What does streaming-on-demand herald for the perennially troubled visibility of African cinema? Since its launch (in a beta version) this past September, the African Film Library has had a truly significant impact: its online distribution service has made a number of films accessible to a wider audience than ever before. The site’s outlook is pan-African and commercially oriented (with a dulled political edge), and a diverse array of work has been made available, both North African and sub-Saharan, encompassing the continent’s postcolonial mix of languages, and extending across anglophone, francophone, and lusophone spheres of cultural influence.

Started by M-Net, the South African satellite-TV and media giant, the initiative has led to more than a little uncertainty and speculation in African filmmaking circles, especially in terms of its ambitious approach to acquisitions. M-Net’s heavily capitalized private venture is already familiar: over the last several years they’ve snapped up distribution rights to films, both new and old, rapidly amassing a library of some 600 works. Their efforts have struck a blow against long-standing European control of certain rights, and have been executed with a concerted market presence and verve that are out of the reach of independent African filmmakers.

The operation is set to ramp up further once rental and pricing systems are fully established. Through its sleek interface you can browse the entries on over 100 films, although current use is limited to trailers (it’s only a matter of time until full-length access). Next to essentials such as Sembene’s entire oeuvre, and films from Djibril Diop Mambéty, Youssef Chahine, and Idrissa Ouedraogo, some of the most tantalizing offerings in store include more hard-to-find works from Flora Gomes, Jean-Marie Téno, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Moussa Sena Absa, and Moustapha Diop. With so many films in high-quality digitized video, one can hope it will contribute to analogue preservation efforts.