Keith Shiri, an international film curator and advisor to the London Film Festival, is the Artistic Director of the Nigeria-domiciled Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF). The Zimbabwean, in a chat with journalists at the just concluded Cannes International Film Festival in France, talks about preparations for the fourth edition of the fast-rising festival, taking place in Calabar, Cross River State, in November.
As a programmer for the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), there is no doubt that you are a spokesperson for the festival here. So, what really is AFRIFF set to achieve?
AFRIFF emerged from ION, a travelling film festival, and Chioma Ude, the CEO of AFRIFF, adopted it and said it had to remain in Nigeria. That was how people like us came in, determined to give it the best support and ensure that we have a truly international film festival coming out of Nigeria. However, the idea is not just to celebrate Nigerian output, but that of the entire continent. And Nigeria, I must say, has got the means.
How far have you gone with plans for the next edition of the festival?
As you can see, I’m here to do the work of AFRIFF. And one of the things I am impressed with, is how well Timbuktu, a film by Abderrahmane Sissako is doing here. Not only is this film one of the best from Africa in Cannes this year, it is the best film being given so much press attention. I am negotiating with the sales agent for our AFRIFF possible screening. As a continent, I think we also need the support mechanism because this film can be claimed by any of the African country as our own. This is a way to say this is our brand and this is what we can do in our continent.
What would you say are the challenges of a nascent film festival like the AFRIFF, and how far are they being surmounted?
I know the challenges of the African man. But at the end of the day, how we handle them says much about how we define ourselves. AFRIFF has done exceedingly well in the last four years. All over the continent, there are possibilities. And I have always looked at Nigeria, for example, as a country to look up to. This, for me, began back in the days when I read novels like ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe and all the collections of a man like Wole Soyinka. They have always been a point of reference. Looking at the possibilities in Nigeria, I see the country as a power house. And with its huge population, it should be able to take a leading position. You can see a country like Burkina Faso struggling to do what is called the biggest festival in Africa called FESPACO (Festival of Pan African Cinema). In that country, people commit themselves to the ideals of cinema. But then, of course, it is a model, which is part of the Francophone idea- nevertheless, it is there.
What is the routine like for you in Cannes, on a daily basis?
I meet with filmmakers from Africa and other parts of the world. The platform also gives me the opportunity to see some great feature films, documentaries and short films. I also share our concern for the AFRIFF projects, and the possibility to network with international people. I remember talking to Ben Gibson, the director of the London Film School, to come to Nigeria. I made him understand our challenges. This is because one of the things I would like to suggest to AFRIFF is that, rather than just showcase films, it should find a way, where we can bring people from the outside world and explore the opportunities that we can gain from them. Getting somebody like Gibson will give us an idea of how the British film policy operates.
On the other hand, I am trying to see how Nigeria can begin to define its film policy such that it will create a platform where co-production treaties can happen. South Africa, for example, has got co-production treaties with the UK and Germany. And this can just serve as an incubator, where things grow. It’s a place where we come to celebrate every year and people can begin to engage with Nigerian filmmakers. Also, content-wise, we invite filmmakers from all over the continent for competition and provide the panorama programme. That way, we can choose to have a film from Mexico or Brazil or Indonesia.
In the same vein, African filmmakers are able to see what others are doing from the rest of the world. That’s why it is international. It is not a Nigerian film festival, but an African film festival. But, of course, the home brands have to benefit than the others, because people have the opportunity of seeing more filmmakers from Nigeria. Besides, it is also an opportunity for Nigerians to show the world what they have got.
From last year when you took over as the Programmer for AFRIFF, what would you say is the level of success so far?
The feedback has been positive. I was encouraged by the fact that from the outside, people started noticing that this thing is really possible. For instance, the governor and people of Cross River State provided us with the support that I never expected would happen- the filmmakers all came.
Generally, I just feel we have to do it again. We have to do it better than last year’s. Don’t forget that some of the big film festivals have existed for so long. But for AFRIFF, this is just the 4th edition. So, to have achieved that kind of network, people should applaud themselves, particularly the team of AFRIFF. They are an amazing kind of people.
The festival is few months away. How prepared are you personally?
I have been watching films from the beginning of this year, so I know what my opening and closing films are going to be like. I’m still doing all that I need to do: meeting the people I should meet, just to seal deals. The next time I will be meeting the AFRIFF team, we will have at least, a skeleton of the programme that we will start working on. I am still on the road, but Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) will be my very last for this year before I really go back to Nigeria for the final preparation for AFRIFF, which will be happening in November.
Would you want to disclose the names of your opening and closing films now?
No! I won’t because we are going to have a proper press conference at some point, while we will also unveil the programmes for AFRIFF 2014. I need to keep all that under wraps. The earliest you will hear from me on the programme will be August, because I would have gone to DIFF and back.
I’m sure you don’t want to announce a film and then cancel it, as was the case with ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ that was supposed to open the festival last year…
Yes! Last year, we had full commitment from everyone before we decided to announce the films. But for reasons only known to them, they decided to pull out. That’s not going to happen this time. I am going to ensure it will never happen again. And I must say we are being careful this time around.
How would you describe the outcome of ‘Of Good Report’, the film that eventually opened AFRIFF last year?
It was the film of the moment, and I needed to make a quick decision after ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ was withdrawn. That film was topical and it came handy, even as an opportunity for people to see what South Africans are doing, in terms of cutting-edge cinema. After the opening, I heard different conversations from filmmakers about the style of filmmaking, which was, indeed, different from what you mostly see around.
The closing film was a Nigerian film, of course. The opportunity for us to be so flexible means that we have got a lot of films from the continent. We got such a diverse range of the genres; diverse range of individual’s approach. ‘Of Good Report’ is a very great film. It’s dominating everywhere. I’m glad that we decided to pick it.
How much are the film entries received so far, and in terms of the countries that will be participating this year?
We are doing great! I am getting a lot of things online. Later, I will be going to Lagos, where I will compare with what the team has received. So far, we are getting a lot of interesting inputs from the continent. I want to have at least one World Premiere in AFRIFF this year and a number of African premieres as well. We are working seriously to develop a character for AFRIFF. I don’t want the festival to just be yet another film festival. We really want it to create its own brand, its identity and its own space.