Fespaco 2007: substance and public: a difficult alchemy

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Under the presidency of Cameroonian film-maker Bassek Ba Kobhio, the jury of the 20th edition of the Fespaco that was held from the 26th of February to the 3rd of March 2007 in Ouagadougou (Burkina-Faso) was audacious while also awarding the main prize to the most obvious film. If one trend were to be identified, it would be the attempts to develop a relation with the public while preserving the films’ substance. A difficult alchemy that we examine here only from the angle of the feature films in competition, our work on the Africiné bulletin preventing us from seeing the other films.
A well-deserved Stallion
The jury could only but award the Golden Yennenga Stallion to Nigerian film-maker Newton Aduaka’s Ezra. On the same topic as Edouard Zwick’s Blood Diamond¸ also shown (the French version!) at the Fespaco, child-soldiers and the stakes of diamonds in Sierra Leone, Aduaka achieves a brilliant alternative to the systematization of the spectacular and the perpetration of simplistic images of Black people that this Hollywood film embodies with grossly abundant means. In Blood Diamond, each sequence climaxes after several waves of mounting tension in which the cruelty of the conflict is instrumentalized to turn the characters into action film heroes (cf. Anne Crémieux’s criticism on our website). While the adventurer Di Caprio ends up living a redemption by sacrificing himself to preserve the family ideal of the Black man, the latter, embodied by Beninese Djimon Hounson (Amistad, Beauty Shop, The Island), never loses his animality and is never really given the chance to speak.
Without using the tragedy of war as a setting, Ezra restores complexity by focusing on questions of memory and forgiveness (cf. criticism and interview with the director). If the jury had little choice than to reward it with the Golden Stallion, it’s because it happily achieves the miraculous alchemy that African cinematography has been trying to create for so long: moving a wide audience while also mobilizing its critical sense. « My goal is to find a balance between a substantial cinema and a relation to the public », says Newton Aduaka in our interview (cf.), « Otherwise, we risk making films that won’t change anything, apart from satisfying our own egos ». Ezra displays the same mastery as his first feature film Rage (1999) and has the same rhythm as his short On the Edge (2004) that paid tribute to Fela. It continues to explore the same themes as in his fine short film Aïcha (2005) which plays, without dialogue, on impressions surrounding the question of death. Moreover, it pursues the reflection initiated by his short Funerals in which a group talks at the funeral of a film-maker friend who has committed suicide: a Black man dreams of making Hollywood cinema while a White woman defends a cinema of daily reality. Ezra is marked by its will to give the spectator codes that he/she might recognize; that is, in reference to the dominant cinema, while guiding him/her in the maze of a dynamic reflection.
It is clear that awarding Ezra the main prize will have repercussions in Nigeria, the country whose astronomical production of low-quality videos puts it on the cinematic landscape without establishing its credibility. The Nigerians have been dreaming of in turn winning international awards since the Oscar for Best Foreign Film was awarded to Tsotsi in 2006 (fortunately not amongst the winners of the Fespaco- why on earth was it even in competition?). It is done with this 20th Fespaco and we may hope that this Stallion triggers a desire for greater quality, allowing other Nigerian films to join the major league.
Logic of the awards list
The Silver Stallion (Second Prize) awarded to Les saignantes by Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Bekolo confirmed the laudable audacity of a jury desirous to emphasize the paths opened up by new cinema styles for a globalized public that integrates the prevailing aesthetic models (cf. criticism and interview with the director). While not sacrificing the richness of its content, the film does not leave the youth indifferent, as its visual culture draws from comic books but also from the codes of music videos and advertising. The joint Prize for Best Actress Award to its two gorgeous actresses, who nonetheless bring much more to the film than just their plastic beauty, reinforced the clearly assumed audacity.
Daratt (Dry Season) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Chad), awarded with the Bronze Stallion (Third Prize) but also with the well-endowed EU prize, floated on its international consecration in Venice without needing the gold prize to assert itself as one of the most mature and outstanding films of the last few years (cf. criticism and interview). As for the remarkable Making Of by Tunisian Nouri Bouzid, his gold Tanit in Carthage also left him out of the running (Best Editing), his actor Lotfi Abdelli nonetheless winning the Best Actor award, like in Carthage.
The jury clearly liked Bakarat by Djamila Sahraoui (Algeria) for its delicacy and humanity, so much that it was awarded the Oumarou Ganda Prize for Best Debut Feature-Film but also Best Screenplay and Best Original Score (cf. criticism). This left out an outstanding film which was crowned by the public itself with RFI Public Cinema Prize: Clouds Over Conakry by Cheik Fantamady Camara (cf. criticism), and it is much to the credit of the public of Burkina-Faso to choose a Guinean film over three other national films from the selection.
At the risk of undermining the credibility of the festival, Burkina-Faso had indeed awarded itself the lion’s share despite the weakness of its productions which incidentally did not win anything in this uncompromising awards list. As the Fespaco imposes the use of 35mm for the feature film competition, the ministry subsidized the kinescoping of Djanta by Tahirou Tasséré Ouédraogo and Le monde est un ballet by Issa Traoré de Brahima, thus putting on the necessary pressure for the films to be in competition. As for the successful yet opponent Boubakar Diallo, he wasn’t graced with this honor and was forced to indebt himself to benefit from the prime exposure of the Fespaco for Code Phoenix.
It was this same 35mm criteria that got Mama Keïta’s The Snake’s Smile excluded from the selection; Keïta who was furious at moreover having to cancel the press screening because only an unsuitable home video projector was available. Heartlines by South-African Angus Gibson was dropped for the same reason.
Burkinabe Trends
Voices from Burkina-Faso were raised, pleased about Burkina’s absence from the awards list (aside from TV series When Elephants Fight by Abdoulaye Dao and Ina by Valérie Kaboré), hoping that the message about the films’ lack of accomplishment would be understood. It is true that neither the attempt at a musical comedy, Le monde est un ballet, nor the old-fashioned Djanta, were convincing; no more than the ambiguities of political thriller Code Phoenix‘s screenplay. As Yacouba Sangaré pointed out in his criticism published in the daily bulletin Africiné (1), « For God’s sake, what message is the screenplay trying to get across? » Indeed, we see a defender of Human Rights clearly identified with Norbert Zongo, hatching a vile coup d’état and a virtuous judge fighting to restore power to a notorious alcoholic president, also completely out of touch with reality! Aside from the serial aesthetic of these inexpensive productions (the theatricality of the acting reinforced by the fixedness of the shots, jerky linear editing alternating dialogue and journey scenes, the flatness of an image with no perspective, overdone dramatic music, a lack of metaphors and off-camera presence), the film gives a sickening « each as bad as the next » impression to depict the political and military world which calls to mind populist discourses.
Televisual anthropophagy
Critical vigilance is proving to be crucial against the worrying incoherences in screenplays which subscribe more to the need to pull the strings of misunderstandings than to the responsibility of the discourse offered to the spectators. If Africiné entitled its cinema and television report « An anthropophagic relationship », it was to underline the extent to which television norms and logic absorb film creation: space is reduced to fit the small screen, dialogue is replaced by metaphors, the imaginary is fixed without letting the spectator gain a distance. It must be popular at any cost; public success has become a criterion for a film’s sucess, amazingly purported as an absolute today by some journalists or funding institutions. « A film’s value does not depend on the number of people who saw it », Abderrahmane Sissako stressed during the panel for popular cinema/ art-house cinema panel. « The artist’s role is to bring to light a comprehensible reality », he added: Each society needs to have mirrors to allow it to question its fate ».
The complexity of popular cinema
The multiplication of endogenous series prepared the emergence in 2004 of popular cinema in Burkina-Faso that met great public success, starting with Boubakar Diallo’s films. « By dint of drinking Coca Cola, people think it’s the universal drink, to the detriment of bissap or ginger », Abderrahmane Sissako said again. Where does the distinction between popular cinema and art-house cinema lie? Most certainly not in the number of spectators: Bamako was a huge success in Bamako. So art is not only for the initiated. Some art-house films work while some popular productions don’t. Boubakar Diallo’s films willingly pass on’messages’. Opposing art and entertainment and reducing popular cinema to commercial cinema would boil down to relegating art-house cinema to obscurity and ignoring what makes a film complex.
Thus, the difference appears to lie in relation to production (thus, in the financing), which imposes codes and influences on the process of creation to make the film a marketable product. But in the framework of African cinemas, the director generally controls production: he/she integrates the demand. Clouds over Conakry‘s aesthetic choices seem to be dictated by desire to appeal to a wide audience; but in the end, would the film have suffered from a little more mise en scène and poetry, which were the quality of Cheik Fantamady Camara’s shorts? If the public likes this film, it’s because it identifies with: it is in tune with this youth caught in between their desire to assert themselves and the blockages of a society with many hypocrisies. « Clouds over Ouaga! » the first Africiné ran as a title, aware that the nude scenes might shock and wishing to shed light on their meaning. From the outset, they destabilize in order to open unto a freedom of tone where we face ourselves. But aside from the tragedy, emotion is absent, due to a lack of this filmic’touch’ that could have made it a great popular film.
Same problem with Le monde est un ballet: despite the presence of Flora Iboudo, an amnesiac who finds life again in a new love relationship, the film only very rarely pulls the spectator into the rhythm of a musical. It lacks a controlled mise en scène, a choreography and a worthy orchestration of the project. Djanta is even less successfully completed, cruelly lacking mise en scène, editing and directions for the actors despite Sandra Soubeira’s performance. Surprisingly, it is also the case for Terenga Blues by Senegalese Moussa Sene Absa, a film inferior on all levels to what he had offered us up until now. Here again, the concern for populism torpedoes a script quite well started about a musician expelled from France who must start again in his native country. Oscillating between his artistic desire and his schemes to give his family the money he never sent, he confronts a world of plotter gangsters who are perfectly improbable and caricatured.
From Haiti and a little lost in the very’English-speaking’ Feature Films of the African Diaspora Competition (Paul Robeson Prize), which it nonetheless won, Le président a-t-il le sida? by Arnold Antonin was a nice break from this popular cinema issue. Antonin achieved an unpretentious, consciousness-raising film yet stirring and full of a rhythm mixing romance and social problems.
The danger of « quality »
To the other extreme, screened at the opening, Faro, la reine des eaux by Malian Salif Traoré loses its soul in its quality! Everything is so slick that nothing is moving. The screenplay co-written with Olivier Lorelle (the co-scriptwriter Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigènes) doesn’t really succeed in bringing to life a village where « nothing changes while the world is evolving ». True, the ocres and the blues transform the images shot on a high definition video, the close-ups of faces glorify their beauty, the old woman’s gaze carries us far beyond the river…Zanga, the child born of adultery, returned to the village to identify his father, is not looking to disrupt the order but to shake up obsolete practices, and the film tries to capture this complex moment when a frozen society hesitates to plunge into a revival. But he does it without invention. All the ingredients of a recipe for a certain type of cinema are here, which contributed to forging the « African cinema genre »: the harmony in the village, the documentary style, the humorous proverbs, the myth structuring the vision of the world, the games of fear and power, the time left to take its time, the community ties and rejections. Even Sotigui Kouyaté comes across as a lifeless patriarch.
Lack of air
Very differently, Shadow of Freedom by Gabonese Imunga Ivanga is also trapped by its quest for excellence (cf. criticism). Its delightful freedom of tone does not retain the freshness of Dôlé (Money), his first film. Worked and reworked for a long time, the screenplay has lost its simplicity, even if it retains a beautiful poetry when it doesn’t fall in the underground meanders.
As for Chadian Issa Serge Coelo in Tartina City, he opts for a historical reconstruction to expose the acts of violence committed in the past and show that the same people still hold the power. In the N’Djamena under the military dictatorship of the nineties, an terrifying colonel takes pleasure in torturing at will. The only moments we can breathe are when the torturers start their astonishing choreographies. The film does not lack strength but the burden of the representation tends to stifle the spectator.
A people in exile
Clearly, the prevailing tone was serious with violence recurrent in numerous films, none of them being comedies, except for the amusing yet a little superficial Africa Paradis by Beninese Sylvestre Amoussou (cf. criticism), which reverses the North-South immigration relation to better reveal the absurdities. The question of immigration was also raised in Early in the Morning by Guinean Gahité Fofana (cf. criticism), which tries to show the emptiness that triggers leaving.
The theme of the precariousness of a people who is unable to settle is at the centre of both Balafu Bakupa-Kanyinda’s Juju Factory (DRC), which, despite its multiple levels of writing marked the public of the Fespaco (cf. criticism), and the equally fascinating The Snake’s Smile by Guinean Mama Keïta, adapted from his play Nuit blanche. The film remains quite theatrical in its unity of time and place to orchestrate this night-time face-to-face à la Koltès between a prostitute and an African man in an isolated neighborhood. Threatened by a stranger, they are left with their shared solitude, their interior exile faced with rejection and prejudices. Their space is a wandering in a suspended time and this instability marks the mise en scène as much as the human relations. Like in Juju Factory, the exile of culture feeds on blending, uncertain hybridizations that disturb those that identitary exoticism might reassure.
The forgotten
Scandal on the margin of the festival: Morocco, which was attributed a special focus on one of the Continent’s foremost cinematic outputs, discovered that the official competition had selected only one bad television film, The White Wave by Mohamed Ali El Majboud. Shot in twelve days on digital video in the framework of a thirty-film order by the Moroccan government to Ali N’productions, Nabil Ayouch’s production company, the film is botched and perfectly uninteresting. The qualification of film was refused in Morocco and it could not, in any way, have represented a country that does so much for cinema today; a real model for its cultural policy, which each year offers beautiful films. But as it was one of the only ones that presented, the Fespaco chose it to find a balance between countries.
Here lies the ambiguity of the Fespaco’s selection process. The 35mm criterion isn’t at all a guarantee; on the contrary, it creates an obsolete division as most films are shot on digital video. The lack of prospecting, something that all the major international festivals do, starting with the Cannes selections, forces to choose only between the films that take the initiative of entering the festival. If this is perhaps efficient for black Africa, it is less the case for the Maghreb which is less sensitive to the importance of the Fespaco, or for English-speaking African countries that have difficulty finding their place as no subtitling system is deployed.
No doubt this also explains the relative absence of South Africa which nonetheless won the Golden Stallion and other prizes in 2005, the Hollywood-style product Tsotsi (cf. criticism) not representing the country’s current dynamism. Egypt being traditionally almost absent and only represented this year by two films at the panorama of African cinemas- Mafesh Gher Kaka (None but that)by well-known Khaled El Haghar and Les loisirs (Awkat Faragh) by Mohamed Mostafa Kamal- the Africa’s three most prolific countries in terms of production were under-represented!
The festival on the hot seat
There is thus no Fespaco without problems, even if the organization of this 20th edition seemed to run quite smoothly, despite a jury that found itself without a hotel or even one time unable to go to a screening as its seats had been given to the family of officials! Also on the list of frictions, the guests’ flight back to France with the Libyan company (that won the bid over the other flight companies) was a difficult experience (multiple stop-overs, unconciliatory staff, missing luggage). The new headquarters augurs a fine future structure when its film theatre is completed, but this year was marked by a too scattered festival, the Independence Hotel playing a less important role as a meeting place.
This 20th anniversary, though it was eloquent, was surprisingly greatly trumpeted and didn’t benefit from any particular festivities. If the Fespaco wants to remain in competition with the Sithengi organized in Cape Town to become a major Pan-African festival, it needs curb nationalist overtones (a presenter who announces the Golden Stallion at the closing ceremony while wondering out loud if it will be for Burkina-Faso, debate-forums ignoring some of the feature films in competition, etc.).
It remains a convivial and welcoming festival that the whole town celebrates, where the often young public comes in big numbers, including to the seven outdoor screening venues set up by the CAN (2) in the popular neighborhoods that provides an excellent image on big screens and gathers big crowds.
The avenues opened up this year with the with the documentary competition that happily takes today’s evolutions in account. It overshadowed the Ecrans association (backed by Jean-Marie Teno)’s excellent Côté Doc program. It is true that the multiplication of programs in the festival and off (like that of the Film-makers’ and Producers’ Guild) makes the choices difficult for the cinema-goer, torn between the different places, not to mention the funding institutions’ multiple press conferences.
But here lies the destiny of great festivals. From now on, the challenge for the Fespaco is to manage the advent of digital technology and perfect its choices for the selection. As for African cinematographies, doesn’t this edition show that their challenge is to favor the renewal of generations and styles that achieve the alchemy of combining a popular dimension and a brave reflection upon the future?

(1) A daily magazine published six days in a row on 8 colored pages, printed in 3000 copies, Africiné was one of the festival’s events: the first of its kind (two issues came out in 2005 with less coverage), it was produced by a trainers’ workshop including about twenty journalists from eight West African countries, initiated by the African Federation of Film Critics with the support of Africalia and of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The articles are available in full on www.africine.org.
(2) The Cinéma Numérique Ambulant is a network of associations set up in Africa and in France, that put together mobile teams to set up screenings in poor regions.
Translated by Céline Dewaele///Article N° : 6654

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