Africa’s most important film festival is fast approaching its 50th anniversary. Boukary Sawadogo suggests how it can improve and better prepare for the future.
The Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) takes place every two years in Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). Fespaco was created in 1969, building on the ‘Semaine du cinéma africain’ (African Cinema Week) initiative launched by the Centre Culturel Franco-Voltaïque’s ciné-club in 1968. Initiated and promoted by François Bassolet, Alimata Salembéré, and Claude Prieux, the ‘Semaine du cinéma africain’ initially sought to create a space for Africans to see and discuss their own cinema.
In 1972 the government institutionalized Fespaco as a public state-funded biennial event. For a poor, landlocked country like Burkina Faso, which had no internationally recognized filmmakers or significant national film corpus at the time of the festival’s inception, the creation of such a Pan-African festival stands as a truly remarkable achievement. Both the local audience’s infatuation with African film, and the government’s nationalist cultural politics, served as an impetus for its inception.
Cinema was also regarded as an instrument of cultural and political liberation for the newly independent African countries. Accordingly, Burkina Faso nationalized its theaters in 1970 and created the Société National Voltaique de Cinéma (SONAVOCI), an organization charged with taxing foreign films and using the funds to support local cinema. Prior to the advent of SONAVOCI, French companies had maintained a monopoly on film distribution since colonial times, even after Burkina Faso gained its political independence in 1960.
Over the past few decades, Fespaco has grown into the most important film festival in Sub-Saharan Africa, drawing hundreds of thousands of participants at each edition, including filmmakers, critics, and film enthusiasts. Fespaco is to African cinema what the Cannes film festival is to auteur cinema, or the Sundance film festival is to independent cinema.
Traditionally, the ten-day festival takes place in the last week of February through the first week of March. The gusty harmattan winds, colorfully decorated thoroughfares, streets abuzz with anticipation, and the gathering of like-minded people welcome festivalgoers into a festive atmosphere. Last year’s edition was no different: live music performances were organized at key venues in the city such as Kwame N’Krumah Avenue, the Nation Square, and Fespaco headquarters. The opening ceremony in the 20,000-seat soccer stadium, with a live performance by reggae music star Alpha Blondy from the neighboring Ivory Coast, energized and enthused locals and visitors alike.
As in previous editions of Fespaco, many competing activities, including film-themed conferences, workshops and networking cocktail parties, set the rhythm for the celebration of African Cinema. The constant stream of moviegoers in and out of theaters such as Ciné Neerwaya, Ciné Burkina, or the newly inaugurated Canal Olympia Yennenga, contributed to the general atmosphere.
The Political Context of FESPACO 2017
Attending last year’s Fespaco brought back memories of growing up in Ouagadougou, which is closely connected to this Pan-African cinema. Yet there was heavy security throughout the city and metal detectors at the entrances of theaters. These preventive measures not only attest to the fear of terrorist acts, but also underline the larger climate of political volatility in the Sahel region.
Beyond the transnational threat of terrorism, Fespaco 2017 took place in a particular national context that is marked with political transition. In October 2014 mass protests against President Blaise Compaoré, who was poised to change the constitution in order to remain in power for what would have been his fifth term, forced him to resign after a 27-year rule and take refuge in Ivory Coast. Compaoré faces trial for violent military actions taken against protesters, and is suspected of murdering former popular leader Thomas Sankara during the 1987 coup which made him President.
Following his resignation, a transitional government was installed, though it too was interrupted by a failed coup in September 2015, immediately preceding the scheduled presidential elections in October. Peaceful demonstrations spearheaded by youth civic organizations empowered Burkinabe people to demand more political reforms from the interim government tasked with organizing free and fair elections.
Over the past three years, a series of attacks by militant Islamists (a new phenomenon for Burkina Faso) has contributed to an already volatile political climate for a country whose new government has been in place for little more than two years. The largest of these attacks took place in the capital, Ouagadougou, on January 15, 2016, killing 30 people and injuring many more. The timing of the attacks couldn’t have been worse, casting a shadow over the organization of Fespaco 2017.
The experience of extremist terrorist attacks for the first time on Burkinabe soil, coupled with the current government’s failure to meet the expectations of post-insurrection society, have heightened the nation’s sense of vulnerability. Regardless, a sense of strength and resolve remains. Fespaco 2017 not only went forward but also received a record-breaking 1,000 film submissions, demonstrating that it was even more than a celebration of cinema. It was also a means of peaceful political resistance.
Reforming the festival
On the eve of its 50th anniversary in 2019, Fespaco stands at a crossroads. Changes to the organizational structure, management, and selection process must be made to take the festival to the next level. For many years now, criticism has been leveled at the opacity surrounding film selection criteria. In other words, filmmakers reportedly complain about the lack of explicitly stated criteria by which movies are selected, or about the apparent unwritten rule that a country can have no more than three feature-length fiction films in the official selection. Jury decisions for awards do not necessarily meet with popular acclaim, which is not unique to Fespaco. Nevertheless, filmmakers should at least be able to know the guidelines by which their submissions are judged.
I would also suggest that the names of jury members be made available to the public. While I understand that this might exert undue pressure on members of the jury, it is important to acknowledge that some festivals in the West adhere to this practice. At present, Fespaco only makes public the name of the president of the jury.
Fespaco is not only a celebration of cinema— it is also a popular event that the public has appropriated enthusiastically: traditionally, for the ten-day period of the festival, the government decrees a journée continue (an interrupted workday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.) for workers in both the private and public sectors. This decree dates back to Fespaco’s inception, and enables African audiences to see African films. For the duration of Fespaco, the mostly urban population has a chance to see and engage with a variety of cinematic productions.
Sadly, this opportunity comes to an end all too abruptly at the end of the festival, and doesn’t present itself again until the next edition. Initiatives are lacking for the population outside metropolitan areas, or indeed outside Ouagadougou, to engage with Fespaco selections beyond the festival period. The “week of Fespaco” in Burkina Faso’s second largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso, following each edition is meant to reach a larger audience, but this does not appear to be the case.
Nevertheless, given the Pan-African scope and mission of the festival, as well as its popular appeal, this represents only a fraction of the potential impact these films could achieve if they were more readily accessible. In order to reach a larger public, several initiatives need to be taken to strengthen the public’s continued and meaningful engagement with the festival as well as to address ongoing issues of film distribution in African cinema.
Reaching Wider Audiences
In this regard, I propose the release of official selections on DVD and/or the creation of an online platform to increase public access to African films, because online distribution of audiovisual content has become increasingly widespread. Additionally, the use of social media in Africa, particularly among younger generations, has also become more prevalent.
Given these factors, I would argue that an online platform represents a better investment option for the future of Fespaco and its mission. Infrastructural challenges, including the need for reliable national electrical grids and Internet connections, may impede progress, but this should not prevent us from conceptualizing and implementing innovations aimed at making African cinema more readily available to African audiences.
In addition to DVD releases and online distribution platforms, I would also suggest creating a Fespaco channel to be aired by one of the ever-increasing numbers of satellite TV broadcasters (e.g. Africable, the all-African content channel A+, Africa Magic, or TV5 Monde). On a research trip to Ouagadougou in August 2016, I noted that the French cable service provider Canal+ was offering a service package that included a Nollywood channel, demonstrating that there is definite potential here. Other festivals such as Sundance have pursued similar initiatives and created channels to expand the ways in which the public can engage with official selections. While the creation of a Fespaco channel, or the release of films on DVD, doesn’t solve the distribution challenges facing Fespaco-selected films, these represent a move in the right direction and an improvement on the current situation.
Last year’s festival brought with it familiar criticisms of organizational deficiencies, such as the timely dissemination of, or access to, information regarding the festival schedule of screenings. In other words, the lack of readily available information about which films were playing at which venues and when created a potentially frustrating experience for filmgoers. The quality of the official film selections has also been the subject of much debate not only among academics, but also in other social gatherings that I have attended as well.
These are only some of the issues that point to the importance of rethinking the management of Fespaco by opening up its leadership to African media and cinema professionals. To clarify, the festival needs to have an artistic director besides the Burkinabe government-appointed ‘Délégué Général’ (General Delegate). The festival needs an artistic director who will be tasked with film selection, as well as the day-to-day running of the festival.
I should note here that I am not arguing for a complete disengagement of the state of Burkina Faso. Fespaco’s historic role as a diplomatic and political instrument is well-documented in Colin Dupré’s 2012 book Le Fespaco, une affaire d’état(s). Rather, I am calling for an infusion of new creative blood, and competent African talent, to reimagine new ways of running the festival that meet the artistic demands of Fespaco and allow for it to be efficiently organized.
Other high profile cultural events in Africa already employ leadership structures which we might use as models for reforming Fespaco. Dak’Art, for example, the biennale of contemporary African arts in Dakar, offers one such model. Its director, appointed by the Senegalese government, appoints a ‘commissaire d’exposition’ (artistic director) to organize and manage the exhibitions. This kind of hybrid leadership structure (comprised of both government officials and industry professionals) offers a balance conducive to keeping the festival on the cutting edge of innovation.
50 Years of FESPACO
Fespaco 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the festival and its longstanding tradition of celebrating African and Diasporic film. The jubilee is certainly a moment of introspection, but it should also be one of prospection- of looking ahead to (re)imagine Africa’s biggest film festival with respect to its place on the World stage, its role in enabling Africans to see their own images, and its potential as a platform to showcase the artistic creativity of Africa and the Diaspora.
What strategies can Fespaco employ to contribute to the development of sustainable film industries on the continent? What is the place and role of the Diaspora at Fespaco? How can Fespaco better adapt to the development of video and digital technologies? How can Fespaco lobby African states to prioritize culture in their future development plans, by devising pertinent cultural policies and allocating sufficient budgets to the production of creative works? These are all questions that need to be answered.
It is evident that Fespaco cannot take on the sole burden of shaping cultural politics on the continent. The establishment of the African Audiovisual and Cinema Commission in 2015, by the African Union and the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers’ Ambika Film Fund, may help create the impetus for change at the state level.
African governments need to be reminded of the multiplying effect of an investment in culture, the power of the image in defining imaginaries and identities, and the political imperative to exert control over narratives about Africa. If ever an economic argument is necessary to convince the governments, we need look no further than the popular and commercial success of Nollywood, or the Moroccan film studios in Ouarzazate, which creates jobs and revenue by hosting big-budget foreign productions.
In addition to film screenings and discussions, Fespaco can create a space for dialogue that shapes concrete public policies on cultural politics, production and distribution of cinematic productions. The festival’s 50th anniversary could be the start of these reflections on renewal, continuity, and discontinuity.
Boukary Sawadogo, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of Media and Communication Arts at the City College of New York – CUNY. You can view his “African Cinema Talk series” on Facebook and YouTube.
“This article was originally published in Cinema Escapist (www.cinemaescapist.com), a home for insightful commentary on global film and media”.