They are the children of lepers in their hometown of Kara-Kara which was once a quarantined area for those infected with the contagious disease. Although Kara-Kara is a suburb of Zinder, its residents are still shunned by the rest of the population. They are stigmatized, have no birth certificates or authorized civil standing and therefore have no right to an education or regular income. Their narrow, isolated lives are without prospects and so Ramsess, Siniya and Bawo decide to take action and to rebel.
"They fight every day for their survival and to protect their dignity," said Macky. "They're resilient, impish and resourceful and this is why I chose them for the film."
Her three protagonists live from day to day, passing time by bodybuilding and supporting themselves with odd jobs on the water or smuggling gas across the border. With their violent histories and swashbuckling appearance, the trio frightens residents. That Macky was able to film the three so close wasn't a given. She spent two years in the neighborhood, hoping to be accepted and trusted with her camera team so that they could film. During five years of filming, Macky's views changed and she recognized how difficult it is for people to escape cycles of poverty and violence.
"I understand that Kara-Kara can exist anywhere in the world and is only a reflection of our collective behavior and the result of our divisions," she said. "Us against them."
"Zinder" is part of the project "Generation Africa," which has been supported by DW Akademie since 2018 with grants from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
"Generation Africa is a project that is happening on a continent that has a history of colonialism and whose present is shaped by that history," explained Tiny Mungwe, a producer with STEPS (Social Transformation and Empowerment Projects). The South African non-profit created "Generation Africa" to tell the story of migration from an African perspective and to make these stories accessible to the wider world. In a world that sees migration namely as a continental problem, the organization initiates and supports film projects that spark conversations, educate and give a voice to disadvantaged groups.
"If we can use cinema to overcome boundaries, then we can use it also to solve problems," said Tiny Mungwe. "We can also use it to better understand our way of life and political views."
The participating filmmakers from 16 African nations are joined by experts in the areas of creative development, dramaturgy, production and post-production. DW Akademie's film industries team offers training and support toward strengthening partnerships with film communities in the Global South, which is increasingly gaining attention beyond Africa. This, in turn, improves the professional possibilities for the local filmmakers.
The 25 short, mid-and feature-length documentary films from "Generation Africa" will be shared across different platforms. Based on film ratings, the German-French broadcaster Arte is airing seven coproduced films on television and plans to offer all of the 25 films as video-on-demand. Many other international broadcasters, such as SVT, Yle and Al Jazeera, plan to offer some of the documentaries in the programming.
To further the discourse related to the films and their topics of flight and migration, there will be a series of lectures in various African communities. STEPS' streaming service, AfriDocts.net, will also offer the films to Africans across the continent.
Another film from the Generation Africa project, "The Last Shelter", made its world premiere at the Danish documentary film festival CPG:DOX in April 2021 and won the DOX:AWARD, the festival's main prize, allowing it to be nominated for an Oscar. Although the film did not make the Academy's shortlist, it became widely known in Canada, Germany, Poland, Serbia, Finland, the United States and India and has been nominated for other awards.
In his second long-form documentary film, director Ousmane Samassékou focused on a resident in the "House of Migration", a charity facility in Gao, Mali. Ten thousand African migrants pass through the city annually, resting as before they continue their journey through the Sahel and the Sahara Desert. Samassékou approaches his protagonists at eye level and shows the discrepancies that imperil their lives.
Esther (middle) makes calculations on a smartphone for a fellow resident in a scene from 'The Last Shelter'
"For many in sub-Saharan Africa, the West is a magical place, a paradise on earth, a place of 'real-life,'" said Samassékou, referring to an "African mythology".
Like many others, his uncle was consumed by this myth. He left for Europe 32 years ago and vanished along the way. His family still believes that a sign of life will emerge and remains optimistic that he found a better life in Europe.
To some extent, Samassékou is entranced by this myth in "Last Shelter", since the House of Migrants is also a place of catharsis. The House's employees speak with the refugees, exchanging information and offering help. The decision to return or go forward is anything but easy. On the one hand is an unknown future if they continue onward and the very real danger of encountering violence along the journey. On the other, a return to their homeland represents humiliation and failure. In essence, the sandy ground of the House of Migrants is a "last shelter", a place of eternal peace.
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