Charm mingles with chaos at Ouagadougou’s film festival

Pulled in a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Ouagadougou and decked out in an ostentatious gown, Apolline Traoré arrived at the Cine Burkina as if for a coronation.

The fraying red carpet showed its age, trampled by countless feet and covered in a fine coat of dust. But for Traoré, whose film Moi Zaphira, about a young mother who wants her daughter to escape village life, was about to receive its premiere, the excitable scrum of fans and photographers gathered to capture her arrival was a triumph. For one night in the capital of the African film world, the Burkinabé director was received like royalty.

The pageantry of the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, known by its French ­acronym Fespaco, descended again last week on Burkina Faso, a small West African nation whose name in the local Moré language means “land of the upright men”.

Far from the bright lights of Hollywood and the splashy premieres of Cannes, the festival commences every two years in the spirit of a dysfunctional family reunion, with far-flung filmmakers from across the continent and the diaspora gathering to bicker, tipple, reminisce and fret over the future of African film.

If a familiar chorus was sung about the plight of African filmmakers, who struggle to find both the money to make their films and the platforms to reach their audiences, the festival this year was both a reminder and an affirmation of the vitalising spirit that continues to animate their work.

Cinephiles and dignitaries
Last Saturday night, as he accepted the festival’s coveted Golden Stallion of Yennenga for Tey (Aujourd’hui), about a man who encounters the ghosts of his past on the last day of his life, the Senegalese director Alain Gomis avowed to the assembled filmmakers, cinephiles and dignitaries that “the richness of African cinema today is its diversity”.

Set in the shebeens of Soweto and the backroom gambling halls of Addis Ababa, in the cafés of colonial-era Lisbon and the slums of Casablanca, the festival’s selections reflected the complicated engagement between African filmmakers and a continent many have long since left behind. The feeling throughout the week was warm and inclusive, with the country of Gabon being honoured for its contributions to African film and women being featured in the spotlight. If the Mauritanian auteur Med Hondo, who won Fespaco’s top prize in 1987 with Sarraouina, was right in describing ­African filmmakers as orphans because they were “marginalised both outside and inside Africa”, in Ouagadougou, at least, they could be assured of a warm homecoming.

It is a quixotic love affair for this poor, landlocked country on the scorched fringes of the Sahel. Burkina Faso ranks near the bottom of almost any development index, and it is tempting to think of film here as an afterthought.

“Sometimes people can see it as a luxury, because you don’t have enough food, you don’t have enough roads, telecommunications, universities, secondary schools,” said Gaston Kaboré, the last filmmaker from the host nation to win Fespaco’s top prize, in 1997. “[But] what is the priority for a country?”

Founded in 1969, the festival was created by local cinephiles who, frustrated by the French distributors who controlled the country’s movie theatres, decided to organise screenings to showcase the growing ­number of films being made across the continent.

It was a bold statement against the former colonial regime, and an affirmation of the pan-African spirit that was still palpable in the heady years after independence.

As Fespaco matured in the 1970s and African filmmakers were increasingly finding their voices, the French-built movie theatres in Ouagadougou that once screened spy thrillers and spaghetti Westerns began showing movies from Senegal, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire instead.

Crisis mode
In Burkina Faso, it is perhaps a small miracle that the festival persists, even as many of the visiting cineastes this year returned to their time-tested worries over whether they had gathered aboard the deck of a sinking ship. Screenings were mysteriously cancelled. The official programme only arrived fresh off the press on the festival’s opening day.

And for those who landed in Ouagadougou with little more than a French phrasebook to guide them, the bulk of the films were screened without English subtitles, making them as hard to follow as the mopeds that burp out clouds of exhaust over the city’s chaotic streets.

“They live in crisis mode every two years,” said Kivu Ruhorahoza, a Rwandan director who was attending Fespaco for the first time. “How is it possible?”

It was a familiar refrain for a festival that, despite its rich pedigree, continues to grapple with its own relevance. Once the world’s premiere showcase for African film, Fespaco has lost some of its lustre. Most of the top films in competition this year had already premiered elsewhere, a sign that African filmmakers looking to reach the broadest audiences — and distributors — are perhaps better served beneath the brighter lights of Cannes, Berlin, Toronto and Venice.

The festival can also seem stuck in the past. All week a controversy raged around the organising committee’s insistence on restricting the official competition to films produced on 35mm — a move that many feel is out of step on a continent where cheaper digital technologies have transformed filmmaking, as Nollywood can attest.

When five of the films slated for competition were suddenly pulled for not meeting the 35mm standard, a petition was hastily circulated among the filmmakers in attendance, urging organisers to “align with the criteria of other international festivals” and accept digital formats.

Surprisingly for Fespaco’s slow-moving organisers, their demands were swiftly met. At the closing ceremony, director general Michel Ouédraogo announced that the festival would change its criteria for the next edition, opening the door for an even more diverse crop of films to compete in 2015.

Listless crowds
Broader change for Fespaco is perhaps at hand. It was a sign of the times that many of the poolside tables at the Hôtel Indépendance — the festival’s unofficial headquarters for more than 40 years — were empty on a recent evening. Where auteurs like Ousmane Sembène of Senegal and Désiré Ecaré of Côte d’Ivoire once pontificated deep into the night, there were mostly listless crowds of French tourists drinking cold bottles of Brakina beer while the house band strummed La Bamba.

Fittingly, the scene had shifted this year to the city’s clamorous sidewalk maquis, where boozed-up cinephiles shouted over the bumping strains of Ivorian coupé décalé music and waifish prostitutes batted their false eyelashes at passers-by. The scene was energetic, youthful and free-spirited. One night Jean-Pierre Bekolo, the provocative Cameroonian director, sat at one end of the table with a young Burkinabé filmmaker at his side. Nearby was Cheick Fantamady Camara, the Guinean auteur.

Passionate debates were had, and often lost in translation. Everyone agreed to pick up the same thread in two years’ time.

“This is African cinema, what’s happening today,” said Daouda Coulibaly, a young Malian filmmaker, as he scanned the tables around him. Whereas the formidable Sembène would lash out at the audacious few who dared to approach his poolside table at the Indépendance uninvited, it was possible now for a filmmaker like Coulibaly to share a casual beer with budding legends like Bekolo and Gomis.

For all its flaws, that democratic spirit makes Fespaco unique among the world’s great film festivals, making it hard to imagine a day when African filmmakers might turn their backs on Ouagadougou entirely.

“It brings together the family now and then,” said Mahen Bonetti, a veteran festival programmer from Sierra Leone.

As Mariame Ouédraogo, the enthusiastic star of Traoré’s Moi Zaphira shouted as she received her best actress trophy: “Vive le Fespaco! Vive le Burkina Faso!”

The winners

Golden Stallion of Yennenga: Tey (Aujourd’hui), by Alain Gomis (Senegal)

Silver Stallion: Yema, by Djamila Sahraoui (Algeria)

Bronze Stallion: La Pirogue, by Moussa Touré (Senegal)

Best actor: Saul Williams, Tey (Aujourd’hui) (Senegal)

Best actress: Mariame Ouédraogo, Moi Zaphira (Burkina Faso)

Best film from the diaspora: Le Bonheur d’Elza, by Mariette Monpierre (Guadeloupe)

Best first feature film: Les Enfants de Toumaron, by Harrikrisna and Sharvan Anenden (Mauritius)

Best documentary: Même Pas Mal, by Nadia El Fani (Tunisia)

Best film TV/video: Zamora, by Bhanji Shams (Tanzania)

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Christopher Vourlias
Christopher Vourlias works from Brooklyn. Athens.. Wordsmith, wanderer, occasional crooner. Reports on African film and TV for Variety. Christopher Vourlias has over 1016 followers on Twitter.

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