Whose stories get streamed? Netflix tells more Africans: yours

Ilze Kitshoff/Netflix
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Maxwell Simba perform in 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,' a Netflix-carried film directed by Mr. Ejiofor that is set in rural Malawi and acted mostly in a local language, Chichewa.

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Log in to Netflix in Johannesburg, Nairobi, or Lagos, and almost any movie or show you can watch takes place somewhere else. But maybe not for long.

In recent years, as the streaming service makes a global play for subscribers, it’s courted them with local stories – and increasingly, that applies to African viewers, too. For Netflix, investing in original African content is a relatively low-stakes strategy, especially as the continent’s streaming market grows. But it’s also helping to shake up tired notions of whose stories are worth paying attention to.

“There’s no reason why an African film can’t be global in the same way an American or European one can,” says Samson Kambalu, a Malawian-British artist who translated the script for “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.” The Sundance darling, which is set in rural Malawi and acted mostly in a local language, made its Netflix debut last week. As Mr. Kambalu sees it, “There’s no reason why African films can’t open themselves up to the world like that.” 

Why We Wrote This

Media companies respond to people's tastes, but also shape them. Can a push for more African films and series shake up some assumptions about "global" entertainment?

When Godwin Jabangwe stood in front of a room full of Hollywood movie executives to pitch his first feature film last November, he knew his idea wasn’t exactly the stuff of a conventional blockbuster.

He wanted to make an animated movie called “Tunga,” he explained, about a young girl who travels to a mythical lost city on a quest to save her village from drought. It would be set in Zimbabwe. Oh right, and it would be a musical.

“Five years ago, with an idea like that, you would have been laughed out of the room,” Mr. Jabangwe says. But his idea immediately caught the ear of a big production company, and last month, after a scrappy bidding war, Jabangwe signed a deal with them. “Tunga” is going to be a Netflix original.

Why We Wrote This

Media companies respond to people's tastes, but also shape them. Can a push for more African films and series shake up some assumptions about "global" entertainment?

In recent years, as Netflix has made a global play for subscribers, it has courted them with local stories – from Korean police dramas to Mexican political thrillers to Japanese sci fi. But until recently, African viewers were largely left out of that equation. Log into Netflix in Johannesburg, Nairobi, or Lagos, and almost any movie or show you could watch took place somewhere else.

That is changing, if slowly. Since May of last year, Netflix has commissioned original shows and films from Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Last week, the service debuted the Sundance darling “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” a film by the Nigerian-British director Chiwetel Ejiofor set in rural Malawi and acted mostly in a local language, Chichewa. 

The growing interest in Africa reflects a growing market, as more people go online and earn enough disposable income to subscribe. And a handful of African productions is a relatively low-stakes investment for Netflix, which rolled out about 700 original movies and shows last year alone.

But in courting African filmmakers, it’s also helping to shake up tired notions of whose stories are worth paying attention to.

“There’s no reason why an African film can’t be global in the same way an American or European one can,” says Samson Kambalu, the Malawian-British artist who translated the script for “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” into Chichewa and appears in the film. “There’s no reason why African films can’t open themselves up to the world like that.”

But they have often lacked the platforms to do it. 

Take Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry, which churns out more movies every year than any other country except India. But despite its frenetic levels of production and millions of devoted fans, few Nigerian films have become hits outside the country’s borders. 

In part, that’s by design. Nollywood’s core appeal is that it tells Nigerians stories they don’t often find in film elsewhere: their own. But as piracy has gobbled into Nollywood’s profits in recent years, that local focus has turned against it, says Nigerian film critic Wilfred Okiche.

“For a while now, producers have been struggling with how to crack distribution,” he says. “How do you get these films to the widest possible audience, while still getting paid?”

Netflix wasn’t the first company to try and take Nollywood online. In 2011, a Nigerian entrepreneur launched a streaming service called iROKO TV, and more recently, South African TV giant MultiChoice added a streaming option to its cable offerings, which include a series of channels with mostly Nigerian content called Africa Magic.

Netflix itself dipped into Nollywood slowly, buying its first global streaming rights for two Nigerian films in 2015, and opening a server in Lagos the following year to allow faster streaming for Nigerian users.

But it wasn’t until this January that Netflix released its first Nigerian original film, “Lionheart,” a drama about a Nigerian woman struggling to keep her family business alive after her father has a heart attack.

“I believe authenticity has a home in today’s globalized world,” the film’s director and lead actress, the megawatt Nollywood star Genevieve Nnaji, told Essence Magazine in January. “A good human story with relatability from anywhere will travel far and resonate with viewers despite their backgrounds.”

In some cases, that’s about setting familiar storylines against new backdrops, as Netflix is doing with its first two African original series: a South African spy thriller called “Queen Sono” and a South African high-school drama called “Blood & Water.”

In others, it’s about taking viewers so deeply into an unfamiliar place that they feel at home there, says Mr. Kambalu, of “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” which dramatizes the true story of a 13-year-old Malawian boy and his attempts to construct a homemade windmill to save his village from drought.

“I realized with this movie that you don’t have to rely on all these tropes to make people care. You can just present reality. You can just let characters indulge deeply in their own personalities. That’s enough,” he says.

Of course, globally known cast members like Ms. Nnaji or Mr. Ejiofor (famous for, among other things, his starring role in “12 Years a Slave”) don’t hurt. Still, says Jabangwe, the creator of of “Tunga,” Netflix’s omnivorous interest in finding new shows made it more eager than its competitors to hear from a wider range of voices.

“What Netflix has done is crack open a door for stories that probably have never been told by the big studios,” says Jabangwe – like the mythological, musical adventure of a little Zimbabwean girl and her companion, a honey badger.

For many of his viewers, he knows, “Tunga” will take them into a new and unfamiliar place.

But for Jabangwe, after more than a decade in the United States, it will take him somewhere else.

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