Reflections on FESPACO 2001

The monument, a rather curious construction representing stacked film cans, reflects an element of the humble yet ambitious nature of the African film industry. It is indeed a great achievement that one of the poorest countries in Africa, despite political instability, revolutions, and counter-revolutions has been able to organize FESPACO on a regular and continuing basis. Consequently, the often heard complaints that filmmakers and film prints were not showing up on time, should be tempered by the fact that despite it all, FESPACO actually manages to function pretty smoothly after the first couple of days.

The regular schedule of the theaters in Burkina Faso (and most African countries) is dominated by Kung Fu flicks, Hindi musical melodramas, and American B-Movie action films leading one to wonder whether this is a question of money, taste or monopoly, and it’s definitely a combination of all three.

However, for this one week from 8 o’clock in the morning all the way through midnight, the latest African films are shown in the relatively numerous and well-equipped theaters of Ouagadougou. There are also some free screenings on the Place of the Revolution in front of the main military headquarters. On the same stage, local music groups contribute to the festive mood. Also the national television station (the only one in Burkina Faso) dedicates itself to screening African films as an ally of the festival. Many visiting attendees and locals escape the sold-out shows in the packed theaters and attend outdoor screenings at the large Municipal Stadium outfitted with an inflatable screen for the event. On the outskirts of Ouagadougou, some people organize (illegal) video screenings for people who cannot afford to come to the town center to join the festival. My compliments to the organization and population of Burkina Faso, that despite political tensions, FESPACO has become an event that nurtures the ambitions of the whole continent.

The main subject of the 17th edition of FESPACO is new technologies in filmmaking. The introduction of digital techniques, which have the ability to significantly reduce the cost of production and editing, is crucial to the future of African filmmaking. While currently, digital video is mainly being used by documentarians, future developments should see more and more directors choosing video as their format for narrative work as well. Even today, African filmmakers are dependent on foreign capital to finance their projects, and often for the technical facilities offered by labs and post-production houses in Europe. For example, most of the films produced in the former French colonies were financed by the Ministry of Development or the European community. For the filmmakers in the English-speaking African countries, it is even harder to find financial sources to make their films, as the British government has not shown much interest in subsidizing the film industry in their former colonies. Post-colonial balances of power do have great influence on the distribution, production and choice of the subject. African filmmakers do experience this as a limitation of their possibilities. For African filmmakers working on the continent, many will have to become more self-sufficient to regain some of this control, which means embracing cost-reducing technologies.

Another response to the increasing demand for artistic autonomy and technical development of African filmmakers is the recent establishment of The African Guild of Directors and Producers. The Guild, which holds an informal get-together every afternoon at the Hotel Splendide pool during FESPACO, is a kind of professional union that wants to promote African independent art film. They stress neither the subject nor the roots of the filmmakers themselves, but the ability to raise the cinematographic quality of the film as their main purpose and increase their presence and access to financing.

Other African filmmakers do think it is important to reestablish contact with the African public and market because this will be the future of African filmmaking. One problem is that the local themes of African films often do not appeal to the African public themselves, because it was a life they already experienced and did not find very exiting. Many filmmakers are also focusing their attention on television distribution, as this medium is more accessible to a broad African audience, pays better than theatrical releases, and allows them to circumvent the exhibitors who have already made deals to acquire cheaper foreign product.

Indeed, African filmmakers hope to provide some kind of counterpoint to the Brazilian telenovellas, reruns of crass Western fare, and government propaganda. In Burkina Faso, the serial Kadi Joli,  about the daily life of two ladies directed by Idrissa Ouedraogo, is received with great enthusiasm by the public. In South Africa the commercial chain M-net is supporting young African filmmakers, mainly from English speaking countries, the potential market of M-net. While three films from their New Directions series were not in competition, M-Net organized debut screenings and reception to a packed house at the Hotel Silmande. Hopefully, the organization of FESPACO will make more efforts to become more than merely a Francophone festival.

The opening film by Henri-Joseph Koumba Bididi of Gabon, Les couilles de l’Eléphant (The Balls of the Elephant) described itself as a film “about elections . . . and erections. In this bawdy comedy, a stagnating politician hopes to regain his power and potency through the assistance of his French public relations agent, his wife’s fetishist, and a prescription for Viagra. The film does not show an optimistic view on the African man and his interest in public affairs. The audience seemed to favor the film more than the critics and professionals, but perhaps the festival organizers felt they had to select a film that cloaked its politics with a good dose of humor.

Vacances au pays (A Trip to the Country) by Jean Marie Teno of Cameroon matches the poetic brilliance of his previous film Chef! (Chief!) while taking on the subject of social and juridical organization of African society. In his latest film he returns to his native town where business dominates the traditional community gathering. He shows new and old values without falling into cynicism or romanticism, creating an evocative meditation on the real meaning of development in the context of Africa.

Sia, le rêve du python (The Python’s Dream) by the Burkinabe director, Dani Kouyaté, was awarded many prizes at FESPACO and was greeted to a standing ovation and cheers of Zongo by the local audiences who had no problem reading this allegory. Sia is a beautifully decorated tale about the abuse of power based on the legend of Wagadu. The custom of using family and friends to play the main roles in feature films, used among African filmmakers, is not always in favor of the final result. However, in the case of Dani Kouyaté it is a blessing, as the tradition of his family goes back to the griots and his father, Sotigui Kouyaté, is a very powerful actor who also played main roles in such works as Peter Brook’s The Man Who and the stage adaptation of The Mahabaratha.

The contribution of young filmmakers was both overwhelming and diverse. For the first time, I noticed that some African filmmakers have a tendency to make films outside Africa and ignore African themes. Once such film is the beautiful Relou by Burkinabe director, Fanta Regina Nacro, in which everyday racism is experienced and critiqued. It is one of a series of short films on racism made for French television. Two young women are hassled in a bus by North African boys, who insult one of the women in Arabic thinking that neither woman will understand. After a long silence the girl finally answers back in Arabic, and the boys are ashamed, realizing that those girls are the same age as their sisters.

Another remarkable film is Dôlè by Imunga Ivanga of Gabon, which is a touching portrait of a young boy who is pressured into a risky robbery to help pay for his sick mother’s medical treatment.

Rage by Newton I. Aduaka, awarded as best first feature film, portraits three adolescent boys with different social and racial backgrounds growing up in the British class society who are tied together by their common interest in hip-hop. Rap rhythms dictate the tempo of the images and the construction of the film. Rage, the main character, is tortured by the complexity of being half-Nigerian and half white in a society stratified by race. Through some hard lessons and estrangements with friends, Rage finally pulls it together with the help and wisdom of an old Rasta who is Rage’s only link to his deceased father.

The grand prize at FESPACO, the Yennenga Stallion, went to Ali Zaoua a film by Ayouch Nabil from Morocco and a realistic portrait of street children in Morocco. It is the culmination of the street children learning to become actors and their struggle for everyday life.

On a final note, I am heartened by the regional diversity that FESPACO displayed this year, as well as the different styles and themes represented. It is this diversity that we can use as the true indicator of the health and development of African cinema. I hope that next year’s FESPACO will find African filmmakers tackling even more genres, themes, and styles, thereby better reflecting the true multiplicity and richness of the cultures of the continent and the diaspora.


Etalon de Yennenga
Ali Zaoua (Nabil Ayouch, Morocco)

Oumarou Ganda First Film Award
Rage (Newton I. Aduaka, Nigeria)

Special Jury Award
Sia, le reve du python (Dani Kouyaté, Burkina Faso)

ACP/European Union Award
Sia, le reve du python (Dani Kouyaté, Burkina Faso)

Best Director
Sois mon amie (Naceur Ktari, Tunisia)

Best Music
Wasis Diop for Les Couilles de l’Elephant (Henri-Joseph Koumba, Gabon)

Best Cinematography
Mohamed Soudani for Adanggaman (Roger Gnoan Mbala, Côte d’Ivoire)

Best Sound
Fawzi Thabet for Siestes de Grenadines (Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud, Tunisia)

Best Décor
Sois mon amie (Naceur Ktari, Tunisia)

Best Editing
Arbi Ben Ali for Sois mon amie (Naceur Ktari, Tunisia)

Best Screenplay
Dôlè (Imunga Ivanga, Gabon)

Best Actor
Makena Diop in Báttu (Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Mali)

Best Actress
Albertine Nguenssan for the role of the mother in Adangganman (Roger Gnoan Mbala, Côte d’Ivoire)

Paul Robeson Diaspora Award
Lumumba (Raoul Peck, Haiti)

Short Films—Best fiction
Bintou (Fanta Regina Nacro, Burkina Faso)

Special Jury Award
Konorofili (Cheikh Fantamady Camara, Guinea)

Best Cinematography
Mouka (Adama Ruamba, Burkina Faso)

Best Documentary
not awarded

About the Director

Alite Thijsen

Alite Thijsen is both an internationally exhibited visual artist and a lawyer specializing in African law and politics. As a visual artist he participated in several art projects in West Africa and is now also a free-lance journalist based in the Netherlands.