Pan-African film festival FESPACO highlights insecurity and women’s adroitness
The biennale film festival of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso took place this year between 25 February and 4 March 2023. This year’s edition was the 28th staging. A total of 170 entries were selected for the festival including 15 fiction feature films. The highest prize, the Golden Stallion Award, the Stallion of Yennenga (Etalon d’or de Yennenga) valued around US$30,000, is awarded to the fictional or documentary feature film which best depicts African realities.
The festival was hosted in a context of bloody Jihadist attacks that caused death, forced displacement of populations, loss of property and several military coups in the country. The wide scope of the Jihadist phenomenon could be felt throughout this film festival of the Black world. FESPACO is branded as a Black festival because films by Black directors are in the majority but productions of White film makers are also accommodated. Mali, which is also affected by the Al-Qaeda Jihadist fight, was represented by Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga who was the guest of honour. Maiga stressed the correlation between peace and culture in these terms, “culture has an avant-garde role to play in the peace process”. That reechoed the central theme of the festival – African Cinemas and Peace Cultures.
The president of the organizing committee was the Burkinabè Fidele Aymar Tamini who struck a note of practicality or pragmatism when he added that that this theme of the culture of peace “must be an artistic framework and not only political because it affects everyone”, stressing the paramount role that art in general and cinema in particular plays in moulding the daily realities of people. Peace and war can be ignited or avoided when art plays its role well and fully. So, during this 28th edition, participants’ concern focused on stimulating national unity and strengthening ties with other countries.
The festival was also a comment of the fates and lives of women in the subregional context. It was a pleasant surprise to notice that almost half of the fictional films were made by women. The Burkinabè director Apolline Traoré, whose film Sira won the prestigious consolation silver award, puts Jihadist violence in the spotlight as it deals with the story of a woman who has been kidnapped by terrorists and is struggling to survive. Traoré said that her movie was inspired by her own experience and the history of her country, Burkina, when she witnessed one of the biggest massacres in the country’s history, the tragedy of Yirigou – in the north western part of the country – that occurred in January 2019 and ended with 210 people dead. The heroine, Sira, is a female nomad who is on her way to meet her groom with her family. However, the group is attacked mid-journey by Islamist terrorists and the men are murdered. Sira is molested and left stranded in the desert to face what she believes is certain death. But she is a fighter, she takes refuge in a cave and weaves her survival plan. She epitomizes resistance, and the spirit of “never giving up”. The director points out that through this heroine, she is portraying women as strong characters, “I simply have to give them [women] a voice. Most of the time, they are portrayed as victims. People show women in refugee camps who have lost their fathers or husbands. But it’s these same women who protect their children, who have used dangerous escape routes to save them, women, in fact, who have demonstrated how to survive. It is precisely these women who play a major role in the fight against the Jihadists in Africa. Beside all that, women have several special gifts, they pay more attention to details, so they make very talented filmmakers”.
Another female director, Kenya’s Angela Wamai, took the Bronze for her chef d’oeuvre Shimoni. It was common during this 28th edition to hear that African cinema has now freed itself from Western models, with women leading the way. The movie Shimoni “features Geoffrey, a teacher newly released from prison who renegotiates the confines of the physical world while forced to face his nightmare in the flesh”. The director describes the task of the female film maker thus, “We have the responsibility to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions. We have the responsibility to make people look and listen, no matter how much they don’t want to. It is our responsibility to give people the images to look at and enable them to listen to voices they haven’t heard before.”
The 38-year-old Tunisian director Youssef Chebbi won the coveted Stallion of Yennenga award (the top prize) for his oeuvre Ashkal, a murder mystery movie. It centres on the investigation into the killing of a caretaker on a construction site in Carthage (a suburb of Tunis). His film “borrows things from Tunisian reality but looks at them from another point of view”. Among those elements of Tunisian reality in the movie, one notices the legends and narrative that emerges during the Jasmine Revolution – the 28-day civil resistance campaign that began in December 2010 with the suicide of 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid. The revolution culminated in the ousting of the then Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Chebbi’s short, but loaded comment, about his movie is, “For me, the image of immolation is highly iconic; it permeates Tunisian society. Only a few years ago we said that people who immolated themselves were martyrs and now we call them the killjoys of the transition to democracy. It shows there’s been a drift”.
The 28th edition of FESPACO is the proof that a new era has dawned in African cinema. The theme, determination, awardees, key dignitaries are chosen in a way that translates the realities of the moment. The directors succeeded in capturing all those parameters within a short space and time. The novel gender dimension amazed everyone, and the interludes paid special homage to the brave civilian volunteers who fight on the anti-Jihadist battle front. That showcase of the engagement of what is generally and debatably called the 7th Art ( after architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry and dance) must keep its onward march while re-inventing itself.
Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.