OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Cine Wemtenga’s open-air film hall is packed. Every last space on the concrete benches is taken, and the guffaws of the audience rise up into the night.
The people are watching an episode of "Super Flics", a cop series set in their home country of Burkina Faso. Even though the 40th anniversary of the pan-African film festival, Fespaco, is going on at the same time, the local crowd is much more interested in the festival’s TV sitcom/series category, than any art-house feature-length film going for the top gong of the week.
“People prefer TV series to film because the stories talk about the reality of how we live and they can discuss it from day to day,” says Amidou Kontiliguisenko, 27, after emerging from watching three episodes in a row of "Super Flics."
“Series have lighter themes and are easier to do and people like them because they can watch them at home and so it seems like it’s just a free gift,” says Boubakar Diallo, a Burkinabe satirist whose own sitcom weaves stories of malaria and hygiene amid more homespun themes. “If it’s too reflective, people won’t come.”
"Super Flics" certainly isn’t that: The hero is an errant cop with more women on the go than he can handle, and the subplot involves a woman running prostitutes. Other sitcoms, such as "La Cour Commune" from Ivory Coast, add polygamous families into the mix.
“Everyone lives there in the same courtyard with all their problems," says director Lengani Herve Eric Rachedi, 32, of his series "La Cour Commune." "There is a man who cannot satisfy his four wives, so they all go chasing after the single man, creating jealousy and suspicion." Throw in some sorcery and a secret love potion and it’s just your typical kitchen-sink drama.
Although Burkina Faso was once home to 55 cinemas, today there are only 10, and most of them splurge on action movies imported from Hollywood and the odd Bollywood musical. As cinemas face closure continent-wide, TV made with cheap digital technology increasingly presents the only chance for viewers to watch people who look like them confront issues they understand.
"I do TV because it’s less expensive and it’s what I know,” says Aminata Diallo-Glez, who co-directs "Super Flics." "Here in Africa we have so many problems, so we give people a good time and something to smile about. Sometimes we also carry messages about things like HIV/AIDS so there are things for them to think about after as well."
It’s no small-fry offering: Diallo-Glez had a 200,000 euro budget and employed 50 people for six months, filming on location in neighbouring Ivory Coast as well as Burkina Faso.
That leaves the prospect of how to fund it all. There’s no question the viewers are there, but for the moment African TV channels aren’t what they might one day become.
“TV doesn’t really have money to buy,” says Diallo-Glez, who instead seeks local sponsors to buy up the content and sandwich it with their adverts. Banks, mobile phone companies and the national lottery have done this with a glut of Burkinabe sitcoms.
Burkina Faso also attracts a great deal of donor funding. The French-language organization the Francophonie last year funded more sitcoms from Burkina Faso than anywhere else. Donors gave Boubakar Diallo 95,000 euros for his village-based sitcom, "Série Noire à Koulbi," which took 75 days to film and employed 50 people.
A more sustainable future lies in developing cable channels and selling to some of Africa’s 100 million-strong diaspora. Already Ivory Coast’s Studio 225, which produced "La Cour Commune," is selling its DVDs solely to Europe for 15 euros apiece in a bid to raise sales and duck the impact of piracy that snatches hold of Africa’s streets.
Plus if Nigeria’s success at making home movies is anything to go by, Burkina Faso has a powerful big sister to follow. Its $450 million “Nollywood” industry produces more than 2,000 videos a year and has an Internet download site to serve the diaspora.
“In the U.S., Nollywood films have become a multi-million dollar industry as immigrants and other fans snatch them up,” says Vijay Mahajan, a marketing professor at the University of Texas. “Nollywood is the big show in Africa, but it is still at a very early stage. It will grow if they sit down and think about it seriously. It can learn a lot from Bollywood.”
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