With the 27th edition of FESPACO in full swing, we wanted to put the spotlight on Beninese Faissol Gnonlonfin, founder of Merveilles Production, which produced the film “Freda” by director Gessica Genneus (Haiti), currently being screened at the festival in Ouagadougou. The interview we are publishing took place in Cannes during the International Film Festival last July.
You are a producer, a hat you wear to support African talent wanting to make films. What are the challenges you face on a daily basis?
I really enjoy working with writers and directors from Africa and other countries around the world. What interests me in my job as a producer is to accompany the authors. In addition to the financial aspects, there is the artistic support, which includes the writing and development of the projects, which are essential steps that will lead to the search for and mobilisation of funding later on.
The director’s objective is to be able to make his film as soon as possible. However, the funder must first understand the story the director wants to tell and why he or she in particular can tell it.
Once these issues have been addressed, the writing of the story can begin and the search for funding can begin, as well as the building of a team that will help create the project and make it happen.
In 2011, you created “Merveilles productions”. By creating this structure, what needs did you want to meet?
Before turning to production, I directed three short films and a feature-length documentary. When I started my feature film project, I found that it was very difficult to mobilise a producer around the project. In most cases, no producer will finance your first feature film without getting guarantees. Experience is usually required. So, I went through an obstacle course before I could secure a producer.
After completing my feature film project, I decided to go into production to give writers and directors a chance to make their first film. To date, “Merveilles Productions” has produced a dozen documentaries, “series” and “feature” co-productions. We now operate in Benin, West Africa and all over the world.
The editorial line I have chosen is the production of first and second films. It is indeed difficult to get your first projects produced. We accept a certain amount of risk on first films because they are the calling card that will enable us to launch the writer-directors.
How do you absorb these risks?
Initially, I work mainly on writing and project development support with authors in difficulty. Today, we see the establishment of a certain number of funds to support the development of projects. Take for example the Fonds images de la francophonie or the Fonds jeune création francophone. Thanks to this type of resource – which today is coupled with European Union aid – money is available, in particular for location scouting and to pay authors while they work on writing their project.
The improvement is gradually being felt. In the past, when this type of fund did not exist (writing aid, development aid), it was very complicated to get new projects to the production stage.
The COVID-19 pandemic has weakened African broadcasters. What are the major constraints they have faced?
The health crisis has mainly affected filming. On the other hand, writing work and participation in evaluation commissions continued, particularly online.
The interruption of filming also affected all the programming deadlines in terms of post-production and film releases, not to mention the sudden break with the public. Without an audience, there is no cinema. The inability to circulate films in festivals, cinemas or even associations has strongly affected the production of projects. Since the lifting of the confinement, there is a fear of a bottleneck of film releases in cinemas. It will probably take two to three years for the balance to be restored.
There are regular references to digital platforms as an option for the distribution of films from ACP countries. What would be the advantage(s)?
When a film is released, it cannot immediately be found on a digital platform. It has to be promoted first. After that, it depends on the agreements negotiated with the platforms: whether there is a question of exclusivity or not. If you start from the premise that it is an auteur film, it is necessary to identify and mobilise the audiences that can support it. This raises the question of choice: which platform for which audience? For example, creative documentaries require a certain level of understanding of the themes addressed by their audience. After all, images can speak louder than words, and some content without a voice-over can be accessible to any audience.
It is therefore necessary to be able to determine to which type of digital platform one decides to cede broadcasting rights.
What do you hope for the future?
We hope to continue to support the development of films while focusing on quality. In terms of financing, more funds should be available to support culture, otherwise films will not be made.
Finally, we must continue to do a good job of encouraging States to create funds to support cinema and culture. The existence of these national funds will also facilitate the mobilisation of funds at international level, because the reality shows that it is the one who has the money that directs the visibility of projects. When a film is completely edited in Africa, the light shines on the continent.
For my part, I support international co-production but I strongly encourage our States to participate in the effort because this will have a positive impact on their image, especially when presented at a festival.