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In Conversation: “I Want People to Know that Africa Has Real Filmmaking Talents”, Claire Diao, Film Critic and Founder of Sudu Connexion

In Conversation: “I Want People to Know that Africa Has Real Filmmaking Talents”, Claire Diao, Film Critic and Founder of Sudu Connexion

Claire Diao - Afrocritik

“I find myself believing it’s really important for me to push for films by African directors and filmmakers to be screened at major festivals as I want people to know that Africa has real filmmaking talents”_ Claire Diao

By Frank Njugi

In 2018, French-Burkinabè film critic and distributor, Claire Diao, received a Beaumarchais Medal from the French Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers for her acclaimed book, Double Vague, the new breath of French cinema  (Au Diable Vauvert, ed. 2017).  Diao is also a TV host and columnist who has worked for Canal+, France O, and TV5 Monde. She is also a Programmer at Large for the Lincoln Centre and has served on the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight official selection committee (2018-2022), the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival (since 2016), the FESPACO selection committee, and is also a member of the ShortFilm Committee of the French César Academy. In 2023, she was elevated to Knight of the Order of Merit for the Arts of Letters and Communication, a cinematography staple by Burkina Faso.

Diao is the founder of Sudu Connexion — an international sales and distribution company of films from Africa and its Diaspora, which has been based in Pantin (France) since it was established in 2016. This sales and distribution company represents a catalogue of short, medium-length, and feature films, networking with more than 500 festivals around the world. The films have been awarded at major film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Locarno, Venice, Toronto, Sundance, IDFA, FESPACO, Carthage, and Durban. They are available on TV on globally available channels such as BBC, Arte, Canal+, TV5  Monde, and Aljazeera.

Sudu Connexion also publishes a triannual Pan African Film Criticism magazine called Awotele and has a film touring programme between France, the United States, and various African countries called Quartiers Lointains, currently in its 7th edition. 

In an exclusive interview with Afrocritik, Claire Diao speaks on Sudu Connexion’s work, the state of African cinema and Pan-African film criticism.

Everyone has an origin story. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what initially triggered your interest in film, specifically African Cinema?

I was born in Senegal to a French mother and a Burkinabè father and I grew up in France. When I was 18 years old, I travelled to Burkina Faso for an internship and while there — after the screening of a film about the Second World War in front of 400 students who were asking questions as I was moderating a debate with the history teacher— I had a revelation and realised that I wanted to be involved with cinema. 

In that same year, FESPACO, the Pan-African Film Festival, was taking place in Ouagadougou. I felt really ashamed having not known before that in my father’s country there was such a big film festival. I wondered why I had not been aware of the filmmakers exhibiting there and their films. Because of this, I became a film critic and journalist to cover African attendance at international film festivals. I began covering festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Locarno, and Berlinale, as well as other film festivals within the African continent.

CLAIRE DIAO - In conversation with Afrocritik
Claire Diao | Stylisme Veste ©June shop

What are your thoughts on the current state of African Cinema?

I am really delighted about the current state of African cinema. Each African country seems to have its own cinematography and unique history of cinema, and now we have film critics all around the continent. We also have a lot of movie theatres on the continent and we have international platforms and distributors interested in the African content, which is something quite new. There is quite a difference between Anglophone and Francophone Africa, because the latter is used to receiving subsidies to make films, and when they don’t receive any funding they don’t do anything. In Anglophone Africa however, filmmakers and producers are really well versed in film business models, as they know how to sell films and how to reclaim their production costs. 

But with that said, of course, some things have to improve as well for African cinema to truly thrive. Such as a change in the jurors and the selection committee members of the major film festivals. We still have committee members who are absolutely not concerned with Africa, who are not travelling to the continent, and who are not considering film as a medium through which to discover Africa and what it has to offer. It is still really hard for African productions to be selected in A–list film festivals.

Your film tour programme, the Quartiers Lointains, has had its 7th edition held in Nairobi recently, whereby films such as the documentary Red Card, the Belgian-Congolese production Augure, The Sleeping Negro, and Moussa Sène Absa’s  Xalé have been screened throughout a period of four monthsCan you tell us a bit about the Quartiers Lointains initiative? How did it come about and what does it aim to achieve?

When I was publishing my articles as a journalist covering African attendance at international film festivals, I received a lot of feedback from readers asking where one could watch the films I wrote about. The answer was always the same — you couldn’t as they were not distributed. You couldn’t see them in movie theaters and you couldn’t see them on streaming platforms or TV.  To see any of the films you would need to travel to the film festivals. To tackle this problem, I started a short film touring programme called Quartiers Lointains in 2013.  Through this programme, every year we alternate between showcasing films from the African diaspora and films directed by African filmmakers. The tour happens between France, the United States, and some African countries. 

Quartiers Lointains means “Distant Neighbourhoods” in French. The goal is to use the art of film to reveal the commonalities that Africans in both the diaspora and the continent share. It’s always easy to see what makes you different from someone, but it’s really difficult to see what makes you similar and what you have in common. With Quartiers Lointains the aim is for people to go and watch films that make them realise they’re dealing with the same issues as others in the world. For example, Africans in the continent watch films from the African diaspora and realise their shared experiences.

In the 10 years since its inception, Quartiers Lointains has been a stepping stone for many African filmmakers. 13 of the filmmakers whose films we have toured have ended up making feature films. These feature films have been really successful, with four of them being awarded in major film festivals such as Cannes and Sundance. Another four have also represented their respective countries at the Oscars, which is good recognition. 

Claire Diao in conversation with Afrocritik

You are the founder of a major film distribution company as well, Sudu Connexion. What can you tell us about this sales and distribution company? 

In my capacity as a film critic and journalist — who travels to a lot of film festivals — I realised that many filmmakers came to me and asked for recommendations on which festivals they should apply to with their films. In the same breath, major festival programmers would call me and ask for recommendations on filmmakers from the African continent. Seeing that I was acting as an interlink/middleman between the programmers and African Filmmakers, I decided to establish Sudu Connexion in 2016 to connect producers and filmmakers with programmers, buyers, and film exhibitors.

My main goal with Sudu Connexion is to only represent filmmakers from Africa or the African diaspora. This is because you find many Western filmmakers having the opportunity to travel to Africa and say, “We made African films” while having flight tickets and access to visas that African directors — who deal with similar topics and themes in their films — don’t have access to. I find myself believing it’s really important for me to push for films by African directors and filmmakers to be screened at major festivals as I want people to know that Africa has real filmmaking talents.

Currently, at Sudu Connexion, we are working on a film festival strategy. We had more than 200 film festival selections last year and received over 100 awards. We had films in Locarno, in Cannes, in Berlin, in Sundance, in Toronto and many other film festivals. We also had several African movies running for the Academy Awards. We also work with international TV stations internationally in Australia, France, Germany, England and the United States. We do theatrical releases in nine French-speaking African countries with Canal O ‘Lampia Network, and right now we are collaborating with Unseen Cinema in Nairobi.

The Senegalese film, Xalé, which is currently being screened at Unseen Cinema, will have its theatrical release in France this coming month. We are planning on a big 10-day tour for it with the director Moussa Sène Absa throughout France, working and networking with Senegalese communities here and non-profit organisations. If Sudu Connexion had not stepped in, no French distributor would have picked up this film. This is because Moussa had no French co–producer and so he is not eligible for any grant that you can receive to release the film. We don’t have any support for it. We are not funded to do what we do. But I strongly believe in what we are achieving and I hope that one day someone will look at our work and say, “I love what you do. Here is some money to help you out.”

Sudu Connexion

Through Sudu Connexion, you are also the founder of the triannual Pan-African film criticism magazine called Awotele. Can you tell us a bit about the magazine and the work it does?

I created this magazine alongside film critic, Michel Amarger. We publish a range of film critiques from all around the continent. We publish the magazine three times a year, covering major African film festivals such as Carthage, FEaPnd Durban in South Africa. It is a bilingual magazine, published in both French and English and available in both print and digital formats. We have subscribers from all around the world and we also sell the magazine during various film festivals.

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A lot of work goes into publishing Awotele. In terms of the editorial team, we have a vast fantastic team. We have a coordinator based in Madagascar. We have someone from the editorial committee based in Lagos. We have featured writers from Morocco, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Nigeria, and many other places.

I pay everyone from my own pocket though, so currently we have had to stop printing the magazine because it costs too much. We want to solely become digital. So right now you can find all the previous articles we had online, and hopefully, if I find some funders or partners, then we will be able to continue what we have achieved because we are really well followed, especially online.

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As a film critic, do you think film criticism is important to the film industry? What do you think is the role of film criticism especially in relation to African Cinema?

Film criticism is really important as it sparks a conversation between the film and the audience. It enables the audience to witness a kind of philosophical analysis of the film, some background and contextualisation of the film,  and also at times enables them to maybe grasp the vision a director had for their film. 

African film criticism, specifically, is super important. I’m part of the African Film Critics Federation and also the Burkinabè Film Critics Association. As I said, I grew up in the diaspora, in France, and every time I used to read articles about African cinema, they were written by Western journalists or Western film critics. So they had their own different points of view. 

I felt so happy the day I opened a magazine called Écron d ‘Afrique, which used to be printed between 1991 and 1997 and was bilingual. It was based in Italy, but the Editor-in-Chief was a Burkinabè, based in Ouagadougou. I was so happy to see that there were some intellectuals,  scholars and journalists from the African continent, talking about African themes, writing about our own films and offering our own perspectives. This is because sometimes you feel so alone when you are in a group of Western film critics who don’t know anything about African cinema and don’t care at all. They make it that you should be ashamed if you don’t know anything about someone like Ingmar Bergman or maybe Pier Paolo Pasolini. But what I think is more important is to have Africans like Sambi Nusman who say “We don’t care about Europe. We don’t care about the Western world. We only care for our own.”

In regards to the future, what more does Sudu Connexion have planned for the African Film Industry and African filmmakers?

Well, we want to continue to make theatrical releases, especially on the continent. We want to build partnerships with non-profit organisations, film critics, and cinephiles. We want to work with film students from many African countries. We want to bring them to the cinema and make them watch films on the big screens, not on their usual computers, laptops and smartphones. When I built Sudu Connexion, the idea was that a film had to be truly seen. So we fight hard to advocate for this. 

I usually receive feedback from teachers telling me “Oh my God! Claire! My students are going to the cinema, thanks to you” after we have had a discussion on the symbology of film and cinema. We need to have more and more African stories in the cinema. We need to get used to going to the cinema. Going to the cinema should not be a special moment, it should be an every week occurrence. I’m super sure that we can achieve that. It’s just a matter of structuring the industry. This is what I hope to do with Sudu Connexion. To always advocate for African cinema.

Frank Njugi is a Kenyan Writer, Culture journalist and Critic who has written on the Kenyan and East African culture scene for platforms such as Debunk Media, Sinema Focus, Culture Africa, Wakilisha Africa, The Moveee, Africa in Dialogue, Afrocritik and others. He tweets as @franknjugi.

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