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FESPACO film festival showcases African film

October 21, 2021

Africa's largest film festival, FESPACO in Burkina Faso, reflects the crises the continent currently faces. The films show a diverse picture of Africa.

big sign reads FESPACO, date and place, several people in the background
Africa's biggest film festival is on againImage: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP

It is the first screening of Africa's largest film festival, FESPACO, and the small auditorium of the Institut Français can't seat all the people who have turned up to see Emmanuel Rotoubam Mbaide's new film Massoud.

Mbaide, a Chadian-Burkinabe filmmaker, is well known in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou.

In the film, Dari Massoud, the son of an imam, joins a terrorist group involved in drug trafficking. The film shows police shooting an innocent man and failing to deal with the consequences.

"I don't want to denounce police misconduct with this film. I want to paint a picture of this world of war where you don't know who the enemy is," Mbaide says, stressing that it is not the time to make "merely beautiful films."

Films these days, he told DW, must take a hard look at society. 

Cinema enthusiasm and terrorism

Massoud is not the only film at the festival that deals with the subject of terrorism. The Moroccan production Oliver Black also discusses the topic, as does the Burkinabe documentary Massiba, le mal d'un peuple.

The subject is omnipresent in the region, especially in the Sahel, the belt of land bordered by the Sahara to the North and the Sudanian savanna to the South.

Burkina Faso | FESPACO audience sitting in movie theater
Waiting for the FESPACO opening film to beingImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

Current crises in the region also preoccupied the FESPACO organizing team — some of the invited guests did not come because of the ongoing pandemic and the security situation, says festival director Alex Moussa Sawadogo.

"At the same time, we are satisfied that large delegations confirmed their participation." Sawadogo, who lives partly in Berlin, launched the Afrikamera festival in 2007, among other projects, and has been curator of various film festivals around the world.

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Burkina Faso has seen numerous attacks by terrorist groups and bandits since January 2016. More than 1.4 million people have fled for fear of attack.

To avoid incidents in Ouagadougou, there were a number of controls around the capital before the film festival opening. The police presence during the festival is enormous. Venues are cordoned off and bag checks are mandatory.

Lots of potential, but a lack of funding

The importance of FESPACO is immense for Burkina Faso. The festival was first held in 1969 and is considered one of the country's flagship events.

This year, the 27th edition with 239 films should have taken place in February but was postponed to October due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the European Union delegation's ambassador, Wolfram Vetter, the entire cultural sector plays an "enormous role" in the country. "After all, 2% of the gross domestic product is related to the film industry; it creates jobs and is a very important economic factor," he says.

Burkina Faso | FESPACO , a soldier checks a person's bag, long line of people waiting
Bags are checked for fear of terrorist attacksImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

The potential has just been emphasized by UNESCO in a new report. About five million people work in the film industry across the continent, generating $5 billion (€4.3 billion) annually.

With the right support, this figure could quadruple. But the infrastructure is lacking. In some countries, there is only one permanent cinema, if that.

"African cinema suffers from a lack of funding," Sawadogo criticizes. "In many countries there is no political will for cinema."

Senegal's film industry on the rise

There are new approaches when it comes to funding the industry in Senegal.

The Fund for the Promotion of the Film Industry (Focipa) was recently founded. It supports projects with €1.5 million of funding and has had a hand in bringing successful films to the screen lately.

The success of the hour is the film Atlantique by Mati Diop, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2019. The love story involving migration, arranged marriage and magic was shown for the first time at the opening on Saturday.

Burkina Faso | FESPACO , several men outdoors, some with film cameras
The making of the film "Massoud" Image: Katrin Gänsler/DW

To create films like these, international co-productions are necessary. The European Union is one of the sponsors.

But that does not mean filmmakers are less independent, Alex Moussa Sawadago argues.

"I think they can work independently in these co-productions," he says. Although he admits that ultimately European producers have better access to finances needed to make African films.

The power of documentary film

According to Kenyan filmmaker Sam Soko, all genres have an equally hard time finding funding. He recently made a documentary titled Softie, which follows the life of Kenyan photographer Boniface Mwangi, who is the recipient of this year's Luxembourg Peace Prize in the "Young Peacemaker" category.

Mwangi first became an activist and then, in 2017, a candidate in the general election. "It's important to stand by our history and see where we are right now, politically, and in how we deal with each other," says Soko. He documented intimidation attempts and the effects of political activism on family life. "His country comes before his family," Mwangi's wife Hellen Njeri says in the documentary.

Burkina Faso | FESPACO, Sam Soko, man with a microphone
Sam Soko, a dedicated filmmakerImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

The only Burkinabe film screening in the festival's main competition is Les trois Lascars by Boubakar Diallo.

It is one of the few comedies shown and tells the story of three friends who fake a business trip to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, when in fact they plan a weekend with their lovers.

The plan goes awry because their plane crashes and they are presumed dead. It's a plot that creates a pleasant distraction for a moment from the otherwise serious topics at this year's FESPACO.

This article has been translated from German.