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Africa - Creative Arts, Film

FESPACO 2007: the African Cinema Lion Roars!

FESPACO 2007: the African Cinema Lion Roars!

A biannual source of tremendous local pride and the largest cultural event on the continent and THE premiere pan-African film festival worldwide, FESPACO (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou) is the destination of African film cinephiles, film and media industry professionals, actors, journalists and film critics, festival programmers, film students and filmmakers. The festival was created in 1969 and always held in Ouagadougou but after a government decree in 1972, FESPACO became institution. The theme for the 20th Edition 2007’s festival is “The Actor in the Creation and Promotion of African Films”.

“Ouaga”, a bustling, moped-saturated, smoldering capitol city is a paradise for lovers of African cinema; the city is awash with moviegoers and they get to intensely do it for almost 10 days, the duration of the festival. The cinemas are filled with the Burkinabe (men, women and children) and visitors or festivaliers, a term coined by locals, soaking up African images and stories that will rarely be seen again albeit “art-house” programs in the West or international African-themed festivals. The city is filled with wonderful statues and art work commemorating the spirit and history of FESPACO, most notably, the Place des Cineaste, a beautiful statue of film reels in the middle of a busy street; there are movie posters everywhere and festival t-shirts and memorabilia for sale on many corners. There is a FESPACO center that administers registration, fees, badges, etc. but it is utter confusion and a process that may mean an entire day in long queues, limited bilingual assistance and technological support. The process is frustrating and made worse by western management visions of operating as if we are in Paris or New York, so given the lack of reliable technological infrastructure and specialized skills in the city, it is unfair and again, overlooking the benefit of being absorbed in an African cinephile city that despite many limitations, strives to continually showcase African filmmakers more than any other city in the world so be prepared to grab a Brakina or Castel (very good local beers) and chill.

This was my first FESPACO, and my first visit to this land-locked nation with such cinematic pride. There are two lasting impressions, the first is how the festival is so incredibly male-dominated and after all these years no programming has developed to showcase African women directors, provide a forum or special film retrospective of the few African women directors who have a body of work. The second impression is the reality of the heavy Francophone weight pervasive throughout the festival, informing its structure; almost exclusively funded by largely French (France) and European resources, the tension between the Anglophone and Francophone cinema and television community is evident. French global television network TV5Monde, ARTE, Organisation International De La Francophonie, and RadioFrance International were everywhere; and a lack of fluency in French is a critical deficit, reducing film screening choices almost in half because few movies have English subtitles. The lack of a translation mechanism and financial resources for subtitling is an ongoing issue and greatly diminishes the “international” perspective considerably. The dominance of France was evident everywhere with the legions of French youth; French television news media types running around with microphones and television camerapersons in tow; and those “teeth-sucking” moments during the film trailer when, for many of the films screened, a beautiful black woman with a bright smile walks down the street, singing and casually handing white passerby’s chilled bottles of Coca-Cola from a large shoulder bag then the screen goes to a slick TV5Monde graphic! Every screening I attended, the audience made their distaste loud and clear. And I thought only Americans were bombarded with trailers of crass junk food commercials at the cinema!

Thus the “pan” in pan-African does not completely exist and has been a constant complaint since FESPACO’s beginning. Francophone African countries dominate the film program and there are even less films representing the Diaspora. The Paul Robeson Initiative, now known as Promoting Reel African Images (PRAI) was launched in recent years to address this issue and fill the gap and films included in the program compete for the FESPACO Diaspora Prize, the Paul Robeson Award. The entire PRAI program was screened at CENASA (Centre national des arte du spectacles et de l’audiovisuel) but the same issue existed–the majority of the films were in English language with no French subtitles plus the location seemed to be segregate the program from the more popular, centrally located cinemas where the Burkinabe frequented.

But the opportunity to witness thousands of African film lovers in one place is a sight to behold. The magnitude of the pride is evident during the opening and closing ceremonies where visitors and the Burkinabe filled the stadium to capacity and enjoy live music, drummers, traditional dancers, horseback riders in honor of the Yennega Stallion legend, awards presented and ending with glorious fireworks.

There are 5 air-conditioned, technically-equipped cinemas with small bars and cafes throughout Ouaga to view the festival program: Cine Neerwaya; the Centre Culturel George Melies, the French Cultural Center (CCGM) which houses the International Market of African television and cinema (MICA) during FESPACO; CENASA; and my favorite, Cine Burkina, right on a busy shopping street in the heart of town. Films are running concurrently so the day and evening is spent walking along the dusty streets, stopping to eat and drink while waiting for the next film to start. And when a new film opens, two very young FESPACO representatives walk out on stage accompanied by a drummer and the director. The film, and director are introduced in French and English and the director is allowed to speak about the movie before the screening. That’s the spirit!

Hotel Independence is the unofficial headquarters and where the majority of festivaliers lodge; it has enjoyed much better days, the food is overpriced and not very good; tiny rooms; the lobby is cramped and filled with local vendors, a currency exchange booth and four terminal “business center” so it’s hardly conducive to the swell of people wanting to hangout and network; and poolside is poorly lit with bats swooping around at night. But the evening entertainment on a small band stage near the pool was not to be missed; a wonderful band featured a drumming troupe, excellent female vocalists and a dancer on stilts grooving to the beautiful acoustic guitar, high life, bossa nova, R&B and American pop music.

Alongside the film screenings were a number of workshops and screenings sponsored by La Guilde Africaine Des Realisateurs Producteurs (The Guild of African Directors and Producers) known as “La Guilde”, an initiative of young, progressive African filmmakers, many living in Europe and Africa, defining a new and alternative approach and strategy to the old-guard, PanAfrican Federation of Filmmakers (FESPACI); workshops included panels and roundtables on African film distribution, technology and cinema, globalization and cinema and the role of women in African film. And to further demonstrate Burkina Faso’s commitment to sustaining FESPACO and supporting, teaching and training African filmmakers–on the continent and throughout the Diaspora–Gaston Kabore, the eminent Burkinabe director and former Secretary General of FESPACI, established Imagine Film Training Institute a multi-story building described as a space for the transmission of knowledge and expertise that houses an African film repository, screening and conference rooms, editing decks and beautiful outdoor eating and lounge areas. A huge portrait of Paul Robeson–a lifelong pan-Africanist and champion of celebrating African culture worldwide.

The highlight and a somewhat tongue-in-cheek moment since I had visited the gravesite of assassinated former President, Thomas Sankara earlier in the week, was the celebration at the Presidential Palace at Kos-Yam of Blaise Compaoré, current President of Burkina Faso, given the well-known rumors about his role in the death of his predecessor. Many people throughout the Diaspora refuse to attend the festival or even visit the country for this reason. The “Palace” based far outside of the city, features manicured green grounds, waterfalls and formidable contemporary buildings (I was informed that this was not his only residence!), rivaling anything in Chicago or Los Angeles. The contrast, from the surrounding arid, drought-prone landscape, enormous poverty and lack of basic services is upsetting. But guests dined on roasted suckling pig, goat, champagne, very good wines and trays of fruits and fancy desserts as Compaoré and his wife Chantal and dignitaries seated in the dais as we were all entertained by various singers and musicians. Well known, jazz saxophonist, Manu Dibango, honorary president of FESPACO was honored during the event.

The FESPACO film program included many categories of film: feature length, short, animation, documentary and special programs: Focus on Morocco; Retrospective of Malian Cinema; Focus on South African Documentaries; and TV & Video–Series and Sitcoms.

The 2007 FESPACO Grand Prize Winners:
Ezra directed by Newton Aduaka was the only Nigerian film in competition and was the winner of the Golden Stallion of Yennenga. The film is the heartbreaking story of a child soldier on trial and suffering memory loss and the realization that he may have murdered his parents.

Les Saignantes directed by Jean-Pierre Bekolo won the Silver Stallion of Yennenga. Besides Bamako, Les Saignantes was my FESPACO favorite. Bekolo, Cameroonian-born and living in Paris is an active member of La Guilde and created the most provocative, visually stunning story of corruption, sexuality and supernatural power all taking place in Yaoundé in 2025. Nothing like his work has been done on screen from an African director. Les Saignantes is groundbreaking and represents a new cinematic form and a completely different way of telling a universal story.

Daratt (Dry Season) directed by Mahammat Salleh Haroun (Chad) won the Bronze Stallion of Yennenga.

“Le president a-t-il le Sida,” (Does the President have AIDS?) directed by Arnold Antonin (Haiti) won the FESPACO Paul Robeson Diaspora Prize.

Other standouts for me were:
Shoot The Messenger directed by Ngozi Onwurah (United Kingdom); one of the few women directors represented at FESPACO and she has a brave, satirical and controversial comedy examining race and self-image set in London, England.

La Vague Blanche (The White Wave) directed by Mohamed Ali El Mejoub (Morocco); beautifully shot, mesmerizing and weaves two doomed, desperate men together. In Arabic with English subtitles.

The Mother House directed by François Verster (South Africa); a poignant and troubling but ultimately hopeful documentary of a young girl, Miché, who is followed along with her HIV positive mother and grandmother for four years.

The JuJu Factory directed by Balafu Bakupa-Kayinda (France); an excellent film that provides a slice of life in the contemporary Congolese community of Brussels and the story of a writer who refuses to give into a “European-African-village-travel-guide”.

< a href=” http://www.festivalcannes.fr/films/fiche_film.php?langue=6002&id_film=4353205 “target_blank>Bamako directed by Abderrahmnane Sissako (Mauritania); also an active member of La Guilde has given us one of the most important African films in years. Sissako tells a very simple story of a marriage falling apart against the backdrop of a court trial indicting the World Bank. A masterpiece! Danny Glover produced the film and has a small role.

Salud! Directed by Connie Fields (USA)
Barakat! Directed by Djamila Sahraoui (Algeria)
Teranga Blues by Senegalese director Moussa Sene-Absa (Senegal)
Homeland directed by Jacqueline Kalimunda (Rwanda)
Some Kind of Funny Porto Rican directed by Claire Andrade-Watkins (USA)

FESPACO is amazing, overwhelming at times but fulfilling on many levels, I’ll sum it up in the words of director Newton Aduaka, stated during his emotional speech upon winning the Grand Prize, “I produced the film (Ezra) in a Pan-Africanist spirit,”; most of us attended FESPACO in a pan-Africanist spirit and unfortunately, the majority of the films will not be seen beyond the continent but they hold a special place and moment in time for us–each FESPACO is a visual documentation of African history and contemporary life and times and I am immensely proud of having been a part of the 20th Edition. Fewer and fewer movie theaters exist in sub-Saharan Africa, distribution outlets are elusive and drying up as are funding streams but an indelible film spirit endures and a maverick group has emerged: insistent, bold, pan-Africanist, transnational and unwilling to do things as they have been done—the African cinema lion’s ready to roar!

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