While I wait for my impression of FESPACO to be published in the Thursday issue of The Guardian, my intrepid FESPACO travel partner, former Fulbrighter, and Kannywood expert–Carmen McCain–has published her own very thoughtful account of the festival. I’ve pasted the text below, but you can also read the original here.
I write from a backless bench in a dark open air theatre on the outskirts of Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, where I’m waiting with director, producer, and actor Kunle Afolayan for the second screening of his film The Figurine. It is far from the city centre where it seems Ouagadougou, with its roundabout monument shaped like a ciné camera, and film fliers at every hotel, has been entirely modified to accommodate the FESPACO.(Festival Panafricaine du Cinema et de la Television de Ouagadougou) film festival. This is my first time in Burkina Faso’s capitol city, which is perhaps best known outside the region for this biennial festival, now in it’s 22nd incarnation. During the festival, one wanders from cinema to cinema, from film to film, from lunch to party, with people who talk about aesthetics and history and cuisine and the politics of film in Africa. In the city centre, this morning, women cycled past on their bicycles and motorbikes. European tourists wandered in gaggles. Street musicians with loudspeakers provided a distant soundtrack. I jumped with startled delight when suddenly the familiar sound of P-Square’s “Do Me, I Do you” filled the air.
Here at Cine Patte Doie, the electricity goes off and comes back on two minutes later. The stars are bright overhead. “This reminds me of growing up, in the cinemas,” Kunle says, remembering his father Adeyemi Afolayan, one of the early Yoruba filmmakers who translated travelling theatre to the screen. Dead Weight, the Ethiopian film scheduled before The Figurine plays in jumps and starts. I tell the Burkinabe man beside me in French that the electricity is worse in Nigeria but that everyone has backup generators. “We are a poor country,” he tells me. “We can’t afford generators. We get our electricity from Cote D’ivoire, but with the war, it has gotten worse….”
The first two days of the festival, I attended the Pan-African social research organization CODESRIA’s workshop, “African Film, Video, and the Social Impact of the New Technologies” attended by scholars of African cinema, video, and filmmakers. Much of the symposium was spent in discussions of the relationship of African cinema to the growth of Nollywood, which is challenging old assumptions about how and why African films should be made. While Nollywood scholars like Onookome Okome celebrate how Nollywood reflects the imaginary of ordinary people, telling the stories of the streets, other scholars, particularly Ethiopian scholar Professor Salem Mekuria, currently at Wellesley College, MA, in the United States, were dismissive of the phenomenon. Though she had only seen a few “bad examples” of Nollywood, Professor Mekuria thought the symposium spent too much time talking about Nigerian films. Kenyan documentary filmmaker Judy Kibinge mentioned to me that though she was very interested in Nollywood, especially in its relation to the Kenyan video film industry Riverwood, she thought that too much clichéd rhetoric about Nollywood dominated the discussion. The discussions seemed to revolve around the same old arguments about Nollywood: the rituals in films are giving Nigeria a bad name, the sex in Ghanaian films is getting out of control, the quality isn’t high, people shouldn’t just wake up one day and decide they can be a filmmaker. Even renowned playwright Professor Femi Osofisan didn’t add anything new to the discussion as he repeated his regularly stated concern about the potential harmfulness of Nollywood, although I did enjoy his witty conclusion that the name “Nollywood” was apt because Nigerians traditionally sent bad things to the evil forest—here the “wood” of Nolly. There was little discussion of the internal variances in Nollywood films, and almost no mention of films made in Nigerian languages: Hausa, Yoruba, and smaller languages, such as Nupe and Itsekeri. Though most of the perspectives at the symposium were scholarly, it was refreshing to hear the perspectives of actual filmmakers, particularly Nigerian director and producer Tunde Kelani, who spoke of his frustration at being identified as a video maker when Francophone directors also working in a digital medium were listed as filmmakers.
This problematic discourse referring to Nigerian popular video vs.Francophone art cinema ran throughout much of the festival, with the snickers from a largely European audience at a Nollywood-style Senegalese short film involving a mammy water spirit, to the listing of Kunle Afolayan’s stunning thriller, The Figurine, shot on a digital camera with cinema lenses, under the television and video competition rather than the main film competition, because it was not submitted on a 35 millimeter print. Ironically, all the films I saw in the main competition were projected from dvd, rather than from the film prints that were supposed to have been submitted. The director of the Toronto International Film Festival told me that other than FESPACO very few film festivals around the world differentiate between films shot on digital and film anymore. Apparently, the transportation of fragile 35 millimeter film prints are usually the most expensive parts of film festivals, and more and more festivals are moving to digital film projection, just as more and more filmmakers are going digital.
Although many Nigerian films reflect the “lives and struggles of Third World peoples,” and although the Nollywood industry began as a grassroots initiative, “managed, operated and run for and by the people,” both aspects of the “combative phase of third world cinema” formulated by theorist Teshome Gabriel, the Nigerian video films have long been dismissed by many Francophone African filmmakers and their critics, as “subpar” productions “concerned only with making money.” However, there are ironies in this critique considering most Francophone African films are seen mostly at festivals attended by a mostly Western and Western-trained elite, have very little accessibility to popular audiences in Africa, and make hardly any money. They are thus unsustainable and have seemingly little responsibility to the preferences of their audiences. African film scholars Manthia Diawara and Roy Armes have pointed out that Francophone African filmmakers often had the topics and style in which they made their films strongly directed from France, where they received their funding, and by the European crews which shot and edited the films. At the workshop it was also pointed out that many French technicians and film graduates who had little working experience in France were pointed to Africa as a place to improve their skills while working on African films. Ironically, with a few exceptions, many of the Francophone films that self consciously responded to imperialism or proudly presented “African culture” were mediated through the aesthetic and thematic preferences of their funders in France. While the filmmakers often subtly subverted outside expectations, it still strikes me as incongruous that despite all the lofty ideals of “cinema” filmmakers, their films often have more relevance to elite festival audience than to the mass viewing public of Africa.
Although Kunle Afolayan’s film The Figurine was shunted by FESPACO organizers to a premier on a small screen at the Institute Francaise and a later screening at the open air theatre with the epileptic electricity, rather than one of the larger theatres, I wanted to jump out of my seat and applaud when Afolayan introduced his film saying that “The film was shot, produced, edited, […] all the members of crew […]are all Nigerian. Everything was done in Nigeria by Nigerians.” I remembered the stunned feeling I had after first watching the film at the Zuma Film Festival, realizing, as I watched the closing credits that almost every name there was Nigerian. The Figurine takes the certain genre elements developed by Nollywood, the ritual horror, the family drama and love triangle, the glamour of wealth, and pushes it to the next level. It is seen at its best in the cinema, as most Hollywood and European films are, but it is a film that stands on its own. It inserts itself, an unapologetic commercial film made in Yoruba, English, and pidgin, defiantly into the artsy programme FESPACO. It doesn’t need validation from the West or European art critics to be a good movie. Though not perfect, the Figurine has an aesthetic integrity that provides the best role model I’ve yet seen for Nigerian filmmakers, and whether FESPACO film critics agree with me or not, I would say that Kunle Afolayan is not just one of the best upcoming Nigerian filmmakers but one of the best upcoming African filmmakers
In the end we leave the theatre early. There are only about twenty people there, sitting in the dark under the stars. But before we leave, a man stands up and introduces his wife, telling Kunle, “This is a very good film. I can tell from even just the beginning.” At the FESPACO premiere, Kenyan documentary filmmaker Judy Kibinge stood up at the end and said, “I’m from Kenya, but I’m as proud of this film as if I were Nigerian.” She didn’t know it but she was echoing an earlier statement of the great Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who told Kunle, “I stand tall as an African, when I see this film.”