AFRICAN CINEMA TAKES THE SPOTLIGHT AT BURKINA FASO’S FESPACO

As awards season draws to a close in Europe and America, we can finally stop talking about which actress wore what gown and whether Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were to blame for the Moonlight debacle, and turn our attention south. This is because last week saw the return of Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la television de Ouagadougou (Fespaco) in Burkina Faso. Celebrating diversity, this long-running festival aims to bring together the brightest and best from Africa’s fast-growing film industry: an industry that still doesn’t receive as much attention as it deserves from overseas audiences, but which is producing films of a high quality in impressive numbers.

Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, alone releases around 2,500 movies a year, which makes it one of the biggest production hubs in the world, second only to Bollywood in India. And the films of Nollywood are hugely influential, playing on televisions in bars, hair salons, airport lounges and in homes across Africa. The industry employs over a million people — second only to farming — in Nigeria, pumping $600 million annually into the national economy. It is the reason why Nigeria sometimes nudges ahead of South Africa in their decades-old race as to who has the biggest economy in Africa. And any visitors to Lagos should spend an afternoon in one of the iconic old cinemas in the centre of the city.

Although this is not to say that South Africa doesn’t have a fast-growing film industry of its own. Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and international producers have long been attracted to its reliable climate, talented film crews and good-looking local population. As a result, production houses near Cape Town have created 35,000 jobs, up from 4,000 in 1995, and have produced classics such as Tsotsi, The Long Walk to Freedom and District Nine.

Although few films can touch the critical acclaim of Timbuktu, a movie by Malian director Abderrahamne Sissako that follows the story of a couple who were reportedly stoned to death for having children outside wedlock. Sissako expands the story into a number of separate fictional scenes, generating a range of emotions that go further than the natural reactions of outrage and horror. It swept the board at the 2015 Cesar awards in Paris, winning the accolade for best film and best director.

But despite this booming industry in Africa, only a minority of films reach a Western audience. And while Fespaco focuses on finding new talent in Africa, it also aims to promote African film to people who are still inclined to stereotype it. Since 1969, Fespaco has been the largest film festival on the continent and every year thousands of filmmakers, industry insiders and festival-goers flock to the Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou to watch the feature length films and shorts being screened—and to find African film’s next major star.

Increasingly international producers, scriptwriters and directors are coming to the festival to understand both the continent itself and the local film industry. This year 1,000 films were submitted and 101 were in the running for prizes in categories ranging from Best Short to Best Film from the Diaspora, and the famous Golden Stallion, which is the equivalent of the Palme d’Or. In fact, the entire event is loosely modelled on the Cannes Film festival, offering an opportunity for film enthusiasts to binge-watch cinematic productions, discuss industry-related challenges and celebrate excellence.

And the strength of Fespaco is that it continues to showcase work from both countries with established industries such as Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal and Egypt, and those where film financing is virtually non-existent.

This year one of the biggest talking points at the festival was a film by Beninese director Sylvestre Amoussou. The African Storm tells the story of a president who nationalises businesses run by cynical Western executives. “It’s not an anti-European film, but a film against the governments of states that exploit us,” Amoussou told BBC News. The subject matter of The African Storm is rarely tackled by African productions which are usually funded by Western donors under criteria that favour themes on a “miserable Africa.”

Another important feature was Life. Point, a film by Bassek Ba Kobhio and Achille Brice that follows the story two women, one a retired university professor and the other a young refugee and the poignant relationship that steadily grows between them in spite of the adversity they both face.

There were hundreds of other deserving features and shorts that gave us all an insight into the complications and the joys people are facing around Africa every day. And for any of us travelling to Africa, it is important to watch these stories to further understand the complex, beautiful continent we are visiting and huge diversity to be found within it.

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Melissa Twigg
Melissa Twigg is a freelance journalist writing about art, fashion, people, travel and the environment, specialising in Africa and Asia. She previously worked for Hong Kong Tatler as features editor and then as managing editor for regional titles, and currently freelances for publications such as The South China Morning Post, The Sunday Times and The Business of Fashion.