Notes on FESPACO 2015

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It was fun being in Ouaga, thanks especially to my friends who were there. Ouaga is, actually, a laid-back city with decent places to eat, and nice people on every corner-with little of the stress of other big cities with their dangerous downtowns and glittering nightlife. It is spread out, very hot and dusty, the Harmattan blowing its desert winds that mixed with the exhaust of innumerable mobylettes on the street to make breathing a challenge. When I was not watching movies, I walked and walked, and mostly had pleasant encounters that made me happy to be there. Foolishly I did not wear a face mask: you can feel the roughness in your lungs after a few days. But the sun was glorious, especially for one coming from the freezing wastelands of the north, Michigan, with its brutal winter.

I spent most of my days and nights during the festival watching the films, and as a result saw all but three of the longs métrages in the competition (Cellule 512 [Missa Hebié], Printemps Tunisien (Raja Amani], and Four Corners [Ian Gabriel]), and a good number of shorts and documentaries-films out of the competition. Overall the quality was poor. At first I was terribly disappointed, but the films gradually improved, and I began to alter my totally negative perceptions. Still, ironically, for a festival that gave itself the slogan, « The Year of the Digital, » it had almost nothing-just one film, in fact, that had anything of the flavor of the new world that digital has brought, and that was the Nigerian film Render to Caesar [Desmond Ovbiagele]. Most of the films, from the terrible to the pretty good, were throwbacks to older styles of filmmaking, and much as I hate to frame it this way, they were clearly in the mold of la francophonie. Much as I appreciate the work of Andrée Davanture (the master editor at Atria), the day of Finye and Zan Boko has long since passed, but a number of the films I saw seemed stuck in the past. The worst in that respect was Dani Kouyate and Olivier Delahaye’s Soleils, a horribly cliché-ridden piece about a young woman out of touch with her past, guided by a griot who introduced her to her history, beginning with Hegel!

In the end there were two films that were excellent, deserving of the highest awards, and of course they didn’t receive anything of significance. Haiti Bride by Yao Ramesar was perhaps my favorite, although Sissako’s Timbuktu has grown on me (with a second viewing) so much that I’d have to put it up there with Haiti Bride. There was a second tier of pretty good films, which did include the winning film Fièvres (Hicham Ayouch), but also C’est eux les chiens (Hicham Lasri). A notch below them, but still good-not excellent-was the Ethiopian film Price of Love (Hailay Hermon) and Dyana Gaye’s Des Etoiles. Somewhere around that range was L’Oeil du cyclone (Salif Traore) and Run (Philippe Lacôte). So I shouldn’t complain; that is eight films, in the competition, that went from good to excellent. The downhill went really far down: Traore’s Morbayassa was almost as incoherently bad as the really bad Rapt à Bamako (Cheick Oumar Sissoko) -on a scale of one to five it deserved about a zero.
The films that weren’t trying to make political points and cultural points, but those that entered into the spirit of genre film did much better, though they were still limited in their achievements. A good- good enough-genre cop film, a « digital » film, in style, was the Nigerian Render to Caesar; and another genre film, closer to the sentimental dramatic family tale of incest and corruption, à la Viva Riva, was Amog Lemra’s Entre le marteau et l’enclume, a Congolese film.

The winning film was Fièvres, about which more later.
The second place winner, Fadhma n’Soumer (Belkacem Hadjadj) was almost unbearably pontificating: an Algerian costume history of 1850s, depicting the Algerian resistance to the French in Kabylia.
The third place winner was L’oeil du cyclone (about which more later).

The three I missed, Cellule 512, Printemps Tunisien, and Four Corners, were well received by my friends.

In sum, I felt this festival was a throwback to yesterday; and that the judges who awarded the Etalons were out of touch with where African film has been going. It was a bit sad to see that while North African cinema was generally good, or passable, many of the sub-Saharan Francophone films were looking backward, not forward. If Timbuktu saved the day, in that regard, the judges never noticed it. If the genre films I mentioned did not really merit the Etalon awards, they were still more in touch with the possibilities of film today than the failed films that were struggling to make the point that rape is a bad thing, that corruption should end, that nepotism is a evil, that one’s heritage is what young people need to know and appreciate, etc. What was really good about C’est eux les chiens, was precisely its refusal to preach; and if the winning film, Fièvres, seemed to want to celebrate the artist as marginal outsider (again!), it still did a credible job of it.

Ultimately my negative judgment must fall not so much on the judges as on those who curated the festival. The magic has gone out of the bright word FESPACO, which once stood for the exhilarating lights of Finye, Muna Moto, Saraounia, Pièces d’identité, and with its embrace of a certain ineffable beauty, En attendant le bonheur. Among the dozens of shorts were many that could only be called amateurish, with a few bright gems. Among those off competition were some conventional documentaries, like Coupé (Aneké Ossita), Miners Shot Down (Desai Rehad)-which was quite well done, actually, and Victorieux ou morts mais jamais prisonniers (Mario Delatour) -super conventional.

The two films that stood out, Haiti Bride and Timbuktu marked off much of the faded carpet of the festival enormously.

Timbuktu represented Sissako at his height in creating a world of beauty and historical drama, evoking the poignant sense of loss attached to the nomadic Touareg couple, their tent perched precariously on the sandy hill, overlooking the river. In contrast, in the city of Timbuktu we come to the violent intrusion of the Islamist jihadi invaders. The latter were never demonized, and yet were ultimately damned by their insensitivity to what would make life, and especially life in Africa, worthwhile. They crush the possibilities of love, and even the poignancy in the loss of love, along with the music, and the incandescent, if not transcendental possibilities, that could be seen in the contours of the lives of those in Timbuktu. And they do so with the blindness of an ideological movement that crushes an adulterous couple, that arrests the music, shuts down the women from the public sphere, and finally abuses justice with its guns, its power. The echoes of Bamako are felt in the quiet indignation we experience before these scenes, as well as in the celebration of what makes life worth living. The extraordinary cinematography gives us the beauties in embracing the Sahelian landscape within which it is set. Much of this evoked La vie sur terre and Heremakono-in short, some of the best cinema produced in the past twenty years. And it takes little to guess at the shortsightedness that might have guided the jury’s failure to recognize the film for its great qualities: Sissako’s refusal to demonize the « terrorists, » his refusal to condemn the Touareg, his choice of the principal couple as Touaregs living in a tent, closest to the desert, thus incurring the disfavor of those who would paint this depiction as a French stereotype. Finally, he accepted Mauretanian support in making the film. We’ve heard these reproaches repeatedly on-line: he didn’t make the film about Mauretanian slavery or Touareg racism, but rather about Islamists with a human face. In his failure to win meaningful awards comes the visible failure of FESPACO to recognize the film that by any measure deserved the highest award.

The second, truly brilliant film-a film to award which would require courage, yet which merited it-was Haiti Bride by Yao Ramesar.
Briefly, we see a couple whose families fled Haiti after the fall of Aristide. The couple returns to marry, but the earthquake of 2010 occurs same day. He becomes a lost soul, his memory gone; she disappointed, quits the land. Three years later, as he has come under the sway of a local artist, they come back together and return again to Haiti to marry. The trace of the past leads us to follow them recalling the trauma and its nachträglichkeit-the camerawork functioning as acts of recovering, remembering. The dialogue repeats itself, like trauma. Images echo those of Haitian style painting, now rendered almost surrealistic rather than primitivistic. An amazing long sequence of time running back. The lone truly avant-garde work of cinema in the festival-extraordinarily beautifully shot à la Haitienne, a daring, imaginative, wonderful film. No awards-but never mind. We have the name of Yao Ramesar to retain.

The golden Etalon went to Fièvres, directed by the Algerian Hicham Ayouch.
Benjamin is a child at war against the world, he has known violence and social alienation at home. One day his mother goes to prison, Benjamin learns he has a father, and he will now go live with him in a cité in the Parisian suburbs. His father, who is something of a failure, still lives with his parents. Benjamin is the figure of an uncontrollable bad boy adolescent. He smokes, despite his grandfather’s efforts to have him stop; curses; is bald; insults his grandparents, making them seem helpless, creates misery all around him. When the grandfather tries to stop him, he threatens to burn the Qur’an. Violence doesn’t stop him. His father seems helpless, broken himself. We learn the father has already had a mentally handicapped son, in an asylum (perhaps explaining why he doesn’t want Benjamin in the hands of authorities). When Benjamin loses control and attacks his father with a kitchen knife, the father struggles to hold him down until he calms down. They visit the other son in the mental hospital where he is residing, and Benjamin pushes his wheelchair. His handicapped brother looks grotesque and can’t speak, but smiles broadly with joy when Benjamin pushes him wildly. In the end, Benjamin stabs him so he won’t end up with a miserable life.
There are other characters who enrich the narrative, including a kind of crazy black man living in the fields, by a river, with his own shack. Benjamin finds him and they become friends. There, on the edges of the ordered world of the banlieue, Benjamin can smoke, drink beer, let go. The Black man dances magically with Benjamin’s graffiti spray cans, spraying red spray into air. Another world opens up. Finally, we can see that Benjamin’s act of killing his brother appears a mercy killing, though it is jarring. After Benjamin had tried to kill his father, it is as if he has been cured of his « fièvre. »
A good film that reworks our conventional framing of banlieue cinema, and merits recognition, especially for Benjamin’s strong performance-the artist as a young man, in Beur clothing.

The gender politics in L’oeil du cyclone were intriguing and new. The normal politics less so. Hitler Mussolini is a crazy « terrorist » prisoner. Somehow a lawyer needs to be found to defend him. The political drama that unfolds, with « terrorists » and child soldiers, a corrupt regime, the fall of the patriarchy, etc., culminates with a ridiculous final intertext absurdly claiming that no efforts are being made to reintegrate child soldiers back into society. Maybe Traore should go watch Ezra. However, the gender politics were pretty amazing. The « woman-man » lawyer who defends Hitler-Mussolini presents a new possibility for rereading gender orientation, at least on the level of the image of the woman, of her powerful invasion of male space and especially male representation. Within the prison her counterpart is a transsexual red haired inmate, a castrated « man-woman » who troubles the heterosexual norm flamboyantly, violently. The uber-masculine « terrorist » Hitler Mussolini can only fall back on yesterday’s version of sexuality as he learns his lawyer has never been conquered by a man: « you mean you are a virgin? » As is the case, over and over in the majority of films in the festival, we see here a version of patriarchy that is falling, with nothing left to sustain heterosexual difference without the father’s name. Here the figure of the father is definitively undermined when it is discovered he is buying diamonds from the very rebels who raped his wife and chased the family away from their village (thus causing the daughter tp grows up to be a femme-homme, a strong lawyer). Eventually this avocat femme-homme tames the savage child-soldier Hitler Mussolini and civilizes him.
There are flashbacks both for her and him: the traumas in the past return with the trial in the present. As the principal lawyer in the case of the terrorist, she uncovers her father’s betrayal of her family and the society. Immensely wealthy, he has changed from being a victim to a collaborator with both diamond smuggling terrorists and corrupt government offices, along with the business elite. The leader of the corrupt government ultimately falls, the judge and lawyer redeem justice and prevail. The film wins third prize. Oh well. Really? It has its interesting sides, but 3d prize? Over Timbuktu? No way-o. A joke.

Lastly, comments, impressions, imprecations:
I liked the Ethiopian Price of Love (Haile Hermon), but found the ending a disappointment, where instead of rebelling against the church abba, the taximan suffers at the hand of fate, and fails to complete his love for the prostitute. The shots in Addis were striking; the working through of the central character, a reformed dissolute young man, was effective, and the love story very affecting. Power in the hands of evil men; the church father to counter it…. Well, the men struggle, from one film to another, without every seeming to establish a male figure who remains admirable and strong.

I liked, particularly, fat Gladys in Run. The plot verged on the surreal with her amazing portrayal of the fat circus lady who can outeat anyone else. But she is Anglophone, and the confrontation with Cote D’Ivoire’s xenophobia made for a strong issue that generally worked well.

Morbayassa was basically a split narrative, with the first part, very much like Viva Riva, about the evil pimp (the same actor played the bald gangster in Viva Riva) and the desperate prostitute who meets Mr. Right, a U.N. specialist. The film shifts to France, where the prostitute turns into a mother seeking to win back her daughter. Mostly unconvincing in its plot, the film offered a somewhat more interesting portrayal of French racial politics, with the high school kids and the white step-parents who adopt the prostitute’s abandoned daughter in Africa, and take her back to Europe where she can never fit in. Essentializing tropes of Africanness, of blood ties, doom the film.

Render to Caesar brought up New Nollywood, a gangster film, with Lagos as its backdrop, and a plot straining to make the police procedural work in the climate of massive corruption. And it mostly did work, standing out from every other film as something in line with the new efforts at digital filmmaking in Africa.

Entre le marteau et l’éclume, a decent genre film, from the Congo, where the descent into corruption and vice ends up with the stepfather raping his stepdaughter and giving her HIV-AIDS. It was a « B-movie, » never pretending to be more, and doing a good job in creating melodrama and « real-life » Congo characters.

This was so many miles from the pretentiousness of Soleils, a film that just had to give us the truth-again and again-about all the historical burdens Europe inflicted on Africa, tediously, tendentiously, pompously. Sad to find the griot once more turned into the teacher, censé savoir. But in a sense it encapsulated a kind of subtextual motif that seemed to undergird the festival itself, and that was encapsulated in the role of the French (L’Institut Français). Every projection began with the ads and thanks, presented in gigantic letters, to the Institut Français that seemed to be the only significant sponsor. The projection of Soleils was under the stars in the large amphitheater at the Institut Français, which was packed to the gills. I found it sad to remember back to the wonderful figure of Sotigui Kouyate, the griot in Keita, and the magnificent griot, again, in Les Noms n’habitent nulle part. He was, indeed, the father of Dani Kouyaté whose effort to pay tribute to him failed to avoid the pitfalls of authenticité tropes and originary politics. Framed within the vision of a French Africa, a Francophone Africa, it presented everything I would want to deny as representing African cinema, everything I would want to deny by remembering positively Andrée Davanture and Sotigui Kouyate, I felt trapped by the clichés of the film.

The worn-out carpet of the festival came across in the films. The experience of Ouaga, its marché, its street life, was still pretty great. But maybe the day of FESPACO is passing, and Durban, Zanzibar, the African International Film Festival, the Abuja Film Festival, and with them the Africa Movie Academy Awards are now going to take the baton. The digital has moved its home.

« Originally Published in Warscapes magazine »///Article N° : 12888

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