The unlikely home of Africa's Oscars

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — This dusty, sultry capital of a landlocked, ferociously hot country is an unlikely spot for a film festival. There's not a beach or a mountain in sight, and whatever glamour that can be found is gritty.

Yet this is where Africa's leading film festival is held and where the continent's top film awards — Africa's version of the Oscars — are awarded. Ouagadougou outshines festivals in Cape Town, Zanzibar and Harare.

“It’s extraordinary,” said Gaston Kabore, Burkina Faso's most famous film director and this year's lead judge for the 19 feature films competing for the Golden Stallion of Yennenga (Etalon d’Or de Yennenga). “There’s nothing much for a tourist — and yet they come, more and more each year, and suddenly you’re here in this country and it’s full of people.”

The film festival is called Fespaco, the French acronym for the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou. Every other year since 1969, it has showcased the continent's best films.

“They come because there’s cinema,” said Kabore, 57. “That’s what the festival has achieved over 40 years. For eight days, only cinema counts."

It’s an amazing event in a land where per capita income is just $391 a year, with many citizens working as subsistence farmers. But somehow, amid such poverty, Burkina Faso is also a land of movies.

In a few small moves, Ouagadougou transforms into the unlikely Cannes of the continent. The city's dust-filled streets — crowded with moped riders wearing protective facemasks, women balancing trays of bright carrots on their heads, and the odd donkey cart — are decorated with bunting. A monument to cinema flashes with bright lights at a traffic rotary and the entrance to the city's most upscale cinema is lined with a red carpet few dare tread on. 

Burkina Faso's film industry found its stride under Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary leader in power from 1983 to 1987. Sankara, dubbed "Africa’s Che Guevara," banned refrigerators and air conditioning, calling them bourgeois trappings, but he exalted in promoting movies. 

At the height of Sankara's Marxist rule, Burkina Faso boasted 55 cinema halls, many of them Soviet-built and reaching into cattle-trading towns of the arid Sahel in the far north and into the sweaty jungle and waterfalls of the deep southwest.

“You cannot kill ideas,” Sankara said a week before his death in a 1987 coup, which brought current President Blaise Compaore to power.

Many of the films shown in the festival were wannabe Hollywood action flicks or Hong Kong kickathons. Regardless, they offer a rare chance for Africans to watch themselves on the big screen, in movies made by Africans.

In contrast to many of the films, this year’s festival winner, "Teza" — a stirring portrait of the horrors of Ethiopia during the Red Terror under Mengistu Haile Mariam’s 1974 to 1991 regime — is filled with big ideas.

“The film is a very powerful message to all African people, especially the coming young generation, that we need them to administer the continent well,” the film's associate producer, Selome Gerima, said when she accepted the Golden Stallion in front of a crowd of thousands in the national stadium. 

“This film tells us that more than anything we need peace, and to unite as Africans,” said Gerima, who is the sister of award-winning director Haile Gerima. During the Red Terror, the producer saw people killed on the streets.

Close to midnight after the awards ceremony, long lines of local film-lovers queued up in the warm night air for a chance to see Africa’s best film at an outdoor theater. 

“Everyone needs to see this film, not only because it has come top,” said Alphonse Some, a 50-year-old civil servant, after he watched it. “I hope that films like this will allow us to change things.”

"Teza" follows Anberber, a member of a generation of young Ethiopian intellectuals who had hoped to modernize their country after returning home when Mengistu toppled the feudal regime of Emperor Haile Selassie. Instead, Anberber experienced political kidnappings, mob lynchings and summary executions. Returning to Germany, where pronounced racism made him feel like a stranger, was no better.

“We have to distribute this film to make sure a new generation of young people grow up with its horrors in mind,” said Gerima, who hopes the award will help her sew up distribution deals across Africa. She wants to take the film to schools and hold discussions after each screening. “Getting the money to do a film is a big test, and distribution is another problem,” Gerima said.

So inspired is Gerima that she plans to build her own movie theaters — she has started building four in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, and later hopes to expand throughout the country and elsewhere in the continent.

It will be a welcome boost for Africa’s cinemas. Cameroon’s three movie halls closed in January. In Congo, Brazzaville has no functioning screen, and even in Burkina Faso, the cradle of African cinema, the number of cinemas has shrunk to 10. 

“I hope cinema walls will not disappear,” says Kabore. “We need to tell our stories.”

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