Letter from Ouagadougou: On Fespaco’s Fringe

By Graeme McElheran


Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Crushed against the wall of a small open-air cinema, I couldn’t lift my hands to wipe the sweat off my face. There were perhaps 1,000 Africans crowded shoulder-to-shoulder into a space sized for 300. The Burkinabés, as Burkina Faso locals are known, packed in until the free-standing screen was surrounded, even beyond visibility for some who could only listen to the featured documentary. Others crawled underneath the screen, laid their heads on the concrete floor and stared straight up.

The man of the hour was Captain Thomas Sankara. It’s been almost 20 years since Sankara, the “Ché Africain” who seized power in Burkina in 1982, was assassinated at age 38. The evening’s screening was a biography of his life called Thomas Sankara: L’Homme Integre (The Integrated Man). Created by French-British director Robin Shuffield in 2006, the 52-minute documentary explained Sankara’s achievements with archive footage from his four-year reign, during which he snubbed United Nations debt repayment policy, planted forests around each of Burkina’s 8,000 rural villages to fight desertification, and vaccinated 2.5 million children in a week.

“In one week,” said one young man who had just enough room to shake his head in wonder. He chanted Sanakara’s more famous quotes – “A free Africa is a dignified Africa!” – that so many of the Burkinabés knew by heart, reciting them with their hero brought back to life on screen. This was their Fespaco moment. Except it wasn’t a Fespaco moment, because the film was rejected by the festival’s selection committee.

Every two years in March, Ouagadougou, the Burkina capital, hosts the Festival Pan-Africain du Cinema, known as Fespaco. It showcases cinematic works from across Africa and from displaced Africans in Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas. Now in its 20th year (though the origins date back to 1969), the festival received more than 500 submissions of film and television and video projects and accepted an unprecedented 270. Only about 100 of those made it into four “official competitions” for features and shorts, TV and video, documentaries and the diaspora. Prizes worth millions of West African CFA francs were awarded to 30 filmmakers, and the coveted Etalon d’Or de Yennenga went to Nigerian director Newton Aduaka, a graduate of the London International Film School, for his film, Ezra.

Ezra is like an African version of Blood Diamond, without the high-budget Hollywood trademarks of fiery explosions and pretty white faces, although that’s not really a fair comparison. Ezra is a retrospective about a teenage rebel fighter in the civil war that wrecked Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, which bears some similarity to Blood Diamond (which was also screened at Fespaco). But the focus of Aduaka’s English-language film is the main character, Ezra, whose maimed sister accuses him of killing their parents in a “truth and reconciliation” court held by the United Nations in the war’s aftermath.

Ezra’s appeal at Fespaco could not help but appear to mimic Hollywood success. If there’s any merit to that impression – if Ezra won the 2007 Etalon d’Or in part because of its approximation to Hollywood Big Time – then Fespaco is trying to grow even bigger than it already has. Yet the festival is not powerful enough to offer the host Burkinabés a venue for their own history.

Small wonder. Blaise Compaoré, the Burkina Faso president, is the same man who overthrew Sankara in 1987 and ordered his murder. The government Compaoré leads is a major contributor, through the ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism, to Fespaco’s success.

The Sankara film and several other political documentaries that Fespaco has rejected were screened just down the street from Fespaco headquarters at the Centre National de la Presse Norbert Zongo – named after a journalist found burned to death in his car in 1997, when he was investigating a murder that involved the president’s brother, Francois Compaoré.

Filmmaker Abdoulaye Diallo submitted his film about Zongo, called Borry Bana, to Fespaco in 2005. It was rejected. So Diallo set up a public screening for controversial political documentaries at the press centre, free of charge, to coincide with Fespaco. He continued that trend this year. “I don’t know why these films are not selected,” Diallo said after screening the Sankara film on February 27. “They are just as good as other documentaries that Fespaco accepts. I’m obliged to suspect it’s because of the subject.”

But Fespaco does not deny films based on politics, insisted Youl Bahisimine, a festival public relations officer. “The film about Thomas Sankara was not included, but not for political reasons,” said Bahisimine. “I got the point that it was submitted very late, beyond the deadline.” As for the other films shown at Zongo, Bahisimine claimed they were unofficial parts of the overall festival. The selection process is as fair as can be, he added. “It’s very hard. Some would believe this is a very good film, and some would believe this is bullshit.”

Regardless of who’s bullshitting who, the hundreds of Burkinabes who flocked to the festival’s fringe won’t be the only ones who’ll see the Sankara film, scheduled to screen at the 5th Human Rights Film Festival of Paris, March 28 to April 3.

Graeme McElheran is a Canadian freelance journalist living in Ghana.