Fespaco: Nationalism or Pan-Africanism? A Takeover for our Times!

By Abdul War and Med Hondo

Translated by James Leahy and Yossi Bal

Every two years Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, becomes the meeting place for African film-makers. Early in March, the 14th Pan-African Festival Of Cinema drew to its close. The ornamental lanterns were extinguished. The feast was over.

From the outset, African film-makers have been convinced that an organised market is a necessity for African cinema. This would represent more than just a way of promoting their work, and go beyond the struggles with foreign monopolies over production and distribution. It would give African films their rightful place on African screens, and thus provide an effective launching pad for African production. FESPACO (the Pan-African Festival Of Cinema at Ougadougou) was born out of the film-makers’ desire to meet with one another, thrash out their ideas, and come face to face with the African filmgoing public. And the people of Burkina, through their attendance in massive numbers, have contributed positively to the establishment of the Festival as an institution.

This crazy must become more than an occasional feast, go beyond the carnival atmosphere in massive numbers, have contributed positively to the establishment of the Festival as an institution.

‘This craze must become more than an occasional feast, go beyond the carnival atmosphere and become a conscious habit. Unfortunately, many films from our continent only see the light of day through the patronage of lovers of African curiosities. The directors have set up their cameras on pedestals built out of wooden begging bowls, and there’s only Western solidarity of others for one’s clothes? And for how long can this go on?’ (Abdou Kallo and B.S. Le Sage in the Ouga Weekly J. J. 2 Mar 1995)

The above lines were written by local journalists from Burkina. And yes, the authorities of that country have become so involved in the organisation of this gathering that their involvement is threatening to kill the Festival off once and for all. In other words, the authorities are in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs which finance the gathering and from which they, in reality, extract profits.

A change of direction has been underway for several years. The slow and timid progress of those who have promoted it has now accelerated dangerously. Increasingly the film-makers feel marginalised, kept at a distance and dispossessed. A media-promoted extravaganza has benefited at their expense – one that makes its own marketing policy. FESPACO has become overblown. The trade fair is swelling frighteningly, insinuating itself everywhere, causing a reversal of roles.

The cinema brought the trade fair to life; now the latter is overshadowing the former. FESPACO, originally the invention of the film-makers, is today no more than a machine in the hands of the cinema bureaucrats who have thrown in their lot with the powers that be. Out of FESPACO these bureaucrats are able to extract their salary cheques and gain their promotion.

FESPACO is becoming nothing more than a mirror reflecting back to the powers that be the image they are looking for – one constructed out of their supposed success, and one that is consequently false. The craze for the cinema is always there. The movie-houses are filled to overflowing with viewers despite the extraordinary times at which films are scheduled and the deplorable condition of the projectors. After 25 years, the Festival should have got over its teething troubles! But the organisation is seriously and consistently faulty. Nothing is going to be changed by the new-found brevity of the speeches of self-satisfaction and self-congratulation.

Where are the film-makers and the dreams they dreamt in days gone by? Drowned in the trade fair! The reckoning has already been drawn up by the officials and, as always, it’s oh so positive! Without any warning to the film-makers, FESPACO will, in 4 years’ time, become an annual event. This is going to happen even if by then there are no films around to screen. Certainly there’s a good chance none are going to be made.

The alarm bells have sounded, yet FESPACO remains stuck in the mud. The Festival can only move forward if it returns to its original principles. Wouldn’t it be possible to entrust such a gathering to a committee made up of Burkinabe professionals and responsible delegates from the national associations of other African countries, who have been granted autonomy over matters of administration and organisation?

No doubt the carpets would still be unrolled, but instead of for a bunch of buddies who’ve grown accustomed to taking their holidays in February and March, it would be for those who are really interested in and lovers of African cinema.

Med Hondo, director/producer/co-writer of Soleil Ô, Arabs and Niggers... Your Neighbours, Nous aurons toute la mort pour dormer, West Indies, Sarraounia and Lumière noire, is one of the pioneers of African film-making.

Abdul War regularly works with him and has been his assistant on his last 3 films.

They are both from Mauritania.