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Africa's Biggest Film Festival Isn't Scared of a Little Jihad

While French troops were killing Islamists in Mali last month, thousands of film fans were gathering just a few hundred miles away in Burkina Faso to celebrate the best of African cinema. The festival has been running since 1969, but they still haven’t...
Κείμενο Brian Whelan

The red carpet at the snappily named Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou

While French troops were killing Islamists in Mali last month, thousands of film fans were gathering just a few hundred miles away in Burkina Faso to celebrate the best of African cinema. Attending Africa’s biggest film festival is a bizarre, somewhat unsettling experience. Crowds laugh at the most unusual parts of films and, instead of being shoulder-barged off the pop-up vodka bar by impatient publicists, you can spend your evenings drinking in the street with refugees fleeing the war in Mali—a considerably different experience to how I imagine an evening's entertainment goes at Cannes or Tribeca.


Holding a film festival may seem an unusual priority in a country where nearly half the population is younger than 15, over 40 percent live under the poverty line, and soaring food prices have caused riots in recent years, but the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) is Burkina Faso’s largest cultural event. It also brings in the tourist trade vital to the area's economy.

The festival has been running since 1969, but they still haven’t managed to get everything in order quite yet. Arriving at the festival office to find out no one's bothered to print out your press pass and the screening building next door has burned down doesn't exactly inspire confidence. And dealing with African bureaucracy en français only complicates matters further.

On the field at the opening ceremony

The opening ceremony at the 35,000 capacity Stade du 4-Août was packed with locals, and even the president made an appearance to prove just how seriously the people of Burkino Faso take their film festival. I managed to walk through the wrong entrance and found myself on the field with a load of the performers and a squad of scowling police who didn't look very happy that I was there but didn't do anything about it. A previous opening ceremony was ruined when two people died in a stampede, so maybe that explained their reluctance to get too argy-bargy.

During the day, temperatures soar to around 100 degrees, which, lemme tell you, is not the kind of weather for a red carpet appearance. As such, most of the bigger screenings take place in the evening when it's a little cooler and you can strut down the carpet (which runs parallel to an open sewer) into the Ciné Burkina without sweating buckets.


I saw films from Haiti, Tunisia, and South Africa, but Nigeria's thriving Nollywood industry appeared to have been entirely snubbed. An African film expert explained to me that Nigeria's mostly low-budget, hastily scripted movies aren't considered proper cinema, and with so much funding coming from France, the focus in Burkina Faso is on "art." Which, of course, means almost exclusively French-language flicks.

All the best films had already been screened elsewhere, like the Senegalese movie The Pirogue, which details the tragic voyage of 31 migrants traveling to Europe. For locals, the scenes where men broke down in tears apparently held some kind of comic depth that I couldn't quite grasp, because everyone around me couldn't stop chuckling. A mention of the European financial crisis also drew a laugh, and, from what I could gather, giggling during sex scenes is mandatory.

The Malian war refugee and his huge sword.

While we sat in a theater giggling at the misfortune of others, a war was (and still is) being waged against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, just across the border in Mali. Over 40,000 refugees have already fled into Burkina Faso, and it wasn't hard to spot them wandering around the streets of Ouagadougou, where their Tuareg robes clearly distinguished them from locals.

Over a drink, one refugee explained to me that he'd fled by foot with his family of eight after the French military stormed into Gao, a city in the south of Mali. After traveling hundreds of miles by foot, he now lives outside a refugee camp with his family and has been trying to survive by selling his beautifully crafted daggers to tourists. Pulling his huge sword out at the cafe—to which nobody batted an eyelid—he explained that the Islamists who had seized control in certain parts of Mali were unwelcome, but the arrival of the French troops only made things worse. “Al Qaeda have big bellies, long beards, and they're no good. But it was when the French military came that people started to be killed.”


Since fleeing their home country, many Tuaregs have had trouble adapting to the uniform UN refugee camps erected near the borders of Mali and Burkina Faso. Tuaregs are used to living in small communities and have been taking down the tents they were given and creating smaller villages spread farther apart. Even inside the capital city, the refugees from Mali—while welcomed by the majority of Burkinabés—don’t seem to want to live in camps.

Refugees fleeing Mali support the MNLA, a Tuareg rebel group who initially allied with al Qaeda in parts of Mali before the groups turned on each other. The MNLA was formed by Tuaregs returning from Libya, where some had been paid to fight for Gaddafi. The fallen Libyan leader remains a popular figure with many West Africans—Libyan gas stations can be found across Burkina Faso, and it didn't take long to spot taxis and motorbikes adorned with stickers of a smiling Muammar.

Joseph is a Burkinabé student I met who was studying just over 300 miles away in Timbuktu when Ansar Dine took over last April and implemented Sharia law—veiling women, stoning adulterers, and destroying ancient shrines. Joseph endured Islamist rule for a year, but fled after the arrival of the French military. He explained that he believed the invasion had to happen, but complained that the troops had stormed the town with little concern for the safety of its residents.

While sipping a large bottle of beer, he explained to me that al Qaeda's take on Islam was at odds with his own beliefs as a Muslim. He then went on to warn me that Westerners were now in danger because of the situation in Mali, claiming that police had raided a Tuareg camp that week and found Islamists building bombs intended to kill or maim Europeans visiting the film festival. I couldn't confirm his claims, though there were reports that a man was arrested in February while trying to carry a parcel bomb onto a plane at Ouagadougou airport.


Leaving the city for a day trip, armed police pulled our car over to check documents and make sure we weren't being kidnapped. This was reassuring at first, then kind of terrifying when we realized they were doing it because the road we were on ultimately led to Mali, where Westerners are supposed to be the prime targets.

One of Bazoule's sacred crocodiles

When I traveled to the tourist village of Bazoule, I was told that most West Africans consider Sharia law to be an alien Arab culture being pushed by well-heeled groups in Mali and Nigeria. The people I spoke to have no interest in jihad, which makes sense when you consider that it must be difficult for people here to rigidly adhere to religious dogma when they also believe that certain masks contains the spirits of their dead ancestors.

As you enter the village, there are two large mud hut buildings on either side of the road. One was a mosque for Muslims, the other a church for Christians. Then, just up the road, there are some "sacred crocodiles" that seem to unite everyone.

Back in the capital, I was told that the security services are on high alert because of the situation in Mali and that people are being kidnapped across the region, but Burkina Faso manages to remain a relative sea of calm. But while they’ve largely avoided the horrific conflicts their neighbors have endured, malnutrition is the big killer here, and their former colonial masters in France are unlikely to invade or take on that problem any time soon.


Follow Brian on Twitter: @brianwhelanhack

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