Fespaco 2017: a discredited festival

Film professionals went home from the 25th edition of the FESPACO highly dispirited. The trend already perceptible in the previous editions was confirmed, reaching an unimaginable pinnacle this time. The festival’s organization was efficient. (1) But in terms of programming, the FESPACO no longer represents African cinema. If nothing is urgently done to show it some consideration, Ouagadougou will cease to be « the capital of African film » and the FESPACO will fall into oblivion.

At the same time, the sidelining of two important Burkinabe films prevented the host country from making the awards list this year. This article, first published in French after the festival and then translated into English with an help of the journal Black Camera, offers a critical review of all the feature films in competition, plus an handful of other films.

A separate article focusing on the short-films in competition can be found at: article n°14023

 

The FESPACO is like a pilgrimage. Every two years, out you travel, eyes and ears open, ready to discover new films, meet the professionals, and to pick up on the trends traversing African film.

A slow decline

Having attended every FESPACO since 1993, I cannot not put this year’s edition into perspective. Not only a highly convivial place to meet and reflect, the FESPACO was historically both a showcase and a launch pad. It was in Ouagadougou that African cinema’s latest gems were unveiled, and directors hurried to complete their films in time to be in the prestigious competition. The international media were present. It was a massive popular success too. Some 400,000 spectators used to attend the screenings in Ouaga’s many cinemas, plus the free open-air screenings. A festive spirit reigned all-round, facilitated by schedules tailor-made to suit the country’s civil servants and other workers. It is these two branches on which the FESPACO sat that have gradually been sawn.

On the one hand, the public has been undermined by the doing away of free screenings and a drastic hike in ticket prices. That went hand-in-hand with the introduction of a red carpet, symbol of the desire for a « glitz and sun » image. Today, even if the festival still attracts a certain public, rare are the screenings too full to get into. English language films are only very rarely subtitled, and this is not indicated in the program. The debates after the films have entirely disappeared, as have the press conferences with the directors. Presentations consist of stating the film title, the director’s name and the film length, and the presenters rarely call the filmmakers and their crews up onto the stage.

On the other hand, the programming has gone downhill. In 2017, there were films in competition that were at times not worthy of being shown, or were generally cinematographically mediocre, and, above all, did not reflect countries’ film standards. Some excellent films were relegated to out-of-competition slots, and others were simply absent. The predominant characteristic of the competition was its lack of emotion.

A lack of emotion

What is the point of messages and discourses? Why point, as Daney put it, when you can indicate with a glance? In Rousseau, when the Savoyard vicar wants to make Emile understand what he is trying to explain in his long profession of faith, he takes him up a big hill overlooking the Po valley and the Alps early in the morning. This view of nature deeply moves Emile more than any demonstration. There lies the key to culture, and singularly to cinema: emotion, which says a hundred times more than a discourse (which often boil down to that of an institution). It is not the facile sentimentalism of tear-jerkers, which manipulate our affect! For when there is emotion, the pleasure of understanding surpasses the pleasure of consuming.

Many films incite us to identify with their heroes, to espouse their feelings and motivations and to share their tragic or happy destinies. In other words, to forge our shared destiny, ours and the hero’s. That is where feelings lies. But if a film opens doors, inviting the spectator to fill-in the unspoken and the ellipses, opting for traverse paths and cultivating mystery and doubt, emotion is possible, sensitive and subtle. It is that which helps advance our understanding of the self, of relations, and of the world; it is that which, in a gesture, shines a light in our fog and breaks the frozen ice within us, as Kafka said.

That is where an auteur is revealed. And that is where the question of training is not a purely technical one, but artistic, for what is at stake is, through one’s reflection, managing to create a vision to share that takes us, like Emile, to the mountain top to see the sun.

Where are the new styles?

It is a festival’s role not only to showcase what already exists, but to reveal filmic experimentation and the innovation that revitalizes cinema, pushing the boundaries, questioning and challenging. It would seem that the 2017 FESPACO selection committee was above all won over by clips and shock effects, overwhelmingly favoring a clearly Western-inspired television aesthetic. It was thus incredibly disheartening to hear that the leading light of this selection – Alain Gomis’ Félicité, which ended up winning the Golden Stallion award, and which, along with Jean-Claude Barny’s The Gang of the Caribbean, was one of the few films that offered a veritable filmic proposition – was considered a film for white people. It was indeed one of the only films not to adopt a TV film aesthetic. Of course, like Tey, which already won the Golden Stallion in 2013, Félicité is unsettling, especially in its more dreamlike second part. People criticized it for being long-winded, and the reception of the audience – keen to see the film lauded by the critics in Berlin, where it won the Silver Bear Award – was pretty cool. But this film does not attempt to accommodate. A good film challenges the spectator, not as a provocation, but to destabilize, taking them places they are not used to going, thereby stimulating a reflection, a mobilization. The resultant pleasure of understanding can surpass the pleasure of consuming entertainment, or of hearing the same old message again.

It was tragic to see that in this year’s program, the originality of style that used to be the beauty and finesse of African film was neglected in favor of a generalized reproduction of the worst Western television products, telenovelas, and other series broadcast non-stop on specialist channels. Of course, the FESPACO does include television in its denomination (the Ougadougou Pan-African Film and Television Festival), and proposes an official TV series competition. But the distinction between television drama and cinema has been supplanted by the audiovisual. Why were there no challenging films at the FESPACO? Why was Merzak Allouache’s Tahqiq fel djenna (Investigating Paradise), a film about political Islam’s populist, radical excesses, only screened at the Berlinale? Because the fear of terrorist attacks governs artistic choices, (1) or because Allouache is out of favor in Algeria?

Why did Mohamed Ben Attia say in Tunis: « See you at the FESPACO », when his film

Hedi, which won an award in Venice, was nowhere in the program? There have in the past been films in competition that already screened at the Carthage Film Festival (JCC), so that is not the reason. Every selection has to eliminate films, of course, and that would not be an issue if the FESPACO competition were of a decent standard.

Why did we not see the latest films by Raja Amari (Foreign Body), Faouzi Bensaïdi (Volubilis), Raoul Peck (The Young Karl Marx and I Am Not Your Negro), and Zola Maseko (The Whale Caller) at the FESPACO? A festival can want to propose exclusivities and new releases to maintain its position as a springboard and its notoriety, but in that case needs to spot and attract such works!

Why did Dieudo Hamadi prefer to screen Mama Colonel at the Berlinale and Paris’ Cinémas du Réel? In this instance, the film was not even sent to the FESPACO, as it is no longer seen as a showcase. The international press is deserting the festival. The FESPACO, and thus African film’s increasing marginalization on the international stage is a real problem. The films that break through opt for other circuits of visibility. If they are few and far between at the FESPACO, it is because the FESPACO does not go after them. All festivals fight to attract the most striking films, even Cannes. Does the FESPACO? It gives the impression that it waits for films to come to it, convinced that its aura alone suffices, when this in reality is waning more and more with every edition.

In some cases, it was the best films that were not selected, cutting them off from the connection with African audiences that comes from the festival’s reputation. For auteur films that are necessarily fragile in the globalized world of entertainment film, this is a serious problem. As a result, they are not awaited, desired, promoted. Who else will give them visibility in Africa if not its festivals? Since its creation, the FESPACO has remained secretive about the composition of its selection committee. It appears that it contents itself with viewing the films submitted. What are its selection criteria? A mystery! No editorial choices have ever been stated; and yet choices get made, and trends have emerged. It is understandable that the selection committee wants to remain free of lobbying, but the importance of this historic festival is too great for these choices to remain secret. A real, experienced and competent artistic director is needed, with a specific roadmap and a clear voice. Burkina Faso has such people; they do not need to look further afield. Cannes manages to maintain its position by combining general public movies and demanding films that experiment new styles, the lot under the banner of auteur film. What is at stake for the FESPACO’s revival, which Tahirou Barry, Burkina’s Minister of Culture, called for during his inaugural speech, is the reinforcement of the cinematographic dimension of the festival in order to again showcase both African cinema’s most pertinent and most innovative works today, in order to show the world Africa’s place and what it offers the world.

The Minister spoke of the « insurgent people of October 30 and 31, 2014 » and the desire to « walk proudly towards the luminous terrain of freedom and republican values. » At the Carthage Film Festival, there was an abundance of films about the January 2011 revolution at the following edition. At FESPACO 2015 and 2017, not one! And yet they exist! (cf. article article n°13807)

Here lies the essential problem of the FESPACO, a state organization that has no autonomy, whose history Colin Dupré remarkably detailed in his book Le Fespaco, une affaire d’Etat(s) (L’Harmattan, 2013). (cf. article n°11325) The festival’s history is interwoven with that of African filmmaking and its attempt to exist in its own right, which it can only do by asserting its place in the world. The question of its autonomy has been posed and posed again over the years, and it is the question that is posed of the FESPACO too in its both incestuous and conflictual relationship with its state tutelage.

Considering that the FESPACO has helped guarantee the State’s continuity and its interests over the years, one might imagine that an evolution is possible in the new Burkina Faso, so that the festival can regain its past role as the heart of African film. In his opening speech, Armand Béouindé, the Mayor of Ouagadougou, hoped that the FESPACO would regain its luster of the 1980s. That is urgent: the legend is crumbling.

Two significant Burkinabe films sidelined, to the country’s detriment

Although Burkina Faso carved itself out a prime place in the competition, with three feature films, including the opening film, two other significantly superior works were voluntarily sidelined and only presented at special screenings. This stopped the country winning an award, to the detriment of the country’s cinematic aura.

Although in his opening speech, the Minister of Culture Tahirou Barry celebrated the reconstruction of the Guimbi cinema in Bobo-Dioulasso, a project largely carried by the unflaggingly energetic Berni Goldblatt, a Swiss filmmaker who is now also a Burkinabe national, married and totally integrated into Bobo life for years, his fine film Wallay, made with an almost entirely Burkinabe crew, did not have the honor of making the competition, despite being selected at the Berlinale. Would it have been a problem if a white guy received the top award? As much as a black guy becoming American president?

How to explain too that the equally fine and moving Medan Vi Lever (While We Live) by Dani Kouyaté, the renowned Burkinabe filmmaker whose films have made a lasting impact (Keïta, Voice of the Griot; Sia, the Dream of the Python), was also left out in the cold? The price to pay for living in Sweden? But recent Golden Stallion winners have often been based in the West: Hicham Ayouch, Alain Gomis, Haile Gerima, Newton Aduaka, Abderrahmane Sissako, and even the late Ngangura Mweze!

Both films recount the initiation of a young mixed-race man living in the North and coming to discover his African heritage. Their moving coming-together of worlds is highly topical at a time when borders are closing and peoples turning in on themselves. Both films thereby entertain the idea that African experiences can deeply move and reground young people in search of a future. A call to travel and encounter, in other words. Both films also portray the questioning of this African heritage, thereby avoiding an illusionary duality that would position truth on just one side of the Mediterranean. Both films manage to move us, as they embrace the fundamentals of African cinema in their aesthetics, while at the same time modernizing them through their montage and their framings, skillfully introducing close-ups amidst the habitual medium and long shots, espousing the rhythm of the bodies, while preserving the journey scenes. Both of these films find a justness of tone without superfluous effects or sycophancy, with remarkable well-chosen and directed actors. Both films were a delight in the overall quagmire of the festival!

Wallay is an Arabic expression that is fashionable in various sub-Saharan African countries, meaning « for real! » Ady (Makan Nathan), a youth from the French banlieue of Vaulx-en-Velin, is sent to his father’s home country on vacation, or rather to get him sorted out by Abdou, his fisherman uncle (the superb Hamadoun Kassogué). Taken in by his cousin, Jean (Ibrahim Koma), this young « insolent kid, who steals and lies » and who has to adapt, is trapped, revolted, but gradually touched by what is around him, notably when he goes to visit his grandmother in the village, in the house where his father was born. It could have been sentimental and predictable, but is of an extreme finesse, simply because this grandmother represents the conscience that Westerners so often deny Africans: « We are more the children of our times than our father’s children », she says. Simply too because this uncle is capable of recognizing the contradictions of his traditional educational principles. Nothing is caricatural, nothing is forced. Like in the beautiful village party scene, Ady enters the dance without imposing himself. Similarly, his growing close to the pretty Yéli remains at the level of the possible. Vincent Segal’s cello music gently caresses the faces and the countryside. This film tells us that it is not the cultural mark that matters, but the trace, that an initiation must be subtle, that beauty lies in sharing and listening.

With While We Live (Medan vi lever, in Swedish), Dani Kouyaté masterfully returns to a film he wrote himself. He too focuses on evolving identities in these times of identarian closure. We hear the proverb, « A tree takes root there where it grows », which recalls the « my country is there where my two feet stand » in Alain Gomis’ L’Afrance. But nothing is simple and it takes an entire story to thus be convinced. Kandia, a nurse hailing from Gambia (played by the highly convincing Josette Bushell-Mingo), lives alone in Sweden with her music-mad son, Ibrahim (Adam Kanyama). Adrift and looking for something to hold onto, she returns to Banjul. Adrift too, Ibrahim shows up in Banjul with no warning. He quickly makes friends with musicians, and mixes his rap with Afro-Mandinka music in slightly over-idealized moments, but which do not detract from the emotion born out of the complex relation between Kandia and her son, the wisdom of his uncle Sekou, the cultural ties and the difficulties of managing them in exile, the spontaneous solidarity of youth beyond territorial or racial identities, the adults’ ability to mobilize their open-mindedness to get straight to the essential. This occurs not just through the dialogues, but via the symbols that find their place in the narrative, generating generous metaphors. Combining sincerity and a finesse of tone that is entirely coherent and well-edited, the film offers a movingly positive moment.

 

Still, as the official competition did exist, what trends emerged from it?

What kind of justice in the face of sexual violence?

While conflict, child soldiers, jihadi extremism, terrorism, migrations and refugees were absent from the films in competition, sexual violence was widely addressed in extremely different ways. The move towards the intimacy and perversity of male-female relationships and the answers proposed opened up some sensitive issues.

Saïd Khallaf (Morocco) is also a figure in theatre. With his first feature film, A Mile in My Shoes, he attempts a cinematographic dramatization of the story of Saïd in scenes with no décor. A street kid who at every stage of his life is sexually abused and thus driven to take revenge on a cruel and intolerant society, Saïd invokes the fact that he did not choose to become a criminal, but that he was forced. Interesting for its focus on a man, rather than a woman, this pretty pedantic and demonstrative psycho-sociological explanation that mixes different narrative temporalities has won awards in a number of festivals. It was selected to represent Morocco in competition for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards, before going on to receive the Bronze Stallion Award at the FESPACO.

Tanzanian cinema above all stands out for its popular production, with actors like Steven Kanumba, who died at the age of 28 in 2012, and whose funeral drew 20 000 people. He was a go-between with Nollywood, and was about to connect with Hollywood. A few filmmakers are trying other avenues. In 2007, the Nairobi Film Festival jury attributed the Best East African Feature award to Fimbo ya baba (The Father’s Stick) by Chande Omar for the quality of its portrait of women (cf. article n°7003 ). A woman’s dramatic story is also at the heart of Aisha by the same Chande Omar. It does not have the quality of a major film, but it does pertinently portray the prejudices that subjugate women in many countries in the region. Aisha and Ahmed celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary. They work hard to earn a living in the drug store they have opened in Dar-es-Salam. Aisha wants to bring her little sister, Miriam, from the village so she can experience the emancipation that she herself has enjoyed. But her brother, Ibrahim, accepts a wedding proposal on Miriam’s behalf, wanting to use her bride price to pay off his bar debts. Aisha returns to the village for the wedding, where she sees an old flame from her youth. She spurns him when he makes fresh advances, which drives him to organize a retaliatory gang rape on the day of Mariam’s wedding. When Aisha demands justice, she is told no one will testify. Scarred, yet dignified, she rejects this conspiracy of silence and even her husband, who immediately suspects her. Confronted with women’s destiny in patriarchy, Aisha fights to restore her dignity and it constantly turns against her. But she refuses to relent. The film is very prolix, and not very original cinematographically, but is eminently respectable in its desire to propose a portrait of a strong-willed woman who bears the future. The statistics at the end of the film show the frequency with which women are victim to unpunished rape and the importance of a justice system that listens to them.

This question of the rule of law and justice traversed many films, and the responses proffered were at times highly problematic! During its previous editions, the FESPACO introduced us to Ethiopian films rooted in reality with well-developed narratives. This year, it was the turn of Kinfu Banbu’s Fre. The film is cinematographically unwieldy, demonstrative and mawkish, but the story itself is indeed pretty powerful. A father (Feleke Abebe) lives alone with his bubbly 13-year-old daughter, Fre, whom he has sweetly mollycoddled since her mother’s death. In his absence, she is victim to a gang rape. The father discovers who the rapists are, yet says nothing to the police, even though they are carrying out a proficient enquiry, and takes justice into his own hands. The audience applauded this revenge hatched by all the characters and dragged out on the screen. Clearly, they doubt the efficiency of the police and justice system. Yet, in a country where self-defense brigades are mushrooming in its unsafe zones, the backing of a rule of law that guarantees true justice is essential. Proposing barbarity and individual vengeance to the audience seems to me extremely problematic. And selecting such a film equally.

It was the same problem with the opening film, Borders by Apolline Traoré (Burkina Faso), which follows the paths of trader women in the buses running from Senegal to Nigeria. Although ECOWAS is a free-trade zone, borders remain barriers where customs officers demand bribes at will.  The film indeed becomes a string of roadblocks, organized into a series of sketches in which, little by little, four independent women stand out and join forces. Unfortunately very poorly-edited, the film suffers from a lack of peps, exacerbated by the shallowness of the characters, whose highly stereotypical life dramas we only learn of through snippets of dialogues. The film’s only moment of grace is the acapella mourning song sung by a Nigerian woman. Notwithstanding, Borders does testify to the condition of hundreds of women who every day experience harassment, corruption, theft, accidents, or, worse, rape. Indeed, one of them gets raped by a customs official. When the other women knock out the rapist, she grabs his gun and finally finds and kills him. Like in Fre, where the highly devout father remembers the words of the Bible and turns himself into the police, she later calls the police and denounces herself. That maybe absolves them, but not these films, which encourage spectators to take justice into their own hands. It is a gateway to lynching and barbarity. How can the demand for real justice progress in such circumstances?

It was pretty mortifying to see the extent to which belief in an efficient and fair justice system has dwindled. The acme in this domain was the Ivoirian film Innocent malgré tout (Innocent In Spite of All) by Jean de Dieu Konan et Samuel Mathurin Codjovi. The film’s presence in competition was the biggest act of self-destruction that the FESPACO inflicted on itself. Of a Christian inspiration close to that of Mel Gibson and his The Passion of the Christ, but strictly devoid of the slightest cinematographic quality, it stood out for its good twenty or so minutes of torture, a kind of crucifixion of a poor guy wrongly accused of having raped and killed a minister’s daughter, who in turn asks the police to make him suffer, the lot set to an obsessive repetitive music. This appalling show of violence that takes the audience hostage (to the point that many walked out) was astoundingly futile. The doubts of the Commissioner in charge of this dirty work constitute the rest of the film, accentuated by repetitions, effects and shock shots that prolong the scenes. « What will become of our world without justice? », a voice-over enquires at the end of the film. Good question, but it is clear that this film does nothing to make things change.

Ivory Coast was the FESPACO’s guest of honor this year, and President Ouattara came for the awards ceremony. It also participated in the FESPACO’s always difficult funding, apparently contributing 50 million FCFA, and was no doubt hoping for more recognition from the jury; a lost cause, however, given the poor quality of the films. Who selected them?

Representations of women

The other Ivoirian film felt like a Harlequin adaptation. In the airport novel genre, the woman is powerful, determined, but never escapes cliché: she makes it through seduction, cosmetics, alluring clothing, and her goal is a consumerist success in line with the social consensus. She is thus necessarily manipulative. This is the very definition of Naturelle, the heroine of L’Interprète (The Interpreter) by Olivier Koné and Khady Touré. A successful interpreter who regularly appears on television, she is married to a dim klutz of a man for whom she has no regard and constantly puts down. She falls under the charm of an American client, who showers her with gifts – the latest fashions, of course, as that’s what makes a dream woman! – but she soon gets the upper-hand again and manipulates everything and everyone in a plot full of twists and turns. The film is upbeat and amusing as a pretty effective piece of boulevard theater with a TV-drama feel, but without ever going beyond the Harlequin-type reductive stereotypes, and without ever – like in most series and telenovelas – straying outside an upper-class free of all social preoccupations. The public loved it, but the critics were confounded by the celebration of clichés, reinforced by the film’s selection in the official competition. This vision of women was present in many films. Prostitute characters often imposed without any other characters bringing a more positive note, or without the prostitute attempting to evolve in any way. In the thriller Wulu by Daouda Coulibaly (Mali), Ladji (Ibrahim Koma) agrees to transport drugs to allow his sister to escape prostitution. Her business flourishes and she becomes a high-class prostitute, as if incapable of escaping her nature! A Franco-Senegalese production made with a quality French crew, the film avoids no cliché about Africa, which is just the setting for the story of a taciturn and unscrupulous loner who gets ensnared in his desire for money. Far from legitimizing the film’s discourse, the reminder at the end of the film that cocaine money helped bring down the Malian state in 2012 highlights the screenplay’s lack of contextualization and the derealization at play.

In Thom by Tahirou Tasséré Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso), a rich daddy’s boy falls in love with Jones, « a dancer by passion, a prostitute by necessity ». She only pays him any attention at first to get rid of a rich old man, which encourages him to want to be her guardian angel. The same old roles as usual. As for Thom’s father, he tells his son: « life’s a whore: if you want something, grab it. » What a comparison! The fixed camera, overall lack of rhythm and TV aesthetic do not at any rate enable the film to engage another way of seeing things. For there have been many prostitute roles in cinema, some of which memorable, for example in post-War Italian cinema: Giuletta Massina in The Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957), Clara Calamai in Le Notti Bianche (Luchino Visconti, 1957), Annie Girardot in Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960), Silvana Corsini in Accattone (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962), Anna Magnani in Mama Roma (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962), Carlotta Barilli in The Grim Reaper (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1962), or Sophia Loren in Marriage Italian Style (Vittorio de Sica, 1964)! These prostitutes who attempt to build themselves new lives each open possibilities and an awareness of the limitations. The films in competition at the FESPACO, on the other hand, simply trapped us in cliché.

Lilia, a Tunisian Girl by Mohamed Zran is also set in a bourgeois milieu and has the feel of a TV drama. While the subject appears to be contempt for the body, the attractive Lilia constantly goes round in sexy underwear, relegating the spectator to the position of voyeur.  In cliché after cliché, the film gives Lilia a homosexual little person sidekick who forces his mimics in what could not be a more contemptuous vision meant to make us laugh. Incoherent in its narrative, attempting but failing to play on the fantastic, the director of Essaïda and The Prince, two films that stood out for their rooting in Tunisian life, disappoints with this failed attempt at derealization. This too was a serious programming error, when Lofti Achour’s Tomorrow At Dawn was relegated to the Panorama section and Mohamed Ben Attia’s Hedi was not even selected.

Life Point by Brice Achille (Cameroon) benefits from the presence of the monumental Gérard Essomba, who saves the film from mawkish sentimentality. We see him trying to take an overdose of pills to end his life before falling platonically in love with Sa’adate, a young refugee from the Central African Republic, who coaxes him back to life. If he alone does not manage to render what could have been a beautiful story credible, it is because the stilted effects and the music, the lifeless montage, and heavy mise-en-scène do not offer him enough support and because the film drastically lacks a viewpoint. This is sorely manifest in the scene of the village attack recounted by Sa’adate. Rather than plunging into the chaos through metonymy, or adopting the villagers’ point of view, the camera stays stuck there like in a report, in a kind of distanced neutrality. Companion to a man in his twilight years, but soon accused by the family of trying to take advantage, Sa’adate composes a fine contradictory portrait, but does not escape her role as an object of desire rather than being truly active.

One might imagine that Apolline Traoré’s Borders is a feminist film, as it portrays the courage and solidarity of four women, among so many others. Yet Ardjara, the Senegalese character, offers her charms to a border official to get the vaccination certificate she needs to pass. She tells the surly Emma, who shows no compassion: « My husband beats me every day, yet I don’t hold it against the whole world! » Is this to be taken as an expression of what Obioma Nnaemeka terms « negofeminism »: this selfless feminism of negotiation that, in the face of uncompromising patriarchy, prefers to subvert and inveigle rather than to challenge men head on, only to reap their violence? (2)

How different to Alain Gomis’ Félicité, which fortunately won the Golden Stallion Award, and which saved this selection from being a total disaster! A determined, then grieving single mother who finds the taste for life again by accepting to be loved, Félicité is in no way a stereotype. She, like most women, seeks to get by; when reality catches up with her, she bends but does not break. On the contrary, she pulls herself back up, progresses, keeps moving forwards, taking her reality as the basis of a renewal (see our accompanying review, and analysis of this cinematic expression).

Politics through the prism of corruption

Power is not only explored in terms of its privileges. Gérard Essomba – him again –, an ex-Energy Minister, seeks to delocalize his home village so that a Chinese firm can exploit its shale gas resources. In Adama Ruamba’s Forêt du Niolo (Niolo Forest, Burkina Faso), then, Essomba plays a ruthless official, willing to do anything to realize his project, even calling on the services of the worst thugs. A journalist and an environmental activist oppose him, at their own expense. This struggle unfolds in a succession of soap-opera-like turnarounds and formulae, the discourses replacing the images, while the heaviness of the mise-en-scène, the ham acting, the heavy-handed insistence and caricature turn this highly predictable work into a shoddy play of goodies and baddies. Here we have a cinema that is more right-minded than engaged, where contradiction gives way to demonstration. The State being just a bunch of corrupt hoodlums, the film also ends in taking justice into one’s own hands.

A big hit in the cinemas and winner of the Silver Stallion Award, Sylvestre Amoussou’s The African Storm is, for its part, set at the head of the state. In an imaginary republic, an enlightened president (played by the director himself), launches the « African plan »: the nationalization, with no compensation, of all foreign companies. « The dance of the panthers is over! »

Contemptuous and racist, the said companies fund the intervention of Mrs Touvenelle, a kind of female Jacques Foccart, ready to do anything to destabilize the regime. She too calls on the services of a bunch of mercenaries who plunge the country into chaos. As with always in Amoussou’s cinema, the dialogues are didactic and the narrative cursory and fragmented. Here too, corruption bleeds the country dry and the press is subjugated. No one questions the neocolonialism evoked and the insidiousness of the destabilization actions – one remembers the fake currency created to bring down Sekou Touré – but could we not have a less dualistic and more complex vision today than the old opposition of Manichean interests denounced in the past? Here the audience is pandered to with a scapegoat discourse, without offering it real avenues for thought and action for the current times. Worse, isn’t the charismatic President figure played by Amoussou, who takes on everyone single-handedly, a budding dictator? Doesn’t his isolationist program strangely echo nationalist ideologies?

An attempt to intimately express the continuity of power despite the fall of former idols, A Search for the Lost Power by Mohamed Ahed Bensouda (Morocco) revolves unconvincingly around a huis clos. A power-hungry general watches dictators progressively fall on television, but imprisons his artist wife, driving her to despair. This short-film scenario drags out in an ennui and dearth of pertinent mise-en-scène that would have given it some consistence.

Incursions into History

In the vein of old films on the Algerian war, Lotfi Bouchouchi’s The Well, which screened at the Carthage Film Festival in 2015, is the story of a siege. The inhabitants of a village suspected by the French army of supporting the rebels are caught in a stranglehold and parched as they cannot cross the pond to fetch water without getting shot at. Old-fashioned and overacted, the film suffers from its demonstrative mise-en-scène. It is saved by the suspense it creates and of course by its reminder of the cruelty of war. Its dramaturgy, musically accentuated by the people’s resistance, remains unconvincing however.

Another Algerian film (sent by the Ministry?), Sid Ali Fettar’s Torments, portrays Algeria’s recent history through a family saga. One son joins the Islamic underground movement, but later escapes, belatedly understanding what his father told him, citing the Qur’an: « He who kills a soul would be as if he killed all humankind. » Another son risks losing his job, despite being a trade unionist. The daughter is married to a shady and unfaithful business man. And the father reminisces about his activist years. Stylistically like a TV drama, the film narrates a cycle: that of endless violence and revenge.

A far more convincing historical approach was that of The Gang of the Caribbean by Jean-Claude Barny (Guadeloupe), the only Caribbean film in competition. The FESPACO has indeed decided to open the competition to the Diaspora, without really defining what this term designates given that numerous filmmakers living in Europe have already been included in it. The film’s historic context is clear, as is the spiral of the lure of money, which isolates the protagonists from their social base. (cf. http://africultures.com/le-gang-des-antillais-de-jean-claude-barny-13813/)

Out of competition, Fidaa by Driss Chouika, shot in black and white, tells the story of a resistance network in the period from the exile of the late Mohammed V to Moroccan independence. Four friends engage in the struggle against the French colonizer, going underground to carry out attacks. Their destinies are tragic. The film focuses on one of them and his love for the daughter of a collaborator, who is responsible for many resistance fighters’ arrests. Its highly similar aesthetic brings to mind Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966). Fidaa also shares the latter’s enlightening of the audience, called upon to resonate with the nationalist discourse through all the devices of an action film. Patriots who never flinch in the face of torture and death are pitted against the Machiavellianism of the camp-sounding French torturer, as if caricature proved a point. We are left dreaming of what George Eliot defined as art’s characteristic: « the extension of our sympathies »; in other words, of films in which each character can be appreciated for both his or her weakness and beauty. Some characters are detestable, of course, but film makes a mistake when it refuses to create contradictory characters, for no one is entirely good or bad. The function of art is not to encourage revenge, but justice, which requires that everyone be given a chance to defend themselves.

Some oddities

Kwah Ansah’s return was much awaited. This historic Ghanaian filmmaker made one of African cinema’s greatest popular hits, Love Brewed in the African Pot (1981), and his Heritage Africa (1989) won a Golden Stallion Award at the FESPACO. When Steve Ayorinde and I interviewed him in Accra, he complained of how Ghanaian cinema has been invaded by its Nigerian counterpart and now only swears by juju (magic). (Cf. article n°4142/)

Praising the God Plus One is a fascinating film in terms of content, despite its TV-type aesthetic. We often see evangelical and charismatic churches stigmatized in Western documentaries, the implication being that these « big African children » get naïvely ripped off by unscrupulous preachers. Take, for example, Miracle Sellers, by Gilles Remiche (cf. http://africultures.com/namur-2006-au-dela-de-la-chronique-4600/). The major interest of Kwah Ansah’s film is that it uncondescendingly analyzes how people end up being swept along by these charlatans, in their own context and in relation to their own issues, and what function the church plays in their lives. It is, in short, a film that serves as a word of warning from the inside.

Funded by an NGO, The Lucky Specials by Rea Rangaka follows the path of a music-loving young miner whose mentor dies of tuberculosis. Infected, he fights against the illness before suffering a relapse when he neglects his treatment. Recurring animation scenes show the virus at work in his body tissues, accompanied by an explicative voice-over. This didactic foray overtakes the narrative and the love story he lives with the bar-owner where he plays, to the point of emptying it of all emotion. Even if the narrative is well-constructed and the actors convincing, it was nonetheless incredible that the FESPACO only found a health awareness film to represent South Africa.

The Golden Ring by Rahmatou Keïta (Niger) is an ambiguous gem. Tiyaa, a student in Paris, returns home for the holidays hoping that her partner, whom she met in France, and who is also from a royal family, requests her hand in marriage. Tiyaa does not believe the marabout’s predictions, but the film will prove him right. She opposes forced marriage, but valorizes the cultural practices highlighted in a series of scenes. In short, both rebellious and submissive, she obeys tradition while at the same time criticizing its obsolete dimensions. Of an extremely polished aesthetic, set in the beautiful home of an aristocratic family, the film magnifies a culture at risk of disincarnating and decontextualizing it, and even opposing it to the culture of the Other, seen as a perversion. While in Cissé’s Yeelen the mystery of Bambara culture was preserved, for example, here everything is explained; everything is stated. There are still some fine moments of elevation nonetheless, but the film is often devoid of emotion, even when calling on Bach’s Ave Maria.

Finally, worth signaling out of competition was a little gem already screened at the Carthage Film Festival: N.G.O. – Nothing’s Going On by Arnold Aganze, a Congolese filmmaker based in Kampala. Made with friends, the film cost under 30 000 $, but its humor and discourse are up there with the best. Zizuke works in a bar and Tevo is an out-of-work photographer. They hit on white women with some success, telling them that they do good works in an NGO. One of them invites Tevo to send her photos so that she can find him backers in the US. One thing leading to the next, they have to take pictures of imaginary actions to receive funding, but an expert is sent over to film the project. Humanitarian aid and North-South relations are mischievously needled and set against the inventiveness of guile and resourcefulness!

Conclusion

Was this FESPACO one of revival, as Tahirou Barry, the Burkinabe Minister of Culture hoped as he cited Sankara in his lyrical opening speech and celebrated the marriage of republican values and cinema? Unfortunately not. Other than Alain Gomis’ Félicité, it was hard to find cinematic proposals that renewed Africa’s self-perception and its discourse on the world. Yet, as Marie-José Mondzain writes: « to shoot is not to transcribe the real, but to write the possible. » (4) That is what is at stake for cinema in a continent full of potential, but confronted with the sequels of its history.

Every professional in the African cinema milieu and the public love the FESPACO. But if it does not want to discredit itself further, the FESPACO needs to act and organize in order to offer programs that truly reflect the richness of Africa’s film work. It needs urgently to wake up.

 

* Author of Contemporary African Cinema, Michigan State University Press, 2016.

 

  1. Despite the late arrival and partial distribution of a catalogue that was otherwise much better printed and compiled than previous catalogues.
  2. To guarantee the security of the festival as police stations on the Malian border in the north of the country were attacked during the FESPACO, the Burkinabe authorities mobilized the army and police to carry out security checks at gates at the entrance to the cinemas and public places. They carried out the checks seriously and with solicitude, in a calm atmosphere. A lesson to us all!
  3. Cf. « Autres féminismes : quand la femme africaine repousse les limites de la pensée et de l’action féministes », in : Féminisme(s) en Afrique et dans la Diaspora, Africultures 75, L’Harmattan 2008.
  4. Marie-José Mondzain, Images (à suivre)¸ Bayard 2011, 283.
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