FILM LIGHTS DARKNESS OF BLACK AFRICA

Borsten will write additional articles for Calendar on film in Black Africa.

As the sun set on this, the 13th-poorest nation in the world (behind such countries as Chad, Bhutan and Bangladesh), staff members of the ninth Pan African Film Festival loaded generators, projectors and film reels into government cars and set off for the city's slums.

In Sector 29, a dense collection of squalid mud huts along meandering dirt roads, several hundred Burkinabe had gathered in the dusty yard of a local two-room elementary school. There were barefoot children, turbaned women with infants tied to their backs, and men whose cheeks were slashed with three parallel lines, identifying them as members of the Mossi tribe. Like 81% of the national population, most were under the age of 40. Only a handful had ever seen a movie before. Almost all were illiterate.

The vintage Kalart/Victor projector, borrowed from the U.S. Cultural Center, was hooked to the generator and then focused on the school wall. A tremor of anticipation filled the air, and natives shifted restlessly in the heat--down to about 85 from more than 100 in the afternoon.

When the first film began, the women in the audience gasped. It was only a 20-minute documentary on the perils of diarrhea, with a local black doctor dispensing medical advice and demonstrating proper health techniques, but it held the audience spellbound. It was irrelevant that the film was in Dioula, a southern language that the More-speaking Mossi don't understand. The crowd, most of it standing, stared at the school wall, transfixed by the moving images.

Only someone who has witnessed such a scene can truly understand the power of cinema. And that, really, was what Fespaco '85 (known by its French acronym) was all about.

The weeklong event ended March 2 in this capital (pronounced WA-ga-doo-goo, and called Ouaga for short) of what was formerly Upper Volta and is now under military dictatorship. During several days of 21 free screenings, plus screenings at eight other theaters around town for 30 cents to a dollar, it reached many this year who had never before seen a motion picture.

Although festival organizers estimated that 250,000 viewed a mix of shorts, documentaries and feature-length films made by Africans about African life, many were repeat customers. A more reasonable figure is probably 60,000, since much of the population are infants and little children riding on their mothers' backs.

Fespaco '85 also drew a record 317 directors, producers, distributors and journalists, many of whom arrived from Europe aboard a special plane chartered to keep travel costs low (West African air fares are notoriously exorbitant: a one-way flight from Marseilles, 2,000 miles away, is about $500, but a round-trip charter about half that). They viewed 108 African productions and co-productions in the surprisingly luxurious Cinema Burkina, in the auditorium of the modern West African Economic Community Center, at two open-air theaters and other converted spaces.

It was a particularly impressive achievement for an impoverished, underdeveloped, overpopulated nation of 7.1 million where the average annual income is $200 and only 6.8% of the population lives past 55. The new military government is struggling to get the literacy rate into the teens by improving education and pressuring young people to attend school--not an easy goal in a country where subsistence farming is the main industry.

The festival directorate, led by Secretary General Filippe Savadogo, 29, did it all on a reported budget of only $270,000. With the northern farmlands ravished by drought and declared an international disaster area, spending more was out of the question.

"We Africans are fighting to save our culture," Savadogo said in an interview, justifying this event in a time of national suffering and austerity. "In these countries where illiteracy is so high, images are a good weapon with which to fight. There are no illiterates in the world of cinema."

The theme of Fespaco '85 was "Cinema and the Liberation of Peoples," chosen, said Savadogo, to remind African film makers that they still have a long way to go.

"In the time of the people, we need a cinema for the people. Each time they (the people) see a film it should teach them something, be somehow enlightening."

As pledged by the bright banners stretched across the city intersections, Fespaco '85 was a festival for the people. For the first time, Fespaco actually touched the lives of just about everyone in Ouaga--the ubiquitous bicycle riders, the moped mechanics who daily set up shop under the shady trees that line the main road, the tall women who walk for miles balancing jugs of water on their heads, the vegetable vendors who hawk mangos and bananas in the central market.

"The president (Capt. Thomas Sankara) himself gave the order," said Moustapha Thiombiano, the wiry Burkinabe musician responsible for creating "Fespaco Fever." "He said there should be direct contact between the festival guests and the people."

Thiombiano spent 11 years making music in Los Angeles (playing drums and guitar and singing his own songs at the Bla Bla Cafe on Ventura Boulevard, among other places), but two years ago decided it was time to return home to Burkina Faso. He drew on his American experience to create three of Fespaco's most memorable side events: the splendid double-line of mounted horsemen, each dressed in tribal finery, who were on hand to greet participants as they arrived for opening ceremonies; the "Fespaco plane," an abandoned DC-3 hauled out of the bush and parked near the festival to the delight of the towns' children, most of whom had never before seen--much less touched--"a motorized bird;" the noisy round-the-clock flea market and street carnival set up opposite the Independence Hotel, where most participants were quartered.

"Previous festivals needed a guide just to go to the central market, and most Burkinabe were reluctant to pose for pictures," Thiombiano said.

Then he snapped his fingers to illustrate just how fast "we changed all that."

In 1969, six years after film maker Ousmane Sembene of Senegal wrote and directed black Africa's first feature, "Borom Sarrett" (French for "The Carriage Driver," and top prize winner in France's Festival of Tours in 1963), Fespaco was created as a showcase for the movie industry that was burgeoning in former French colonies south of the Sahara. As a young man, Sembene worked as a laborer in Marseilles until moving to Paris to write books. He became interested in cinema, and eventually studied film making in Moscow. Today, he is considered the father of black African cinema.

Fespaco is held every two years during the season when the harmattan wind hangs a thick curtain of red dust over Ouaga, a sprawling town of mud houses, one high-rise (a luxury hotel), one two-story house (belonging to the American ambassador) and several dozen public buildings. To the country's credit, despite regular bouts with political instability and economic failure, Fespaco has always happened on schedule.

Over the years, encouraged by the festival's regularity, cash prizes and publicity, the number of participating countries has grown from 5 to 21, among them now representatives of black Africa's Portuguese, English and Arabic-speaking nations. The number of competing films has risen from 14 to 37; some governments have begun financing production in order to participate. Internationally, Fespaco's prestige has been enhanced by the growing number of African features that, after being screened in Ouaga, went on to win serious reviews and awards elsewhere.

(Many of the movies shown in Los Angeles last August at the Fox International's first African and Black American Film Festival had their premieres here.)

What surprised festival regulars almost as much as the sudden plethora of white participants was the arrival of the first-ever official black American delegation, among them Pearl Bowser, a New York film historian and distributor of Third World films, who served on the jury. They were an articulate, no-nonsense group of independent film makers, exhibitors and distributors, many of whom teach cinema at such American universities as Howard, Tufts and Emerson. (None were from Southern California.)

They came to Ouaga to lobby for associate membership in the Pan African Federation of Cinema Directors, to conduct a series of seminars and to show their films--among them Julie Dash's "Illusions," Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep," Kathleen Collins' "Losing Ground," Haile Gerima's "Bush Mama" and Larry Clark's "Passing Through."

Only a few extraordinary films were on view, reflecting the continent's economic and political woes as much as the ability of its native directors. They have yet to find their own direction: some entries imitated Western films, some tried to be arty in the French tradition, many had serious technical problems, suffering from limited funds and piecemeal shooting schedules spread over years. Co-productions with European nations tended to be of a higher standard.

The festival's top prize, the Yenega Stallion (named for an ancient princess), and every award for technical achievement, was won by the more developed Arab-language film industries of Northern Africa. (A more detailed report on festival winners and film makers will appear in Calendar next week.)

Yet, while cautioning her readers not to compare the quality of black African movies to Western models, Deborah Young, Rome-based stringer for Variety, reported from Ouaga: "No new masters emerged, but some films were worth other festival appearances and many were especially interesting when seen in an all-African context."

Bringing together so many distinguished visitors--and treating them well--was no small feat amid such poverty.

Vehicles of all kinds were commandeered to transport American, African and European visitors (although Russians and Libyans were chauffeured about in air-conditioned limousines provided by their embassies).

When Sankara, 35, threw a gala open-air barbecue at the presidential palace, he seated his 500 guests on upturned soft drink crates.

No one, however, went hungry. Guests feasted on beef and lamb roasted on giant outdoor spits--since pasture lands have been destroyed by drought, farmers are willingly selling their animals for slaughter. There was also fried bananas, couscous (a North African grain dish), local beer, soft drinks and large quantities of bottled water imported from the adjoining Ivory Coast.

Different dance troupes appeared each day from various regions of the country, representing some of 60 ethnic groups and nine major tribes. (About half the population is animist, a traditional African religion based on deep respect for nature, with Moslems and Christians composing most of the rest.) Many of the women danced naked from the waist up, and a dazzling array of costumes and musical instruments were in use. Laughter, music and high spirits were the order of the day, dampened after midnight by the military's 1-5 a.m. curfew.

Festival participants did their best to reciprocate. A large group traveled one morning to a desolate site eight miles from Ouaga where few trees grow and villagers still live in thatched huts, to manually lay 200 yards of railroad track. Led by Senegal's Sembene, they toiled for an hour under the fierce but hazy sun to lift heavy metal track with iron pincers onto a gravel bed--their labor a symbolic gesture of friendship with the local people.

As representatives of some of Europe's most influential newspapers and TV stations watched, Sembene directed 30-person teams of producers, distributors and film makers, who had skipped screenings in air-conditioned halls to work in heat and dust. Not all of the volunteers agreed with the leftist slogans chanted by nearby members of the military government. But all apparently wanted to pay tribute to the local population for its important participation in the festival--most of its staff are volunteers.

Burkina Faso, landlocked by the encroaching Sahara desert, shares borders with Mali, Niger, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin. Although there is a bit of light industry developing here, most of its citizens survive by growing millet, sorghum, corn, cotton, peanuts, sugar cane and--in the north--raising meat stock.

The country is in the throes of a "peoples revolution" led by the charismatic young Sankara, who took power in a coup just after Fespaco '83. Last summer, he changed the country's name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso.

Dignity, pride and correctness are values that Sankara has pledged to return to the 7 million Burkinabe, many of whom are now echoing the regime's anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist rhetoric and calling each other "comrade."

Self-reliance is also what Sankara hopes to achieve for his country, an aspiration many call naive given Burkina Faso's dependence on foreign aid. The industrialized nations, France in particular, contribute more than half of the annual budget, an ante expected to increase now that the famine hovers on the northern border.

As 90% of the Burkinabe are subsistance farmers, urban centers like Ouaga have been heaviest hit by the government's austerity measures: salaries were cut by 18% to 30%, rents frozen and several hundred civil servants and army personnel fired.

"Life has been pretty bleak and depressing in Ouaga," reported a Western journalist. "Fespaco's livened things up for the first time in months."

In the past, the festival belonged to the town's elite--a tiny middle-class, some foreign diplomats and representatives of the various international relief organizations based in Ouaga to stamp out malaria or halt the march of the ever-encroaching Sahara, which spreads and swallows the fertile land.

For the literate minority, Fespaco has always been a much anticipated date in the national calendar, a happy respite from the oppressive 100 heat and the monotony of daily life.

The privileged came this year, too--Ouaga's merchants, teachers, secretaries and bureaucrats. They were dignified and well-mannered, attractively dressed with flair if not money, a welcome contrast to the unruly crowds that plague festivals in Delhi, Cairo and Tunis. Each paid up to a dollar, a substantial sum in this country, for the chance to see a new African film.

But this year, Fespaco belonged to the masses as well. With the newspaper announcing free screenings like the one in the Sector 29 schoolyard, and word-of-mouth reaching those who could not read, the magic of cinema found new fans.

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