Ouagadougou rolls out the red carpet for Africa’s premier film festival

After a coup and amid the threat of Ebola, the show goes on in Burkina Faso, which has hosted FesPACO since 1969

The poster of the film "Timbuktu," by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako. The movie was screened during the 24th Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou (FesPACO), the largest film festival in Africa, on March 5, 2015.
Ahmed Ouoba / AFP / Getty Images

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — On a dusty Friday morning last week, on the eve of Africa’s premier film festival, Jean-Claude Dioma, culture minister for this West African nation, addressed its citizens on state radio. Dioma wanted to quell rumors that “Timbuktu” — the Oscar-nominated film about the 2012 rebel occupation of the ancient city in neighboring Mali — was being pulled from competition.

“The government of Burkina Faso has decided to screen ‘Timbuktu,’ but enhanced security measures will be taken,” Dioma announced, ending days of speculation that even prompted the recently installed transition president, Michel Kafando, to insist that he would personally turn up at the theater if the movie showed.

For audiences at the 24th Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, a weeklong event that concludes today, the inclusion of the celebrated movie by the Mauritanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako was a triumph for artistic freedom. The violent ideology of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb depicted in Sissako's film has been on the rise in the Sahel region in recent years, and concerns were raised that "Timbuktu" could make the event a potential target, even as festival organizers stressed that they’d received no specific threats.

For Burkina Faso, which just four months ago was swept up in a dramatic revolution that unseated one of Africa’s longest-ruling leaders, the very fact that the curtain rose on this year’s festival was a testament to the enduring power of cinema in a country that, despite being one of the world’s poorest, has offered a vital platform for African filmmakers for nearly 50 years.

Launched in 1969 and held every odd-numbered year since 1979, the festival, known by its French acronym FesPACO, is a source of national pride. As scorching winds blow down from the arid sandscapes of the Sahara, Ouagadougou rolls out the red carpet for a parade of foreign filmmakers, dignitaries and moviegoers in a display of populist pageantry that has persisted through coups, economic upheaval and social unrest.

“Despite our history, sometimes with tectonical movements, FesPACO never has been put in question,” said Gaston Kaboré, a director and the elder statesman of the Burkina Faso film industry. “It’s important for what we have done in the past in the field of cinema.”

Political unrest, Ebola fears

Children playing with a performer during the opening of the 2013 Pan-African Film and Television Festival at the Stadium 4 Aout in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
Nic Bothma / EPA / Landov

This year’s festival has offered a panorama of contemporary African cinema. Among the 20 movies competing with front-runner “Timbuktu” for the coveted Golden Stallion of Yennenga are “Fièvres” (“Fevers”), a moving tale about a teenage boy’s determination to live with the father he doesn’t know, by Morocco’s Hicham Ayouch; “Mōrbayassa (le Serment de Koumba)” (“Morbayassa [Kumba’s Oath]”), by Guinea’s Cheick Fantamady Camara, which follows a cabaret singer traveling to France to search for the daughter she abandoned; “Des Étoiles” (“Under the Starry Sky”), by Senegal’s Dyana Gaye, which finds poetic parallels in the lives of three characters strung across three continents; and “Run,” a coming-of-age story set in a nation on the brink of civil war, by the Ivoirian filmmaker Philippe Lacôte.

Uncertainty reigned in the months leading up to this year’s event. After the October revolution that toppled Blaise Compaoré, who ruled the country for more than 27 years, a formal announcement that the festival would take place wasn’t made until December, when Adiouma Soma, the festival’s new general delegate, was handed the reins.

Financing FesPACO proved a challenge. Soma said recently that the transition government contributed roughly $1 million this year, matching the amount of the previous regime. But skeptical foreign donors — who contribute nearly half of the festival’s budget — were slow to chip in, citing uncertainty about the direction of the new government. Soma suspected that organizers would still be raising funds well after the closing ceremony.

Then there was the threat of Ebola, which continues to sow unrest in countries around the region and prompted organizers in November to cancel the International Art and Craft Fair of Ouagadougou (known by its French acronym, SIAO), a massive, biannual event that draws thousands of merchants and artisans from across West Africa.

According to FesPACO officials, the virus forced them to downsize this year’s festival, canceling a popular artisanal market and limiting the number of public venues where in years past revelers would gather to eat grilled brochettes and down bottles of Brakina beer deep into the night. The lavish opening ceremony was scaled down, with organizers moving it from the national stadium — which in recent years played host to more than 20,000 raucous fans and a fireworks display — to the smaller Palais des Sports, an air-conditioned arena with fewer than 5,000 seats.

Soma acknowledged that this year’s festival “took place in a very particular context,” but insisted that the organizers did everything they could to keep it true to its core mission of promoting African film. Just as in years past, there were screenings at half a dozen venues around Ouagadougou, while the African International Film and Television Market — an important marketplace for African filmmakers and foreign distributors — went on according to plan.

Despite the conspicuous presence at theaters this week of health officials in white lab coats, shepherding moviegoers toward hand-sanitizer dispensers, members of the Burkinabé film community took pride in the fact that once again, as it had for nearly half a century, the show would go on.

“It’s a kind of victory for the country and the culture of the country,” said Kaboré.

Capital of African cinema

The screening site at this year’s FesPACO.
Ahmed Ouoba / AFP / Getty Images

Founded eight years after the country then known as the Republic of Upper Volta declared its independence from France, the festival was created by a group of local cinephiles who were frustrated with the tight control French distributors held over the country’s movie theaters. In a bold affirmation of the pan-African spirit that reigned in the years after independence, the organizers decided to hold their own screenings for the growing number of films being made across the continent.

As the festival grew in the 1970s and African filmmakers began to find their voices, audiences packed into Ouagadougou’s French-built movie theaters, which once screened Hollywood spy thrillers, Bollywood romances and spaghetti Westerns, to watch films from Senegal, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire instead. By 1979, with the unveiling of a lavish $3 million film studio, Burkina Faso had established itself as the capital of the African film world.

But the success didn’t last. Harsh structural adjustments imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund during the 1990s forced the government to cut down on cultural spending and divert its resources elsewhere. The industry stagnated.

Still, the government managed to throw its continuing support behind FesPACO year after year. The swiftness of the October revolution came as a surprise to many, though discontent had been growing in Burkina Faso in recent years. Violent protests rattled the country in the weeks before and after the 2011 FesPACO, although the festival itself went off without a hitch.

But as the country plans to hold democratic elections later this year, FesPACO seems to be in a similar period of transition. Selection criteria have been redrawn. Though past festivals have required films to be shot on pricey 35 mm stock to take part in the main competition, this year, the jury began considering films shot with the cheaper digital technologies that have transformed filmmaking. In an equally welcome overture, the prize money for the Golden Stallion of Yennenga was doubled, to about $33,000. And filmmakers from the diaspora were allowed into the main competition for the first time, an acknowledgment that in a rapidly changing, globalized world, films that hold true to the African experience can be made beyond the continent’s shores.

“We have to find some sort of balance in order for FesPACO to be accessible to [everyone],” said Soma.

If FesPACO is writing a new chapter in its history, perhaps nothing has embodied that change this week quite like the hollowed-out shell of the Azalaï Hotel Independance. Since the festival’s birth, the Independance has been a mythic meeting place where the elders of African film, such as Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene and Désiré Ecaré of Côte d’Ivoire, once held court from their famous poolside table and subsequent generations of African filmmakers would gather, grouse, booze and debate about cinema deep into the night.

Today, though, a perimeter of corrugated iron sheeting surrounds the hotel. In October, as parliamentarians inside prepared for a session that was expected to amend the constitution and extend President Compaoré’s reign, protesters ransacked the hotel during a spree that also targeted government buildings and businesses owned by the Compaoré family. 

Writing history

A crowd waits for the screening of a film at this year's festival.
Ahmed Ouoba / AFP / Getty Images

Yet even as film lovers and partygoers this week have fanned out around town in search of new watering holes, the festival has stayed true to its populist spirit. Rapt audiences have packed into sold-out screenings all week long, often sitting five-across in the aisles to applaud the likes of Sissako’s “Timbuktu” — which, despite the security fears, was screened without incident (and without the president) — or local filmmaker Sékou Traoré’s “L’œil du Cyclone” (“Eye of the Storm”), about an idealistic lawyer appointed to defend a rebel accused of war crimes.

“People love film here,” said Eric Da, an actor and artist, gesturing to a long, winding queue waiting outside the Ciné Burkina on a recent night. “Even now, they want it.”

Perhaps it was fitting that the spirit of Thomas Sankara, the late populist hero, loomed large over the first FesPACO to be held since the revolution. A celebrated pan-Africanist who came to power in a coup d’état in 1983, he was killed in another coup four years later, allegedly orchestrated by his former ally Compaoré. Sankara was largely scrubbed from history under the former president — a decision echoed by the programming at the film festival.

“During the years when Blaise was in power, there were films [about Sankara] that FesPACO didn’t show,” said Michel Zongo, a local documentarian. “They didn’t censor them. They just didn’t select them.”

Just months after protesters marched through the streets of Ouagadougou last October chanting “Sankara vit!” (“Sankara lives!”), however, moviegoers gathered outside the Cine Neerwaya on a recent night for a screening of “Captain Thomas Sankara,” by the Swiss filmmaker Christophe Cupelin, waiting nearly an hour to watch the recent documentary about the life and death of the revolutionary icon.

As the country moves forward and rebuilds, said Zongo, filmmakers here will play an important role in determining how the history of the most recent revolution is written.

“I want to tell this story to my daughter, who is 2 years old,” he said. “And I want to tell it to her again 20 years from now.”

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