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The unlikely home of Africa's Oscars

Fespaco transforms dusty Ouagadougou into the continent's Cannes.

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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