The plucky African film industry defying the odds

By Lameck Masina*

Thousands of miles from the glamour and riches of the Western film industry, determined filmmakers in Malawi are winning hearts and acclaim as they Make Mollywood.

Award-winning director Shemu Joyah at his editing desk. Credit: Lameck Masina.
Award-winning director Shemu Joyah at his editing desk. Credit: Lameck Masina.

As the film awards season heats up in the US and UK, Africa’s talents are once again hugely under-represented. Beyond some best actress nominations for Ethiopian-Irish Ruth Negga, there are few chances for the continent to add to Lupita Nyong’o’s sparkling successes from 2014.

However, away from the glitz and glamour of the red carpet and multi-billion-dollar Western film industry, African filmmakers continue to battle against tough odds to make ground-breaking pieces of work – not least in Malawi.

In this small southern African nation, there are hardly any opportunities for formal training in film production, few cinemas, and scant funding. Yet the film industry has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years as several local directors have taken it upon themselves to learn the necessary skills to tell their stories.

Moreover,the films that have been made in this fledgling ‘Mollywood’ industry have enjoyed wide acclaim.

Last year, for example, actress and director Joyce Chavula’s Lilongwe, an engaging thriller about a young woman haunted by her past, won the Best Southern Africa Movie Award at the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice film festival in Lagos – a first for Malawi. Meanwhile, Flora Suya’s My Mother’s Story, a personal story about the role and plight of women in African society, won a Special Recognition award at the Silicon Valley African Film Festival held in California.


These female artists were following in the footsteps of Malawi’s celebrated filmmaker Shemu Joyah, who had scooped another first for Malawi two years previously when his examination of the cultural clash between traditional African values and modernisation in The Last Fishing Boat won the Best Narrative Feature Film prize at the same awards. In 2008, his moving work about sexual abuse and justice in Malawi, Seasons of Life , had won six awards at various international film festivals.

Challenges in close-up

The successes of Malawi’s burgeoning film industry have been built on the back of the determination and sweat of those involved, and directors have often had to bring over trained technicians from neighbouring countries.

They have also required many sacrifices – including financially.

“To make a good film, you really need to have good money at your disposal,” says Joyah. “Here in Malawi to raise money to make a film is a big challenge…In the West…there are some institutions that are there to fund film productions. But unfortunately here in Malawi, we don’t have those institutions.”

Filmmakers like Joyah therefore have often had to fund their own films. This can be a considerable risk, especially given that it is difficult to make any returns on the finished product.

This was not always the case. From the early-1980s to mid-1990s, Malawi witnessed a sprouting of small video viewing shops in township and peri-urban market centres. These provided a highly popular way to watch films at a grassroots level, and by 1996, the country had 13 big cinema companies such as Apollo Cinema, Rainbow Cinema, and Queens Cinema.

However, a worsening economic situation, the proliferation of video rental stores, and later the rise of new technologies and the illegal pirating of films, made these models difficult to maintain.

“All the cinemas closed because people would rather sit in their homes watch films on their computer or even on their phones”, says Joyah. “This denied the filmmaker the ability to make proper revenue that he needs to sustain himself.”

Others, such as academic Mufunanji Magalasi, also point to the influx of foreign films – “whether it is from the British colonial films, moving to Hollywood, the injection of Chinese karate movies and of late the popular Nollywood video films” – as another factor hindering the growth of Malawi’s home-grown industry.

Meanwhile, Suya explains that even the rise of local television networks has not helped provide a viable space for Malawian films.

“I learnt that in some local TV stations, to have the movie screened you have to pay,” says the director. “In other countries it is done differently; you give out the movie and they pay you.”

A producer at a local network confirmed that this is the case, but said the reason is that most Malawian films are still of a poor quality, an observation with which Suya concurs.

“Some of the movies that we give them are not really something that people can sit down and watch for maybe two hours. So if we can improve, I am sure they’ll start loving us and embrace what we do.”

Making Mollywood

However, in the face of these difficulties, Malawi’s struggling directors are continuing to make critically-acclaimed works, and there are some efforts underway to help support the national industry.

For example in 2014, UNESCO launched a five-year project entitled Building a Viable and Sustainable Film industry in Malawi, aimed at creating a strategy for investment and development.

A year into the programme, the UN body explained that it had convened a meeting in which “Key players of the audiovisual industry from public institutions, civil society and cultural operators met to raise the main issues in the sector and elaborate a development plan”.

“Our project for Malawi’s film industry has led to the adoption of a whole new national cultural policy,” it stated.

Meanwhile, Ezaius Mkandawire, Chairperson for the Film Association of Malawi, says that the Malawian government has earmarked some funding  for the arts and, for example, allocated about $7 million to the Integrated Arts Development Fund.  But he emphasises that this is far from sufficient. “The unfortunate part is that the money is for the whole creative sector not only the film industry”, he says, adding that “we are dying for a scenario” in which there is comprehensive funding specifically for films.

Despite the difficulties, risks and relative lack of help though, Malawian filmmakers such as Chavula, Suya and Joyah have made Mollywood one of the most exciting film industries on the continent, attracting the attention of film festivals around Africa and beyond. As one looks across at the billions flowing around film industries in the West, one only wonders what would be possible with a fraction of that investment and support in Malawi.

*African Arguments.Lameck Masina is a Malawian journalist.

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