I have just arrived back home after a nearly three week trip, as follows: Kano -> (public taxi) -> Abuja -> (flight) -> Lagos -> (public taxi) -> Cotonue -> (bus) -> Ouagadougou -> (private car) -> Niamey -> (bus, motorcycle, and private car) -> Sokoto -> (public taxi) -> Birnin Kebbi -> (public taxi) -> Kano. It’s very good to be back in my own space, to my internet modem, and to my battery and inverter which allows me to charge my laptop and phones even when there is no electricity (as is the case right now).
I thoroughly enjoyed my first FESPACO film festival, although I felt the politics of it were problematic. It seems that FESPACO is torn between being an international film festival (that seems to privilege a European [particularly French] aesthetic and audience), a national Burkina Faso tourist attraction promoted by a head of state who has been in power for over twenty years, and a Pan African cultural event that celebrates progressive politics and “third cinema” while showing evidence of being more concerned with a “second cinema” and equally problematic conservative ideas about what make good films. There are many breaks and fissures between these identities, and the absence, in particular, of the largest African film culture of Nollywood, Ghollywood, et al. is quite noticeable.
The event was, however, attended by several Nigerian filmmakers: Tunde Kelani of Mainframe Movies (who attended the CODESRIA workshop on African film and video but did not have a film screened at FESPACO this year), Kunle Afolayan (whose film The Figurine was competing in the rather condescending Video Feature award, for those films not submitted on 35 mm film) , Mak Kusare (whose film Champions of Our Time ended up winning second prize in the [as noted condescending] FESPACO video feature award, and who also apparently had an impressive short film 90 Degrees there as well, although I did not see it) from the southern industry. Dr. Ahmad Sarari, Nasiru B. Mohammad, and Mikail Isah Bin Hassan (Gidigo) from the northern Hausa film industry of Kannywood also attended the event. There may have been a couple of other Nigerian/Ghanaian filmmakers I missed meeting.
Although the main events, such as the opening and closing ceremony, were conducted simultaneously in English and French and while the CODESRIA research workshop I attended was dominated by English, the film screenings themselves were not particularly friendly to non-French speakers. Most of the films I saw (whether in Arabic, or other African language) were only subtitled in French (even when the audio was also in French). Since I speak a little, very poor French, I was able to, with the often stunning visual language of the films, get the basic gist of much of what was going on, but a few of my colleagues who spoke no French had a hard time enjoying many of the films.
The list (in French) of the final winners of the FESPACO awards can be found at Fasozine:
The Golden Yennenga Stallion prize was won by «Pegase» directed by Mohamed Mouftakir of Morocco, (Maroc), with a value of ten million CFA francs
The Silver Yennenga Stallion was won by «Un homme qui crie» directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun (Tchad), at a value of five million CFA francs
And the Bronze Yennenga Stallion was won by «Le mec idéal» directed by Owell Brown (Côte d’Ivoire), with a value of 2.5 millions CFA francs.
Notable for Nollywood were the prizes awarded in the TV/Video Feature category:
-The Prize for best TV/Vidéo Fiction went to «Hopeville» directed by Trengoue John (South Africa), with a value of two million CFA francs.
-And the special jury prize for for TV/Video fiction went to «Champions of our time» directed by Mak Kusare (Nigeria), with a value of one million CFA francs. «Champions of our time» also did Nigeria proud by winning a special ECOWAS prize.
Of the films mentioned here, I only saw the Chadian «Un homme qui crie» and Champions of Our Time, and both of those only partially. (One of my frustrations at the festival was that I didn’t see nearly as many of the films as I had hoped to see.) I love Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s films and I imagine he deserved the Silver Stallion, but I must admit I fell asleep during the entire middle section, which is crucial for understanding the story. It was me, not the film. It was a 10pm showing, the final screening of the film. I was exhausted from late nights, and I had gone all day without eating anything. What I saw of the film, a reflection on an old man and his relationship with his son who has taken over his position at a hotel swimming pool, was pensive and beautiful, the sort of film that wins festival prizes (and indeed won a jury prize at Cannes), but which a non-art-house audience would not go to see. Nigerian film Champions of Our Time was geared towards a more popular audience, using the old formulas of “disadvantaged character competes against privileged characters and teaches everyone a lesson along the way,” in the story of a young girl confined to a wheelchair whose dearest wish is to compete in a televised secondary school quiz show sponsored by the St. Flair’s organization of France. Unfortunately, I went to see it on its third screening, and the official festival dvd that had worked in the two other theatres did not work at this cinema. Director Mak Kusare had not been given a personal copy of the final cut by the producers, so he ended up slotting in a preview copy that was not a final cut and had “preview” floating in big white letters over half the film. The DVD shut off at the emotional climax of the film and refused to go further, so I did not see the rest of the film. The problems with the screening here were also experienced with the showing of the other Nigerian film in the competition, Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine, which on its first screening at the small venue of the Institute Francaise took about four tries to get the thing started with sound. Similar problems were experienced in the screening of Zimbabwean film I Want A Wedding Dress directed by Tsitsi Dangarembga, also the author of one of my favourite novels Nervous Conditions (Though her novel is one of my favourites, I was less impressed with this film, an “HIV film” which seems dominated by NGO aesthetics.) The European technician ended up cutting short the Q&A after The Figurine screening, saying the schedule was running late (due to the technical problems on the previous films at the venue.) This seemed yet another instance of perhaps unintentional marginalizing of Anglophone films at FESPACO. And although shuttling many of the films out to empty open-air cinemas on the outskirts of Ouagadougou was done in an attempt to draw a local audience into the film festival, I wonder if the extremely low turnout I observed at a screening of Kunle Afololayan’s The Figurine had to do with people assuming the films were just “FESPACO films” and of little popular interest. In several of the screenings I went to, the audiences were 70% European….
I intend to write more reviews of the films I saw at the festival for my column in Weekly Trust and will post them as they are published. But for a sneak preview of what I think about Champions of Our Time winning out over The Figurine in the video competition….. Let’s just say for now that I am very unimpressed with the jury on this decision…. Stay tuned for why….
And now for the column I published on 5 March 2011 in the middle of the festival, published, in the Weekly Trust: “FESPACO: Politics of video and Afolayan’s the Figurine”
Saturday, 05 March 2011 00:00 Carmen McCain
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.”