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Africa Makes Fine Films. Of Course, Projector May Fail.

The New York Times > International > Africa > Ouagadougou Journal: Africa Makes Fine Films. Of Course, Projector May Fail.

OUAGADOUGOU JOURNAL
Africa Makes Fine Films. Of Course, Projector May Fail.
By LYDIA POLGREEN

Published: March 10, 2005

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso, March 5 – With its whorls of dust kicked up by a chaotic rush of mopeds and not a spot of sea in sight, this ancient capital of the Mossi kingdom is no Cannes on the azure Riviera. The pitiless sun that would wilt the enthusiasm of even the most ardent cinephile is a constant reminder that one is far, far away from the mountains of Park City, Utah, the host of the Sundance Film Festival.

No matter. The banner outside the tiny national airport says it all: Welcome to the capital of African cinema.

As February yields to March in every odd-numbered year, the brightest lights of African movies and television, thousands of their fans and even a Hollywood star or two gather at Fespaco, Africa’s premier film festival, held in this threadbare, dusty capital.

“As it says in the Bible, man cannot live on bread alone,” said Baba Hama, the festival’s secretary general. “Cinema is at the heart of African culture, and one cannot choose between food and culture – you need both to live.”

Fespaco – the name is the French acronym for the Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou – is in some ways the ultimate African feel-good happening – a complex event with a huge international audience pulled off by an impoverished, landlocked former French colony that ranks at the bottom of nearly every measure of human well-being. For nearly 40 years it has been a biennial reminder that even in places racked by death, famine, war and disease, culture remains as essential as air.

At the Independence, the down-at-heel hotel that the festival’s auteurs prefer, passionate, beery debates on the future of African cinema raged all week at poolside tables, reflecting not just the usual tensions that filmmakers everywhere face, between art and commerce, between accessibility and artistic expression, but also the essential questions Africa faces today.

Just after dusk one evening, as bats circled overhead, a group of filmmakers from French-speaking countries bemoaned the overweening influence of the former colonial power, which has been the main patron of African cinema, denouncing its efforts as neocolonialism.

At another table earlier in the day, the sun blazing through the fine mist of dust blowing down from the Sahara, another group of directors and actors debated whether African filmmakers have a duty to be social activists or should be free to make purely artistic films.

“Cinema is the language in which we explore our past and future,” said Jean-Marie Teno, a Cameroonian filmmaker whose most recent documentary, “The Colonial Misunderstanding,” examines the role German missionaries played in the brutal colonial regime in Namibia. “It is how we come to understand where we came from and where we are going.”

But nearly 40 years after the festival was established, many filmmakers here wondered what exactly Fespaco has achieved.

Always hampered by logistical problems, it was particularly troubled this year. The problems began at the opening ceremony, where a huge crowd straining to get into the free event caused a stampede that killed two children and wounded dozens of others. At least a dozen screenings were canceled or postponed because of equipment problems. The sleepiest of West African capitals most of the time, Ouagadougou comes alive for Fespaco. But its infrastructure is clearly strained by the 4,000 arrivals.

“This is a castle built on air,” said Cherif Keita, a Malian director whose documentary about John Dube, the founder of the African National Congress, was to be screened here. A standing-room-only crowd assembled for the screening, including a grandson of Mr. Dube, flown specially to Ouagadougou at the request of South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki. But the projector did not work. “Almost 40 years and we are still looking like amateurs,” Mr. Keita said.

Indeed, for African cinema, these are the best of times and the worst of times. African films have won big this season at other festivals – an Angolan film called “The Hero” about an amputee from that country’s nearly 40-year civil war won a prize at Sundance. South Africa’s booming film industry has also won notice – a reinterpretation of Georges Bizet’s musical “Carmen” done entirely in Xhosa stormed the Berlin film festival, and a Zulu-language film about a woman who is H.I.V.-positive won an Oscar nomination.

For the first time a South African film, “Drum,” won Fespaco’s top award, the coveted Gold Stallion of Yennenga. Yet despite all the attention, African films do not reach African audiences. With no real distribution network for African movies, an African cinemagoer is more likely to see Jackie Chan’s latest kung fu extravaganza than anything made on the continent. Here in Ouagadougou signs for American blockbusters were hastily plastered over in favor of homegrown films on the festival roster. But as soon as Fespaco ends, people here say, the blockbusters return.

“Getting African films to African audiences is still the big hurdle,” said Zeze Gamboa, director of “The Hero,” which has yet to be seen in his native Angola. “There is no means to get it to theaters, and some countries don’t even have theaters.”

Efforts on several fronts to improve distribution are under way, but it will take time and money. The latter is tough to find in countries that have trouble managing to feed themselves. Which is what makes Fespaco’s eight days in Ouagadougou so essential, said Zola Maseko, whose film about a crusading antiapartheid journalist in the 1950’s won the top prize here.

“African cinema needs to be for and about Africans,” Mr. Maseko said. “That’s what we are all fighting for.”

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