The term African cinema refers to film production in Africa, most often referring to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa following formal independence, which for many countries happened in the 1960s. Some of the countries in North Africa (such as the cinema of Egypt, for example) had developed a national film industry much earlier and are related to West Asian cinema. Often, African Cinema also includes directors from among the African diaspora.
During the colonial era, Africa was represented in cinema by Western filmmakers. The continent was represented as being without history or culture. Examples of cinema about Africa shot during the colonial era include jungle epics such as Tarzan and The African Queen, and various adaptations of H. Rider Haggard's 1885 novel titled King Solomon's Mines.
As with many African writers, for example Chinua Achebe, repudiating stereotypes and images about Africa and Africans was an important motivation for many African film makers.
In the French colonies, filmmaking was formally forbidden to Africans. The first francophone African film, L’Afrique sur Seine by Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, was actually shot in Paris in 1955.
Before independence, only a few anti-colonial films were produced. Examples of this include Les statues meurent aussi by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais about European robbery of African art (which was banned by the French for 10 years), or Afrique 50 by René Vauthier about anti-colonial riots in Côte d'Ivoire and in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso).
The first African film to win international recognition was Ousmane Sembène's La Noire de... also known as Black Girl. It showed the despair of an African woman who has to work as a maid in France. The writer Sembène had turned to cinema to reach a wider audience. He is still considered to be the 'father' of African Cinema. Sembène's native country Senegal continued to be the most important place of African film production for more than a decade.
With the of the African film festival FESPACO in Burkina Faso in 1969, African film created its own forum. FESPACO now takes place every two years in alternation with the film festival Carthago in (Tunisia).
The Federation of African Filmmakers (FEPACI) was formed in 1969 in order to focus attention on the promotion of African film industries in terms of production, distribution and exhibition. From its inception, FEPACI was seen as a critical partner organization to the OAU, now the AU. FEPACI looks at the role of film in the politico-economic and cultural development of African states and the continent as a whole.
Med Hondo's Soleil O, shot in 1969, was immediately recognized. No less politically engaged then Sembène, he chose a more controversial filmic language to show what it means to be a stranger in France with the 'wrong' skin colour.
Souleymane Cissé's Yeelen (Mali 1987) and Cheick Oumar Sissoko's Guimba (Mali 1995) were well received in the west. Some critics criticized the filmmakers for adapting to the exotic tastes of western audiences
Many films of the 1990s, e.g. Quartier Mozart by Jean-Pierre Bekolo (Cameroon 1992), are situated in the globalized African metropolis.
A first African Film Summit took place in South Africa in 2006. It was followed by FEPACI 9th Congress.
African film makers often have difficulty accessing African audiences. The commercial cinemas in Africa often have to book blindly and show primarily Hollywood or Bollywood films. However, there are still limited venues where African audiences have access to African films, e.g. at the Panafrican film festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Most African filmmakers still rely heavily on European institutions for financing and producing their films. A commercially viable video production has been set up in Nigeria, colloquially known as Nollywood.
African cinema focuses on social and political themes rather than any commercial interests, and is an exploration of the conflicts between the traditional past and modern times. The political approach of African film makers is clearly evident in the Charte du cinéaste africain (Charta of the African cinéaste) which the union of African film makers FEPACI adopted in Algiers in 1975.
The filmmakers start by recalling the neocolonial condition of African societies. "The situation contemporary African societies live in is one in which they are dominated on several levels: politically, economically and culturally." African filmmakers stressed their solidarity with progressive filmmakers in other parts of the world. African cinema is often seen a part of Third Cinema.
In the words of Souleymane Cissé, "African filmmakers' first task is to show that people here are human beings and to help people discover the African values that can be of service to others. The following generation will branch out into other aspects of film. Our duty is to make people understand that white people have lied through their images." (Thackway, p. 39)
Some African filmmakers, for example Ousmane Sembène, try to give back African history to African people by remembering the resistance to European and Islamic domination.
The role of the African filmmaker is often compared to traditional Griots. Like them their task is to express and reflect communal experiences. Patterns of African oral literature often recur in African films. African film has also been influenced by traditions from other continents such as Italian neorealism, Brazilian Cinema Novo and the theatre of Bertolt Brecht.
Ethnologist and filmmaker Safi Faye was the first African woman film director to gain international recognition.
In 1972, Sarah Maldoror had shot her film Sambizanga about the 1961-1974 war in Angola. Surviving African women of this war are the subject of the Documentary Les oubliées (The forgotten), made by Anne-Laure Folly two hundred and twenty years later.
In 2008, Manouchka Kelly Labouba became the first woman to direct a fictional film in the history of Gabon. Her short film, Le Divorce, addresses the clash between modern and traditional values and its impact on a young Gabonese couple’s attempt to divorce.