Having touched on the rich cultural heritage of West Africa with “Feel Like Going Home,” an episode in his 2003 documentary series The Blues, which explored the African roots of the Delta blues, Martin Scorsese had another fortuitous opportunity to engage with the continent’s artistic offerings in 2007.

That year, he was invited to Mali by Souleymane Cissé, a celebrated Malian director who shared with him the joys of African cinema, as well as its struggles.

“Cissé was very urgent in expressing the need for African cinema to be preserved,” said Margaret Bodde, executive director of Scorsese’s preservation-focused nonprofit organization, The Film Foundation. “The great flowering of African cinema of the 1960s and ’70s has not really been available where the films were made. So we’ve always had it on our minds to try to tackle this issue.”

The right circumstances were ultimately initiated by FEPACI, or The Pan African Federation of Filmmakers, an organization formed in 1969 in North Africa to be a continent-wide (and diaspora) voice for promoting African cinema interests. Concerned with the urgent need to preserve African film heritage, FEPACI developed an idea for a program to identify and select 50 films across the continent for preservation. They also began having discussions with The Film Foundation about joining the effort.

“From that point on it became clear that this was a world heritage cultural patrimony issue, so we sent a proposal in to UNESCO,” said Bodde. UNESCO—the Paris-based agency of the United Nations dedicated to cultural, educational and scientific endeavors—responded two months later.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova explained: “Protecting African audiovisual heritage is inseparable from the safeguarding of African cultural and natural wonders. It is a source of pride and dignity. It is a driver of social cohesion and belonging. It is also an accelerator for economic growth, job creation and revenue generation. Films shape our opinions and the way we see the world. They give confidence and courage to transform societies for the better.” Bokova sees the project as “a source of enrichment for humankind.”

A letter of agreement between the entities was formalized on June 7, 2017, with the creation of the African Film Heritage Project initiative.

Going forward, the partners will rely on the expertise of a FEPACI advisory board of archivists, filmmakers and scholars tasked with seeking out the initial 50 films. The alliance already has a success under its belt that predates the letter of agreement, with the restoration of celebrated Mauritanian director Med Hondo’s 1969 drama Soleil O (Oh, Sun). A critique of neocolonialism, the film was shot over a period of four years and tells the story of an African immigrant’s journey to Paris to find his ancestors.

The film’s restoration took place at the L’Immagine Ritrovata lab in Bologna, Italy and was financed by The Film Foundation and the George Lucas Family Foundation, with the work being completed in time for a screening at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Having seen the film, Bodde describes it as “a film of righteous anger…poignant and heartbreaking.”

“The partnership with the Film Foundation will help further increase the visibility of Soleil O, not only in Africa but across the world,” said Aboubakar Sanogo, North American Regional Secretary for FEPACI. “This film more than ever contributes to bringing us together in a world where misunderstanding among peoples is increasing.”

Sanogo also stressed that an overarching goal of the partnership will be bringing the film heritage of Africa to Africans themselves. “One of the objectives [of FEPACI] is always to have a conversation with African audiences through the cinema,” Sanogo said. “That conversation before was made difficult by the fact that African screens were occupied by Hollywood, Bollywood, Hong Kong films and European films. Part of this partnership is about putting these films back into the circuit in Africa itself.”

The films selected for preservation will include narrative features, documentaries, avant-garde works, shorts and newsreels and will be broad enough in their temporality to paint a multifaceted portrait of a 20th-century Africa both independent and under colonization. By confining its selection timeframe to the hundred year period from 1889 to 1989, the partnership hopes to reconstitute, in the words of Sanogo, “a really credible history of African cinema.”

“We have to go far back to be able to reconstitute the complexity of the narrative of African cinema, and resituate it properly in the general history of cinema itself,” Sanogo said. “Those who write the history of cinema tend to begin African cinema history with independence in the late 1950s and early ’60s, but even in colonial times and around the time of the Lumières, Africans were making films.” MM

Photograph: (L-R) African Film Festival director Mahen Bonetti, FEPACI’s Aboubakar Sanogo, Martin Scorsese, UNESCO’s Irina Bokova and New York University associate professor Yemane Demissie launch the African Film Heritage Project. Photograph by Dave Alloca/ Starpix / Courtesy of The Film Foundation

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue.