Cameroon has finally made its Netflix debut. It’s been a long time coming.
The Anglophone film industry has overcome many odds to reach a global audience.
In early 2021, Anglophone Cameroonian filmmakers made a momentous debut as four films were made available on the global streaming behemoth Netflix. With unprecedented ease, viewers from across the globe could suddenly watch uniquely Cameroonian stories that were once the preserve of only local audiences.
In The Fisherman’s Diary, they could share in the journey of 12-year-old Ekah striving to go to school in a culture where girls’ education is considered taboo. They could appreciate the fluid bilingual dialogue in Therapy where an affluent couple confronted postpartum depression. In Broken, viewers followed Sassy’s daring mission to rescue her father’s company in Douala with Endeley, a complete stranger from a village in the South-West region. And in the enthralling romcom A Man for The Weekend, they could get lost in the travails of the beautiful, successful protagonist dealing with her demanding mother’s pressure to find a husband and start a family.
For Anglophone filmmakers in Cameroon, this walk to this global recognition has been long and tricky. They have faced not just typical challenges around issues such as funding and support but a complicated national context in trying to get their films aired and recognised.
Before 1990, Cameroon’s media was exclusively state-run and mostly showed Francophone films. And since private media ownership was permitted in 2000, newer stations predominantly aired foreign content such as Latino soap operas and Hollywood films. These channels have been reluctant to broadcast Cameroonian films and, according to some insiders, demanded payment from filmmakers to screen their films as they would consider this publicity.
The Anglophone crisis, in which protests against perceived marginalisation in 2016 quickly escalated into a full-blown conflict, only made the situation more difficult, both logistically and in terms of attracting funding.
“If you had to do a movie in Batibo or Bali because you need a specific topography, plot and other setups in the story you want to tell to make it believable, nobody will accept to go…because it’s a risk zone,” filmmaker Nkanya Nkwai told African Arguments.
“It is difficult for anyone to put in money in any such project when they know that the atmosphere is not conducive,” he adds.
In the face of these headwinds, Anglophone filmmakers persevered. Some have strived.
One way in which they have done this is through collaboration with Nigeria’s Nollywood and Ghana’s Ghallywood whose stars are widely known in Cameroon.
All four films that Netflix picked up feature some of West Africa’s biggest stars: Richard Mofe-Damijo and Iretiola Doyle in Therapy; Ramsey Nouah in The Fisherman’s Diary; Alex Ekubo in A Man for The Weekend; John Dumelo in Broken. This has helped the films attract a wider audience and immediate recognition.
Funding remains a challenge, but some hope Netflix could be part of the solution.
According to film critic Kwoh Elonge, the industry may enjoy the global reach its films get through the global platform, but “Netflix is more of a strategy for filmmakers to, first of all, make money out of their films.”
Making money from movies can be tough.
The shutting down of cinemas has stymied revenue from ticket sales and income from selling films to airlines or uploading them to YouTube is uncertain. But now, many hope that streaming platforms will both offer a new source of income and make future films more attractive to potential investors.
Netflix is the biggest of these platforms but far from the only one. MTN’s Yabadoo is gaining in popularity. The South African-based Multichoice recently started airing more Cameroonian films. And Amazon Prime acquired the Cameroonian movie Saving Mbango in 2020.
For this reason, filmmaker Itambi Delphine is more excited about what Cameroon’s Netflix debut means for the industry going forwards than what it says about where it has reached thus far.
“[This development] gives room for competition in the industry as more filmmakers will be motivated to make movies of a certain quality to meet up with the film competition in the world,” she says.
“If you have consistent high productions…from different production houses…it’s not just Netflix that the industry will be open to.”