Burkina Faso Knights South African Film Producer
In a moving ceremony in Ouagadougou earlier this month, South African film producer Steven Markovitz was knighted for his contribution to cinema by the Burkina Faso government.
Speaking from the Pan-African Film and TV Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), where he is president of the documentary jury, Markovitz said it was a “true honor” to be awarded the ‘Order of Merit of the Arts, Letters and Communication in the field of Cinema in the category Exceptional’.
“It was very special because Burkina Faso is the heart and soul of African cinema. It is a country with extremely limited resources and yet it shows so much respect and promotes cinema like no other country on this continent. It was very humbling to see the Burkina Faso government honor us in this way and it means a lot to me as a South African producer to be recognized by a country that shows so much respect for cinema,” Markovitz said.
The vibrant Burkina Faso film industry, which has birthed numerous internationally acclaimed filmmakers, is known for its progressive policy and approach to film and all the arts.
For more than 50 years, the government has gone out of its way to bring African cultural practitioners together to find commonality and solidarity, Markovitz said. “There is a very long and deep history, and it makes this country unique in that way.”
In so many African countries, governments see arts and culture as an add-on that is “nice to have” but, Markovitz said, “a country like Burkina Faso has shown that arts and culture can do so much to provoke understanding, to provoke thinking, and to initiate ways of working together.”
Markovitz founded the South African production company, Big World Cinema in Cape Town in 1994. Fifteen years ago, he took a conscious decision to work outside of South Africa in other African countries.
“I felt that as a South African industry and even a country, we are quite cut off from the rest of the continent and we don’t make much effort to really engage in terms of culture and business with other African countries,” Markovitz said.
He sees it as an “imperative for cultural, economic and even political reasons” to forge creative partnerships with filmmakers in the region.
“I realized that there were a number of very talented directors all over the continent, who have studied at the top film schools in the world, and they were struggling to get films made because there weren’t many people who were working as producers. Most people wanted to be directors and actors,” said Markovitz.
The dominant narrative of Africa in the world media is “very skewed, very stereotypical, and very out of date,” Markovitz said. “We need to be involved in making films that challenge that dominant narrative and open up people’s minds to see things in a different way,” he said.
Markovitz has worked in over 30 countries in Africa with over 150 directors and has produced several award-winning fiction and documentary films.
“I saw the need to partner with talented directors and producers. Good partnerships happen when everyone brings something to the party that the other party needs and I felt that I could bring something they needed; they could bring something I needed, and we could find a way to work together,” he said.
Special highlights include a film made in Kenya called Rafiki (2018), which was produced by Markovitz and directed by Wanuri Kahiu. The film went to Cannes and was sold all over the world.
Big World Cinema co-produced a film called Viva Riva with the Democratic Republic of Congo; the first film made in that country for 25 years. The film went to the Toronto and Berlin International Film Festivals and sold all over the world.
Two films were produced in Sudan. One of these, a documentary directed by Hajooj Kuka, Beats of the Atonov won the People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and ended up traveling the world extensively. The film documents the Sudan–SRF conflict in the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains regions, with a focus on the role, played by music in enabling affected communities to sustain themselves culturally and spiritually amidst continued conflict.
More recently, Markovitz was involved in the making of a film entitled Tug of War (2021). The film, shot in Zanzibar, is a coming-of-age political drama set in the final years of British colonial rule in Zanzibar. Based on the award-winning novel by the same name by Adam Shafi, the film was directed by Amil Shivji. Tug of War was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, FESPACO, Palm Springs International Film Festival, Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, Zanzibar International Film Festival, Durban International Film Festival, and JCC Carthage Film Festival. It won Tanit D’Or at Carthage Festival, the Oumarou Ganda Prize, Fespaco, Best Long Feature Fiction, Mashariki African Film Festival, Special Jury Prize, Seattle International Film Festival, Best Film, Best East African Feature, and Best Actor at the Zanzibar International Film Festival.
On the question of funding for African films, Markovitz said there is no magic formula for funding a film. “There are people out there who want to support your film and it is your job to find those people and to leave no stone unturned until you do,” Markovitz said.
Over the past ten years, an increasing number of African-based film funds have started up, and there are more African investors in cinema and more international interest than there has ever been before, Markovitz said.
“While we are coming from a fairly low base, but there is a positive, hopeful outlook that there is more funding available in the future for African cinema,” he said.
It is important to have a selfless approach and “to collaborate with people who have skills, knowledge, creativity, and networks that you don’t have,” he said.
The film industry has historically been cutthroat and competitive; it is time for a new ethos, Markovitz believes. “We need to have an open attitude towards supporting each other because we are not going to be able to do it on our own,” he said.
“Money is not everything. Talent is the most important thing in this industry, and we have to find ways to support talented filmmakers on this continent, and that is what inspires me,” said Markovitz.