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Africa’s Oscars

African cinema is in a fix, yet at the top Burkinabé film festival, Katrina Manson finds no

Amid the dust and the donkey carts, there is a sign here in Ouagadougou, bright red against the night in swirling French neon: “40 years of cinema; 40 years of dreaming”.

It’s a dream worth savouring. As women balancing trays of lemons on their heads sashay through the streets and mopeds whirr about the dusty downtown, Burkina Faso – one of the world’s poorest countries – does not seem to be the most obvious home to the movies. But as the pan-African film festival Fespaco celebrates its 40th anniversary, the country whose name translates as the Land of Honourable Men is striving to create an Africa-wide film industry that represents the continent’s own people.

“Our African audiences really need our images,” says Gaston Kaboré, head judge at this year’s Fespaco, and a revered Burkinabé director whose film Buud Yam won the top prize in 1997. “They need stories that carry them, and they need us to give accounts of our own images and culture. We make our films for them.”

The breadth of films at Africa’s Oscars shows that the continent’s film-makers are doing just that. This year’s winner, Teza, charts the horrors of authoritarian rule under Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam; the runner-up, Nothing But the Truth, reveals the dashed hopes of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process. Mascarades, an Algerian comedy, came third.

“In the 1960s African films were preoccupied with designing the new political environment after colonialism,” says Keith Shiri, director of the UK film festival Africa at the Pictures. “But now there are so many other issues that films are tackling.” Whether a village love story set in Cameroon, corrupt civil servants plundering the state in Burkina Faso, gangsters doing bank jobs in Johannesburg, or diaspora returnees finding fault with Dakar, Fespaco’s films find many ways to speak to the continent.

“No one can carry Africa better than us,” says Gohou Michel, 42, a celebrated comedy actor from Côte d’Ivoire. He wears a gold chain with a golden map of Africa dangling at the end: “It’s a symbol of what I need to do.”

Yet cinema in Africa is in a fix, and lacking big backing, African show business could do with a few more conjuring tricks today. Burkina Faso might be home to striking monuments to the wonders of 35mm film – an upturned multi-coloured camera in the middle of a roundabout; the Fespaco headquarters, shaped like an enormous reel of film – but increasingly film-makers are turning to digital. Often they produce for the TV and DVD markets, for poor audiences that prefer to stay at home and watch telly, because it’s free and the regular soaps keep them company.

Despite prodigious piracy, DVDs are doing well in Africa. Nigeria’s “Nollywood” home movie industry produces more than 2,000 films a year and rakes in $450m annually, making it the world’s third-largest film industry after Hollywood and Bollywood. But cinema screens are closing at speed. In the arid northern town of Ouahigouya, the final two projectors stopped turning at the beginning of the year because producers refused to let their reels be shown on such clapped-out projectors. Michael Raeburn – whose film Triomf, about incest among Johannesburg’s poor white trash, was in this year’s official competition – said he only entered Fespaco because his French backers asked him to.

“Their projectors are tractors, lawnmowers,” he told me. “The last time I was in it they sent back my 35mm film ripped to shreds. I could hear the sound of celluloid cracking.”

Despite the nods to Cannes, with red carpets and nightly poolside hobnobbing, several festival screenings spluttered through sound and image failures. And as film-makers are increasingly backed into financial corners, donor money and foreign funding may pull one string too many. “Too strong a dependency on external financing is negative for the development of an indigenous African style,” says Kaboré. “You have to be sure that the centre of gravity is within our own camp, in terms of economics, culture and psychology.”

In his effort to secure big US financial backing, the South African director Zola Maseko capitulated and cast the American actor Taye Diggs in the lead role of his film Drum, the story of a black South African journalist’s fight against apartheid, which won Fespaco in 2005. “I sold out, I admit it,” Maseko told me this year, putting up his hands in surrender. “I spent ten years trying to raise the money for that film.” But he regretted the compromise: “I’ll never do that again.”

For the clutch of film-makers still shooting for the big screen, the commitment to independent financing is growing. When, after years searching for backers, Raeburn was told to secure Meryl Streep for the lead to gain US backing, he finally gave up. He cut his budget tenfold, got a Zimbabwean accountant onside and made his film with unknowns, in the local Afrikaans.

For the right film, the audience is there. Cinema-goers sat two to a seat in support of local ­directors’ films during Fespaco. And when the Burkinabé director and satirist Aboubakar Diallo released his self-funded comedy Môgô-puissant a couple of years back – about a young village marabout who is so successful at seeing into the future that he becomes the president’s right-hand man – it broke all national box-office records, beating takings for the Bond film Casino Royale, which was out at the same time.

“It’s not the number of films we produce or the box-office takings that matter, it’s that cinema has really captured the spirit of the people,” says Hema Djakaria, director general of national cinematography in Burkina Faso, who refuses to let go of film. “Taking pleasure in a real night out, an event, is a special thing for the people here. Cinema is a school of life, and that has no price.”

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek