The Mokolo Project team met with Dororthee Wenner during her stay in Nigeria. She kindly agreed to spend some time with Mokolo and shared her experiences and advice on the framework of the African Film Industry. She sheds light on what being a programmer of African films at International Festivals is all about.
MOKOLO PROJECT TEAM: Hi Dorothee, thank you for being here, can you please introduce yourself?
DOROTHE WENNER: My name is Dorothee Wenner. I am based in Berlin. We are doing this interview in Lagos where I am currently on invitation for a residency by the Goethe-Institut, to conduct research for a feature film that I want to shoot between Nigeria and Germany.
I split my year between being a filmmaker and being a programmer, means –I’m wearing two hats. As a programmer I specialize in films coming from South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Well, because of this background I am very much aware of how difficult it is to define what an African film is and we could spend the next ten hours debating the issue, maybe we leave that to some other time? I have been working for the Berlin film Festival for more than 20 yearsfor the last 5 years now, I have been doing a similar job for the Dubai International Film Festival.
How did you start working in Africa?
I have to go back a little bit: My official title is “delegate”. Usually, festivals like Berlin or Dubai divide regions among their staff, to build up strong networks , to keep track of new productions – all year long. This is a very exciting but also challenging job. It depends largely relationships & networks. Then, as a delegate, one has to always be on ‘red alert’, when it comes to timing: The overall scene has become much more competitive in the past years with massive increase of production AND number of festivals. One result is: a film’s life in the festival circuit lasts merely a year today. It has to do with the so-called “premiere-status” of a film: world premiere, international premiere, South-African-premiere… festivals have become very ‘creative’ in this game and even smaller festivals like to adorn their programme with as many premieres as possible. For bigger films, world sales agents start planning the ‘festival-strategy’ way ahead of the post-production, let alone the commercial release. This competition is a tricky and often not very pleasant aspect of our job – for festivals and filmmakers alike. How I became the delegate? – that was a mixture of luck & timing. Before the “delegate-system’ was fully developed, when I brought up the issue with my colleagues in Berlin, I was simply asked: Why don’t you go?”. Well, I was curious enough, but in retrospect I also admit: besides basic knowledge of some classics, I was rather clueless. For example I had absolutely no idea about what was going on in Nigeria, Nollywood. Some years later, as I was asked to join the jury of the African Movie Academy,, I started ‘making up’ and ever since got to see quite a lot of African movies.
Could you explain what your job consists of as a programmer for a festival and what kind of movies you look for?
‘Festival films’, by today, are creating almost a genre of its own, hard to describe, as it is their nature to look differently each season. Yet, very often and often to my regret: many of the successful festival films don’t perform too well commercially. There are exceptions, of course – as an example from Africa I would like to mention “VIVA RIVA” by Djo Wa Munga from DRC. The film was invited to many festivals worldwide and had a major international release – on the continent, in Europe etc.
Let’s look for example at Nigeria: here, the bulk of production is being done for consumption locally, with an export market in mainly English speaking African countries and Diaspora. A huge market, self-sustaining! This allowed the way of storytelling to develop differently from elsewhere – very intentionally, very consciously, with many of the films are made to have sequels – if successful. I see these differences stemming from various sources, culturally, but also socially, technically. To give a few examples: in Nigeria, you usually watch filmswith your extended family. People here like to interact and can be found tending to a hundred different activities and having numerous conversations all the while watching their movie. This differs from the European model of going to a cinema, watching your movie in silence until the end of the show. Then, allow me to put it blatantly: the bulk of films produced in Nigeria are not made for the big screen, when it comes to technical standards, – sound being traditionally one of the most neglected crafts. Now lastly, I try and talk of ‘quality’ – in the wider sense of – what makes a film a good/very good/outstanding film? Over the years I became very much aware of the fact that this is a category which not only varies or shifts slightly in this and that direction – depending on personal taste of e.g. programmers. At times, the criteria of “us professionals” even contradict each other! It was an eye-opener to me, when I first had the privilege of seeing, discussing and evaluating – at times – the very same films with different committees in Nigeria, Dubai and Berlin. I’m mentioning this for no other reason but to say: “a good film” – in my eyes – since has become an even more relative category. Indeed, I’m convinced that today it is more difficult produce “a good film” than it was earlier —sure enough, we’ll find some classics, favourites we all might easily agree on. But where are those unanimously cherished productions from last two years? It has to do with a much more diverse audience, with it comes: audience expectations and viewing realities For example, when I ask people in Lagos about a particular film, they say that it was a good film, because they learnt something. I find this an interesting answer – as an educational approach in film is something that is absolutely disliked by many festival programmers, who might say: “Oh no, this film is awfully educational, we cannot show it”. I could go on forever with examples, and I find them very insightful. And that leads to what I would like to emphasise here: We have to be realistic and know that in 2015, there are very different ways of film consumption. Is it a film made for smartphone viewing, where people have an attention spent that lasts for maximum 3 or 7 minutes? Or do we talk about cinema consumption in the international festival circuit? Or the many ways to consume moving images in between these extremes?
I think that the amount and variety of films that easily travel geographically, cross various borders built up by audience expectations, and the way in which they are consumed, has expanded in a way that most of our structures, when it comes to funding, story development etc, in my view, leaves a huge disparity.
But I owe you an answer… what kind of films we are looking for in Berlin and Dubai: very generally – we are looking for innovation on all levels of cinematic expression, extraordinary craft, interesting new styles – e.g. in storytelling, in provoking audiences, in challenging traditions – and yes: entertainment value .
What would be your advice to the younger generation? And do you think it’s important to have their films screened at festivals?
I have no general advice. I think any filmmaker should first of all, listen to his/ her heart and find out why they want to become a filmmaker, or: why, for whom do you want to make your first film? That might be a good start. E.g. if you say: you want to screen your films to a maximum number of Africans and make films with an impact to society – you may decide to make educational films.
If you’re aiming at the international festival world, it’s a truly competitive world.
As a short filmmaker, for instance, you should know that most of the festivals will exclude your film if you make it available on the Internet. So, do you want that or do you want everyone in Africa to see your film, because there is no cinema in your country? Short films are in a world of their own, anyway, given that many are made in film school environments – and as we all know, there are not too many on the African continent.
Do you want to make a documentary? Here again, different routes, challenges. Today, even in Europe, not only in Africa, is has become difficult to generate funds for ‘classical’ documentaries. You have to find out how to cooperate with TV stations, let alone: how to release documentaries theatrically. Take a look at India, which produces about 1000 feature films a year, yet there is no way a documentary can find a theatrical release in the country.
Then, you need to be clear – if you want to go internationally – that you will have to deal with commissioning editors who will ask, why anyone in Norway, France, Poland or elsewhere will want to see this specific story? Maybe you have a good reason, but be aware that if you’re going into this direction (of seeking funding), your film might change.
But coming back to the initial question- maybe I do have an advice forvery young filmmakeSr, one: get started on your own! Don’t wait for international funding sources showering their budgets over your first project. Given that in today’s world filmmaking not that difficult or costly you may want to join or initiate a small collective of like-minded people. Those who bring different skills in the production or can serve as your ‘bouncing partners’, when of same skill.. Get one person good with cameras, one who can edit, one who can do sound, others who can act etc. Form your collective as a self-help structure, so that you can learn filmmaking on your own through trial and error. Once you have a first film that you are proud of, raising funds for your next project will be easier. And you’ll be much more experienced when you meet the ‘pros’…
What do you think of the Mokolo Project? And do you have any other suggestions to help artists and films to be shown?
I have been following since inception, what Mokolo is all about and I think it’s a wonderful initiative. I would like very much to support Mokolo in every way I can, because I am of the conviction that something like this is needed in Africa. In my view, Mokolo would ideally function like a larger scale and virtual version of what I described above with the ‘collective’ idea – using also the extras the internet can provide. Including the information Mokolo provides as a platform bridging the rather huge divide between media worlds, film communities in African countries and other continents. This I say as a programmer – but also as a filmmaker: without my very own ‘collective’ in Berlin I wouldn’t be able to make it from one film to the next. And this I say as a filmmaker working in the privileged part of the world.
If you want to submit your film to the Berlin International Film Festival or to the Dubai International Film Festival, please visit the websites. If you have questions regarding the submission process, if you want to inform Dorothee Wenner about your next project: this is her email: firstname.lastname@example.org