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Interview with Michel Ouedraogo, Delegate General of the Fespaco By Olivier Barlet

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The Fespaco 2011 is now over. Would you say the outcome was positive? Has the Vision 21 dynamic come into effect?
It’s not for us, but for our guests and the festival-goers to say whether the outcome was positive. The echoes we have suggest that things went well, but we are aware that certain things still need improving. The cinema world is very close to the festival organizers. If, however, some professionals prefer to go it alone, that’s where things start to get difficult. But we are working to achieve the best and to make sure that our festival-goers are welcomed in a dignified way and I think that that has been respected this year.
You mention those who love the Fespaco; it is true that there is a real love story with the Fespaco. But who says love, also says demands, and there has been a lot of criticism as usual. Is there anything you’d like to develop, to put into perspective?
Those who are demanding with regard to the Fespaco need to be honest and objective, as they are the same people who criticize us when we are demanding.
Can you give some examples?
I’m not going to give any examples: those concerned will know who they are. We aren’t going to respond to X or Y. We are just saying that those who want to attack the Fespaco should think seriously before doing so. In 2009, we introduced fundamental changes unlike anything the Fespaco had seen since its creation. We were criticized because some didn’t understand these changes, but when you want to change things, you don’t ask so-and-so’s opinion, you make them in the interest of the festival. We listen to our critics, and take what they say into account, but those who are criticizing are again the very people criticizing what they themselves suggested. I therefore ask all those who come to the Fespaco to be objective and honest.
I was struck by what Stanislas Meda said in the Fespaco News: « The Fespaco’s general delegation instigated a highly original approach for selecting films after the 2009 edition ». Can you tell us more about this approach?
In 2009, we introduced something that has been contested, but we think we were right to change the inscriptions deadline from 31 December. Objectively that date made it impossible to have a catalogue ready on time. We advanced the deadline to 31 October, 31 November at the very latest, which made it possible to have the catalogue and programme ready on time, like any other responsible festival. We have to choose between a professional Fespaco and the directors’ will, and we chose to be professional. It’s up to the directors to follow us in this direction.
Rumour has it that Yousry Nasrallah’s film could have won the Etalon if it hadn’t been disqualified because of its format. This question of format comes up repeatedly among the criticisms levelled at the festival. Film in Africa today is more frequently on digital than 35 mm, but the Fespaco insists on the latter for the feature competition. Why? Is that likely to change, or is it important to conserve 35 mm?
Rumours are what they are, but the personalities in question didn’t make this remark. Everyone fancies themselves an Etalon-winner. Some disappointed people attacked the jury, but they should be modest. It’s not because a film won the Jury Award at Cannes that it necessarily must win the Etalon. I was the one who discovered A Screaming Man at Angoulême and who suggested it for our selection. We went and found six films that were in the selection, without them being proposed to us. These six films are major works, and they all won awards. We are perfectly professional and don’t need to take lessons from anybody. We increasingly reach out to directors and their films. We put together a jury of professionals that no one can criticize. Its choice was sovereign and we have no influence on the jury, none. I only knew its decisions four hours before the official awards ceremony.
I think the Fespaco is the only festival in the world to offer so much flexibility in terms of the films selected. The political situation complicated the question of Sheherazade‘s format. We were at the Cairo Film Festival and we liked the films presented. Egypt had been absent from the Fespaco selection for over twenty years. We thus took a specific undertaking. We were assured that we would have the film in time, and we bought back a working copy, like for the other films, on the understanding that we would receive the 35 mm copies in time. But we didn’t receive them. The Fespaco clauses date to 1969, we didn’t invent them, but we have to respect them. It is the African cinema professionals who must decide if there should be a change.
You mean the Fepaci?
Yes. The Fespaco won’t decide in its place. But today the Fepaci is no longer representative. There needs to be a reflection on the part of all the African cinema professionals. But the Fespaco is well-placed to know that not all the filmmakers share the same opinion on this question of formats. A unanimous, consensual position needs to be found and it’s not yet the case. So we still apply the position that was unanimous and consensual at the time. We need to give this question some time and think together without rushing things.
Will that need a special commission?
No, that’s not necessary: the Fepaci exists. The filmmakers have to revalue the Fepaci in order to reach a decision. The fact of the matter is that the Fespaco is in contact with the Fepaci, but the Fepaci is always absent from the Fespaco’s activities. They wait for us to invite them. They need to understand what they’ve been elected for. I’m in the process of elevating the Fespaco to a certain level. If the other players don’t follow, they’ll be left behind and that will be a shame. The Guild held a meeting with all its members during the 20th edition (2007); we backed them. The Fespaco wants solid relations with all those who make African cinema advance; but we’re going to move on without those who lag behind.
Jeune Afrique published an article about a year ago that indicated that you were worried about the quality of the selection. Is there a shortage of good films?
We have been unanimously congratulated on the 2011 selection, which has been deemed solid, strong, diverse and high-quality. A director can be dishonest when he thinks that he’s the bee’s knees and should win the Etalon. I am open to any responsible criticism of our selection, but I haven’t heard any. All the major filmmaking countries were represented: Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, Burkina, Mali, Nigeria, etc. No professional criticized us on either the 2009 or 2011 selection. Those who have are those who were in the competition; that’s normal, but the jury is sovereign. On our sites, we have received nothing but congratulations on this jury. So it’s not one filmmaker who can upset the apple cart, even if he was selected at Cannes.
It’s unusual to see a jury presided by an academic. Mbye Cham is well recognized in the milieu, but he doesn’t have a very high media profile. Was the aim to add intellectual legitimacy?
That’s more important. One only need take the three films that won an Etalon; I congratulate the jury because it balanced its choice between the academic and a more popular base. We are often criticized for taking people who know nothing about cinema, and if we take intellectuals, we are criticized too. Yet no one can attack the 2011 jury members’ academic standing, intelligence and competence.
If I understand rightly, the Fespaco wishes to accompany the tension at play within African cinemas between a more demanding cinema inscribed in the African film tradition, and a kind of cinema that the public adheres to and which humorously reflects people’s day-to-day lives.
All festivals face this: even Cannes gave its main award to the French film, The Class, in 2008, which the media never thought stood a chance. It’s nothing new. You have to let the jury be sovereign and let everyone judge for themselves.
And you, do you wish to accompany this tension in your selection?
Our criteria are academic, but the selection also seeks a balance between all origins, and to be reflective of Pan-Africanism. Twenty-eight countries were thus present in the competition, that is half of Africa, and sixty or so countries in the entire selection. We want the Fespaco to be a festival open to the world, while also respecting the pan-African spirit of the competition. That should preserve and strengthen our festival, as we are the only African festival working in this perspective.
During our interview at the end of the 2009 Fespaco, you insisted on your desire to gain more autonomy from the Ministry in running the festival. Have you made progress in that respect?
There has been some progress, but we need to continue. It’s impossible to achieve everything in two years, but the main essence of our message has been understood, not only by the Burkinabè State, but by our other partners too. The French Ministry for Foreign Affairs, for example, has perfectly understood our concerns and paid us the full sum of the budget allocated. The International Organization of Francophonia, however, has kept its traditional approach. It’s regrettable, but we need to keep working at it. Out of a total subsidy of 75 million, which is enormous, we have only so far received 12 million. The Burkinabè State has understood too, and paid the entire 500 million subsidy one week before the festival opened, unlike in 2009, when it paid it just two days before. We need to continue to make our partners aware. We received the European Union subsidy in November. Everything that was paid for out of that subsidy went smoothly. Within the next few editions, all that should be resolved, but we need our partners to understand our efforts. The OIF still has payments outstanding from 2009, which are going to add to those of 2011! It’s a nonsense. The way to help us is to give us our funding on time! Otherwise it creates problems for us with the hotels, travel agents, restaurants, etc. We want to be able to work in real time to give the Fespaco a decent image.
The African Federation of Critics again produced the daily Africiné bulletin during this Fespaco. What do you think of this film critics’ voice, this work done by African journalists during a workshop that is both a training session and an opportunity to express their point of view?
I fully back this initiative. I would like not only to praise the work of the African journalists, but also present my most sincere apologies to the president of the International Federation of Critics. We wanted him to come with his jury to the Fespaco, and we did all we could to make that possible, but we ran into difficulties related to the political situation in the Arab countries, which delayed the question of transport. We even paid their tickets, the cost of which we won’t get back, but I ask for their understanding, tolerance and indulgence. We will do everything to make sure that the Fipresci prize exists in 2013, as cinema cannot advance without film critics, not just African cinema, but international cinema too. We were committed to this and I was truly saddened because we wanted to seal a strong relationship between the international critics and our festival via the Fipresci’s presence in Ouaga.
Like cinema, the Fespaco also needs critics. It’s true that some are sometimes excessive and have influenced our partners, but they are aware of the difficulties they cause for the Fespaco. We must of course treat our partners well, but they must also know that we have our limits. If they go beyond the pale, we have no choice but to reveal their irresponsibility with regard to certain situations. If that continues, we will reveal certain partners’ shortcomings when they don’t respect the specifications. We have to fight against the difficulties caused not by the Fespaco, but by its partners, and that’s not easy. We are aware that there can be delays, but they mustn’t blame the Fespaco or we will speak out and it won’t be to their advantage.
That at least has the merit of being clear!
 Indeed. I am not in the habit of mincing my words!

Translated by Melissa Thackway

Ouagadougou, 7 March 2011///Article N° : 10049

Les images de l'article
Une affiche de Vision 21, nouvelle dynamique conceptuelle lancée pour la 21ème édition de 2009, orne l'entrée du bureau du délégué général du Fespaco © O.B.

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