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Decolonising film festival research

Decolonising film festival research

Decolonising film festival research


African film festivals showcase the diverse wealth of cinematic talent from the continent. However, researchers who study these festivals are often influenced by colonial practices. Professor Sheila Petty, from the University of Regina in Canada, and Dr Estrella Sendra, from King’s College London in the UK, are exploring how to contribute to decolonising film festival research.

Talk like a film researcher

Colonisation — the subjugation and exploitation of one nation or people by another

Cultural sovereignty — having ownership of your culture

Curator — someone who carefully selects which films to show at a festival, and presents them both individually and as a coherent programme to festival participants

Decolonisation — freeing something (e.g., an institution, activity or mind) from the effects of colonisation

Positionality — the social, cultural, and political context and lived experiences that define your identity

Reciprocal — giving back

Self-reflexivity — the critical examination of your own beliefs, perceptions, lived experiences and how they affect your actions 

Film festivals are inspiring cultural events, typically involving live screenings of cinematic works alongside discussion panels, workshops and parallel activities such as live music performances. However, like many aspects of society, film festivals are commonly influenced by the impacts of colonisation. This can affect how festivals are organised and framed, what films are shown and who is invited to speak during discussions. In addition, film researchers studying film festivals may have colonial biases which impact how they conduct their research.

Addressing these issues are Professor Sheila Petty, from the University of Regina, and Dr Estrella Sendra, from King’s College London. They are leading a project that has developed a methodology to acknowledge colonial influences in film festival research and, importantly, to move away from them. “Our research is centred on African film festivals, not only due to our shared love of African cinema, but because we believe that all film festivals can learn from African film festivals,” explains Estrella.

African film festivals

It remains rare to see films from the African continent in mainstream cinema. “And yet, African films contain stories that resonate with the lives and dreams of so many people,” says Estrella. “African film festivals expose us to stories that are rare to find in other spaces.” The dearth of these stories on the global stage means that African people and communities are under- and mis-represented in cinema, and that the global community has limited opportunities to learn about and value African cultures.

“Senegalese writer and filmmaker Samba Gadjigo often says, “When I watched the films of Ousmane Sembène, I felt proud of being an African.” To me, this emotion-filled statement summarises what African films can do,” says Estrella. “African film festivals promote culture and heritage and enable people to see themselves represented onscreen.” In addition, film festivals act as an important stepping stone for independent films, providing them with the exposure needed to be shown in commercial cinemas or on streaming platforms.

In recent years, film festival organisers have started to question how festivals could be more representative of the different film cultures that exist around the world. “We noticed that some of the solutions were already present in smaller film festivals in places like Senegal,” says Estrella. “What if, instead of suggesting that Africa has to catch up with the so-called West, we did it the other way round?”

Colonisation and decolonisation in film research

“Researchers who study foreign film festivals by observing them, gathering data and then returning to their own country without ‘giving back’ or meaningfully participating in the festival are using colonial practices, even if they don’t realise it,” explains Sheila. The same is true of filmmakers who, for example, document a community’s cultural events without giving anything back to the community. 

Breaking free of this trend involves being open to learning new ways of doing things. “Decolonising film festival research involves listening to and learning from the communities we work with,” says Sheila. “It means building relationships and looking to communities to decide how they express their cultural sovereignty.” Sheila points to the twin attributes of positionality and self-reflexivity – researchers must acknowledge their privilege, account for this in the research process, and work to create inclusive environments that promote cultural diversity. “It takes time and commitment to decolonise systems that were not originally built for everyone,” she says. “The process should be based on mutual respect and accountability.”

Decolonial tests 

In collaboration with film festival organisers and researchers, Sheila and Estrella have designed two decolonial tests, one for researchers and one for festival organisers, to encourage reflection about their practices and possible unconscious biases in the context of decolonisation of film festivals. “We have been privileged to immerse ourselves in different contexts which shape how decolonisation is interpreted, discussed and put into practice,” says Estrella.

The test for festival organisers reflects on the strengths and limitations of the organisational process. “It provides the opportunity to discuss the social impact of festivals in the communities where they are located,” says Sheila. For example, what insights can festival managers, curators, journalists and community leaders provide? What justice, equity, diversity and inclusion issues exist in the festival management and curatorial process?

The test for festival researchers integrates self-reflection into the research process, helping researchers to question how their research is influenced by their own position within a colonial system. “It asks whether their practices are respectful and reciprocal, or whether they extract knowledge without giving back,” says Sheila. For example, how do researchers communicate with festival organisers and the communities where festivals are based before, during and after the research process?

The team has been trialling their decolonial tests at African film festivals around the world: StLouis’ DOCS (Senegal), the African Movie Festival in Manitoba (Canada), Vues d’Afrique (Canada), Mostra de Cinemas Africanos (Brazil), Film Africa (UK) and ‘Women Creators of the Future’, co-curated between the Festival Films Femmes Afrique (Senegal) and the Leeds International Film Festival (UK). Along the way, the questions are being refined and translated into multiple languages, providing a flexible toolkit for students, researchers and film festival organisers.

“Everyone involved in film festivals should develop respectful listening skills and be open to new ideas and experiences,” says Sheila. “This is critical for understanding the goals of artists and artworks. Creating diverse and respectful spaces is a first step in decolonising practices.” 

Professor Sheila Petty
Department of Film, University of Regina, Canada

Dr Estrella Sendra
Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries, King’s College London, UK

Fields of research: Film studies, creative industries studies

Research project: Decolonizing Film Festival Research in a Post-Pandemic World: developing a methodology to free film festival research from colonial practices

Funder: We acknowledge the support of the Government of Canada’s New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF), [NFRFR-2021-00161].

This project has received ethics approval from The University of Regina Research Ethics Board: REB# 2022-057

About film studies

While many films are created for our entertainment and enjoyment, they can also be powerful agents of change. Films introduce viewers to new ideas and have the potential to change perspectives and opinions.

Film is a form of art and an expression of culture. To make or study film, you therefore need to learn about art and culture. “It is especially important to learn about other cultures,” says Sheila. “The best filmmakers are open-minded people with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the world around them that they attempt to represent through their films.”

The study of film investigates how films are made, the artistic and creative techniques used, and their effects on the viewer. Studying film will give you a historical and contemporary understanding of all aspects of cinema and allow you to critically analyse films. “Develop your analytical skills by considering the role that film and cinema play in our lives,” advises Sheila. “And develop media literacy. The ability to effectively analyse screen-centred content is critically important in today’s globalised society.”  

Pathway from school to film studies

• If your school offers classes in media or film studies, take these to learn how to read and deconstruct a film. In addition, study languages, literature and creative writing to learn how to read and write critically.

• At university, pursue a degree in film, media or cinema studies. These will cover aspects of film such as film analysis, screenwriting, filmmaking technology and international cinema.

• Sheila recommends taking any available courses in creative technologies, popular culture and creative writing. “Writing is an indispensable skill in the film industry,” she says. “If you can write well, you can work in any aspect of the industry.”


A discussion with Amil Shivji, director of the closing film Vuta N’Kuvute (Tug of War) at Film Africa in London, UK, in conversation with curator Nadia Denton © Estrella Sendra

A Q&A with Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah, as part of the Dine & View of his film Amansa Tiafi (Public Toilet Africa) at The Africa Centre during Film Africa in London, UK
© Estrella Sendra

Amina Niang chairs a Q&A with Maïram Guisse, director of La vie de ma mère (My mother’s life), at a school in Saint-Louis, Senegal

A roundtable discussion at the Mostra de Cinemas Africanos, Brazil, with Senegalese filmmakers Alassane Diago and Moussa Sène Absa

Leila Chaïbi is awarded the Best Documentary Film in the closing ceremony of StLouis’DOCS, Senegal, for her film Guardien des Mondes © Laura Feal

A panel discussion ‘African cinema and cinephilia’, curated and chaired by Rachel Johnson, with Mosa Mpetha, Amayel Ndiaye and Estrella Sendra, after the screening of Neptune Frost in ‘Women Creators of the Future’, in Leeds, UK
© Courtesy of the autho

A Café Rencontre at the Institut Français during StLouis’ DOCS, Senegal, with Samira Veracruz, director of Sumara Maré © Ana Camila Esteves

Filmmaker Maïmouna Jallow talks to audience members following the screening of her film Tales of the Accidental City at the Vues d’Afrique film festival in Montreal, Canada
© Estrella Sendra

A discussion panel at the African Movie Festival in Manitoba, Canada

A Café Rencontre at the Institut Français during StLouis’ DOCS, Senegal, on ‘Archives: Source of Creation in Documentary Cinema’, with Marco Léna (Fonds d’Archives Africain pour la Sauvegarde de Mémoires)
© Ana Camila Esteves

Explore careers in film studies

• “Career options in the film industry are vast,” says Sheila. “You could teach the history and theory of film, manage film archives, write film reviews as a critic, edit film magazines, organise film festivals or direct your own films.”

• Volunteering at local film festivals is a great way to gain practical experience and connect with people in the industry. For example, the Department of Film at the University of Regina in Canada hosts the student-run Living Skies Student Film Festival: www.livingskiesstudentfilmfest.com

• Participate in film-related internships and summer schools to learn new skills. For example, in addition to promoting decolonial approaches to film and offering grants and equipment to student filmmakers, the Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative in Regina hosts a free summer youth programme: www.filmpool.ca/yfair

• The National Film board of Canada (www.nfb.ca/education) and the British Film Institute (www.bfi.org.uk/learning-training) offer a wealth of film-related opportunities for young people.

• The University Film and Video Association is an international network of people interested in the film industry, including filmmakers, researchers, librarians and students. Student membership will enable you to connect with film professionals and attend events: ufva.org

Meet Sheila

As a teenager, I enjoyed art and media. I liked reading, watching classic black and white movies and painting landscapes.

I took a course on African cinema during my graduate studies in French-language African literature. I fell in love and never looked back! The creative, artistic and cinematic potential of the African continent is immeasurable. I am constantly discovering new films and directors with incredible stories to tell.

I loved attending the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso during the 1980s and 1990s. The festival was a gathering place for filmmakers, critics and industry professionals at a time when many African filmmakers were exploring new genres and styles. The festival’s atmosphere was very friendly, and I made many connections with people from all sectors of the film industry who have remained lifelong friends and colleagues.

My favourite film is Do the Right Thing (1989) by Spike Lee. Lee’s work explores controversial social and political issues, especially race relations. I consider Lee a film ‘auteur’, an ‘author’ of films who successfully moves between genres and between fiction and documentary, and is a brilliant screenwriter.

Sheila’s top tip

Happiness in life comes from following your passion!

Meet Estrella

I’ve always loved live performances, such as festivals, theatre shows and music concerts. This interest inspired me to study cinema, but in five years of university, I was never shown a single African film. When I took a course on African cinema with Professor Lindiwe Dovey during my master’s degree, it changed my life. I grew up in southern Spain, just a few kilometres from the African continent, but when I first watched Black Girl (1966) by Ousmane Sembène, it felt like I had found something that was missing from the portrayals of Africa I had seen in the media.

As a filmmaker, I produced the documentary Témoignages de l’autre côté/Testimonials from the other side (2011) about the experiences of Africans who had travelled to Spain in search of a better life. Most were Senegalese, so I codirected a follow-up documentary, Témoignages… «waa suñu gaal» (2016), with Senegalese journalist Mariama Badji which we produced with a Senegalese crew. My research is also focused on Senegalese films and film festivals. I feel very inspired when working with Senegalese artists – they are generous, approachable and humble, and have such a philosophical and mystical approach to art.

I’ve had many amazing experiences at film festivals around the world as an organiser, curator, jury member and researcher. Film Africa, in London, was the first African film festival I attended, and it was there that I realised the passion behind festivals and how they bring people together.

I love the work of Alain Gomis, and his film Félicité (2017) in particular. It is led by such a strong female character and has an unbelievable soundtrack and aesthetic approach. The first film of his that I watched was Tey (2012), so it holds a special place in my heart. Gomis has a fascinating sensitivity. His cinema is just magical, full of nuances for us to perceive and engage with.

Estrella’s top tips

Do everything with your heart, be humble and acknowledge what people give you. Take time to think about what you want to achieve in life. Then it’s a matter of figuring out how to make it happen. Changing our world is possible!

Do you have a question for Sheila or Estrella?
Write it in the comments box below and Sheila or Estrella will get back to you. (Remember, researchers are very busy people, so you may have to wait a few days.)



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