Amid the dust and the donkey carts, there is a sign here in Ouagadougou, bright red against the night in swirling French neon: “40 years of cinema; 40 years of dreaming”.
It’s a dream worth savouring. As women balancing trays of lemons on their heads sashay through the streets and mopeds whirr about the dusty downtown, Burkina Faso – one of the world’s poorest countries – does not seem to be the most obvious home to the movies. But as the pan-African film festival Fespaco celebrates its 40th anniversary, the country whose name translates as the Land of Honourable Men is striving to create an Africa-wide film industry that represents the continent’s own people.
“Our African audiences really need our images,” says Gaston Kaboré, head judge at this year’s Fespaco, and a revered Burkinabé director whose film Buud Yam won the top prize in 1997. “They need stories that carry them, and they need us to give accounts of our own images and culture. We make our films for them.”
The breadth of films at Africa’s Oscars shows that the continent’s film-makers are doing just that. This year’s winner, Teza, charts the horrors of authoritarian rule under Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam; the runner-up, Nothing But the Truth, reveals the dashed hopes of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process. Mascarades, an Algerian comedy, came third.
“In the 1960s African films were preoccupied with designing the new political environment after colonialism,” says Keith Shiri, director of the UK film festival Africa at the Pictures. “But now there are so many other issues that films are tackling.” Whether a village love story set in Cameroon, corrupt civil servants plundering the state in Burkina Faso, gangsters doing bank jobs in Johannesburg, or diaspora returnees finding fault with Dakar, Fespaco’s films find many ways to speak to the continent.
“No one can carry Africa better than us,” says Gohou Michel, 42, a celebrated comedy actor from Côte d’Ivoire. He wears a gold chain with a golden map of Africa dangling at the end: “It’s a symbol of what I need to do.”
Yet cinema in Africa is in a fix, and lacking big backing, African show business could do with a few more conjuring tricks today. Burkina Faso might be home to striking monuments to the wonders of 35mm film – an upturned multi-coloured camera in the middle of a roundabout; the Fespaco headquarters, shaped like an enormous reel of film – but increasingly film-makers are turning to digital. Often they produce for the TV and DVD markets, for poor audiences that prefer to stay at home and watch telly, because it’s free and the regular soaps keep them company.
Despite prodigious piracy, DVDs are doing well in Africa. Nigeria’s “Nollywood” home movie industry produces more than 2,000 films a year and rakes in $450m annually, making it the world’s third-largest film industry after Hollywood and Bollywood. But cinema screens are closing at speed. In the arid northern town of Ouahigouya, the final two projectors stopped turning at the beginning of the year because producers refused to let their reels be shown on such clapped-out projectors. Michael Raeburn – whose film Triomf, about incest among Johannesburg’s poor white trash, was in this year’s official competition – said he only entered Fespaco because his French backers asked him to.
“Their projectors are tractors, lawnmowers,” he told me. “The last time I was in it they sent back my 35mm film ripped to shreds. I could hear the sound of celluloid cracking.”
Despite the nods to Cannes, with red carpets and nightly poolside hobnobbing, several festival screenings spluttered through sound and image failures. And as film-makers are increasingly backed into financial corners, donor money and foreign funding may pull one string too many. “Too strong a dependency on external financing is negative for the development of an indigenous African style,” says Kaboré. “You have to be sure that the centre of gravity is within our own camp, in terms of economics, culture and psychology.”
In his effort to secure big US financial backing, the South African director Zola Maseko capitulated and cast the American actor Taye Diggs in the lead role of his film Drum, the story of a black South African journalist’s fight against apartheid, which won Fespaco in 2005. “I sold out, I admit it,” Maseko told me this year, putting up his hands in surrender. “I spent ten years trying to raise the money for that film.” But he regretted the compromise: “I’ll never do that again.”
For the clutch of film-makers still shooting for the big screen, the commitment to independent financing is growing. When, after years searching for backers, Raeburn was told to secure Meryl Streep for the lead to gain US backing, he finally gave up. He cut his budget tenfold, got a Zimbabwean accountant onside and made his film with unknowns, in the local Afrikaans.
For the right film, the audience is there. Cinema-goers sat two to a seat in support of local directors’ films during Fespaco. And when the Burkinabé director and satirist Aboubakar Diallo released his self-funded comedy Môgô-puissant a couple of years back – about a young village marabout who is so successful at seeing into the future that he becomes the president’s right-hand man – it broke all national box-office records, beating takings for the Bond film Casino Royale, which was out at the same time.
“It’s not the number of films we produce or the box-office takings that matter, it’s that cinema has really captured the spirit of the people,” says Hema Djakaria, director general of national cinematography in Burkina Faso, who refuses to let go of film. “Taking pleasure in a real night out, an event, is a special thing for the people here. Cinema is a school of life, and that has no price.”