Culture

Once-glittering Côte d’Ivoire film industry hopes for a sequel

Local filmmakers try for a cinematic renaissance after years of civil war and win a spot at Cannes

Ivorian actors Bienvenue Koffi, left, and Abdoul Karim Konaté shooting a scene in “Run,” directed by Philippe Lacôte, in 2013 in Bassam, near Côte d’Ivoire’s capital, Abidjan. The film tells the story of the political and military crisis of 2010 and ’11, in which some 3,000 people were killed.
Sia Kambou / AFP / Getty Images

ABIDJAN, Côte d’Ivoire — On a recent, overcast afternoon in this West African city, Abdoul Karim Konaté sat at a table outside Chez Dede, a low-key maquis, or sidewalk bar, with plastic tables and chairs arranged along the pavement and a waitress who rested her head facedown on the bar. Konaté recently returned from a trip to the Cannes Film Festival, in France, where the movie “Run” — the first film from Côte d’Ivoire to be selected for the competition — had its world premiere. Konaté, who plays the lead role in the film, sipped from a bottle of soda, recalling the days of “la crise” — the postelection crisis of 2011, which pushed a country still reeling from the civil war of the early 2000s to the brink of another catastrophe.

“It was very difficult,” said Konaté, a 34-year-old with leading-man looks, explaining that most of his friends and family had fled to neighboring countries. Work was hard to come by. In the working-class district of Yopougon, where Konaté now sat, he would sometimes see dead bodies lying on the street. “They were killing people outside my house,” he said.

Memories of the crisis still weigh on Konaté; in order to play the part of the title character in “Run,” he said he “remembered the things [he] saw” during the 2011 unrest and channeled them into his performance. Set in a fictionalized version of Côte d’Ivoire, the movie echoes the turbulence of that period, opening with a chaotic scene in which the prime minister is killed. But “Run” is more than just a political melodrama. Told through a series of flashbacks, it’s a coming-of-age tale about a young man who, on his journey to adulthood, is constantly forced to flee the demons of his past. In a phone interview from Paris, the film’s director, Philippe Lacôte, said of the character, “Each time he’s running away from one life to another.”

Three years after the end of the crisis, as fresh investment pours into the country, Côte d’Ivoire is experiencing a similar transformation. Nowhere is that revival more evident than in Abidjan, a freewheeling city of fast cars and fast fortunes whose elegant boutiques and restaurants offering French wine and haute cuisine long ago earned it a reputation as “the Paris of West Africa.” As construction cranes swoop over the skyline and massive building projects give the city’s infrastructure a much-needed reboot, there is a sense that the pro-business government of President Alassane Ouattara, a former International Monetary Fund (IMF) official, is trying quite literally to build over the rubble of the past. For the country’s once-vibrant film industry, hopes are high that the current boom could also offer a fresh start as an emerging crop of filmmakers struggles to bring Ivorian stories to the big screen.

“Run” is the country’s most ambitious movie to date. Produced on a budget of $2.1 million — the costliest Ivorian production ever — and told with a sweeping, decades-spanning narrative arc, it reflects the growing determination of local filmmakers to push Ivorian cinema back into the global spotlight it enjoyed decades ago. At the industry’s peak, auteurs like Henri Duparc, a Guinea native who spent most of his adult life in Côte d’Ivoire, and Désiré Ecaré, whose 1985 classic, “Faces of Women,” won a prestigious International Federation of Film Critics award, were at the forefront of African cinema. But an economic crisis in the 1980s, followed by the death of autocratic President Felix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993 and nearly two decades of political instability, pushed film to the margins of Ivorian life. The milestone selection of “Run” at Cannes, however, is a sign that a cinematic renaissance is underway.

From left, actor Isaach De Bankolé, Lacôte and Konaté at the Cannes Film Festival for “Run” in May 2014.
Valery Hache / AFP / Getty Images

But if the stakes are outsized, so are the challenges. Most of the country’s movie theaters were shuttered in recent decades; many have turned into evangelical churches. Piracy has crippled local distribution. Despite an economic boom — the country’s economy grew 9.8 percent last year, beating the IMF’s forecast — funding for films is scant.

The government is trying to address the shortfall, according to Fadika Kramo-Lancine, director-general of the National Film Office of Côte d’Ivoire. An accomplished filmmaker whose first feature, “Djeli,” won the coveted top prize in 1981 at FESPACO — Africa’s biggest film festival, held every two years in neighboring Burkina Faso — Kramo-Lancine oversees a national film policy, introduced in 2008, that’s meant to foster development in the local industry. Perhaps the biggest achievement so far has been the creation of a government-sponsored film fund, which began providing loans to filmmakers in 2011 (including roughly $150,000 toward “Run,” the fund’s largest disbursement to date).

But for Kramo-Lancine, the progress has been too slow. “The fund is poor,” he said in halting English. “Our minister has a big ambition for this fund to develop quickly, but now the government has not put many money on this side.”

For film directors, the lack of training is also a hurdle; Côte d’Ivoire has no formal film schools. Like Kramo-Lancine before him, Lacôte, who splits his time between Paris and Abidjan, was trained in France. With an eye toward cultivating the next generation of Ivoirian filmmakers, he and his partner, Ernest Kouamé Konan, established a workshop this year sponsored by their company, Wassakara Productions.

Each week the duo gathers 10 young filmmakers for an intensive course in scriptwriting and development in the sleepy, seaside town of Grand-Bassam. At the end of the workshop, the company will choose the best script and produce it for the big screen. “We want to help the young,” said Konan, “and to help cinema have the importance it had before.”

On a recent visit, many of the projects in discussion dealt with issues of violence and reconciliation — a reminder of the fragile process of making Côte d’Ivoire whole once again. While the legacy of the 2011 crisis runs deep, it has had the unintended consequence of providing fertile material for stories.

The biggest challenge may be selling those stories to local audiences raised on Western films. When Konaté and a small group of actors recently paid a visit to one of Abidjan’s video clubs, or informal movie theaters, the owner showed only mild interest when he was told the visitors were among the cast of “Run.” A corkboard marqee hanging on a wall outside the club, where a dozen wooden benches faced a dusty Samsung TV, advertised the day’s screenings: the Jamie Foxx action movie “The Kingdom,” the History Channel series “Vikings” and an erotic feature called “Les Femmes de Footballeurs XXX.”

Along the busy commercial strip of Yopougon’s Rue Princesse nearby, Konaté and the other actors paused in front of a nightclub called Planete des Stars. Facing the street were giant portraits of America hip-hop icons: P. Diddy, Rihanna, Usher, Li’l Wayne. Konaté rattled off the names, wondering why there were no Ivorian stars beside them. Someday, he said, his face would be up there too.

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