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With wins from ‘Mami Wata’ and ‘Animalia’, African films begin to shine at Sundance

With wins from ‘Mami Wata’ and ‘Animalia’, African films begin to shine at Sundance

Oge Obasi was finally able to exhale. The Nigerian producer was in the freezing mountains of Park City, Utah, to present her latest feature, ‘Mami Wata’ at this year’s Sundance film festival.

Directed by her husband and creative partner, C.J. Obasi, Mami Wata, which is inspired by the myth of the West African mermaid goddess, received a warm welcome at Sundance where it would go on to win the special jury prize in the World Cinema Dramatic competition for Lílis Soares’ high contrast Black and White cinematography.

“It isn’t often that you aspire towards something, and that thing happens as you intended,” Obasi tells The Africa Report about the long journey to Sundance while basking in the excitement of the film’s world premiere.

Mami Wata wasn’t the only African film making a splash at Sundance though.

French Moroccan filmmaker Sofia Alaoui returned to Park City with her debut feature Animalia, a surreal adventure about a woman reclaiming her agency during an alien invasion. Animalia received the World Cinema Dramatic Award for Creative Vision. It was only in 2020 that Alaoui won the grand jury prize at Sundance for her short, So What If the Goats Die.

South African journalist turned filmmaker Milisuthando Bongela also presented her striking personal documentary feature, Milisuthando. Across the diaspora, filmmakers like Walé Oyéjidé (Bravo, Burkina!) and Adura Onashile (Girl) also had their films in the programme.

This rush of activity surrounding African films prompted Akunna Cook, founder and CEO of production company Next Narrative Africa to put together the first ‘Africa at Sundance’ panel in honour of Mami Wata and Animalia, incidentally two of the titles to win jury prizes at the festival.

Mami Wata has shattered that ceiling as to what is possible for a Nigerian film. The question is what do we do with it? I hope that beyond Sundance we can build a community where people can go back home and continue these connections.

The wide-ranging discussion moderated by Cook had as resource persons, Patrick Gaspard, a diplomat, non-profit leader and member of the Sundance Institute board of trustees as well as Ozi Menakaya, a literary agent who leads the Africa Initiative at the Creative Artistes Agency (CAA), the same agency that represents Mami Wata’s C.J. Obasi.

Integrating Africa

Cook, who has a background in policy, trade and investment, having recently left the Joe Biden administration where she worked as deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, tells The Africa Report about her motives for convening the panel: “Aside from highlighting the films premiering this year, we were looking at ways that we can integrate Africa into the process through the labs and resources that the Sundance institute provides. We want to show that there is interest.”

At the standing-room-only event, ideas and opinions flowed freely as filmmakers, festival attendees and the occasional policy head came together to give voice to some of the pressing issues affecting the creative ecosystem.

Both panelists detailed some of their challenges working on African initiatives in their various industries. But they were also quick to express optimism about the future, both citing the power of stories to help reimagine narratives and dispel misconceptions.

Gaspard underlined the historical limitations of Hollywood structures in elevating authentic stories of Africans and people of African descent. He underlined the power of storytelling in creating narratives and expressed the need for Africa to prioritise home-grown ideas and solutions while supporting the creative industries.

West recognition

“It doesn’t blow my mind that Mami Wata was at Sundance,” Menakaya tells The Africa Report in reference to the flurry surrounding African films at the festival. “It blows my mind because we are now in a time where the West is beginning to realise that stories from our part of the world are just as important as anything else out there.”

For Cook, the fuel for starting Next Narrative Africa alongside partner Emmanuel Uduma came from her work in public policy while in the state department. While canvassing for support – often on Africa’s creative economies – Cook would often run into resistance from potential partners who were simply unable to think differently about Africa and its diaspora. For a lot of these people, impressions were strongly influenced by the images and narratives gleaned from popular media.

Cook realised she wanted to confront these images and representations in media head-on. “We started Next Narrative Africa because we wanted to make impactful content on the continent, telling stories that would showcase Africa and Africans in a positive light and as a source of solutions rather than a place for everyone else to come and solve problems.”

In addition to Next Narrative Africa’s production work, Cook considers building the ecosystem an important part of her mandate. In December 2022, on the sidelines of the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, Cook moderated a session on accelerating Africa’s creative industries. “We see ourselves as conveners and amplifiers of the work that is out there, but also as stakeholders ensuring all parts of the value chain exist.

“That is where my background as a policymaker comes into place. In order for this ecosystem to be built you do need the right kinds of policies in place. You need sustainability and people need to be able to access resources.”

A particular highlight of the event was the expression of support from Frederick Seidu, a senior specialist at the African Export-Import Bank. “What we have done as a development finance institution is to provide the money. We have set aside a billion dollars to promote the African creative industry,” Seidu announced at the event, urging African creatives to take advantage of this facility. This announcement was received with excitement across the board.

“The bank’s willingness to independently finance material, that was, for me, the missing link,” says Menakaya.

Beyond Sundance

For Cook, Sundance is only the beginning and while Next Narrative Africa is poised to foster more opportunities for engagement. She recognises the need for more players to come in so that the efforts can achieve sustainability.

Having followed the activities with plenty of interest, the Nigerian producer Oge Obasi expressed hopes that the conversations generated at Sundance will ultimately lead to developing infrastructure that can support the exhibition and distribution of Mami Wata as well as other projects that will follow in its wake.

Mami Wata has shattered that ceiling as to what is possible for a Nigerian film. The question is what do we do with it? I hope that beyond Sundance we can build a community where people can go back home and continue these connections.”