Thomas Sankara's spirit shines at Burkina Faso film festival

Fespaco, Africa’s largest film festival, breathed politics but suffered from a lack of funding in the fragile aftermath of the country’s revolution, reports Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

For years the African continent’s most illustrious filmmakers – from Senegal’s legendary Ousmane Sembène (the ‘father’ of African film) to Cameroon’s edgy Jean-Pierre Bekolo – have attended Africa’s largest film festival, Fespaco.

Established in 1969 as a week-long screening of African films, Fespaco has returned to Ouagadougou every two years, offering a wealth of workshops, conferences and screenings curated around African cinema.

“Fespaco is one of the most popular and important festivals I’ve ever attended,” says Iquo Essien, director of Aissa’s Story, which was screening in competition. “It was a whirlwind of screenings, Q&As, interviews, dinners and VIP events at the prime minister’s residence.”

The festival’s celebration of cinema hasn’t passed the locals by. When I arrive at Ciné Burkina for a screening two local men are pointing at a dreadlocked man standing outside.

“He wants to have photo with you,” the first says, pointing to his partner.

“Why?”

“Last year,” starts the second one, “you win Fespaco?”

The dreadlocked man laughs. He is a Colombian photographer but in Ouagadougou, a city with a keen and enduring relationship to cinema and where legendary directors have statues erected in their honour, he is frequently mistaken for the award-winning French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis.

Projectionist Antoine Oudraogo next to an old film projector at the Cinéma Somgande during the festival.
Projectionist Antoine Oudraogo next to an old film projector at the Cinéma Somgande during the festival. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

In fact the cinephile duo got their year wrong: Gomis won with his film Tey in 2013. In contrast this year’s festival, which ran last week, lacked the scale and star power of earlier editions. The opening ceremony was moved from the landlocked country’s impressive national stadium to the Palais du Sport, an indoor sports centre.

“It’s because of the political situation,” says Fatimata Tamboura, a member of the Fespaco organising committee. “The government needs the elections [scheduled for November] to happen first. After that it can look at giving funds to the festival.”

Indeed, Burkina Faso’s political situation changed dramatically last October when, spurred by Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to extend his 27-year presidency, the people protested, torching the National Assembly and other government buildings. Compaoré fled into exile, taking the certainty of a 24th Fespaco with him.

The new government picked up the pieces and decided to go ahead as scheduled. When I visited, the threat of political turmoil bred intense conversations across the barebones bars of the capital. People sat and discussed the rebirth of the festival, and agreed that audiences must demand greater freedoms for African film directors from across the continent.

Spirited to the screen

The political and social events of the last few years across the continent were spirited to the screen in various ways.

The festival opener, Burkinabé director Sékou Traoré’s L’oeil du Cyclone (The Eye of the Storm) follows a Hannibal Lecter/Clarice Starling type relationship between an uncompromising female lawyer and a violent client plotting the overthrow of an unnamed republic.

Competent but visually conservative, the film resorted to a familiar message about child soldiers. Neither a thriller nor a convincing allegory, Cyclone collapsed under its own indecisiveness.

People wait outside Ciné Burkina in Ouagadougou.
People wait outside Ciné Burkina in Ouagadougou. Photograph: Ahmed Ouoba/AFP/Getty Images

Directly dealing with the subject of revolution and unrest were several films selected from North Africa. In the feature-length category Raja Amari’s Tunisian Spring took its narrative from the Arab revolutions that swept the north in 2011. Through a documentary lens, Jawab Rhalib’s Le Chant des Tortues and Jihan El Tahri’s Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs examined the revolutions of Morocco and Egypt, charting the rise of the people’s movement and the moments that finally tipped the regimes over the edge.

It was, however, a Moroccan film dealing tangentially with revolutions, specifically the 1981 protests, that was the festival’s finest offering. Hicham Lasri’s C’est Eux les Chiens (They are the Dogs) follows the story of a news crew tailing a man the day he is let out of jail as he seeks to find his family. Known only by his prison number, 404, the man tracks down old friends and lovers after 30 years in prison.

Shot entirely from the point of view of the crew’s camera, it appears as a sophisticated hybrid of the 2015 Golden Bear winner Taxi by Iranian Jafar Panahi and the Oscar-winning Birdman, but without the claustrophobia of the former and the long-take conceit of the latter. Remarkably, released in 2013, it predates both.

For the Burkinabé audience, the most powerful screening was the documentary Capitaine Thomas Sankara by Christophe Cupelin, a film unthinkable at Fespaco during Compaoré’s regime both for its reverence of the murdered revolutionary and former president, and for its casual finger-pointing at Blaise Compaoré who was implicated in his death – and whose image the crowd booed each time it came onscreen.

Off-screen, Sankara hovers over the country he renamed “Land of the Upright Men”. In a city where buildings bear graffiti reading “Blaise = Ebola”, vendors rush towards tourists to sell their t-shirts sporting the youthful, handsome face of Sankara – a face, as it were, made for television.

Sankara showed up again as an inspiring superhero in the fantastic Twaaga, a short film combining animation with live action by the Paris-born Burkinabé director Cedric Ido. With an admiring lead performance by a child actor, Sabourou Bamogo, the film introduces Ido as a highly innovative, revolutionary filmmaker.

With Compaoré out, the country is embracing Sankara’s memory. At the first screening of Capitaine at Cine Neerwaya, one of Fespaco’s main venues, a queue twisted around the block, impatient to be let in. Within the packed hall, many sat on the floor, reciting and cheering Sankara’s speeches. The public, finally, are proudly and publicly reclaiming their hero.

Oris Aigbokhaevbolo in Ouagadougou

The GuardianTramp

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