Liz Chege is the Festival Director of Africa in Motion. A native of Nairobi, Kenya, she is the first Black African head of the festival, a position she has held since 2020. This year’s Africa in Motion festival, Liz’s third, runs from 11th November till November 20th.
You are over two years into this role now. How are you, and how has the festival changed?
How am I? On a personal level, I am exhausted, but I am passionate about my work. It is important to note that burnout is a high priority issue in the arts at the moment, which you can see at other festivals too.
But how is the festival? Undergoing significant change. We just completed an open call for new trustees, who will be appointed towards the end of the year and launched a curator’s pathway so that the pre-selection committee of the short film competition can be diversified. Historically this was an unpaid role, and it tended to be quite a homogeneous group with a specific type of gaze because it was within academia.
The beauty that has ironically come out from Covid is that we were able to have two curators based on the continent: one in South Africa, and one in Gambia. It is a major step, and I am very proud of that. The idea is that someone who starts as a pre-selector can work their way up to my role.
The festival sounds like it has become quite international.
That is the goal, because how do you represent an entire continent? I am from Kenya, and yet I have become this spokesperson for like 53 countries. It is quite a weight to think about how we fairly represent the entire region. It is one of the questions I have, as well as how many female directors we have, how many queer people, how many non-binary.
Those are questions I am constantly weighing, and it naturally means we are gatekeeping, even though we don’t mean to; the whole point of the new curators pathway is that we stop gatekeeping, right? There is a constant push and pull in contradictions, but what I am confident in is that we are moving in the right direction by making it more international.
How do you balance the international element with keeping a Scottish festival identity?
Somebody asked me the other day why it doesn’t say Scottish in the title of the festival. I don’t know! But it is a very valid question. Wherever possible we are using Scottish talent, and we do try to include UK work. For example, in our short film competition this year Manu Kurewa, Black Scottish director of Immovable Objects, is one of the finalists. I had hoped to present a black Scottish programme this year, but it had to be cut because of cost; I would rather do it properly next year rather than half-heartedly.
One of the other ways I am looking at is how we can actually fund work by black Scottish directors. Last year we commissioned a film from a black Scottish poet, Clementine Burnley, in our Cop26 programme. Another thing was to make sure that we have black Scottish people on the board, like our chair Graham Campbell. But it is a good question.
And going into the weeds of identity, Africa is not entirely black. How does this all fit?
Yeah, we don’t limit by shade because I have been subject to colourism here more than anywhere else. I am very much aware of that. Africa has everything – people of mixed race heritage, people of Arabic heritage – so we don’t limit ourselves. You can see this with the film directors: it is not always a black film director, but if the subject of the film and the gaze feels right, then we will screen it. But the festival did recognise the need to change its core team and diversify. For 15 years it was always white. So one of the first things I did was change the core team, which has had a knock on effect because of the diverse programming.
What can you tell us about this year’s festival?
There are diverse ideas in it, but it would be encapsulated by our strand called Frequency Adjustment. Although the strand is technically about how the black diaspora has contributed to the punk and metal music genres, I think the title also reflects some of the other things we are doing in the festival.
We have three online wellbeing sessions, and the impetus behind that is to recentre: I think something that seems to have been lost since Covid is the idea of going back to community care, so from now on the festival will consistently have an embedded wellbeing strand. The first session is grounding meditation, but also equipping people with how to find the right therapist. The second is run by Home Girls Unite, which is about wellbeing in immigrant homes. Something that they do well is a series of events on first born daughters: in the global south, first born daughters – I am one, so I can say this is true – tend to have way more responsibility placed on us. And the third session is a sound bath, using sound frequencies to calm yourself and reconnect spiritually.
Punk and metal are not known for their calming and relaxing ways.
[Laughs] No, they are not. However, interestingly enough, one of the films, Death Metal Angola, talks about how heavy metal was used as a way to cope with PTSD after the civil war in Angola. So even though it may not appear that it does make you feel calmer, I think that it helps anxiety.
Do you have any speakers this year?
Yes. Amil Shivji, director of the opening film, Tug of War, will be in Glasgow to give an introduction. We have pre-recorded Q&As with some of the directors from the short film competition, as well as the director of Afro-Punk, James Spooner, who is based in LA. We have live Q&As happening on the closing weekend – on the Saturday especially we have got three.
The Filmhouse was the main location for the festival. How has its closure affected the venues for this year’s festival?
It was going to be three, including Filmhouse, but to reduce the risk for our team I moved those screenings to Glasgow. Two of those are happening at GFT, on Friday and Saturday, and the rest are happening at CCA. And online.
With the Filmhouse closing, and online becoming a post-Covid branch of the festival, are you experiencing a change in demographics?
We have noticed a shift. Last year the people who reported themselves as people of colour in the demographics data doubled, to 40%. It is also younger. And this is interesting: nearly 100 people submitted applications for our emerging curators opportunity in the first three days, which was completely unexpected, and a third of them were over 35. In fact, the age range was from 18 to 62, which is wild. Then, we received around 30% from global applications, from Canada, South Africa, Egypt. Close to 90% of applicants were black.
So, this was a major shift for us. It wasn’t that much money, only £500, but I think the appetite is showing the clear lack of paid opportunity in exhibition. Now it is just thinking how to make sure that this stays. How can we make sure that it is funded? What do we do with that alumni?
You mentioned Tug of War, your opening film, which is described as the first period drama feature film from Tanzania. Is the scope of cinema coming out of Africa changing?
Absolutely, and, thanks to streaming and investment from Netflix and Prime, TV is being taken more seriously. But that had already started with YouTube. What is interesting is how much more investment is going into the continent. A filmmaker friend of mine went to a film market in Nigeria, with large production companies selling work, and the appetite for African work has expanded way beyond Europe. Technically we don’t need to go through Europe any more, and we are not always having to leave the continent to sell the work. You see this with Black Panther: its premier was in Lagos. So something is changing.
Are there any new areas, or new voices, that are beginning to be seen in cinema?
Historically, it was always the regions that were colonised by the French. Senegal, for example, has a long film history, and so does North Africa: Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt. And then of course South Africa. But in terms of what is new: Cabo Verde is interesting.
We screened a really great feature film from there in 2020. Rwanda in the last three years has produced some amazing work. And Djibouti. It is a Somali speaking region, but they also speak French; that helps get investment into productions. I mention them because The Gravedigger’s Wife came out in cinemas from a Somali-Finnish director, Khadar Ahmed. He filmed the movie in Djibouti because Somalia and Somaliland would have been too difficult, but Djibouti has the same landscape, the same language, same talent, so he filmed it there. It is an extraordinary film if you haven’t seen it yet. I highly recommend it. He just got signed by CAA, which is a major deal.
If people are inspired by Africa in Motion, how do they get involved or further engage in African film outside the festival?
Spread the word about us. Follow us on social media. It is basic but it really does help to have people engaging with us, because part of that is proof to distributors that we do have an audience. And going to see African cinema in the cinema is very helpful. The ticket sales matter. Watching stuff on Netflix because viewing counts matter. Wherever possible, donate. We need donations as a festival, but also any kind of kickstarter campaigns because a lot of directors have to resort to that. Yeah, it always comes down to funding unfortunately.
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