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Nowhere in Africa? Ouagadougou Is the Cannes of the Dark Continent

By Mark Jaffee

It is one of the largest film festivals in Africa. It requires a visa to travel there, as well as a vaccination for yellow fever. You will also need to take extra precautions against travelers' diarrhea, dengue fever, filariasis, leishmaniasis, onchocerciasis and trypanosomiasis. Once you get there, you will have to take tablets for malaria, drink bottled water and enjoy the cool temperatures of 110 degrees Farenheit in the shade. And you will have one of the best times of your life.

The Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO; wrapped up its 18th edition (it's a biennial festival) last March in Ouagadougou, the charismatic capital of the West African nation of Burkina Faso, formerly known as Upper Volga.

Who would have thought, back in the tumultuous coup and counter-coup days of the 1970s, that Burkina Faso would become the cultural darling of West Africa? Unlikely as it seems, Burkina Faso, and FESPACO, have become the Sundance of West Africa. And the fact that Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 172 out of 174 countries on the Human Development Index, manages to stage such an incredible event over seven days is all the more remarkable.

 FESPACO is not just an African film festival; it's an entire city and country embracing the whole of Africa for a week, with opening ceremonies like those of the Olympic games. Ouagadougou is FESPACO and FESPACO is Africa. The whole city breathes, buzzes and boasts FESPACO––and also raises the prices of hotels, food and bottled water. From the bottled water vendors and the roadside upstarts selling rice and a local stew to street kids and importers of plastic sandals––as well as the radio and the TV--everybody talks FESPACO like it is a political election. And everybody is a part of the event: cinema tickets are an affordable $1.50 for foreigners, and all the venues are open to the public to mingle with the delegates. FESPACO is not only a fundamental part of the Ouagadougan life; it's a fundamental part of Burkinabe psyche. You can ask any young boy in the street, and he will tell you about his favorite African director and give you his prediction of who will win the coveted Stallion Award for best film.

Most of the films are screened in one of the five cinemas in Ouagadougou. Cinema Oubri, which has no ceiling, dates back to the early 1930s. You can watch a film and look up to see the African skies. An owl may fly through the projection light.

The opening ceremony was a rejection of xenophobia, a defense of cultural diversity and a celebration of ethnic diversity. The parade around the stadium had a strong Pan-African presence and delighted the many thousands who had been gathering all day. Groups representing Nigeria, Ghana and other African nations danced alongside stilt-walkers, giant puppets and masked performers. It was a true carnival and celebration of Africa at its best. Burkina's minister of arts, culture and tourism, Mahamoudou Ouedraogo declared proudly, "There is no festival in the world, not even Cannes, where you will see an opening as spectacular as at FESPACO."

But the festival was not without its tension. Filmmakers from neighboring Ivory Coast, embroiled in a civil war, boycotted FESPACO after an artistic feud turned political, when leading Ivorian directors' films were not selected to compete. The directors attributed the rejection to the souring of relations between the West African nations because of the war. Ivory Coast's authorities have accused Burkina Faso of backing the rebels who started the fighting.

"There is no justification for my film not being in competition," Ivorian director and renowned actor Sidiki Bakaba told Reuters in Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan recently. "I hope they are not censoring themselves," he said, accusing the festival organizers of deliberately keeping Ivorian films out of the running. Bakaba, who submitted his film Roues Libres (Free Wheels) for competition, said he lost touch with the festival organizers after the war started. Phone lines between Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso had been disrupted since the uprising. When he finally found out his film was not in competition, he decided to go anyway. But when he saw the festival program, he felt he was being insulted; the picture illustrating his film, for example, was "no bigger than my thumbnail."

Festival Director Baba Hama maintained that Ivorian directors withdrew their films at the last moment because they were not selected to compete, although they would be screened outside of competition. "They wanted to be in the competition more than anything else," Hama told Reuters.

In a far less contentious bid for geographical representation, representatives from the South African National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), a government-funded body charged with coordinating film production and developing the film industry in the country, attended FESPACO in full force and stressed that greater collaboration and increased funding are giving a boost to South Africa's film industry. Perhaps as a consequence, South Africa showcased ten films––more than ever before-at FESPACO 2003. But while the NFVF gives South Africa more clout at a continental event like FESPACO, its chief executive, Eddie Mbalo, is quick to play down any suggestions of seeking continental supremacy.  "The intention is not to dominate, but to collaborate," he maintains. Regarding South African filmmakers, he says, "They are very young. There are people who have been around for years in the African film business, and we have a lot to learn".

A major topic of discussion at FESPACO was the AIDS pandemic, which has manifested itself most acutely in sub-Saharan Africa. With 6.5 percent of its population now infected by the virus, Burkina Faso has the highest HIV prevalence in West Africa after Ivory Coast. A panel, organized by the festival and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), included the first lady of Burkina Faso, Chantal Compaore. "HIV/AIDS has become one of the most worrying health problems in sub-Saharan Africa, with some 28 million people affected," she attested. "It is a threat to the development of Africa, and it brings a new kind of impoverishment."

"AIDS has the ability to alter the future of Africa," said African-American filmmaker John Singleton. Like the battle against Apartheid, which was won with the help of creative artists in the continent and abroad, "the fight against HIV/AIDS is another revolutionary struggle that Africa has to undertake," Singelton told a standing-room audience. He urged the broader entertainment community to enlist in the campaign to address the epidemic and stressed that artists in all fields––from music to television––will be needed if efforts to combat HIV/AIDS are to succeed.

A message of support for FESPACO from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (who was unable to attend) said that Africa's film and television professionals are making a major contribution to the solution of pressing issues like HIV/AIDS. Annan explained that these creative artists can "help us to better understand contemporary Africa––not only its problems, but also the positive changes that are happening everywhere and are a real cause for hope." He said artists can play the central role in helping achieve the goals set by world leaders during the Millennium Summit in September 2000, including pushing back the spread of HIV/AIDS.

At the spectacular closing ceremonies of FESPACO 2003 at the Municipal Stadium in Ouagadougou, presided over by Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore, the Stallion Award-which went to Heremakono, directed by Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako––and many other prizes in various competition categories were handed out. In the documentary category, the prize went to Tangiers, le reve des bruleurs by Leila Kilani of Morocco, about the immigrant experience of West Africans who travel through Tangiers in Morocco to get to Spain. 

Sitting back in my apartment in New York City, I have very fond memories of the 12 days I spent in Burkina Faso, a country that touched my heart. I made many friends among African filmmakers and producers; I have shot over 50 hours of footage at the festival and in various other Burkina locations; and I look forward to my next FESCAPO experience in 2005. I hope to see more American filmmakers and their films there. And don't forget to add French subtitles to your film as this will increase your chances in winning the coveted Stallion of Yennenga trophy, which is larger than an Oscar.


A native of Johannesburg, South Africa, Mark Jaffee has lived in New York City the past 18 years, working in film, television and advertising. His documentary Pol'e Pol'e––a meditation on his dual love affair with Africa, his land of birth and New York City, his adopted home––screened at FESPACO.