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I Went to Africa's Biggest Film Festival Despite All the Jihad

Burkina Faso wasn't gonna let the fighting in Mali get between its people and their movies.

by Brian Whelan
12 March 2013, 8:00am


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, where over 40 percent live under the poverty line and where 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 that the screening building next door has burned down doesn't exactly inspire confidence. And dealing with African bureaucracy en français only complicates matters further.  


Pitch-side at the opening ceremony.

The opening ceremony at the 35,000 capacity Stade du 4-Août was packed with locals, and the president even 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 pitch-side with a load of the performers and a squad of scowling police who didn't look very happy that I was there. Yet they failed to really do anything about it. A previous opening ceremony was ruined when two people died in a crush, so maybe that explained their reluctance to get too argy-bargy, as well as the scaled down military horse acrobatics and more modest fireworks display.

During the day, temperatures soar to 40 degrees, which – lemme tell you, darling – 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 red carpet (which runs parallel to an open sewer) into the Ciné Burkina without sweating buckets. 

I saw films from Haiti, Tunisia and South Africa (many in French, which was obviously hugely enjoyable considering I can only speak English), but Nigeria's thriving Nollywood industry appears to have been entirely snubbed. An African film expert explained to me that Nigeria's mostly low-budget, hastily scripted movies aren't considered to be 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 travelling to Europe. For locals, the scenes where men broke down in tears apparently had some kind of comic depth that I couldn't quite get to grips with, because everyone around me couldn't stop chuckling. Mind you, I suppose full-grown men lamenting the death of loved ones is pretty fucking hilarious when you think about it. 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 cinema 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 travelling 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've been provided with to create smaller villages spread further apart. Even inside the capital city, the refugees from Mali – while welcomed in 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 petrol stations can be found spread 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 the residents, most of whom had already suffered a year under Sharia law.

While supping 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 realised they were doing so because the road ultimately led to Mali, where westerners are supposed to be the prime targets.


One of Bazoule's sacred crocodiles

I was told when I travelled to the tourist village of Bazoule 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 strongly believe that certain masks contains the spirits of their dead ancestors.

As you enter the village, there are two large mud hut buildings either side of the road. One was a mosque for the 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’m 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. They’ve mostly managed to avoid the horrific conflicts their neighbours have endured, but 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

More from the world of African film: 

I Was An Accidental Nigerian Film Star

Nollywood Omen

The VICE Guide To Congo

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