Monday, March 21, 2011

Letter from FESPACO 2011

Fulbright student fellow Jennifer Blaylock is studying early Colonial film production in Ghana while conducting audiovisual preservation work in Ghana with the New York University APEX (Audiovisual Preservation Exchange) program. You can read more up on Jennifer and her work at Cinema In Transit.

I would call the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) a festival rather than just a “film festival.” In many ways the celebration of Panafrican film and television is just an excuse for the city to let loose.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I took a 24-hour bus from Accra to Ouagadougou until I reached the gates of Stade du 4 Août, the largest stadium in the country, for the opening night. The people waiting in a queue to get into the stadium were filled with glee. Children wearing FESPACO visors were stuffing candy in their mouths as their parents dragged them to their seats, while groups of teenagers schemed about how skip the line and get seats closer to the field. Once we sat down the next performer, the Togolese band Toofan, was announced and the audience roared with excitement. Following Toofan’s energetic performance began the “Youth in Dream” dance performance staged by well-known choreographer Salia Sanou. Over 300 brightly costumed dancers filled the stadium grounds dancing to a mix of traditional and contemporary drumbeats. The performance gathered momentum as exciting, unexpected performances were revealed. To a dramatic drumbeat tall men on stilts came dancing onto the field followed by acrobats and contortionists. Lastly a troupe of equestrians appeared to steal the show by performing acrobatic stunts on their horses as they rode around the stadium. Finally to end the evening there was a 20-minute fireworks display so close to my end of the stadium that I could see glowing embers falling onto unsuspecting audience members.

The exhilaration and merriment of the opening night carried on throughout the festival. Each night festival goers walked from theatre to theatre between movies, stopping for a bottle of Flag at the Institut Français or perhaps pommes frites and mayonnaise outside the Cinè-Neerwaya. The dusty Ouaga night air created a fuzzy glow around the street lamps, invoking the light of the movie projectors inside the theaters.

Unlike most festival goers I camped out at one theatre, Cinè-Burkina, even though it meant watching French-language films that I couldn’t understand but whose images were compelling enough to hold my interest. During the screening of Daoud Aoulad-Syad’s La Mosquèe my boyfriend translated the French subtitles for me the best he could, mostly summarizing the dialogue after the end of a scene. Five minutes into the film he turned to me and said, “This is the point in the film where the fourth wall comes tumbling down.”

FESPACO was founded in 1969 by serious cinéastes and luminous African filmmakers, but it wasn’t until January 7th 1972 that it was made a public institution by government decree. The biennial festival is held the last Saturday in February every odd year. The Grand prize of FESPACO is the Etalon d’Or de Yennenga or the Gold Stallion of Yennenga. In addition to the FESPACO film and television festival FESPACO is also home to one of the most established film archives in the sub-region. Founded in 1989, it was once home to nearly 2000 films and 1000 film documents. Unfortunately a devastating flood in 2009 damaged many of the items in the collection. However two thirds of the collection was saved and a new building for the African Film Library with climate-controlled vaults was unveiled at this years FESPACO festival.

While I was only able to catch the first part of the festival of what I saw these two films really stood out: Notre Etrangère (The Place in Between) by Sarah Bouyain (Burkina Faso/France) and Un Transport en Commun (Saint Louis Blues) by Dyana Gaye (Senegal).

Notre Etrangère (The Place in Between) was the winner of two FESPACO awards: the Prix de l’Union Européenne (European Union Prize) and the Prix Oumarou Ganda given in honor of internationally renowned Nigerian filmmaker Oumarou Ganda for the best first feature film. Notre Etrangère is the story of Amy, the daughter of a Burkinabé mother and a white French father, who spent most of her adult years in France with her father’s French family, but who decides to return to Burkina Faso to reunite with her mother. Amy’s story is juxtaposed with the story of a 45 year old Burkinabe women living in France as a cleaner for many years until she starts tutoring a middle-aged, middle class white women in the Dioula African language. This film manages to be insightful, touching and humorous: creating complex connections between Europe, Africa and the Africa Diaspora with an ingenious subtlety.

Un Transport en Commun (Saint Louis Blues) is a campy Senegalese musical set to 1960s-inspired rock and roll. The story follows several characters as they take a trip in a bush taxi from Dakar to Saint Louis. Granted I don’t speak a word of French, except for the standard bonjour and merci, so most of this movie’s details were lost on me. However, the many musical numbers, some of the most notable having Senegalese cabbies dancing on or singing from their cabs, was enough to make this film a win for any Anglophone or Francophone. For more information about this 2009 short fiction check out “African Women in Cinema Blog’s” interview with the director.

Some of the Winners
•    Etalon d’Or de Yennenga (Gold Stallion of Yennenga) — Pegase, Moftakir Mohamed (Maroc)

•    Etalon d’Argent de Yennenga (Silver Stallion of Yennenga) — Un Homme qui Crie, Mahamat Haroun Saley (Chad)

•    Etalon de Bronze de Yennenga (Bronze Stallion of Yennenga) — Le mec idéal, Owell A. Brown (Côte d’Ivoire)

•    Premier Prix du Documentaire (First Place Documentary) — Monica Wangu Wamwere--The Unbroken Spirit, Jane Murago-Munene (Kenya)

•    Deuxième Prix du Documentaire (Second Place Documentary) — Witches of Gambaga, Yaba Badoe (Ghana)

•    Troisième Prix du Documentaire (Third Place Documentary) — Indochine sure les traces d’une mère, Idrissou Mora-KpaÏ (Benin)

Music at Cinè-Burkina between screenings
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