Fespaco 2003: the onus on cinematic creation

A critical overview of the festival, the complete selection, the official competition winners and special awards

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The 18th Ouagadougou Pan-African Film Festival (22 February-1 March 2003) jury awarded it main prize to Abderrahmane Sissako’s « Heremakono« , a magnificent but demanding film originally made for television. This choice was in keeping with the festival’s focus on cinematographic creation. See too the accompanying reviews of all the films present in the official selection and many others too, interviews with directors present at the Fespaco, an account of Abderrahmane Sissako’s lesson on film, interviews with the actors Rokhaya Niang and Rasmane Ouedraogo, an interview with Baba Hama, the Fespaco Secretary General, and a summery of a meeting with Souleymane Cissé.

The recurrent question of audience
Everyone was expecting Flora Gomes’ musical « Nha Fala » to be the winner, given that it aroused the greatest consensus with its experienced director, its warm reception from the general public, its simple and positive message, and its exuberant colours, songs, dance, and music…
People also envisaged Senegalese director Moussa Sene-Absa’s « Madame Brouette« , whose choice of a thriller intrigue to portray a competent woman was popular with the public…
But these two films left the Fespaco virtually empty-handed, « Nha Fala » simply getting the UEMOA prize and both films picking up a smattering of special awards.
After the popularly acclaimed « Ecarts d’identité » in 1999 and « Ali Zaoua » in 2001, the 2003 Etalon de Yennenga created quite a surprise, and even a certain unease.
Overcome with emotion, Sissako himself put this sentiment into words when he received his prize, professing his astonishment and joy that the Fespaco had chosen to award a film that he himself admitted was taxing for the audience. « Heremakono – En attendant le bonheur » is indeed a provocation in itself. The film focuses on uncertainty in a cinematic tradition dominated by the overt stating of messages or morals. It has no linear narrative, throwing the audience with its metaphors and looped montage, was made on a shoestring when others dream of big budgets, was shot without a screenplay when this remains the obligatory stepping stone for seeking subsidies, was funded by television and was screened on ARTE before going on general release.
For the first time at the Fespaco, the new « fringe » selection, or « Côté doc » programme, in the dynamic presence of the Guilde africaine des réalisateurs et producteurs’ (African Guild of Directors and Producers) invited Sissako (who replaced the initially scheduled Abbas Kiarostami) to give a « lesson on film ». This new, absolutely beneficial festival trend gives filmmakers the opportunity to discuss their film methods and path with the audience. In the jam-packed Petit Méliès auditorium at the French Cultural Centre, Sissako discussed his approach with humility and determination, spelling out his conception of film with great clarity, whilst also illustrating his path with numerous anecdotes (see transcription online).
Describing films as « imperfect acts, just as we are ourselves », Sissako gave his definition of cinema: « an invitation to the freedom of the other ». In the same way that an abstract artist cannot expect everyone to understand his paintings, Sissako leaves the viewer free not to like his film. « Film is about chance », he added, meaning not that you make a film by chance, but that you give chance its chance when you do. He met Maata, who plays the electrician in « Heremakono« , by chance when the car he was in broke down. Nana, the young woman in « La Vie sur terre« , turned up on her bike exactly as she does in the film. The filmmaker is thus someone who captures moments of life and organises them so that they find their own cohesion and produce meaning.
This swept away a lot of preconceptions. The arrival in force in the official selection of films made by filmmakers who belong to the African diaspora in Europe, films that renew cinematographic form by situating their work in a cultural half-way house both in terms of form and content, gave this edition an art film air that broke off with its mass-audience traditions. The inhabitants of Ouaga continued to flock to the cinema to be part of this much-hyped event and to see the films, at times literally storming the cinema when a Burkinabè film was on. Pierre Yaméogo’s « Moi et mon Blanc » indeed drew an indescribable throng despite the fact that it was screened to virtually empty houses the previous Tuesday to Friday in Ouaga’s two main cinemas, the Neerwaya and the Burkina. No one knew it was on! This proves the urgent need to organise proper media coverage when films go on general release…
Are these films, which are confined to the independent art house circuit in France, in tune with the general public? The miracle might just happen in Africa. I remember having lunch with Raoul Peck one day in a roadside café in Cotonou when Peck pointed out a dozen or so people glued to Robert Bresson’s film « L’argent » on TV5, a film that could hardly be further from « Lord of the Rings » or the télénovela series shown on all African television stations at prime time! The Fespaco audiences are open to everything, even if they are at times desperately disappointed, like when many paid this year again to see an English-language film which no one warned them was not subtitled!
Some films have what it takes to make the miracle happen. Djibril Diop Mambety’s « La petite vendeuse de soleil » was one of them. « Heremakono » is another. The Fespaco News may indeed have headlined, « A film that takes its time’, Sid Lamine Salouka pointing to, « the use of symbols that are not always accessible to the audience ». But this initial difficulty did not constitute a refusal. The article indeed went on to analyse, to try to understand, remaining unprejudiced and open to the film, stating: « It is not words that matter most for Sissako, but rather the evocative force of the mind that is contained in the image », adding, « if we know how to look ». In other words, the article was on the same wavelength as a director, who invites the viewer to share his gaze for a while.
Should one compare films such as Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s « Abouna » (Chad), Alain Gomis’ « L’Afrance » (Senegal/France), or Mama Keïta’s « Le Fleuve » (Guinea/France), most of whose directors belong to the « African Guild of Filmmakers and Producers » which defines itself more as a joint effort to pool energy and experience than a real school, with a film such as Assane Kouyaté’s « Kabala« , which only just missed being awarded the Etalon de Yennenga, getting the Jury Special Award instead? Yes and no.
In this village-based film in which a man passes himself off as mad to fight the traditional obscurantism that stops the village from de-polluting the sacred well, the Malian director offers everyone the chance to take him or herself in hand, a chance which no one would refuse. It is not so much that the new generation of filmmakers rejects their predecessors, but rather that they affirm the fact that they belong to a hybrid world, a cultural half-way house that resists globalisation in the sense that blending into the world does not mean losing one’s specificity. This cinema avoids getting trapped into preconceived notions about what is or isn’t « African ». It explores a territory of roaming, of the fringes, in other words, Africa’s future at present.
It is thus more in terms of form that two cinemas co-exist. Assane Koyaté’s cinema adopts a classical, linear style. Sissako’s is fragmented, cyclical, and has no story other than people’s existences, which are more metaphorical than realistic, and is in many respects improvised and open to all encounters during the shoot. Kouyaté develops a message, whereas Sissako, Haroun, Keïta and Gomis ask questions and share them with the viewer. This gives rise to a different form, to a cinema of uncertainty that requires concomitant formal experimentation.
It is thus condescending to distinguish between films that address an African audience and those made more for European audiences. It just isn’t so. They all try to be universal, even if some adopt a form that is easier for their home audiences to read. The difference does not lie in the audience, but in the objective, in the conception of film as either a social intervention or an open call for reflection with no easy solutions.
They all seek to participate in the grand dialogue of contemporary cultural forms. And they manage, despite their diversity. The Cannes film festival screened not only « Heremakono » or « Abouna » but also « Kabala » in its various selections. All produce auteur films and this is the very question facing African film. In the absence of a structuring that could help create a film industry, African cinema does not produce commercial mass-audience films meant simply to entertain. Imported films fulfil this role.
As for television, the stakes are enormous. « Heremakono » clearly demonstrates this when it evokes the invasion of Western images that bear absolutely no correlation to people’s lives. This domain constitutes another major novelty as African sitcoms and series are flourishing and featured in the Fespaco official prize list for the first time (Rachida Krim’s « Houria » winning the Best Sitcom/Series Prize). The 271 films presented at the film market (MICA) demonstrated the importance of television and video production on the continent. Increasing the output of endogenous images is the major challenge in years to come, made all the easier by the digital revolution which makes smaller productions and producing cheaper images for television possible.
Documentaries, which, with the exception of a few masters such as Samba Félix Ndiaye and Jean-Marie Teno, were up until now largely the domain of Europeans who came to Africa to find sellable subjects, thereby offering African audiences an outside view of themselves, are becoming more common thanks to the advent of digital video and the development of active grassroots video training centres, such as the Forut in Dakar. Superb films are emerging, which blur the boundaries of documentary and fiction by portraying people who become characters in their own right on the screen, and by developing an imaginary realm that is offered as a reading of reality, such as in Leïla Kilani’s « Tanger, le rêve des brûleurs« , which won one of the official prizes and the Guild prize.
A renewal in terms of how film is conceived, a renewal in forms, a renewal that comes from the multiplication of images, from the increase in documentary production (which now has its own Lagunimages festival in Cotonou), the Fespaco strives to meet these rapid changes. Baba Hama evoked the possibility of a second Fespaco held on alternate years exclusively devoted to television production and video. But isn’t such a distinction reductive? « Heremakono » was produced by and for the television (ARTE) and was broadcast on TV before going on general release in the cinemas. Yet it is unquestionably a real film… The same goes for « Abouna« . The idea of an annual Fespaco is thus getting to be more of a serious possibility, not because the number of features produced is rising – on the contrary, feature film production is at a desperate standstill – but in order to take video production into account. Rather than separating techniques that are rapidly growing closer, an all-inclusive annual Fespaco would help to keep up with a production that tends to be released in Parisian movie theatres long before it reaches Africa. The Western journalists present at Ouaga had indeed already written about most of the film selected, which considerably influences the gist of their articles.
The often criticised time lapse between releases in Africa and Europe affects critical perception, with African critics not getting a chance to see the films and Western critics and festival programmers already forging the films’ image before they even get to the continent. The question was raised during the weeklong film criticism workshop held just before the Fespaco. This brought together 26 arts journalists from different African countries and was chaired by the critics Clément Tapsoba, Jean Roy, and myself. The event was co-financed by the Fespaco and the French Foreign Affairs ministry. The emergence of a local critical viewpoint is essential for African film, for their media coverage, and for informing audiences. The training course, which continued with the opportunity to present Radio Fespaco and to write for Fespaco News, and which led to a fascinating wealth of exchanges, should lead the setting up of an Internet-based system that will allow an Africa view of films to be expressed in real time.
Disappointed actors
During the opening ceremony at the Stade du 4 Août, actor Rasmane Ouedraogo, familiarly known to all Burkinabè as Raso, made a speech that could not go unnoticed, not only due to its length (everyone in previous years had tried to be brief), but above all due to its acuteness and determination. He evoked the popular television actor Camara H’s recent assassination by death squads in Abidjan, denouncing « those who still feed on the milk of xenophobia and exclusion », and called for a minute of silence which brought the public to its feet.
Côte d’Ivoire was not present at the Fespaco but was omnipresent in the papers as politics entered the realm of the arts over the selection. Two Ivoirian films (Sidiki Bakaba’s « Roues libres » and Didier Aufort’s « Le Pari de l’amour« ) were withdrawn at the last minute on the pretext that they had been downgraded from the official selection, although that had been the case for a long time. Baba Hama, the Fespaco Secretary General, thus retorted: « Let’s not confuse the issues. The Fespaco selection is completely independent and necessarily selective ».
« Who would have imagined that we would honour African actors one day? » Rasmane Ouedraogo asked the stadium. « We have been forgotten at the bottom of the heap and it’s only fifty years later that people have noticed the lack of training and backing available to actors ». In an auteur cinema where only directors get all the glory, African actors, who are underpaid and who don’t have enough work, dream of a professional organisation. « We are not asking for an inaccessible ivory tower », Rasmane Ouedraogo again declared, but « a legal statutory framework so that we are no longer overlooked ». He then addressed the Prime Minister’s wife, present at the ceremony, in true African style, telling her that actors were going to ask her every day, 365 days a year, to plead their cause before her husband.
Even though the « The actors in the making and promotion of African film » seminar concluded on the desire to organise actors into a professional body, actors were disappointed at the end of the Fespaco. No real meeting happened between them and the directors, which could have helped to improve their condition. The interviews with Rasmane Ouedraogo and Rokhaya Niang show just how far down the pay ladder actors are, lacking any form of union or professional representation.
Worse still, actors still lack recognition. They rarely feature on film posters, where the director’s name alone reigns. Yet certain films are a huge hit in their countries thanks to their actors. The star system is not developed like it is in Europe and even Nigeria, where videos sell thanks to their star line-ups, which are highlighted on posters and videocassette covers.
African actors are thus dearly hoping for a website to give them greater visibility at casting calls and to get them noticed for films produced in Europe. Georgette Paré’s Casting Sud initiative was discussed for constituting a first step in this direction.
South Africa: setting the example
This country in the throes of complete change produces films shaped by its painful History that attempt to redefine relations between black and white people. Film structures have not yet evolved much, however, and the majority of features are still directed by white people who force themselves to confront these realities. Jason Xenopoulos’ « Promised Land« , the only film selected in the competition, and which has been a big hit in Johannesburg, received the Best Editing award. This introspection into the extremist world of white farmers would have been more convincing if it hadn’t adopted all the techniques found in horror films and ads to sustain the tension, to the extent that these disserved the subject matter. This cinema, which often portrays relationships between a young, clever black man and an ageing white man wracked by his guilty conscience – as in Stefanie Sycholt’s « Malunde » – fails truly to depict social realities as it shrouds them in the sentimentalism of a newly-found relationship. Zola Maseko brilliantly avoids this in « A Drink in a Passage« , a remarkable short film that won the Special Jury Prize. The film illustrates this impossible relationship without excluding the desire and shows just how much art can help to break down the barriers. The South African government has understood precisely this, having just announced a programme of aid to the film industry, attributing 3.5 million euros over three years to a feature film production less subjected to American influence.
At their press conference, the representatives of the National Film and Video Foundation insisted on the government’s desire to tackle the lack of African production, even by participating in funding films from other countries. They also stated their desire to work with the French-speaking countries, notably in a partnership between the Sithengi (the South African film festival and market) and the Fespaco.
The private television station M-Net’s « New Directions » programme, which has given rise to some excellent films (three of which were in the official competition) is to be continued.
Co-production agreements have only been signed with Canada, but eight feature films will be produced in 2003 with foreign backing.
A meeting organised on the initiative of French Embassies’ audiovisual services brought together French and English-speaking filmmakers, echoing the efforts developed by the South Africans. The question of a central dubbing organisation was raised, in the light of the experiences carried out by Tunde Kelani (Nigeria) and John Riber (Zimbabwe), notably with « Yellow Card« . This nonetheless poses the problem of an international version that enables people to dub whilst conserving the sound effects, a practice that is virtually unheard of in video production.
Continuing support
The Fespaco press conferences are the occasion to measure how likely films are to exist in future, given their dependence on institutional agencies. Everyone literally laps up what the French Cooperation officials or the Agence de la Francophonie (AIF) representatives have to say.
The Minister for Cooperation announced the French Foreign Affairs Ministry’s triennial « Images d’Afrique » plan destined to set up a yet-to-be defined collective approach. The recent evaluation of past policy should contribute to rethinking French aid to make it better suited to the production of endogenous images. Training and distribution will receive more backing than in the past, notably in association with the Agence de la Francophonie for a joint distribution aid mechanism.
As for the AIF, the current system is to be continued, which has proved is worth, with additional focus on distribution. During an informal lunch with the press, Jean-Claude Crépeau commented: « The African film funding system is pernicious. The AIF commission is made up of a majority of people from the South, but it is the only one. Moreover, it is probably true that the filmmakers based in Paris are in a better position to quickly complete their dossiers than those based in Africa. »
ARTE’s presence
Given television’s hesitancy to fund African films, the Franco-German cultural channel has showed impressive commitment by co-producing a series of films – the very films that have walked off with prizes at a number of European festivals and… the Fesapco! Baba Hama introduced the press conference by justifying the homage to ARTE scheduled at the Petit Méliès every day at 6 p.m. by stating that « The Fespaco 2003 has been enriched by ARTE’s programme ». Indeed, without ARTE, a number of films would never have seen the light of day. Baba Hama thus expressed his « gratitude for this cultural distribution policy ».
The channel is indeed gaining ground in Africa. Not only does it co-produce films, but, as a shareholder in TV5 for two years now, can be viewed in Africa since 2 April 2002. A part of its programmes are re-broadcast on TV5 or CFI. By opening up its programmes to the entire world, it is reaffirming its cultural diversity. Not a week goes by without Africa being present in its programmes. It has co-produced films by 111 directors who are neither French nor German and only 64 of its latest 130 co-productions were European.
Once again then, culture made a firm entry into the Fespaco. The cultural channel, which represents only a 2 to 3% share of the audience and which is considered arty-farty by a majority of the public, found a prime forum in the Fespaco and a site of investment in African film.
The era of paradoxes
Fespaco 2003 thus appeared to represent a turning point. After having favoured the general public in an attempt to reconcile African audiences with their own films, both the Fespaco’s juries and its selection and organisation placed the onus on a potentially demanding cinema, but one which is likely to affirm Africa’s place in the world of contemporary creation.
Parallel to this, the boom in local video productions, which were given a bigger forum at the Fespaco, suggests that Africans will take control of producing their own television images in the future. The success of Moussa Touré’s films « Toza è bélé » (« We are many« ) and « Poussière de ville (see reviews) at the Fespaco heralds the wide-scale emergence of a high-quality documentary cinema rooted in African reality.
These two poles are not opposed. On the contrary, they complement one another admirably. Major films will emerge out of the vast production of images, which should then be transferred onto film so that they can be release in cinemas in Africa and Europe along with the films produced in the traditional manner.
By placing the onus on cinematic creation this year at Ouaga, there thus seemed to be more avenues open to African film than in the past.
The Official Prize List
– L’Etalon de Yennenga
5 000 000 F CFA + trophy + Kodak film donation
Abderrahmane Sissako
– Special Jury Award
3 000 000 F CFA + an allowance at the Centrimage laboratory
Assane Kouyaté
– Oumarou Ganda First Film Award
2 000 000 F CFA + an AIF distribution aid if the director is from the French-speaking zone
Alain Gomis
– Best Actress Award
500 000 F CFA
Awatef Jendoubi
– Best Actor Award
500 000 F CFA
Paris selon Moussa
Cheick Doukouré
– Best Screenplay
8 000 euros
Assane Kouyaté
– Best Cinematography
500 000F CFA
Abraham Hailé Biru
– Best Sound
500 000 F CFA
Hachim Joulak
– Best Music
500 000 F CFA
Le prix du pardon
Wasis DIOP
– Best Set
500 000 F CFA
Joseph Kpobly
– Best Editing Award
500 000 F CFA
Promised Land
Ronelle Loots
– European Union Special Award
5 000 000 F CFA + trophy
L’Afrance, de Alain Gomis
Special Mention goes to « Si-Gueriki » by Idrissou Mora Kpai
Short Film competition
– Best Short Film Award
2 000 000 F CFA
Source d’histoire
Adama Rouamba
– Special Jury Award
1 000 000 F CFA + allowance at the Centrimage laboratory
A drink in a passage
Zola Maseko
TV-Video Competition
– Best Fiction Award
500 000 F CFA
Tanger, le rêve des brûleurs, Leila Kilani
– Best Series or Sitcom Award
500 000 F CFA
Houria, Rachida Krim
– Jury Special Award
5 000 euros
Sanoudje, Boubacar Sidibé
– United Nations Development Programme (PNUD)
PNUD Special Award
2 000 000 F CFA
by Assane Kouyaté
Children’s Rights Award
2 000 000 F CFA+ 1 trophy
by M. Saleh Haroun
– National Anti-AIDS Committee (CNLS) and the IST
CNLS – IST Award
2 500 000 F CFA
by Bryan Tillet
– Burkinabè National Lottery (LONAB)
LONAB Special Award
2 000 000 F CFA+ 1 trophy
Le retour de la main habile
by Tahirou T. Ouédraogo
– Radio France Internationale RFI
RFI Public Prize
Purchase of cultural broadcast rights and a DVD copy of the film for 25 000 euros
by Pierre Yaméogo
– Rur’art CLAP
Poitou Charentes Short Film Prize
Return ticket from the country of origin to Poitou Charantes for the screening of the film
by Moustapha Alassane
Poitou Charentes Feature Film Prize
Return ticket from the country of origin to Poitou Charantes for the screening of the film
by Moussa Sène Absa
– The town of Ouagadougou
The town of Ouagadougou Award
2 000 000 F CFA+ 1 trophy
by Flora Gomez
– The town of Turin
Multimedia Park Special Award
1 trophy and free access to material for a digital remake of a value of 50 000 euros
by Pierre Yaméogo
Health Award
3 000 000 F CFA+ 1 trophy
By Fanta Régina Nacro
African Integration Prize
2 000 000 F CFA+ 1 trophy
by Assane Kouyaté
– World Catholic Association for Communication (SIGNIS)
3 050 euros+ 1 trophy
by Assane Kouyaté
– National Social Security Office (CNSS)
Health and Safety at Work Prize
2 000 000 F CFA+ 1 trophy + 1 certificate
by Assane Kouyaté
Health and Safety at Work TV/Video Prize
2 000 000 F CFA+ 1 trophy + 1 certificate
Not awarded
– Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO)
Eighth INALCO Prize
1 Sony digital camera of a value of 2 300 000 CFA
by Mahamat Saleh Haroun
– Burkinabè National Television
RTB Prize
2 000 000 F CFA + 1 trophy
by Fanta Régina Nacro
– UNFA (United Nations Population Fund)
Population Awareness Award
2 000 000 F CFA + 1 trophy
by Fanta Régina Nacro
– Plan Burkina Faso
Children’s Rights Special Prize
2 000 000 F CFA
by Adjike Assouma
– Centro Orientamento Educatio (COE)
COE Prize for the most hope-inspiring film
3 000 euros+ 1 trophy
by Moustapha Alassane
– The African Guild of Directors and Producers
Guilde First Short Film Prize
2 000 000 F CFA
TANGER, le rêve des brûleurs
by Leila Kilane
– Wamdé Children’s Theatre
Graine de Baobab-Wamdé
2 000 000 F CFA+ 1 trophy
by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
– UNESCO Award
3 500 Euros
by Cheick Doukouré

///Article N° : 5672


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