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Africa's largest film festival focuses on strong women

Suzanne Cords | Sasha Gankin
March 1, 2023

At the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, or FESPACO, African cinema has freed itself from Western models, with women leading the way.

Picture of a woman in a turquoise robe, with blurred figures on camels or seated behind her at a desert
The film 'Sira' has already won the Panorama Audience Award for best feature Image: Les Films Selmon

Sira can hardly wait: The female nomad is on her way to meet her groom with her family. However, the group is attacked mid-journey by Islamist terrorists and the men are murdered. Sira is left stranded in the desert to face what she believes is certain death. But she is a fighter.

Apolline Traore's film "Sira" tells the story of a gripping struggle for survival. "It's about resistance, about never giving up," the director from Burkina Faso tells DW.

And there is something else close to her heart: portraying women as strong characters.

"I simply have to give them a voice. Most of the time, they are portrayed as victims: People show women in refugee camps who have lost their fathers or husbands. But it's these same women who protect their children. Who have used dangerous escape routes to save them." Women, in fact, who have demonstrated how to survive. According to Traore, it is precisely these women who play a major role in the fight against the jihadists in Africa.

A woman in blue robe walks through the desert
'Sira' was shot in Mauritania as it was too risky in the north of Burkina FasoImage: Les Films Selmon

Where terror is a bloody reality

In Europe, "Sira" won the Panorama Audience Award for best feature at the recently concluded 73rd Berlin International Film Festival. For German viewers, the drama is far removed from them, yet for Apolline Traore's compatriots in Burkina Faso, it is a bloody reality.

For years, armed jihadists have terrorized the population. That's why the Burkinabe director wanted to shoot her film in the north of her homeland — an authentic shooting location where people have long suffered from terror threats.

FESPACO: Women take center stage at 2023 film festival

But things turned out differently. "Shortly before I was to travel there with the film team for three months, there was another attack. The government informed me that I would have to take soldiers with me for protection. But that would probably have gone down badly, they really have other responsibilities."

A picture of a woman smiling widely into the camera. She is dressed in pink with matching headgear and large golden hoop earrings.
Apolline Traore makes films about social illsImage: Apolline Traoré

Too dangerous to film in Burkina Faso

Apolline Traore had to find another filming location and eventually ended up in Mauritania. The support there was great, she says, but she's still very sad she couldn't film in Burkina Faso. Maybe, she hopes, it will work out next time.

And even then, she wants to focus on one of the many pressing social problems again. "I learned my craft in the US," she says, "but I can't make people laugh in my films, only cry. I just have to show what abuses there are and what people have to suffer. For me, it's also a kind of therapy."

Picture of a logo in the shape of the country of Burkina Faso, with an old fashioned film camera pictured below it. Behind this is a building with the word FESPACO at the top of it.
The FESPACO festival site in Ouagadougou has attracted many cinema loversImage: Tim Brakemeier/dpa/picture-alliance

Traore is not the only one highlighting bitter realities at the Pan-African Film & TV Festival of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.

Known by its French acronym FESPACO, the festival also features films by Moussa Sene Absa from Senegal, who addresses forced marriage in "Xale, les blessures de l'enfance" (The Injuries of Childhood); by Moroccan director Maryam Touzani who tackles the taboo subject of homosexuality in "Le Bleu du Caftan" (The Blue of the Caftan); and by Nigerian director Wale Oyejide, whose film "Bravo, Burkina!" tells the story of a youth who seeks his fortune in vain in faraway Europe.

Films by and for Africans

FESPACO only showcases films by Africans: The aim is to offer them a platform to show their skills — and not to feature films from the USA or Europe to the local population.

However, it is not easy to organize a film festival in a country where many inhabitants live in poverty and suffer from recurring droughts. There are only four cinemas — far too few for the large crowds at FESPACO. Thus, the organizers have improvised and simply screen them as open-air films.

A bust of a man wearing a hat and holding a film camera identified as that of Paulin Soumanou Vieyra situated in front of a building on which is written the word FESPACO.
Paulin Soumanou Vieyra is considered a pioneer of African cinemaImage: Sophie Garcia/AP/picture alliance

That was already the case in 1969, when a group of cinema enthusiasts launched FESPACO in Burkina Faso (then known as the Republic of Upper Volta). The country had then only been independent for nine years.

Under French rule, Africans were long forbidden from making films in the colonies. One of the first African films ever produced, "Afrique-sur-Seine" (Africa on the Seine), was made in Paris in 1955 by students. Among them was Paulin Soumanou Vieyra from Benin, who is considered a pioneer of African cinema.

'The public wants to see our stories now'

So in 1969, people in Burkina Faso didn't have much experience with cinema, but they were passionate about it.

Since its inception, the festival has been held every two years, with few exceptions.

"African cinema is the youngest in the world," Apolline Traore tells DW. "It was completely financed by the West for a long time. Meanwhile, we try to raise the money for our films ourselves." She adds that she has the impression that "in the West they have used up all the stories; the audience now wants to see ours."

Picture of people sitting on plastic chairs in the open air in front of a screen with a film being played.
FESPACO is an important source of income for Burkina FasoImage: Nic Bothma/epa/dpa/picture alliance

But Traore sees a danger that financially strong countries might not only help with tips on filming but might also interfere to showcase African history through a Western lens. "This is something we have to fight against. We have to show the West that we are capable of producing our own story and that we tell it better than anyone else — because it's our story and we know it better than they do."

Confident women directors

There are now many outstanding African filmmakers, especially women. Of the 170 films — works from Egypt, Angola, Kenya, Morocco and Senegal, among others — that were submitted to FESPACO to compete for the coveted awards,  about half were directed by women.

"I'm not surprised at all," Tunisian jury president Dora Bouchoucha tells DW. "And I don't think it surprises anyone in all of Africa, only outside the continent. I made my first film 25 years ago and my team was almost all women. The best production managers are women. Filmmaking is all about details. And everyone knows that women are more aware of details. Also, women care less about their ego. We make films our way — and we do it very well."

A yellow poster with a black and white picture of a woman identified as Dora Bouchacha with the words in French saying "Jury President" as well as a logo that reads FESPACO.
Tunisian Dora Bouchoucha is jury president of FESPACO 2023Image: FESPACO

A cinematic appeal for peace

FESPACO was opened on February 25, by the Burkinabe and Malian prime ministers, as Mali is the guest of honor at the festival this year.

Despite — or perhaps because of — all the problems that Burkina Faso, Mali and other African countries undoubtedly have, especially with terrorism, "The Culture of Peace" was chosen as FESPACO's 2023 motto.

"The world today is confronted with many problems, all due to social inequalities, exclusion, extremism and the arms race," the festival homepage states. Films could contribute to thinking together about how to secure peace and social cohesion.

This is also what Apolline Traore wants, who is in the race for the main prize, the Golden Stallion of Yennenga, for her film "Sira." This trophy is also a tribute to strong women: Princess Yennenga was a warrior who went into battle on her stallion fearing nothing and no one.

The Pan-African Film & TV Festival of Ouagadougou runs until March 4, 2023.

Yennenga: Ancestor of Burkina Faso's Mossi people

This article was originally written in German.