The bi-annual Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) runs February 28-March 7, 2009 for the 40th time since its inception in 1969 as a shop window for African cinema. It is hoped that the 40th FESPACO will cease being viewed merely as “a place for FESPACO civil service organisers to invite government ministers with their women to socialise at the expense of filmmakers’, to use Moroccan film director Nabil Ayouch’s words. OGOVA ONDEGO reports in retrospective on his way to Ouagadougou.
Over the four decades of its existence, FESPACO has been plagued with various ‘political’, ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘organisational’ challenges. Many players in the African audiovisual media sector, for whom the festival is meant, have over the years appeared to be getting more and more disillusioned with this festival that is billed as Africa’s largest film festival. Many of them have chosen to keep their distance from where they have thrown barbs at the festival organisers, accusing them of not just ineptitude but also of lack of respect for filmmakers.
Though having won FESPACO’s highest prize ‘the Yennenga Stallion’ in 2001, Moroccan Nabil Ayouch kept away from the festival in 2003 as a form of protest.
Saying FESPACO was ‘disorganised’, he accused its organisers of ‘lack of respect for filmmakers’.
He was angry, he told BBC, about the treatment given to film directors by the organisers, drawn from the governnment.
He said organisers show films late ‘even for as late as three hours’ and change screening venues without informing film directors who are expected to present their films. He said civil servant bureaucracy was spoiling FESPACO.
He had failed to collect the Yennenga Stallion for his film, ALI ZOUA, in 2001 as FESPACO failed to send him a flight ticket though having selected and put his film in competition. The organisers only realised their gaffe when Ayouch failed to collect his award.
He refused to excuse FESPACO organisers on what he termed inefficiency saying the festival was a great event 20 years earlier as “a shop window for African and Arabic cinema.”
Sometime back, I listened to various criticism of FESPACO from filmmakers drawn from across Africa and the world. They included Mahmood Ali-Balogun of Nigeria, Judy Kibinge of Kenya, Rahamatou Keita of Niger and Frances Ann Solomon of Canada.
“FESPACO organisers behave as if we don’t count,” Ali-Balogun commented. “We go to a conference and they conduct it in French while fully aware we don’t speak French. They should take cognisance of the fact that we use our own money to come here .They should translate proceedings of meetings in English besides sub-titling films in English.
Ali-Balogun, on his third attendance at FESPACO, said the number of participants was declining instead of growing due to what he termed as ‘disorganisation’.
“FESPACO does not seem to be doing any assessment of what happens at their festivals in order to improve subsequent events. All they seem to be concerned with is that they host a festival and then go to sleep until the next one,” Ali-Balogun said.
Solomon, on her part, was disappointed that FESPACO does not readily avail information on events to festival-goers. She also expressed concern that FESPACO appears to be a mere cultural festival and not a market for selling and buying films: “Of the more than 5000 participants at FESPACO, only 23 were distributors of films,” she observed in 2003.
Kibinge, whose film, THE AFTERMATH, was in television videos competition in 2003, had left Nairobi for Ouagadougou before the return air ticket from FESPACO had arrived. Reaching Accra, she said she had to use a bus to Ouagadougou because she could not afford an air ticket. She blamed her plight on what she termed ‘disorganisation’ by FESPACO. I recall her expressing fear in February 2009 that she dreaded having to repeat the 2003 experience after her film, KILLER NECKLACE, had been accepted by FESPACO.
On her part, Keita was concerned that although the 18th FESPACO focused on actors, they ‘forgot’ to invite Zalika Souley, considered the first African actress, to Ouagadougou.
Director of AL’LEESSI: AN AFRICAN ACTRESS, Keita said, “I was surprised to discover in Ouagadougou that this first black African actress had not been invited here.”
Speaking to Catherine Fellows of BBC in 2003, Ayouch had accused FESPACO organisers of ‘lack of seriousness’. Among other things, he said, FESPACO changes screening venues arbitrarily have little respect for film directors and fail to send invited filmmakers air tickets to Ouagadougou though they enjoy screening their films to the world.
Like Ali-Balogun, Ayouch said the number of festivaliers to FESPACO was declining.
“The festival should be run by professionals and not civil servants whose concept of time is retrogressive. Instead of bringing filmmakers to FESPACO they invite government ministers with their women to socialise in the festival,” Ayouch said.
But perhaps the most serious ‘crime’ of FESPACO has been the perception that it is a ‘French affair’ that keeps out any one who does not toe the line. For instance, how does one explain that since 1972 when Etalons de Yennenga was first given as the highest award at FESPACO it has been a domain of Francophone except in 1989 and 2005 when Ghanaian Kwah Ansah’s Heritage Africa and South African Zola Maseko’s upset the circle?
Reliable sources say Ansah’s win caused trouble after FESPASCO failed to hand him all the US$11,000 that goes with the FESPACO Stallion prize. From then hence Anglophone Africa appeared to have lost faith in FESPACO.
Pundits have often wondered rather loudly whether the FESPACO Stallion is not reserved for Francophone Africa. And they give this list of Etalons de Yennenga winners as proof that something isn’t right with its administration:
2007: EZRA, Newton Aduaka,
2005: DRUM, Zola Maseko, South Africa
2003 Heremakono, Abdrehmane Sissako, Mauritania
2001 Ali Zaoua, Nabil Ayouch, Morocco
1999 Pieces d’idenites, Mweze Ngangura, Congo-Kinshasa
1997 Buud Yam, Gaston Kabore, Burkina Faso
1995 Guimba, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Mali
1993 Au nom du Christ, Roger G’noan M’Bala, Ivory Coast
1991 Tilai, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso
1989 Heritage Africa, Kwaw Ansah, Ghana
1987 Sarra ouini’a, Med Hondo, Mauritania
1985 Histoire d’une rencontre, Brahim Tsaki, Algeria 1983 Finye, Souleymane Cisse, Mali
1981 Djeli, Kramo Lancine Fadika, Ivory Coast
1979 Baara, Souleymane Cisse, Mali
1976 Muna Moto, Dikongue Pipa, Cameroon
1973 Les mille et unesmains, Souheil Ben Barka, Morocco
1972 Le Wazzou polyame, Oumarou Ganda, Niger
In 2003, I listened as filmmakers disagreed over the choice of the jury in awarding the FESPACO Stallion to Mauritania’s Abderhmane Sissako’s HEREMAKONO (Waiting for happiness).
Senegalese director Moussa Sene Absa did not fight shy of expressing his feelings: “Personal decisions have been made. Politics is pulling down African film. The goal of art is to help people be happy. I make films not for intellectuals but to inform people about their experiences.”
“An arty film difficult to understand in Africa,” observed Eric Kabera, the Rwandese producer of 100 DAYS. “Even Sissako himself was surprised HEREMAKONO was declared the best film at FESPACO in 2003!”
“You don’t have to please others by playing to their demands, expectations, stereotypes, and sub cultures,” Absa said, adding that he lives not in a village but the city and that his films revolve around this reality. He stressed that documentaries in Francophone Africa are not getting funding for failing to meet what he termed “stereotypes of Africa by donor agencies who want films on ‘desert’ and ‘villages’. He wondered why FESPACO lumps fiction and documentaries together in the short films competition category.
As a parting shot to the forces playing behind scenes at FESPACO, Absa said, “We must keep politics out of FESPACO.”
But could this have been a case of sour grapes after MADAME BROUETTE had been beaten to the top prize by what Sissako described as ‘controversially-beautiful but difficult-to-understand’ HEREMAKONO?
Hardly, Absa said. MADAM BROUETTE had won awards in major international film festivals outside Africa. “I don’t recognise myself in this festival as I don’t live in a village but a city,” he said.
Describing FESPACO as ‘a very French affair’, Nigerian Ali-Balogun said this was reflected in the way FESPACO was run and how they selected their juries.
“It is their festival,” he said. “They make desert films in which people on horse-back race over dry lands. This is what their funders want them to do. Even they themselves are beginning to have attitudinal changes to those stereotypes as Africans are not seeing themselves in the films they make to be showcased in Europe.”
Ali-Balogun said Nigerians made in a week what Francophone Africa made in a year.
Saying Burkina Faso makes 10 films on celluloid per year, Ali-Balogun argued that this cannot meet the growing demands for films by the Burkinabe.
“They should expunge from their minds their puritanical attitude that video is inferior to celluloid. Celluloid and videos are merely modes of expression,” Ali-Balogun observed.