Aya Films Rebrands

Aya Films was founded in 2011 in a small village in Cumbria. Not the usual setting to start a film distribution company, nor one on African cinema. It was started by me, Justine Atkinson, as a wide-eyed, 23-year-old, with an (albeit naive) entrepreneurial spirit. 

I’d been introduced to African cinema through an internship in Lancaster where I was working on a Nollywood film, and through this discovered more and more cinema from across the African continent. Cumbria is not known for its cultural diversity, and this was the first time I’d seen African stories told from African perspectives, and I wanted to see and share more. So, I found my way into the world of film distribution and African cinema. 

Since its formation the world (and myself) have changed. On a personal level it has been a privilege to have access to, and watch so many incredible films from across the African continent. It shaped my view on the world, the way I understand representation and my own positioning as a White woman.

The African cinema community is unique, there is a sense of collectivity and shared non-hierarchical action which is articulated in manifestos written at festivals and other prominent gatherings. From the Algiers Charter on African Cinema (1975) to the Manifesto of Ouagadougou (2017), manifestos state that filmmakers are conduits of the people and have a responsibility to tell stories not only for themselves, but for and by the populations across the continent and within the diaspora. The collective responsibility in storytelling emphasises the importance of representation, particularly on a continent whose stories and images have often been controlled by the West.

Conversations focused around on and off-screen representation within the UK have also grown and shifted since 2011. Within this, considerations around the space I occupy as a White woman, and the lens through which I value and position African cinema (or any cinema for that matter) should be pulled into question. This informed the model of collaborative curation, which is the ethos the company centres around (though I’m not advocating this as a solution). Collaborative curation works towards a non-hierarchical approach when positioning a film. Through this, films are positioned through partnerships that aim to centre representational and curatorial equity both on and off-screen.

This informs our approach to distribution through which we connect with organisations who are represented in the films we show. It also inspired the creation of the app – Curate-Itthat makes information about the practices of curation accessible in a digital space. We partner with individual curators, festivals, cinemas, and other film organisations to expand and democratise who decides what is shown on-screen.

These new areas have shifted the direction of Aya and though we will continue to distribute some titles from the African continent we will also branch out to other world cinemas. This will be undertaken through distributing a small number of titles each year, selected based on where we have identified relevant partners to work with, and through the roll out of the app – Curate-It. 

At the centre of Aya there has always been the belief that cinema should be used to inspire and connect audiences, and that it has the potential to create renewed representations and new ways of seeing. So, I hope this is something that can continue to grow. 

Someone wise once said to me that we should all act as wedges, holding space for each other, and allow movement to occur. I think this needs to be undertaken with a sense of authenticity, humility and collectivity that isn’t always found in an industry that centres individualism – but hopefully it is something we can work to find – together.