In the last 30 years, Africa has borne the brunt of: the legacy of Cold War power games; militarization; structural adjustment programs and other destructive imposed debt conditionalities; the extractives industries; large-scale land grabs and food insecurity; the flight of finance capital and the acceleration of global capitalism; the escalating impact of the climate crisis; and the erosion of many of the gains of independence.

All of these factors must be taken into account when considering the lack of diversity and capacity in Africa’s economic and social institutions and the inability of many African governments to invest in social development, including the cultural sector. At the same time, the centralization and corporate control of the international news media and upheaval across film distribution avenues has resulted in the marginalization of African perspectives on many important issues, at a time when they have arguably never been more necessary.

And yet, on a continent where the average median age is 19, and where progressive peoples’ movements are a significant force, there is optimism from the next generation. The above-described threats can also be seen as opportunities for Africa to shape new forms of partnerships based on greater transparency, equality and accountability founded on mutual/common interests. The resurgence of middle-income countries and even Africa’s own economic expansion offer an entirely different environment and policy space than that of the 80s and 90s.

There is scope for a more pro-active African voice in shaping international partnerships and institutions, and in this respect an African film industry could be enormously significant. The success of fiction film industries in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and elsewhere on the continent reveals a big audience in Africa for films that tell African stories. This begs the question, why not documentary?

There have been, and currently are, a number of initiatives on an international level to support African filmmakers in the production of documentaries for international markets, mainly outside of the African continent. The limiting factors have often been the same: initiatives with a short time span have come and gone without lasting effects; initiatives have reached only a limited number of filmmakers without creating film communities or audiences; distribution of films has been short term and limited, very often with only a few transmissions by mainly European TV-stations. Few African documentaries have reached African audiences or the most important international festivals during the last decade.

And it must be acknowledged that documentary itself once served to position Africa within the discourse of authority that colonialism engendered, and must therefore be completely reimagined and reintroduced to the African public, by Africans.

In 2011, a group of people (the initial Advisory Group) came together informally to brainstorm about how the landscape of documentary filmmaking in Africa might be positively transformed. In the belief that culture itself is a value to support, that supporting non-fiction/ documentary storytelling is a path to reinforcing freedom of expression and a more vigorous citizenship, that creating points of entry for engagement results not only in audiences but in the potential to create movements, and in recognition of the enormous capacity, talent and creativity that exists across the continent and that is struggling to manifest itself, the group proposed to establish an African Documentary Film Fund (ADFF).

In the interests of achieving that goal, and by extension a thriving documentary film culture in Africa based on the principles of self-determination and dignity, the group proposed a research phase across the African filmmaking community to formulate recommendations for how to take the ADFF forward and implement it.

The Bertha Foundation funded this research, working with nine researchers across all 54 countries of Africa in 2012-2013. The approaches in each region were necessarily different, but the results of that research were organized and combined in thematic areas of: historical context; production; infrastructure and emerging technologies; distribution; training; and legal frameworks and advocacy organizations.

The analysis of the findings, outlined in the Executive Summary, permits us to draw a number of general recommendations toward the establishment of a fund. While looking at them, it is important to keep in mind the existence of profound country and regional differences, which make some points more relevant in certain areas of the continent than in others.

The first general recommendation that emerges in all the reports is that the ADFF should operate on the basis of an in-depth and up-to-date knowledge of the situation in the field, and should be able to conciliate regional and continental integration with a careful consideration of the existing local specificities. A second general point is the emphasis on the need for a multilayered and diversified intervention. If lack of funding is perceived as the most critical issue affecting documentary filmmakers in the continent, all reports underscore the fact that no support to film production will achieve durable and sustainable results if training, education for media literacy and content development, distribution, audience building, and advocacy are not equally taken into account.

The findings are published in this report and available for download on the website, in English and French languages as appropriate, and with further translations pending. In the recognition that: the continent is enormous; that countries and regions are different; that approaches to conducting interviews and collecting information must therefore vary; that nine researchers on a limited budget can only cover so much terrain; and that information constantly changes — we have also created a mechanism on the website where updates can be submitted to supplement or amend the report.

To everyone who participated in making this report possible — and there were many — we extend our sincere gratitude. It is our collective hope that this report will be a significant, if preliminary, step toward the eventual establishment of the ADFF. In the meantime, to everyone reading it, we hope you will find it a helpful contribution to strengthening the documentary film community, and to deepening the story.

— Joslyn Barnes



by Alessandro Jedlowski


As highlighted in the proposal for the creation of the African Documentary Film Fund, “supporting nonfiction/documentary storytelling is a path to reinforcing freedom of expression and a more vigorous citizenship”. Documentary film is, in fact, an invaluable tool for the development of an open and dynamic public sphere within which political, moral and cultural issues of collective and individual interest can be debated and negotiated. In this sense, then, documentary filmmaking can be seen as a tool for democracy and, in the same vein, the support of indigenous documentary film production and dissemination can be considered as a way to promote and consolidate locally-generated processes of social and political democratization.

Starting from this assumptions, ADFF’s priority focus is to support the creation of a solid, sustainable and durable African documentary film industry, whose production would be firstly and mainly geared toward African audiences. Production sustainability and legitimacy with local audiences are here considered as two of the most important factors for achieving a global recognition for the African documentary film industry and, thus, the most effective tools to make African voices and points of view become more influential in the formulation of international discourses and representations about Africa.

While the project proposal recognizes “the enormous capacity, talent and creativity that exists across the continent and that is struggling to manifest itself ”, it also acknowledges the need for more precise and detailed information about the reality on the ground. What is the history of documentary filmmaking in Africa? What are the main economic, political and cultural factors at play within this context? What are the infrastructures available on the field, and how effective are they? What is the impact that the introduction of new technologies has had on film production and distribution over the past few years, and what are the prospects that this transformation offers for the future of filmmaking in Africa? What are the legal frameworks and the political sensitivities that define the film production environment in African countries and how do African documentary film directors position themselves in respect to them? These and many others are the questions that guided the research in seven regions (North Africa, West Africa – Anglophone, West Africa – Francophone, East Africa, Central Africa, the PALOP countries, and Southern Africa) launched by the ADFF’s Advisory Group to investigate the state of documentary filmmaking in all African countries and to assess the feasibility of the ADFF initiative.

This executive summary aims at briefly introducing the reports by highlighting the most significant information that they made available. The information has been organized and combined in relation to six different thematic areas: (A) Historical context; (B) Production; (C) Infrastructure and new technologies; (D) Distribution; (E) Training; (F) Legal framework and advocacy organizations.


The specific social, historical and economic context within which African producers, directors, distributors and audiences are located has profoundly conditioned the evolution and the present state of documentary filmmaking in the continent. In order to summarize Africa’s very complex and articulated historical itinerary in terms of documentary filmmaking, it is possible to identify four key periods, each of them defined by a set of economic and political characteristics whose specificity has been highly influential in shaping the local filmmaking environment: (1) the colonial era [1880s – 1960s]; (2) the era of early independences, Cold War, and mono-party states [1960s – 1980s]; (3) the era of Structural Adjustment Programs [mid-1980s -1990s]; (4) the era of geopolitical multi-polarization and the growth of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries [2000s – …].

  1. The Colonial Era [1880s – 1960s]:

As is the case for fiction filmmaking, the history of documentary filmmaking in most African countries is rooted in the colonial era. With the significant exceptions of Egypt and South Africa, where, for a number of reasons, local independent film industries autonomously emerged since the early twentieth century, in all African countries the first documentary films were financed and produced by the colonial authorities, be they British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, German or Italian, in order to support the colonial project.1 Most of the films produced during this era were informed by racist and exotic prejudices, and their main objectives were, on the one hand, to mobilize the national support for the colonial enterprise by documenting the “successes” achieved by the colonial administration and, on the other hand, to discipline the colonial subjects by “teaching” them what position they were allowed to occupy and what behavior they were supposed to keep within the structure of the colonial state.

Beyond the colonial film archive produced over this period, however, the colonial masters left behind also a set of infrastructures (theatre halls, recording studios, mobile cinemas, etc.) and implemented a number of policies which had a profound influence on the birth and growth of local filmmaking practices. The Colonial Film Units created by the British in the late 1930s, for instance, were indigenized in the early 1960s by the newly independent nations of Ghana and Nigeria, and these institutions’ pre-existing organization and internal structure profoundly influenced the emergence of national film industries in these countries (see report on Anglophone West Africa).2 In the Francophone area, the work of the French Ethnographic Film Committee and of people like Jean Rouch, a French anthropologist and documentary filmmaker who was active during the occupation and after the end of colonialism, profoundly influenced the education of the first generation of local filmmakers (see the report on Francophone West Africa). The power of Rouch’s work and personality produced an interesting as much as controversial trait-d’union between colonial power, anti-colonial criticism, independent filmmaking, neocolonial paternalism and postcolonial cinema. His legacy is today both proudly embraced and harshly contested by the Francophone West Africa filmmakers’ community. Other examples exist also in the Belgian, the Portuguese and the Italian colonies, but the role of these initiatives in the birth of local film industries has been less influential.


2. The Era of Early Independences, Cold War, and Mono-Party States [1960s – 1980s]:

After the achievement of political independence, many governments, and particularly those characterized by a socialist or communist orientation, gave a central place to cinema in the architecture of the New Nation. Cinema was, in fact, considered as the ideal tool for the ideologization of the masses, for the education of the illiterates, and for the creation of a truly shared national culture and identity. Within this context, documentary filmmaking often occupied a central role and, as a consequence, a large number of documentary films were produced during this period (unfortunately, in many cases original copies have been badly preserved and the images shot over these years are hardly accessible – see section on Infrastructures and New Technologies below). As a matter of fact, 1 The analysis of the history of documentary filmmaking during the colonial era goes beyond the scopes of the ADFF-commissioned reports, but more information may be found, among others, in M. Diawara (African Cinema: Politics and Culture, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992) and in P.J. Bloom (French Colonial Documen- taries: Mythologies of Humanitarianism. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2008). 2 It is important to underline that similar infrastructures existed also in other British colonies, such as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), but they were not indigenized, and film production in these countries closed down after independence, only to eventually re-emerge in the following years as the result of newly conceived local initiatives. in a number of countries, such as Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Guinea, Angola, Cape Verde, Morocco and Algeria, these can be considered as the Golden Age of documentary filmmaking. Considerable efforts were invested in building new infrastructures and restructuring those that had been left behind by the colonial administration, and newly conceived artistic and educational program saw the light. During this period, for instance, a number of avant-garde initiatives took place, the most known among them being probably the one that took place in Mozambique just after independence in 1975, which saw the participation of internationally recognized directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Ruy Guerra, and Jean Rouch in the creation of the Mozambican National Film Institute (see report on PALOP countries).

These years were particularly significant also in those countries where cinema was not invested of a particular ideological role. These were, in fact, years during which the role of the state was central in the economic and social life of most (if not all) African countries, and the strategic geopolitical position of the African continent within the Cold War scenario was making external money flow abundantly in the states’ strongboxes.

Within this context, public spending was a widespread strategy to maintain people’s support in situations of often openly undemocratic, mono-party or military regimes, and documentary films were often used as tools of propaganda.

Over this period, the existence of African documentary filmmaking, be it the expression of socialist and communist avant-gardes, the propaganda tool in the hands of some authoritarian regimes, or both things at the same time, was inevitably and inextricably connected to state power, and to its complex, often clientelistic networks of resource allocation. As is the case for much locally-based media production in African countries over this period, be it television, cinema, radio or documentary film, the individual media producer could hardly overlook the role of the state and its ideological and bureaucratic framework.

Beyond this context, however, two important factors contributed to the development of African documentary filmmaking during this period, and remained highly influential also in the following years: (a) external funding and (b) diasporic

(a) External economic support, such as France’s cooperation programs in support of African film production, and Russia and Cuba’s scholarships programs for young African directors and technicians, has importantly fostered African fiction and, to a smaller extent, documentary film production. Nevertheless, these contributions have also generated a number of highly controversial effects (economic dependency, outwards orientation of film’s plot and style, inability to reach local audiences, etc), to the point of making the accusation of “neocolonial paternalism” toward some forms of cultural cooperation widespread.3

(b) The role of diaspora has been less controversial. Over this period important fiction and documentary films have been produced by directors based outside Africa and their work has provided important examples of aesthetic experimentation and political criticism. The relationship among locally-based and diasporic directors, however, has not been always easy, and during the post-independence era, as well as today, cooperation and conflict between diasporic and locally- based filmmakers

(3) The Era of Structural Adjustment Programs [mid-1980s – 1990s]:

As a consequence of the global economic recession of the early 1980s, the increasing accumulation of foreign debt that followed it, and the end of the Cold War, between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s most African countries were forced to subscribe to the principles suggested by the Structural Adjustment Programs, a set of policies formulated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These policies implied the withdrawal of 3 I am here referring particularly to the debate around the role of Francophonie, and of the cultural policies con nected to it, within the wider context of the neocolonial power structure known as Françafrique. More about this topic can be found in F.-X. Verschave (Françafrique: le plus long scandale de la République; Paris: Stock, 1998) and J.-L. Amselle (L’art de la friche. Essai sur l’art africain contemporain; Paris: Flammarion, 2005). the state from the national economic and cultural sectors, and the progressive centralization of the market within these fields. A direct consequence of these transformations was the progressive collapse of state-run television and cinema infrastructures, theater halls, archives and training institutions. If for a large number of African countries the early post-independence era can be considered as the Golden Age of documentary filmmaking, the Structural Adjustment era can unmistakably be defined as its darkest age. The few existing state-run initiatives collapsed, the film professionals that had been trained over the previous decades were in most cases obliged to find alternative ways to make a living, and the few infrastructures that had been put together since independence or kept alive from the colonial era were abandoned, sold or destroyed.

However, even within this dark scenario, an important innovation took place: the introduction of new recording, editing and screening technologies (see also section on New Technologies below).

The transformations this innovation provoked had impactful consequences over these years, but probably showed their full significance only in the following decades. It is partly in relation to these transformations, in fact, that African documentary filmmaking, and African film production in general, have witnessed a remarkable renewal and represent today a highly dynamic field for investigation. As it will be later shown, the challenges for documentary filmmaking are still countless, but it is uncontestable that, if compared to the 1980s and 1990s, the 2000s represent an era marked by the rise of new possibilities and potentialities.

(4) The Era of Geopolitical Multi-Polarization and the Growth of BRICS Countries [2000s – …]:

This is the era that concerns us most closely, and upon which the reports are more attentively focused. The main factors to be taken into account in relation to this period are the economic transformations generated by the multi-polarization of the international geopolitical scenario, the extremely fast technological and infrastructural developments that are modifying the landscape of the contemporary African metropolis, the growth in number and economic weight of middle classes around the continent and, finally, the unprecedented social, economic and political relevance of the role played by migration and diaspora in the life of African people and states.

In terms of documentary filmmaking, all these transformations have had important consequences. The multi-polarization of the international geopolitical scenario has given African countries the possibility to access diversified business and loan partners (namely the BRICS countries and, among them, China more than others), and has injected fresh money into highly indebted economies, thus provoking quick economic and infrastructural transformations, which are often chaotic, but nevertheless effective, in creating a new entrepreneurial and cultural dynamism. While, until today, BRICS countries’ initiatives in the world of filmmaking are still relatively limited (see the report on Benin for an example of Chinese cooperation, the report on Ethiopia in what concerns Indian cooperation, and the report on PALOP countries for an example of the role that Brazil has started to play within this context), they are likely to assume a more relevant role in the years to come in terms of training, funding, infrastructural and technical support.

As will be better discussed below, new technologies, and, amongst them, mobile phones in particular, have made African people move, in a matter of a few years, from the “prehistory” of mass communications (until a decade ago most African countries had almost no landlines and relied on very poor telecommunications networks) to the avant-garde of it. Today Africa is one of the largest world markets for internet, mobile phones and new media technologies in general, and multinational companies compete on its soil introducing new products and new, more competitive prices on a daily basis. However, the optimism surrounding these transformations is, in some cases, excessive. As some reports demonstrate (see for instance the reports on Southern and Central Africa), it is important to be cautious and not to overemphasize the role that these technologies are today able to play in terms of film distribution and audience development.

A few more years are probably needed for this technological revolution to fully achieve its potentials, but its importance must nevertheless be taken into account (see section on Distribution below).

Finally, even if partly left aside in the regional reports, the role that the African diaspora plays today in the continent cannot be overlooked. Remittances constitute today an important section of the national GDP for numerous African nations. In relation to documentary filmmaking, diaspora can and do play multiple roles:

  • it is a large market, made up of people who are often eager to access African contents;
  • it is an important site of production, where many exiled directors have established their enterprises, and which sometime plays an influential role for the revitalization of film production culture in the homeland;
  • it is a natural partner for international co- productions and for the organization of training and fund-raising initiatives;
  • it is a strategic ally for developing international awareness about the importance of the production and circulation of African images about

Each regional report describes the existing documentary film production by country. As all reports evidence, in general terms, documentary filmmaking occupies a marginal position within the landscape of film production in the continent. However, there are profound differences which can be summarized by grouping the analyzed countries into four different categories:

(1) Key countries:

  • South Africa: the size of the television and cinema industries in this country makes its situation profoundly different from those that can be observed in most other countries in Africa. Here, the documentary film industry is relatively well structured and the number of documentary films annually-produced is significant.
  • Mozambique and Senegal: the activities promoted in these countries have fostered the emergence of a new generation of young documentary
  • Egypt: despite its longstanding film industry, in this country documentary filmmaking was not particularly developed until recently, but the Arab Spring movement has fostered the emergence of a large number of film collectives and filmmakers who are highly active and and politically engaged.
  • Nigeria and Kenya: these are two of the most populous countries and two of the largest economies in Over the past few years, both of them have witnessed the development of extremely active video film industries (known by the name of “Nollywood” and “Riverwood”) which offer an example of the possibilities that new technologies have createdfor the emergence of autonomous and sustainable media industries in the continent (see section on Infrastructures and New Technologies below). Documentary filmmaking is not yet particularly developed in neither of the two countries, but a set of initiatives is emerging (see section on Distribution below), and the countries’ size, economic dynamism and competition in the media sector make them undoubtedly two of the key players in the field of documentary film production.

(2) Emerging countries:

Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Tunisia.

In these countries documentary filmmaking is not particularly developed, but a number of factors suggests that they might become future key players in this field.

Ghana and Ethiopia are two of the fastest growing economies in the continent and over the past few years they have witnessed the emergence of extremely active video film industries, that adopted an economic model similar to the one developed by the Nigerian and Kenyan video industries mentioned above (see East Africa report and Anglophone West Africa Report).

As a result, training initiatives, film festivals and other media related activities that aim at consolidating the sector of film production and distribution have begun to emerge.

The Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon are countries with thriving urban cultures which, over the past few years, have witnessed the emergence of a number of fiction and documentary filmmaking activities that have created the basis for the future development of the media production sector (see Central Africa report).

Tunisia, Mali and Burkina Faso are all countries which accumulated significant filmmaking experience in the past, and which today host influential training institutions and film festivals. Within this context, documentary filmmaking has not yet been highly developed, but the professional and infrastructural resources available in the field make these countries privileged, creating the basis for important future developments.

(3) Countries where a low intensity documentary filmmaking activity takes place:

Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burundi, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Madagascar, Malawi, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

These are all countries where documentary filmmaking does exist, but where there is a critical lack of resources for a solid and durable development of the sector. The situation of the documentary film industry varies from place to place, but some generalization can be made:

  1. Some of these countries witnessed the evolution of important video industries over the past few years (i.e. Tanzania, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Rwanda) whose development has revitalized the media production sector and has fostered the emergence of new generations of young self-trained directors. However, until now, there is a radical disjunction between the video production sector, which generally focuses on fiction films, and the documentary film industry.
  2. Other countries (i.e. Côte d’Ivoire) are home to extremely active popular culture and television industries, but have not enjoyed the right social and political environment needed for the emergence of a spontaneous and solid documentary film industry.
  3. In some countries (i.e. Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Zimbabwe) there is a growing interest for documentary filmmaking, but the political environment tends to be hostile toward initiatives that risk to challenge the central authority. Morocco has a highly skilled film community, but it has been for the most part targeted toward servicing large scale fiction film projects from overseas. There is increasing interest in the country in local independent film, which has been supported by the recent emergence of film funds in the Arab world (mainly from the Gulf ), but thus far support for documentary lags behind.
  4. In other countries (i.e. Burundi, Gabon, Niger) the emergence of locally-organized documentary film festivals has generated a renewed interest in documentary filmmaking, attracting also some forms of international
  5. Some countries have recently witnessed the return of state interest in the media sector (i.e. Angola, Benin, Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea) and might thus develop interesting production activities in the coming
  6. Others have a significant history of documentary filmmaking (i.e. Guinea) but they lack the resources and the political environment needed to reactivate this sector.
  7. n most of these countries (i.e. Botswana, Burundi, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe) NGOs are very active and they have often used documentary film production as part of their intervention strategy, but directors tend to be unhappy with the situation because of the scarce creative freedom that NGOs allow them to

Generally speaking, all the countries included in this category have a lot of potential, but are in desperate need of economic and professional support.

(4) Countries where almost no documentary filmmaking activity is taking place:

Central Africa Republic, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Guinea Bissau, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Mauritania, Mauritius, São Tomé e Principe, South Sudan, Swaziland, Western Sahara.

These are countries where, for a number of reasons (political censorship, conflict, profound economic distress, general lack of infrastructures, etc) documentary production is almost inexistent.

To summarize the situation, it is possible to say that, while the continent is traversed by widespread dynamism and a number of interesting experiences have emerged over the past few years, documentary film production is still everywhere affected by a general lack of resources, first of all in terms of funding, but also in terms of professional skills, and in terms of pre- and post- production facilities. Over the past few years, some countries (i.e. South Africa, Algeria, Tanzania, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Gabon, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal) have developed state-directed initiatives to support film production (National Film Funds, National Film Institutes, etc), but their efficacy is often criticized by local filmmakers who denounce the clientelism and political nepotism often involved in fund allocation. Beyond these controversial initiatives, local investment is almost absent, and it is related either to the production of documentary films for limited circulation within corporate business initiatives (see, for instance, the report on Nigeria, which highlights the fact that many local documentary filmmakers make their living out of producing films for international oil companies and other corporate businesses based in Nigeria) or to the production of electoral and propaganda films commissioned by the politicians in power.

Beyond these forms of investments, the only resources available on the ground come from external agents, such as NGOs, transnational television channels (i.e. Channel Four, BBC, Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Arte, TV5 Monde, Canal France International, M-Net), international Film Funds and governmental institutions (see report on East Africa, for a precise list of the Funds and Institutions active in sub-Saharan Africa, and the report on North Africa for a list of the Funds and Institutions active in the so-called Arab World countries). Within this context, it is important to underline again that the NGOs’ action is often criticized by filmmakers because it does not allow creativity to develop freely, and it imposes specific themes and agendas to the documentary filmmakers whose work is supported.


The state of infrastructure in Africa makes often the life of documentary filmmakers particularly hard.

As mentioned earlier, during the 1980s and 1990s the application of Structural Adjustment Programs has pushed the majority of African states toward the privatization of most state-owned media infrastructures (film schools, recording studios, theatre halls, television stations, etc). In many cases these infrastructures have been reconverted and destined to other uses (i.e. most theatre halls have become churches), thus creating an infrastructural void that is still hard to fill.

The main problem concerns distribution and exhibition venues, since, except for a few countries such as South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Algeria and Morocco, most cinema theatres in the continent have been closed down. Some countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya are witnessing the emergence of multiplex theatre halls, but these venues are focused on commercial distribution, target elite audiences and screen mainly foreign films. A few projects that envisage the construction of a network of community screening centers equipped with digital projectors have emerged over the past few years (i.e. Mozambique, Nigeria), but, in general, most people watch films and television in informal places, such as video clubs and neighborhood screening halls.

Another highly impactful infrastructural deficiency is related to the erratic provision of electricity in most African countries. One of the worst countries in this sense is probably Nigeria, but unpredictable power cuts do happen in most sub-Saharan countries, and have multiple impacts on film production. For instance, they make film budgets increase since, in many cases, in order to guarantee the right functioning of all technical equipments (on set and during post- production), power has to be locally-produced through expensive gas-powered generators. Power disruption also problematically influences television budgets (i.e. in Nigeria most television channels, both private and state-owned, have to generate the power they consume) dramatically reducing the budgets eventually available for film production.

Furthermore, the general infrastructural collapse that happened in the 1980s and 1990s has provoked the quasi-complete abandonment of the existing national archives, whose documents (U-matic tapes, celluloid recordings and so on) needed specific as much as expensive cares in order to be correctly preserved. While a few initiatives of restoration have seen the light over the past few years (i.e. South Africa, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia, Madagascar), in many cases films and other materials have been lost, creating a major problem for filmmakers who intend to use archival materials as part of their projects. This is a tragic and epic loss for the world.

Within this context the introduction of new technologies has opened a new set of possibilities, which has not yet been fully explored. I will better focus on the role that new technologies have today and might have for the future development of documentary filmmaking in the section on Distribution (below).

Here it is important to underline how the introduction of digital technologies has revitalized film production all over the continent. Apart from the well-known video industry that has emerged in Nigeria (Nollywood), similar enterprises have seen the light in many other countries, such as Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Benin, Rwanda, Guinea, Gabon, Madagascar, Cameroon, and are likely to happen elsewhere. Digital technologies have also revitalized television production all over the continent (i.e. Côte d’Ivoire is today a major fiction television series producer in the region), and have had an important impact on the rejuvenation of fiction and documentary film production sectors in countries that already had an important filmmaking tradition (i.e. Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali).

The emergence of a new generation of, in most cases young, digital filmmakers has contributed in creating a generational argument which is opposing, on the one hand, the old school of highly-trained celluloid filmmakers and television operators who, because of their attachment to old and expensive technologies tend to have a very low rate of production, and, on the other hand, a new generation of, in most cases un-trained or self-trained, digital filmmakers, who, thanks to the use of new technologies, manage to produce and circulate a large quantity of films though often of highly questionable quality. As underlined in numerous reports (i.e. report on Central Africa and on Francophone West Africa), older professionals consider the new generation as pretentious, under-trained and often politically superficial, while the new generation considers the old one as nostalgic and attached to its own privileges. It is, in most cases, the old generation that controls the redistribution of the few national resources available for the local film industries and which, very often, prefers to redistribute them among the restricted circle of the old-school members, thus provoking the resentment of the emerging talents.

The emergence of creative documentary on the world stage in the past decade may offer opportunities for both generations if only structures can be put in place that enhance cooperation rather than competition, and people with vision decide to work together.


Beyond funding, distribution is certainly one of the major problems affecting documentary filmmaking in Africa. The difficulties experienced by most African documentary filmmakers in making their films circulate is not only related to the infrastructural problems reported above. It is also strictly connected to the problem of the (missing) relationship between African audiences and documentary films. In most countries, the documentary format is still considered a very marginal product by both broadcasters and audiences, and directors encounter countless difficulties in getting their films screened or getting exhibitors (television channels, theatre halls or others) to actually pay for the right to screen the films. The numerous festivals that have emerged all over the continent during the past few years are doing an important job in creating an audience for documentary films, but this process still needs time and a lot of support in order to be fully achieved.

The first and probably the most dramatic problem that an African documentary film director encounters in distributing his or her film is the relationship with local televisions. In most African countries, local television channels almost never commission films or contribute to production expenses. On the contrary, in most cases, televisions ask filmmakers to buy airtime from them in order to screen their films. The director/producer then has to sell advertising slots in order to recover the expenses. This is, for instance, the model applied in Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Kenya and Uganda. Similar dynamics also happen in most Francophone West African countries, where local televisions (both private and public) in many cases do not sell airtime, but pretend to have the right to screen the film for free, for as many times as they want. This unfair behavior is the consequence of a number of factors, such as:

  • the inefficacity of copyright laws in most African countries (see also section on Legal Framework below)
  • the traditional role played by national televisions within the local media environment, that is, an unchallenged monopolistic role which has made them used to acting beyond commercial fairness; 4
  • the absence, in most countries, of an apt legal framework for the protection of local producers’ interests (i.e. laws imposing a quota of local productions on the content screened per day);
  • the highly problematic role played by international television broadcasters, which in many cases offer African televisions package-deals that allow them to screen foreign content for free, thus practically killing the possibility of commercial competition for local productions;
  • the difficulty that local televisions have in competing with the commercial offer made available by international satellite TVs, which have invaded the market of most African countries over the past few years and which can generally afford to offer much better quality content than local television stations;
  • the state of the local advertising market, which is generally underdeveloped and does not mobilize significant revenues for television stations, thus reducing their purchasing

Because television, which is generally the main partner of documentary film production, fails to perform its role, African documentary film producers and directors have experimented with a large number of alternative distribution strategies. The most common examples are:

  • Mobile cinema screenings (a few examples are the work of PSI in Madagascar, GFC and Lovelife in South Africa, Touchline in Tanzania, MobiCine in Senegal and Mali, Cinema Numérique Ambulant in Benin, Togo, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal and Cameroon).
  • Independently organized screenings (in collaboration with NGOs, foreign cultural centers, community centers, etc).
  • Sale to international satellite television stations (i.e. BBC, Channel Four, TV5 Monde, Arte, Canal France International, Vox Africa, Africable, Al-Jazeera, Al- Arabiya, RTP International, M-Net).
  • Internet distribution for free on Youtube, Vimeo, and other similar
  • Internet distribution through VOD platforms and internet sites dedicated to the promotion of African cinema (i.e php;; http://;;;; http://
  • Internet distribution through online TVs (i.e tv, Met Tv Africa, Southtel TV, and Zoopy in South Africa; in Burkina Faso; Marbos TV in Togo).
  • Distribution via film festivals, which can be grouped into three categories:
    • International film festivals which accept documentary films (i.e. Durban International Film Festival [Durban, South Africa], Festival Panafricain du Cinéma de Ouagadougou [Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso], Journées Cinématographiques de 4 It is important to underline that since the early 1990s the television market has been liberalized in numerous countries, but only in very few cases has thisprovoked any real transformation in the way the television market is administered, the privileged position of state-owned televisions being still unchallenged in most countries. Carthage [Tunis, Tunisia], Zanzibar International Film Festival [Zanzibar, Tanzania], Amakula Kampala International Film Festival [Kampala, Uganda], Kenya International Film Festival [Nairobi, Kenya], Festival International du Film de Marrakesh [Marrakesh, Morocco], Colors of the Nile International Film Festival [Addis Ababa, Ethiopia], International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF) [Harare, Zimbabwe], Festival Ecrans Noires [Yaoundé, Cameroon], Zuma International Film Festival [Abuja, Nigeria], Burundi International Film Festival [Bujumbura, Burundi], Salaam Kivu International Film Festival [Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo]).
    • Festivals whose main focus is documentary film (i.e. Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival [Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa], Dokanema Documentary Film Festival [Maputo, Mozambique], iREP International Documentary Film Forum [Lagos, Nigeria], Rencontre Internationale du Documentaire Africain [Saint Louis, Senegal], Addis International Film Festival [Addis Ababa, Ethiopia], Rencontres Cinématographiques de Béjaïa [Béjaïa, Algeria], Real Life Documentary Film Festival [Accra, Ghana], Festival de Film Ciné Droit Libre [Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso], Forum Africain du Film Documentaire [Niamey, Niger], Festival International du Film Documentaire et du Court-Métrage d’Ismaïlia [Ismaïlia, Egypt], Festival International de film Documentaire d’Agadir [Agadir, Morocco], DOC à Tunis [Tunis, Tunisia], Les Escales Documentaires de Libreville [Libreville, Gabon]).
    • Film market events (i.e. DISCOP Africa (itinerant Pan-African film and television market); Marché International du Cinéma et de la Télévision Africains (MICA), Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Rencontres Tënk de Coproduction, Saint Louis, Senegal).

All these strategies are importantly participating in the creation of an African audience for African documentary films, but the circulation that an average African documentary film manages to achieve today is still, in most cases, insufficient.

The strategies that, according to the reports, seem to be the most effective are:

  • mobile cinema screenings, because of their capacity to reach the audiences beyond the conventional screening places while keeping screening fees very low;
  • privately organized screenings and screening in community halls, for the same reasons;
  • film festivals, because they participate in creating awareness about the social and cultural significance of documentary filmmaking by organizing public events, training sessions and, in some cases, itinerant

Beyond these strategies, the most popular screening venues all over the continent are undoubtedly the local neighborhood video clubs which generally screen pirated DVDs and international television programs for very low entry fees. Documentary films are rarely if ever screened in these venues, but as a number of reports suggest (see, for instance, reports on Madagascar and Senegal), they might be the ideal distribution vector to use in order to build an audience for documentary films in the continent.

In what concerns new distribution technologies (internet, satellite televisions, VOD platforms, etc), their potential for film distribution is generally recognized, but numerous directors and distributors are still cautious since they see them as yet not fully viable. The main reasons for this are the following:

  1. in what concerns internet distribution, online televisions, and VOD platforms there are still the following problems:
    • bad quality of internet connection in most countries;
    • erratic stability of local mobile telephone networks, which makes film content download on mobile phones hard for most countries’ audiences;
    • expensive price of internet connection packages, which makes internet access an urban elite’s privilege;
    • (for VOD platforms) relatively low credit card penetration among African audiences and, for those who do have a credit card, incompatibility of bank cards issued in Africa with most internationally accepted systems of online payment;
  1. in what concerns satellite televisions:
    • (for producers and directors) difficulties in accessing international satellite television channels;
    • (for the audience) expensive price of satellite television decoders;
    • (for the audience) erratic provision of electric power, which makes satellite television consumption even more expensive (in order to watch television, in many cases an audience member does not only need to have a television, a decoder and to pay the television fees, it also has to generate its own power and buy the fuel for it).

Within this context, according to many professionals in the continent, the main role that new technologies, and internet in particular, can play today is related to:

  1. distribution for the diasporic market: this is a market that has generally easier access to these technologies and that is more accustomed to making use of them;
  2. advertising and audience building: while most people do not have access to good internet connections sufficient for downloading films, many people and above all journalists and media operators, do access social networks and similar platforms, which can thus be used for advertising purposes and for audience building


Formal and well-structured film documentary training institutions are lacking in most African countries, and the existing institutions are concentrated in those countries that have a longer and more established filmmaking tradition (i.e. South Africa, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Tunisia). The most dynamic and methodologically up-to-date training opportunities around the continent are often connected to festival activities (i.e. Dokanema Documentary Film Festival, iREP Documentary Film Festival, Rencontres Cinématographiques de Béjaïa, Forum Africain du Film Documentaire, Les Escales Documentaire de Libreville, International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF), etc) and foreign cultural centers. Beyond these initiatives, there are, however, a number of both institutional and informal training opportunities around the continent, which can be summarized as follow:

  1. Public film schools (i.e. the National Film Institute (NFI) in Jos, Nigeria; the National Film and Television Institute (NAFTI) and the Ghana Academy of Film and Television Arts (GAFTA) in Accra, Ghana; the Institut Supérieur de l’Image et du Son (ISIS) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; the Ecole Supérieuredes Métiers de l’Audiovisuel in Dakar, Senegal; the Kilimanjaro Film Institute in Arusha, Tanzania; the Ecole Supérieure de l’Audiovisuel et du Cinéma (ESAC) in Tunis, Tunisia).
  2. Private schools (i.e. the South African School of Motion Picture Medium (AFDA) in Durban, South Africa; the Kibera Film School in Nairobi, Kenya; the Institut Imagine in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; the Institut Panafricain des Métiers de l’Information et de la Communication Audiovisuelle (IPMICA) and the Média Centre in Dakar, Senegal; the Maisha Film Lab in Kampala, Uganda; the Blue Nile Film and Television Academy (BNFTA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; the Ecole des Arts et du Cinéma (EDAC) in Tunis, Tunisia; the Pencil Film and Technical Institute (PEFTI) in Lagos, Nigeria; the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria (ITPAN) Training School in Lagos Nigeria; the We Own TV training courses in Freetown, Sierra Leone; the Institut Supérieur de Formation aux Métiers du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel de l’Afrique Centrale (ISCAC) in Yaoundé, Cameroon; the Rwanda Cinema Centre (RCC) in Kigali, Rwanda; the Burundi Film Centre in Bujumbura, Burundi).
  3. Universities: many universities all over the continent offer undergraduate and master programs in journalism and communication-related Practical courses in filmmaking are, however, missing at the university level in most countries, and university training is often seen by professionals as unable to give students the required expertise. A remarkable exception is the Master program in documentary filmmaking at the University Gaston Berger in Saint Louis, Senegal, supported by the Africa Doc Network and the Stendhal University of Grenoble.
  4. NGOs and project-based training program (i.e. the Sudan Film Factory in Khartoum, Sudan; the Ethiopian Film Initiative in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; the Media for Development Initiative in Zimbabwe and Tanzania; the African Media Initiative based in Nairobi, Kenya, but with Pan-African vocation; the Conseil International des Radios Télévisions d’Expression Française (CIRTEF), based in Brussels and active in all Francophone African countries; the “Congo in Four Acts” initiative in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo).
  5. Training on set: in most countries training happens on a learning-by-doing basis on film In some regions of the continent, particularly in East African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and in Morocco and South Africa, local filmmakers also learn the rudiments of filmmaking by participating in foreign productions.



In most African countries the legal framework for documentary filmmaking is inefficient or outdated. The major problems concern:

  1. Piracy and copyright legislation: in most African countries copyright law was introduced during colonialism, but local concern for it emerged only recently and only in those countries which have significant local production in music, film or other media related contents. With the exception of a few countries (i.e. South Africa, Burkina Faso, Senegal) in which the existing laws have been updated to face recent social, economic and cultural transformations and some concrete results have been achieved, the legal framework concerning intellectual property and copyright seems to be inefficient in most of the continent. Some countries (i.e. Nigeria, Ghana) have witnessed artists’ mobilizations claiming the government’s intervention to better protect their work, and these grassroots movements have provoked some modifications in the copyright regime. However, all around the continent the existing laws tend to remain virtual and, apart from some anti-piracy raids conducted over the past few years (i.e. Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana), anti-piracy enforcement is generally lacking. As a result DVD and internet piracy is rampant in most of the continent, but it generally does not target documentary filmmaking. It does, on the contrary, create problems for satellite television providers, who often see their decoder used for collective screenings (i.e. most video clubs use individual accounts for collective and commercial use). According to professionals, however, the copyright problem does not relate only to the legal framework but also to the lack of collective awareness about intellectual property regulations and to the absence of lawyers and policy makers specializing in these issues.
  2. The relationship with television stations: see section on Distribution
  3. Insurance and contracts: apart from a few exceptions (i.e. South Africa), most countries do not have specific legislation imposing insurance and contracts for film industry Working conditions on set are, thus, in most cases, dealt with according to the film’s director and producer discretion, with great differences from case to case. It is possible to say that independent film production in most countries, especially since the introduction of digital technologies and the multiplication of small scale production enterprises, belongs to the informal sector of the local economies. It thus positions itself at the margins of existing legal and fiscal frameworks, and produces little official figures for policy makers’ analysis.

Within this framework the activity of advocacy groups could be particularly relevant. However, many countries lack efficient organizations of this kind.

Among the existing advocacy groups it is possible to define three categories:

  1. National institutions:
    • Local copyright commissions (i.e. Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC), The Copyright Board of Kenya, Office National de Droits d’Auteur (ONDA – Algeria), Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of the Arab Republic of Egypt (SACERAU), Organisme Tunisien de Protection de Droits d’Auteur (ODPT), Bureau Sénégalais de Droits d’Auteur (BSDA), Bureau Burkinabé de Droits d’Auteur (BBDA), Tanzanian Copyright Society (COSOTA), Copyright Society of Botswana (COSBOTS).
    • National guilds and filmmakers associations (i.e. Centre Cinématographique Marocain (CCM), Ghana Academy of Film and Television Arts (GAFTA), Ethiopian Filmmakers Association (EFPA), Centre National du Cinéma Malien (CNCM), Namibian Filmmakers Association (FAN), Institut Angolais du Cinéma, de l’Audiovisuel et du Multimédia (IACAM), Institut National de l’Audiovisuel et du Cinéma (INAC – Mozambique), Sierra Leone Film Industry Labor and Marketing Guild (SLFLM), Movie Union of Liberia, the Gambia Film Producers Association, Rwanda Cinema Centre (RCC), National Centre of Cinema (CENACI – Gabon), Burundi Film Centre, National Association of Media Art (NAMA – Zambia).
  1. Independent organizations (i.e. Independent Producers Organization (IPO – South Africa), Documentary Filmmakers Association (DFA – South Africa), Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria (ITPAN), Association Mozambicaine de Cinéastes (AMOCINE), Tanzania Independent Producers Association (TAIPA), Ethiopian Film Initiative (EFI), Association Tunisienne d’Action Cinématographique, the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa (ICAPA – Zimbabwe), Association des Cinéastes Congolais (Republic of Congo), Association des Producteurs Indépendants Camerounais (APIC), Association Rencontres du Film Court (RFC – Madagascar), La Maison des Cinéastes (MCD – Muritania), Sudan Film Factory, Juba Media Collective ( JBM – South Sudan).
  2. International organizations: the Africa Doc Network; the Documentary Network Africa; the Media for Development Initiative; the African Media Initiative; AfricAvenir; Basic Leads (organizer of DISCOP), Arterial Network; the Conseil International des Radios Télévisions d’Expression Française (CIRTEF); East African Broadcasting Association; Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).


The data provided above allows for some general conclusions. Documentary filmmaking in Africa has great potential and can undoubtedly have a highly influential role in positively influencing local social and cultural transformations in the future. The present situation of the documentary film industry is, however, complex and requires strategic interventions in numerous fields.

The reports highlight the following areas as priority targets for intervention:

  1. production funding;
  2. training in all aspects of the filmmaking process, but primarily in project elaboration, scriptwriting and post- production
  3. audience building;
  4. distribution, particularly in what concerns local television policies toward local productions and international satellite televisions’ attitude toward African productions;
  5. policy making, in relation to copyright, film distribution and television

Beyond these more urgent problems, according to the reports, documentary filmmaking in Africa is affected by a number of contingent deficiencies which slow down its development, such as

  1. lack of pre-production in-depth research on film topics (related to lack of funding);
  2. lack of freedom of expression that affects numerous African countries and that makes the position of documentary filmmakers often politically fragile;
  3. clientelism and nepotism in national resource allocation, connected to generational conflict between older and younger generations of filmmakers;
  4. lack of professionally trained documentary film critics able to introduce local audiences to the best of local and international documentary filmmaking;
  5. widespread lack of media literacy, which makes audiences unable to appreciate the value of documentary film genre;
  6. lack of training in project writing, which makes the access to international funding particularly hard for African filmmakers;
  7. general lack of coordination between the local institutions operating in the field of media and communication (i.e. in particular, lack of coordination between the Minister of Communication and the Minister of Culture, multiplication of media practitioners guilds with resulting overlap, misunderstanding and widespread mistrust, etc);
  8. disjunction and lack of communication between Francophone, Anglophone, Arabophone and Lusophone countries, which makes continental cooperation

The above-list might seem pessimistic and provoke discouragement. Indeed, as the reports highlight, the challenges for the establishment of a durable and sustainable documentary film industry in the continent are numerous. But it is important to remember once again that, over the past few years, the continent has experienced an unprecedented growth in media dynamism and media-related entrepreneurial activities which makes the present an open and extremely exciting space for the invention of new solutions.

Today as probably never before, African audiences have access to and consume large quantities of local content, and they are eager for more. Technological progress has made film production more accessible than before, and internet is creating new avenues for media circulation. Furthermore, new South-South political, cultural and economic connections have emerged, creating the space for innovative entrepreneurial and artistic activities all over Africa.

All these important and unprecedented innovations need support and coordination in order to transform their potential into real change. Young directors’ explosive creativity needs to be better channeled through well-structured, in-depth and up-to-date training programs, as well as with well-crafted production funding schemes. Existing infrastructures need to be rejuvenated and more need to be created. Film schools and film festivals around the continent have to coordinate and partner, in order to maximize their impact on professionals and audiences around the continent. Well structured and innovative distribution models, able to make the reality of African informal economies and the dream of economically sustainable film production enterprises meet, need to be invented and implemented through creative solutions.

The establishment of a solid and durable link between African producers and African audiences is the absolute priority. A truly autonomous and efficient documentary film community and industry will naturally follow.