Neither the nearby outbreak of Ebola nor the toppling of Burkina Faso's government could stop this year's FESPACO, the biennial Pan-African film festival held in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou. Over the last week more than a hundred African-directed films including features, shorts, and documentaries screened at half a dozen theaters scattered throughout the city.
"Blaise + Ebola Dégagé!" was scrawled on walls and intersections across the capital, referring to the recently overthrown dictator Blaise Compaore, who originally seized power after the 1987 assassination of his close friend President Thomas Sankara. Sankara was a beacon of the post-Independence generation of African Lumumbas and Nkrumahs, who refused to submit to Western hegemony, decrying debt structures and aid dependence as the new architecture of colonial relations.
After Sankara's assassination, Blaise dialled down the rhetoric and ruled the Sahel nation with close cooperation with France for a relatively uneventful 27 years. Four months ago, however, as the parliament prepared to change the constitution to allow Blaise to seek a fifth term in office, protesters surged into the streets and set fire to government buildings. The military sided with the people, and within days, Blaise was on a plane to Morocco. One of the buildings torched was the Hotel Independence, the unofficial headquarters and watering hole for festival-goers at FESPACO.
Walking between venues and talking to filmmakers over the weekend, there was little feeling that the country's political and social climate had threatened the atmosphere of the festival. "The context this time was particular—there was the Ebola virus and at one point we hesitated," says Gervais Hien, a festival organizer. "And then you have the political context. A few months ago, there was a popular insurrection. So donors and authorities hesitated. But thank God the festival came out on top, and it's African cinema that benefits. So the adventure continues!"
Filmmakers from Senegal to Madagascar, from Algeria to South Africa, gathered to screen and watch hundreds of films, most of which will rarely be seen outside of local festivals. These works tell stories of local importance, and are made with African audiences in mind. The question of funding and resources often complicates things. A major sponsor of FESPACO is the International Organization of Francophonie (OIF), France's soft diplomacy effort to keep a sense of community and common culture alive among its far-flung former conquests. Many films that are lucky enough to receive production funding often get it from French or other Western organizations, meaning that financing plays a role in shaping which stories get told and which don't.
Two filmmakers who came from Cameroon to attend the festival criticized the fact that they seemed to only be able to find European financing for stories about AIDS, poverty, or migrants fleeing Africa in boats. "They orientate cinematographic subjects according to their political and social points of view and their interests," says one of the two, Regis Tala, who received support from the OIF for a film about a young girl with HIV.
Another film that also received OIF funding, La Pirogue and won third prize at FESPACO 2013, showed boat people languishing on their journey to escape Africa and seek salvation on the shores of Europe. Tala says he hated the film. "I think Africa is much more developed than they imagine—it's not just the bush—there is joie de vivre, stories of people who succeed from nothing."
While for most young filmmakers living and working in Africa getting funding or resources remains an enormous challenge, FESPACO gives even the most low-budget films made on the continent a platform and a wide audience, and lets high and low filmmakers network, sharing contacts, stories and tips. During the day, the sun strikes hard through the haze of the harmattan and cool theaters provide shelter from the heat and the dust. At night, directors and critics sip whiskey and Brakina beer at roadside bars, where Malian refugees play electric guitar and prostitutes circle in heels.
Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka's documentary film about the war and creative resilience in Sudan's Blue Nile and Nouba Mountain region, Beats of the Antonov, has gone on to screen at film festivals around the world and has won multiple awards, including one at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Kuka says that when he started screening Hollywood blockbusters to people at the refugee camps in South Sudan, people would sit and watch for about 20 minutes before the entire audience got bored and left. But when he started screening cuts from his own film to people in the camps, they stayed and watched. "It was images of things they experienced and people they know, and so they get really into the film," says Kuka. "There is always a local market for local films, because people want to see themselves reflected back."
For years FESPACO has only accepted films into competition made by African filmmakers living and working on the continent, but for the first time this year they've allowed films by African filmmakers in the diaspora to compete on equal footing. Iquo B Essien is a Nigerian-American filmmaker, based in New York, whose short film Aissa's Story competed in the shorts competition. The film is inspired by the real life case of former IMF director Dominique Strauss Khan, accused of assaulting a maid in his hotel room in Manhattan.
Essien's fictionalized short tells the story from the point of view of the maid, an immigrant from Guinea who struggles to move on with her life after charges against her assaulter are dismissed. While Essien has screened her film at festivals around the US and Europe, she says the film has really resonated with African audiences at FESPACO. "When I screen it here people are like, 'Oh you're telling Nafissatou Diallo's story!' I appreciate coming here to Burkina, because here they know [the maid] by name, and that's not the case in the United States—there it's a story about Strauss Khan."
Some films were obvious hits with the local Burkinabe audience. People queued for hours to get into the screening for Run, Ivorian director Philippe Lacote's magical realism-inspired feature chronicling a young Ivorian boy who comes of age during the civil war of the early 2000s. Miners Shot Down, a film by South African director Rehad Desai about the violent police repression of the 2012 Marikana miner's strike, received a long standing ovation. Moroccan filmmaker Hicham Lasri's captivating feature film They Are the Dogs (C'est eux les Chiens) used a dizzying but effective handheld technique to tell the story of a man freed after 30 years of torture in a Casablanca prison. Ethiopian filmmaker Hermon Hailay opened eyes and broke taboos with her beautiful The Price of Love, about a tragic romance between a young taxi driver and a prostitute.
The stories being told here are at once universal and very much local, and reflect the kinds of narratives that resonate with Africans today. "Theres no African cinema per se. Outside of the film festivals, it'd be very hard to watch these films," says Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka, "But we are in an amazing place where we can actually create and have a captive audience around us who want to watch things from our own experience."