Fespaco 2011: a festival under threat

The awards attributed during the 22nd edition of the Fespaco (26 February-5 March 2011) reflect the festival selection. To varying degrees, this combined auteur and popular cinema, two categories that are subject to numerous misunderstandings and which are often wrongly held in opposition to one another. The 2009 trend was confirmed: mirroring the world of African film, the Fespaco testified to the tensions at play at the very heart of world cinema. This tension was exacerbated this year by the declarations of the Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, winner of the prestigious Jury Award at last year’s Cannes (on radio RFI on the Tuesday of the Fespaco, and again in our interview at the end of the festival; [cf. interview n°10049] Michel Ouedraogo, Delegate General of the Fespaco, answered these attacks directly in our end-of-festival interview [cf. interview n°10007 ] In this article, we shall address the stakes of the fiction films selected in competition; other articles will focus on the new visions offered by certain short-films and documentaries.

The levels of the debate
When Haroun declares that he will no longer come to the Fespaco, calling on « twenty consciences » to do the same, there is clearly a real danger: that the Fespaco is no longer capable of representing a certain demanding cinema being made in Africa today. It is clear that a break of this nature with the committed cinema of the pioneers, starting with Sembene, would be detrimental both to the Fespaco and to the coherence of African film, as the festival plays the essential role of Pan-African showcase, particularly at a time when African journalists are rarely present at Western festivals through lack of budgets.
It is thus a myth that is at risk of collapsing: that of « African cinema », of this generation of combatant filmmakers to whom homage is constantly paid, especially when they pass away. But this myth is already being seriously whittled away by a global questioning of the message of cinema in favour of films that prefer simply to ask questions. Moreover, it has been completely challenged by the digital tsunami that allows anyone to pick up a camera with no real training, and which has given rise to the worst rather than the best, inverting the relationship to the audience. It is, finally, already past history when one considers the lack of major films from the continent in the last few years. The Fespaco has borne this myth since its creation and today must adapt to these evolutions if it is to continue to bear the continental flame.
But what should be a debate about just cinema is embittered by the equally essential questions of the festival and its selection’s organizational problems; essential because at stake are the balance between the various African linguistic spheres, the representation of the dynamism and dynamics at play, the defence of African cinemas and respect for its players.
The indirect debate between Haroun and Ouedraogo is thus both about cinema and the Fespaco’s capacity to carry its combats. The terms used by both parties seem more to mark a rupture, when what is currently at stake is to re-inject life into a film production that is closing itself in the marginality of its immediate audience.
Yet, the « 21 Vision » (for 21st century and for the 21st edition of 2009) developed by Michel Ouedraogo was destined precisely to position the Fespaco as a supranational instrument of Pan-African dimension that aimed to guarantee the international visibility of African film. To achieve this objective, it was meant to become a public establishment of cultural character, distinct from the State.
Subjected to regular attacks concerning the organization, the Delegate General raged against the administrative quibbling of the funders (cf. our interview  HYPERLINK « http://www.africultures.com/php/index.php?nav=article&no=10007 » « _blank » ), notably the International Organization of Francophonia. Obliged to respect his hierarchy, he couldn’t incriminate the Burkinabè State, however, which is hardly very prompt at handing over its funding either. According to him, it is these delays that explain the same old problems with accommodation and guests’ plane tickets, delivered at the last moment, if at all (and not the least of guest either, for example the president of the Diaspora Jury, John Akomfrah, or the entire new Fipresci Jury, who showed up at the airport only to realize that their reserved tickets hadn’t been paid for). Not to mention the multiple power cuts, caused by the Ivorian crisis (the Sonatel’s fuel transits via Abidjan), which disrupted the already shaky internet connections (the explosion of wifi offers has left the network highly unstable and often unusable in the day).
Irritated by the film school students’ nonchalant arrival at his masterclass in dribs and drabs, Haroun began by talking about the need for absolute rigour on a film shoot, where he precisely tolerates no lateness, before ironically adding about the Fespaco: « A woman who has been washing laundry for 41 years know how to wash it ». Incompetence or too many obstacles? After a while, the debate just ended up being at cross-purposes. But it wasn’t just a problem of organization.
Due to non-payments, the Hotel Azalaï Indépendance refused to reserve all its rooms for guests this year and, at the last minute, the press centre was moved to the Liptako Gurma centre. The Fespaco no longer even had a table there to present its programmes. Ever since the Hotel Indépendance no longer plays its centralizing role, that is no longer the thriving hub, covered with posters and teeming with people, where you always knew you could find everyone and take the general temperature of both the festival and African film, ever since the Fespaco secretariat is supposed to have replaced it, but remains remote and purely functional, even though pleasantly surrounded by often jam-packed local bars, ever since even the cinemas have also been reined in and now only authorize their own posters, the Fespaco has been brought to heel, but nothing has really replaced the buzz of the pavement radio. Certainly, the catalogue and programme were ready on time, and the organizers on the whole corrected the major insufficiencies of the 2009 edition which led that year to the coining of the expression Fespagaille [« Fespandemonium »]. But the loss of atmosphere is real. The red carpet blocking the street in front of the Cinéburkina fools no one: this is not Cannes and the heart of the Fespaco does not lie in media razzle-dazzle. It lies in the mobilization of the population, still notable during the opening ceremony at the 4 Août Stadium, or on « market street » (the market selling crafts from all over Burkina and the neighbouring countries), in the non-stop television coverage of the event and thanks to the « straight-through day » accorded to all employees to allow them to clock off at 2 pm for the whole week. But the ticket prices (still at 1000 Fcfa in the air-conditioned cinemas and 500 Fcfa in the outer-lying cinemas, not forgetting the parking lots that range from 50 to 200 Fcfa) remain prohibitive if people want to see several screenings given that the local minimum wage is 33 000 Fcfa (50€). The unlimited Stallion Pass remained at 25 000 Fcfa. Year by year, it is the local population’s adhesion to cinema that takes a blow, as the public turns instead to the local bars.
Added to that are the problems that recur from one edition to the next, testifying to a lack of priorities, despite being listed as essential in the « 21 Vision ». The lack of subtitling (even if just electronic) of the English-language films marginalizes them definitively. The projectionists’ lack of training is equally problematic: exaggeratedly long delays between short films, films screened in the wrong format, exhaustingly random sound level adjustment, the reels mixed up during Hassan Benjelloun’s Al MansiouneThe Forgotten (the third and fourth reels of the film were switched during the screening at the Cinéburkina in the presence of a totally sickened director). Too closely tied to the selections, the cinema programming was also questionable, with some screenings in the spacious Neerwaya cinema remaining almost empty while at the same time over at the smaller Cinéburkina, people pushed and shoved to get in, at times provoking crowd movements that could have ended in drama. Finally, apart from after the feature films, and unlike to the Journées cinématographique de Carthage, the Fespaco is a festival without debates, which is frustrating for directors, who have travelled far to show their films and meet their audiences.
A vacuum
How many festival-goers were aware of the unrest in Burkina Faso? That the protests following the death of student Justin Zongo at police hands in Koudougou were such that schools and universities were shut during the Fespaco to avoid any trouble in the presence of the international press, troubles which have immediately flared up again across the whole country as I write, culminating in the burning down of police stations and administrative buildings? It was not possible to resume classes on 7 March as planned, and the school children and students were sent on holiday early, until the end March, the closure of the universities’ halls of residences and canteens leaving a lot of students in great difficulty. In demanding that light be shed on this case, and on previous cases, including the assassination of journalist Norbert Zongo in December 1998, the country’s entire youth was demanding justice and the end of impunity, just like their North African counterparts.
The Fespaco was thus a bubble in a vacuum, like a film that suffices unto itself, complex and contradictory, multiplying the levels of apprehension. Rather than going to the screenings, the international professionals and press gathered each morning for the presentation of the many organizations that back African cinema’s activities. The battle was for visibility, with all unfurling their glam rags and flyers, at great cost. Masterclasses and seminars, ceremonies and divers homages, there was no shortage of events. The focus was certainly on the films, but was the cinema at the heart of it?
A disappointing selection
This was the question posed by Haroun’s radical declarations. Echoing the theme of this 22nd edition, « Cinema and Market », the feature film selection indeed mixed demanding works with what felt more like TV dramas. The awards list reflects this, like a snapshot of the state of cinema in Africa.
At the opening of the Fribourg International Film Festival (Switzerland) on 19 March 2011, festival director Edouard Waintrop said of the selection: « For me a film festival should be like a sweet shop: propose the best while accepting that not everyone’s tastes are the same ». He added: « The world has changed, cinema has changed, and the Fribourg Festival has naturally also had to change. » Can the same be said of the Fespaco? From what Ardiouma Soma, artistic director of the 22nd Fespaco, said in Le Film africain n°61/62, February 2011, the process of preparing the Fespaco is perfectly typical: « It is comparable to all selection processes in festivals in Africa, and elsewhere, » he stated. « I make requests for films. I send out reminders, a long time in advance. I go to festivals, see films, bring back the DVDs… »
If that’s true, it’s a huge disappointment, because, other than six films, which had already done the rounds of the international festivals and which we had already covered (1), this Fespaco’s fiction feature selection offered no new gems. This can only be due to one of two things: either the Fespaco doesn’t attract the films of the moment, those of a cinema engaged with the world that helps us to understand and find our place in it, or that such films simply don’t exist. As a biennale, the festival certainly covers two years’ production, and some films are not new to Western critics, but it does generally reserve a few surprises. It has to be said, as a good number of festival organizers remark, that, a few rare exceptions apart, there isn’t much particularly exciting in the way of fiction features coming out of Africa today, and particularly sub-Saharan Africa. At Ouaga, aside from a few shorts and documentaries that will be covered in other articles, we sought new styles, new trends, and new talents in vain. Not to mention (or is it indeed related?) the striking fact that out of the 18 feature films in the selection, only one was made by a woman.
At the Hotel Indépendance, I asked Sylvestre Amoussou if the public had liked his film, Un pas en avant – les dessous de la corruption (One Step Forward – The Belly of Corruption) for which he himself received the Best Male Actor Award. He answered mischievously: « Yes, but the intellectuals didn’t! » That says it all. Each day, a dozen African journalists from the African Federation of Film Critics concocted their review bulletin, Africiné, as has been the case since 2005. Produced in a workshop in which the most battle-hardened journalists coach the younger ones, the bulletin published an editorial each day produced in its daily editorial meetings. In the fifth bulletin on Friday 4 March, the editorial entitled Fespaco: an editorial urgency! stated: « Far be it from us to denigrate these hit films, and it is heartening to see audiences communing to this degree with what is going on on the screen: laughter unites an audience invited before a smiling mirror of its own realities and dreams. But it has to be said that the mise-en-scene and direction of the actors are often the poor relatives of this cinematic genre. The risk for the Festival is that the more demanding or higher-quality films end up feeling that they no longer have their place here and turn away from Ouaga for other festivals, which would represent a divorce from its long and prestigious history. »
The Fespaco has become a huge machine that is struggling to stay focused on cinema. This is the crux of the debate that emerged from the Haroun-Ouedraogo face-off. All the same, it would be wrong to enter into an opposition between auteur and popular cinema. In our interview, Haroun clearly states that in the history of cinema, popular cinema is not a poor-quality cinema. In his article An Unkept Promise published in the Cahiers de cinéma in February 2011, he sees in the confusion between video and cinema the expression of a sustained marginality, as if Africa had nothing to say to the world, and already denounced the Fespaco as « an audiovisual festival ». He sees the source of this in the fact that grants « are not concerned with accompanying auteurs, but in favouring the production of African images ». He calls for « culture, training, art history, in short film culture to be put back at the heart of our cinema », and thereby to break out of this marginality.
It is thus not a matter of high-brow cinema against that of the people, but the eminently critical question of films’ impact, which is both a question of content and aesthetics. This debate is not about being contemptuous of anyone. The film by Beninese director Sylvestre Amoussou, Un pas en avant – les dessous de la corruption, presented in full pomp on the opening night, is eminently respectable, as are all the films that were presented. Its impact, however, is limited both by its form and its reflection. Although this tale of an apolitical grocer who finds himself inadvertently caught up in a humanitarian aid embezzlement affair features a good number of excellent African actors and is a fast-moving, upbeat blend of suspense and chases, the film struggles to mobilize its audience. Corruption is denounced, but it is not the complexity of the real that is there, only a story that’s crafted so that the nice guy grocer ends up triumphing over the baddies. By playing a simple fellow turned hero, Amoussou sincerely attempts to give us confidence in our ability to change the world. But this confidence cannot come from a discourse, even if it is adapted to the screen; it can only be constructed in a real combat in which we learn to master our fear and seek to understand. It is thus not certitudes we need, but on the contrary, uncertainties that we resolve ourselves. But the film is nothing but certitudes, both in its discourse and its slick TV drama style in which, losing all depth, all perspective, the image expresses nothing more than itself and not what is left unstated and which would enable us to enter into it. The film composes the music, but doesn’t let us perform it.
If the audience adheres to it, it’s more out of liking for this tender hero than through any emotion, a dimension that is perfectly absent from the film. The spectators do not get carried away by the film, contrary to Owell Brown’s Le Mec idéal (The Ideal Guy) which carves its success out of the guaranteed laughter of an audience won over by the things a love-sick loser comes up with in the face of competition from his rich friend. What is refreshing with Brown is that he doesn’t look down on his characters. They are certainly stereotyped, but not stupid. This succession of sketches full of farcical mix-ups with no other pretension than to engage comical complicity hits the nail on the head every time. Certainly, the message hardly rocks the boat (find the ideal man), is apolitical (all vague reality is absent), misogynistic (only the women are gullible), and dishonest (love is the solution to all ills). But far from any realist sociology and beyond all credibility, Estelle is a woman who determines her own life and doesn’t necessarily choose the most reasonable path. Even if the form is purely audiovisual and never summons more than the sought-after efficiency, the film sets the record strait vis-à-vis social climbing strategies.
In awarding it the Bronze Stallion Award, the jury included a light comedy in its winning trio that could have won the Audience Award, which RFI forewent this year for lack of budget. While the film wasn’t given to sociology, the jury was, thereby privileging a balance between the different facets of African film.
Relegated to the TV/video section with Julie and Romeo, Burkinabè Boubakar Diallo could not compete, as he did in 2009 with Coeur de lion (Lionheart), which so controversially won him the European Union Award. Renewing with the humoristic mirror held up to his society, his 2011 offering is nonetheless far better than his pale copy of Tilaï. Although the dramatic scenes fall flat, the audience was in hysterics during the comic scenes, and was won over by the crude special effects that enabled sorcerers to displace objects and even humans in time and space. With the mise-en-scene being as minimal as the directing of the actors, it was the dialogues and situations that the audience identified with. « You, you live in the 21st century, but me, I’m African », says the father to his daughter, who wants to move in with her Romeo. The screenplay also pulls off its mix-up situations, but, as is often the case in Diallo’s films, cultivates dangerous clichés like that of the overly seductive Senegalese woman.
The same ambiguity can be found in Burkinabè Daniel Sanou Kollo’s Sarati, Le Poids du serment (The Weight of the Sermon), which ridicules and demonizes the priests and followers of an evangelical sect. There is a quick and easy tendency to exaggerate in order to assert one’s point of view, but it is hardly glorifying to reduce and caricature one’s enemy this way. On the contrary, the only worthwhile treatment of one’s enemies in cinema is to represent them in all their glory, and thus as they are: that is the only way to unmask what they truly are.
 The interest of Sanou Kollo’s film lies elsewhere; in the position he adopts to the tradition of the hunters. He doesn’t oppose an imported modernity and traditional values, as was often the case in the past, but, with the exception of the sect, depicts characters who are rooted in tradition, while being completely modern, evacuating the age-old duality between the two. But he nonetheless doesn’t escape the griotesque notion that the future is born out of the past, even if this paradigm is in crisis today: the place that the present occupies determines the future more than an identity-based reference to the past.
It is no doubt for this reason that Da Monzon, la conquête du Samanyana (The Conquest of Samanyana) by Malian Sidi F. Diabaté failed to make its mark. While it is laudable to restore a knowledge of the past in major historic epics, an asserted desire of the Malian Centre national de la cinématographie, with the backing of the Danish Cooperation, the danger is to fix them in fine images that are necessarily backward-looking. The film is effectively well crafted, the colours, costumes and sets remarkable, the camera work polished. But does this tale of ruse using feminine seduction to win power offer a pertinent reflection for the present, at a time when the masses are carrying out revolutions? The film doesn’t bear an ounce of criticism.
 One might also wonder if the thriller format is appropriate to broach the xenophobic crimes that afflict South Africa, as adopted by Jahmil Xolani Qubeka in A Small Town Called Descent. Here too, the objective is to denounce, with the good cops on the one hand, and the bad crooks on the other, so much so that everything is too dramatic and overacted, with romantic clichés thrown in to boot. There is nothing new in this Hollywoodian aesthetic, any more than there is in the Egyptian film that was supposed to rally this country back to the Fespaco after twenty year’s absence, Abdel Aziz Sameh’s El Farah (The Wedding). The Wedding is in the pure tradition of the lyrical and abundant Egyptian saga, where, in a given setting, a permanently moving camera closely follows a mosaic of constantly talking characters, a microcosm of the moral turpitude and dreams of an entire society. This perfectly mastered tragic symphony is not lacking in emotion or beauty, but its classicism is a throwback to the past. One can feel the pulse of a society in pain, but not on the brink of revolution, as was the case in Ahmad Abdalla or Ibrahim El Batout’s films.
To be up to date, then, why not take a well-known novel and adapt it to the cinema. Literary adaptation is sufficiently rare in African film (cf. article  HYPERLINK « http://www.africultures.com/php/index.php?nav=article&no=2778 » « _blank » ) for the jury to have awarded Burkinabè Missa Hébié’s En attendant le vote… (Waiting for the Vote…) a special mention, but it didn’t go as far as to give it a prize. Why? Because Ahmadou Kourouma’s legendary laughter does not ring out in the film. The text is still certainly there, with all its powerfulness. The cathartic night scenes with the Koyaga donsomana, in which the dumfounded dictator of the Republic of the Golf, a left-over of the former single parties, « as generous as a goats ass », lets his griot tell his cruel tale, do not lack force, but as soon as the tale is illustrated in sketches, the mise-en-scene is worthy of a TV drama. Sacrilege! In Kourouma, the articulation between oral tradition and narrative process is elaborated in a hazy zone (« oraliture »): the very opposition of this self-assured aesthetic, which, unlike the novel, does not manage to blend the supernatural and the real, nor reality and History to attain Kourouma’s epic mode.
Being up-to-date could mean taking the youth of today as subject, starting with their exclusion from the public space. In Essaha (The Square), co-produced by Belkacem Hadjadi (Machaho) and Algerian national television, Dahmane Ouzid attempts this, boldly adopting the musical genre, the stake of the screenplay being to depict the different power games concerning the future of a neighbourhood square. The use of a highly codified entertainment genre, which only functions by arousing the spectator’s enthusiasm with successful song and dance passages, takes on its meaning in a society in which the body is subjected to a conservatism that confines it to an asexual representation. Full of liveliness and humour, well-served by enthusiastic actors, the film rides the crest that separates music video from empathy, but pulls it off pretty well. As is often the case in this type of cinema, it takes the genre itself as the subject, also orchestrating auditions for a musical. Where it is problematic is in its opposition between the gang of « smooth-talking, drop-out, posing, resolutely unemployed and broke » lads and the gang of « neighbourhood girls ». They certainly are « sharp witted and sharp tongued », are committed activists, ninjas, footballers, or a homeless fiancée, opposed to being shut up at home, but the film also attributes them with all the clichés of their role: slushy music and a passion for romance. This Mediterranean Broadway, a mishmash of all the themes concerning youth in the aftermath of the dark years, is thus ultimately more conservative than it at first appears. Its freedom of tone, both resolutely non-conformist and denouncing, is not exceptional in a country where the press is not muzzled. Young people will be able to identify with it, for want of something better, but its sociology of the Algerian youth will hardly disturb, with a screenplay that could have been written years ago. The film is due to be broadcast as a 16-episode series on Algerian television.
Victim of the inanity of the definition of the festival’s prizes, the jury only awarded Essaha the Best Poster Award! One can imagine what a slap in the face that was for the director. Awarding the Silver Stallion to Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man, which also won the African Federation of Film Critics Award, the jury reserved its Gold Stallion for Pégase, by Moroccan Mohamed Mouftakir. Pégase echoes Tahar Ben Jalloun’s hit novels (The Sand Child and The Sacred Night), in which Ahmed is a young Moroccan woman whose father passes off her as a man all his life, for fear of the dishonour of not having produced a male heir. She finds her voice in the second novel after her father’s death, reclaiming her female identity through the narrative; Mouftakir transposes this act of speech to the psychiatric milieu, the tale of an identity denied since childhood unfolding in overly aestheticizing flashbacks: the ochre tonalities of the dim light in the scenes between the brothers, or the dazzling force of the confrontations with the father and his stallion contrast with the cold blues of the hospital world. Music defines the heavily oppressive dramatic apogees. The film advances like a puzzle to be assembled, in which uncertainty is never completely dispersed.
By declining the different strata of the complexity of reigning male chauvinism, Mouftakir leaves a considerable place to the force of beliefs as the cement of conservatisms and their destructive effects on women. Conserving only the drama from the process of reclaiming speech, he doesn’t explain the reasons or the meanders of the trauma, voluntarily leaving the protagonists in their ambiguity, thereby leaving the spectator to fill in the blanks. But by constantly orchestrating the pathos, he dramatises to excess, at risk producing a very heavy-handed work.
Those won over by the film found it « well done ». What is a well-done film? A technically perfect film? That ultimately comes down to taking as one’s criteria those of a classicism whose norms are defined by the dominant cinema. But Pégase also disturbs the spectator, taking him/her on uncharted grounds, and it is no doubt in this that it succeeds. Yet it nonetheless achieves this through highly classical aesthetic means: lingering looks, dramatic acting, postcard aestheticism, meaningful comings and goings… It is here that it reveals its limits, in the image of this disappointing 2011 Fespaco selection, which rests so strongly on the question, to echo the Haroun-Ouedrago debate, of what is cinema.

1. Daoud Aoulad Syad’s The Mosque (Morocco, review in french [here]), Notre étrangère (The Place in Between), by Sarah Bouyain (France/Burkina Faso, review in french [here]), Sheherazade, Tell Me a Story by Yousry Nasrallah (Egypt, review in french [here]), The Last Flight of the Flamingo by Joao Ribeiro (Mozambique, review in french [here]), A Screaming Man, by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Chad, review in english [here]), A Trip to Algiers, by Abdelkrim Bahloul (Algeria, review forthcoming, already discussed in the article in french on the JCC [here]).Translated by Melissa Thackway

PS: I didn’t have the time to see, Ad-dar lakbira (The Big Villa) by Moroccan Latif Lahlou, or the films withdrawn from the programme: Foreign Demons by South African Faith Isiakpere and Restless City by Nigerian Dosunmu Andrew Waheed.///Article N° : 10078

Les images de l'article
Le ministre de la Culture Frédéric Mitterrand remet la légion d'honneur à Gaston Kaboré
Hommage à l'acteur Sotigui Kouyaté sur sa tombe
Conférence de presse Africalia
Le Cinéburkina plein à craquer
Sur la tombe de Sotigui Kouyaté
Jean-Pierre Bekolo essaye le mobiciné, outil de cinéma itinérant décrit sur www.mobiCINE.org
La Résidence Anael, où s'est déroulé l'atelier Africiné de la FACC, illustrée d'affiches de cinéma africain
La conférence du Secrétariat ACP de l'Union européenne pour le lancement du nouvel appel à propositions ACPfilms/ACPCultures
Rencontre de critiques de l'atelier Africiné
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