Fespaco: The world's greatest secret film festival

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Four years ago, Time Out took a trip to one of the world’s greatest lesser-known film festivals, the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, or Fespaco, as everyone calls it. This month, Dave Calhoun returned to this biennial jamboree of African film – and entered a storm about its future…

Where's Ouagadougou? you ask, dredging the fading remnants of GCSE geography from your memory. Yes, it exists: it's the capital of Burkina Faso, a landlocked sub-Saharan country in west Africa (north of Ghana, south of Mali). It's poor, its main export is cotton and it has a special and, to any outsider, unexpected relationship with cinema. That's what drew me to its 45-degree climate and sweaty, power-cut-prone cinemas - that and the question of why the world's second biggest continent, in size and population, delivers so few films to our screens every year?

One event alone sums up what cinema means to Burkina Faso. On the Sunday morning of this week-long festival, a group of filmmakers, led by Burkinabe cinema's elder statesman Gaston Kaboré, gathers in the dusty city's Place des Cinéastes, a roundabout in the centre of which sits a huge sculpture of a camera. The gathering crowd honours the late masters of African cinema with two minutes of silence. Kaboré initiated the ceremony in 2009 to remember Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese director who died in 2007, and now it's firmly on the festival calendar.

On the edge of the square, a new statue of Sembène sits next to one of the Malian director Souleymane Cissé and another of the Burkinabe director Idrissa Ouedraogo (both very much alive). A statue of Kaboré lies on the flowerbed: the authorities didn't get round to raising it in time. Before the ritual begins, I bump into writer and filmmaker Mark Cousins, here to shoot scenes for a sprawling More4 series of his book, ‘The Story of Film'. I'm surprised to see him. There are barely any Brits here. Most Europeans are either from France, the country's colonial master when it was Upper Volta, or working for NGOs (there's a rash of newly acquired corn-row hair-dos on display in the cinemas).

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Fespaco has been going since 1969 and has been a big deal for African film since the 1980s, buoyed along by the enthusiasm and needs of filmmakers. As Cissé tells me, poolside at the Hotel Independance - where all the directors stay (legend has it that Sembène always got room number one; a function hall now bears his surname) - filmmakers see it as a crucial encounter whether or not they have films to show. In turn, the Burkinabe government supports the event in cash and kind: this year, President Blaise Campaoré attended the closing ceremony in the city's stadium and threw a lavish dinner at his palace in honour of the event. Sitting among close to a thousand people a mere ten metres from his table, my friend Don Boyd from digital arts platform Hibrow dares me to request an interview with the man who mortally unseated Thomas Sankara in 1987. Respectfully, I chicken out.

The diversity of films is overwhelming, from Sarah Bouyain's ‘Notre Étrangère', a quiet tale of a Franco-Burkinabe woman returning to Burkina Faso to find her birth mother, to Missa Hebie's more exclamatory ‘En Attendant le Vote...' about corruption and hubris. Many films have links with Europe. Many don't.

As the Benin director Sylvestre Amoussou states when introducing 'A Step Forward - Behind Corruption', the goal of many directors is to make African films for African audiences free of outside support. He proudly declares that his film was made with African money and the audience roars in support. North Africa is especially well represented: there are two films from Egypt in the competition (inevitably everybody looks for signs of tension) and two from Morocco, one of which, ‘Pégase', nabs the top prize, the Golden Stallion of Yennenga: as I fly away from Ouagadougou on a midnight flight, its director, Mohamed Mouftakir, carries the trophy aboard to cheers and applause.

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Fespaco suffers from a lack of resources and a sharp whiff of chaos. By the end, delegates were asking questions. An entire jury of critics failed to receive air tickets. At least one director, a Nigerian, was stranded in New York without a ticket - but with the print of his film, which never showed. The chairman of one of the juries, filmmaker John Akomfrah, twice travelled to Heathrow: twice his ticket never materialised. On the festival's final day, I speak to Mahamat-Saleh Haroun - the Bordeaux-based Chadian director whose excellent ‘A Screaming Man' is screening here - and he says he won't come back. He's fed up with moaning.

Spirits run high. Maybe it's the heat. Maybe it's the sense of imminent collapse. But mostly - surely - it's the sense that African cinema needs to be fought for. There are African countries with developed films industries, such as Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria, but there are others where resources are near nonexistent, cinemas are closing and film is a rumour. Fespaco is the chance to make a difference and share films with the rest of the world, via festival programmers such as Toronto's Cameron Bailey and London's Keith Shiri who pitch up dutifully every two years. Hopefully some of the fine films - and not so fine but always interesting (yes, there were duds; one South African crock haunts my nightmares) - at this year's event will soon trickle down to our screens.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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