- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2006


The title of the latest film out of Africa — “Catch a Fire” — might describe what’s happening with cinema on the continent.

African moviemaking has caught a fire. International filmmakers have found stories they want to tell there, and Hollywood has taken an interest in serious films set in Africa.

Homegrown productions from Africa are starting to find an audience and acclaim worldwide, including last year’s “Tsotsi,” a South African drama that was just the third film from the continent — and the first in nearly 30 years — to win the Academy Award for best foreign-language film.

“Tsotsi” arrived amid the critical and commercial success of such films as “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Constant Gardener,” African stories made by overseas filmmakers. “Hotel Rwanda” earned Oscar nominations for its stars, Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo, while “The Constant Gardener” won the supporting-actress Oscar for Rachel Weisz. Other productions set in Africa have drawn major stars, such as Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche in John Boorman’s “In My Country.”

“I think the world is turning its attention to Africa, postcolonial Africa. It’s a great source of conflict, and conflict is what makes drama, and drama attracts storytellers and filmmakers,” says Australian director Phillip Noyce, whose “Catch a Fire” stars Derek Luke and Oscar winner Tim Robbins in the real-life story of a black family man who rebels against South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s. “Maybe these stories were always bubbling up under the surface. Suddenly, the success of one film allowed those with the power to greenlight films to say yes with some confidence.”

“Catch a Fire,” opening tomorrow, follows the Idi Amin drama “The Last King of Scotland,” which premiered in late September to good reviews and big audiences in limited release.

“The Last King of Scotland” also has generated Oscar buzz for actor Forest Whitaker, who plays Amin in a fictionalized story of the Ugandan dictator’s dark relationship with a Scottish doctor who becomes his personal physician.

The size and mystery of Africa can lend an epic quality to films set there, particularly to heroic struggles such as those of anti-apartheid crusaders Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, Mr. Whitaker says.

“There is a deep, archetypal, mythical quality sometimes to the stories. They become so large,” Mr. Whitaker adds. “When you think about Mandela, Biko, they become like some mythic parable somebody would tell or write in some book that children would read a thousand years from now.”

Also opening the same day as “Catch a Fire” is “Babel,” with an ensemble that includes Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in a multinational drama ranging from Morocco, Tunisia, Mexico and Japan, following several families linked by a tragedy in the African desert.

“Blood Diamond,” premiering in December, dramatizes the civil war and bloody gem trade in 1990s Sierra Leone, following a mercenary (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) and a journalist (Jennifer Connelly) on a quest to recover a rare pink diamond.

Coming early next year is “Days of Glory,” Algeria’s entry for the foreign-language Oscar, a World War II saga about North African soldiers who fought to liberate France from the Nazis. The ensemble cast shared the best-actor prize at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival.

In a post-September 11 world, American audiences may have become more interested in dramas outside their borders. “Blood Diamond” director Ed Zwick says good stories resonate with moviegoers no matter where they are set.

“American culture certainly has been insular, and so has American political life been insular,” Mr. Zwick says, “but I think there has always been an appetite for these stories. What do movies do but take you to other places and show you things you haven’t seen, and it needn’t be outer space. Real places that are exotic and different.”

More filmmakers may be turning their attention to African stories because they are looking for something new, says Kevin Macdonald, director of “The Last King of Scotland.”

“Africa has been underrepresented in our literature and our storytelling generally,” Mr. Macdonald says. “So filmmakers cast around. Should I make another film in New York? It’ll be the 10,000th film to shoot in New York. Or should I go somewhere else that hasn’t been filmed? Where it’s literally a different landscape, different people, different kinds of stories?”

Hollywood films about Africa historically have focused on the experience of whites there, reflecting centuries of colonial influence and the exploits of adventurers on the continent.

Robert Redford and Meryl Streep’s “Out of Africa,” the best-picture winner at the 1985 Oscars, was a sweeping romance about the early life of author Isak Dinesen. Clint Eastwood’s “White Hunter, Black Heart” followed an obsessive filmmaker inspired by John Huston while shooting his classic “The African Queen.”

“Cry Freedom” presented the story of black South African activist Steve Biko (Denzel Washington), but he was a secondary character to a white journalist (Kevin Kline) he befriended.

Africa’s two recent Oscar successes showed that films with black protagonists could connect with audiences elsewhere. “Hotel Rwanda” was based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who sheltered refugees from the 1994 genocide there, while “Tsotsi” was adapted from Athol Fugard’s novel about a young South African hoodlum who discovers his humanity after he finds a baby in the back seat of a car he has stolen.

“The real test is going to be, ‘Tsotsi’ aside, will audiences around the world go for African films by African filmmakers, about Africans and starring African actors?” Mr. Noyce, director of “Catch a Fire,” says. “And I think the answer is yes. In South Africa, there are a number of black South African directors who are on the verge of making their breakout films. There’s just such a talent pool there.

“Those outsiders who have come in and paved the way by making African stories and taking them to the world will have opened the floodgates for the truly indigenous productions.”

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