In 1973, when downtown Ouaga (the capital of this Western Africa country) still lacked paved streets, a special film screening took place in one of the city's three "movie houses"--all roofless garages. A VIP section was set up with folding chairs for the president and his cabinet. Everyone else stood or sat on the ground.
It was the premiere of the first feature ever made in Upper Volta (as Burkina Faso was then called) by a Voltaic. Titled "Pariah's Blood," directed by 33-year-old Djim Kola Mamadou and made in the local language of More, it was the story of two star-crossed Voltaic lovers who are prevented from marrying because the man belongs to the despised blacksmith caste.
The 70-minute, 35-millimeter color feature had been produced by the state so that, for the first time, Upper Volta could compete at the Pan African Film Festival (Fespaco), which Ouaga had already hosted three times.
Nasser Ktari, a Tunisian film maker who provided technical assistance, recalled the historic moment when the projector began to hum: "The images projected against the wall came into focus: A young Voltaic, carrying an attache case, walked through the streets of Ouaga. The scene lasted only one minute and had no dialogue, but it had an incredible effect on everyone. For the first time, Voltaics saw themselves on the screen. It was as extraordinary for them as watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon must have been for Americans. Their whole world had changed. No longer were they just consumers of cinema--now they were participants."
The Voltaic government, which had been financing documentaries and instructional films since 1960, noted the response. One of the poorest countries in the world, with almost no natural resources, almost no literacy, one of the most affected by the continuing Sahel drought, set out to become the Hollywood of Africa.
Twelve years and eight features later, Burkina Faso, like the rest of Black Africa, is making slow progress in bringing to the screen images of itself. Of the 150 or so films screened at Fespaco '85--most produced in the past 25 years, many of them shorts and documentaries, almost all done on minuscule budgets--not one included any of Hollywood's favorite African images: headhunters, cannibals, Pygmies, wild jungle beasts, missionaries or half-clothed Tarzans swinging through the trees.
The ninth Pan African Film Festival was also a testament to the passion and commitment of film makers everywhere to get their films made: one from Ghana risked losing his wife in a deal to finance his modest picture.
Yet for all the dedication and sacrifice, the "new" African film images remain confined largely to the African continent. Think for a minute--have you ever seen a black African movie? The currently popular "The Gods Must Be Crazy" was made in Botswana, but it was produced, written and directed by South Africans. "Black and White in Color" (1976), which won a foreign-language-film Oscar for the Ivory Coast, the only African country ever to win an Academy Award, was produced by a Swiss and written, directed and financed by the French.
There is a world of difference between movies made in Black Africa and those made by Black Africa, as Fespaco '85 attested.
With varying degrees of technical and artistic ability, Black Africa's film makers are documenting life on a continent that since the 1950s has been rocked by political and economic upheavals, traumatized by social and cultural mutations, ravaged by poverty and drought. With distinct visions, often lyrical, never Western, the African directors probed the issues that most preoccupy Africa today: dowry, superstition, caste, forced marriage, sorcery, corruption, the consequence of the rural exodus, the dream of emigrating to Europe, the status of women, the Western invasion of African culture.
"They see the transformations of the continent daily, and with such intensity, that the clash between new and old is almost the only theme of their movies," said Tunisian film critic Ferid Boughedir, director of the authoritative documentary "African Camera." "Even innocent comedies, made with only commercial intentions, center around the conflict between traditional and modern."
Black Africa joined the international film community in 1963 when "Borem Sarret" ("Buggy Driver") won the best-first-work award at France's Tours Festival. The 20-minute, black-and-white, French-language feature, screened during the recent Fespaco's African Retrospective, was written and directed by Ousmane Sembene, a native of Senegal.
(One of the former French colonies that straddle Africa's Western coast, Senegal is today the continent's most prolific and prestigious film-making country, home to a dozen cinema/television directors and 72 technicians trained in Paris, Rome, Moscow and Bombay.)
After "Borem Sarret," Sembene made several more features. By the time he made "Manda Bi" ("Money Order"), a political film disguised as a farce that won a special jury prize at the 1968 Venice Film Festival, he was making history by working in color and in the African language of Wolof.
Other black African directors, equally powerful, mostly citizens of former French colonies, emerged. By 1973, Filmex's Ken Wlaschin, then director of London's prestigious National Film Theater, was able to organize an 11-day panorama of 37 movies--a dozen from the more sophisticated, veteran film industries of North Africa, 25 from the 11 Black African nations.
"A whole new cinema is being born in Africa," Wlaschin proclaimed in the program's preface. "Already it has its own major directors, its own festivals and, of greater importance, an emerging audience that wants to see African films made by Africans for Africans."
Most black African governments were indifferent to the new phenomenon. A few nationalized distribution channels traditionally controlled by Europeans, to guarantee African screens for African films. A few allocated funds from often meager development budgets to help finance new productions. One, Upper Volta (as it was called before it became Burkina Faso under its current military dictatorship), inspired by the aforementioned open-air screening, actually made cinema a national priority.
Burkina Faso still has only two small radio stations broadcasting to 116,000 sets and one TV station broadcasting to 15,000 receivers, all located in Ouaga. But the country boasts the prestigious Fespaco; a National Cinema Institute, which produces new movies from profits earned by distributing foreign pictures; French-speaking Africa's only film school, created with the help of UNESCO, and the only movie studio located south of the Sahara, owned by Burkina Faso's only millionaire.
"Cinema is now what Burkina Faso is famous for," said critic Boughedir. "If it weren't for cinema and the Sahel drought, no one would ever hear about this country."
Thirty-seven films competed at the ninth Fespaco, representing 21 African countries. As the allocation of awards indicated, however, 1985 was a better year for the five Arab-speaking countries of North Africa than for the almost four-dozen former French, Portuguese and English colonies.
Nonetheless, one of the most popular films screened at Fespaco '85 was Burkina Faso's "Wend Kuuni--Gift of God," a drama with historical overtones about the Mossi tribe, set in pre-colonial Africa. Directed by 33-year-old Gaston Kabore, the 75-minute color feature had won three prizes at the previous Fespaco and before Fespaco '85 was over, it was announced that "Wend Kuuni" had become the first Black African movie ever awarded a Cesar, the French equivalent of an Oscar.
The grand prize this year, the Yenega Stallion (named after a legendary princess of the Mossi tribe), went to "Histoire d'une Rencontre," ("Encounter") made by Algeria, Africa's oldest and most political film industry. All three technical awards went to Tunisia, whose film makers now have their own European-level processing and sound facilities.
"There just weren't many new Black African films ready for competition this year," explained Boughedir. "And the quality wasn't as high as in the past."
He outlined some of the problems: Niger's Oumarou Gandi died in 1981. Sembene (now 62) hasn't made a movie since "Ceddo" in 1976. Mauritania's Med Hondo, another top name, completed his last feature in 1979. Mali's Souleymane Cisse, younger but as important as Sembene (they were both trained in Moscow), wasn't able to get his new picture finished in time. Burkina Faso's Kabore has to wait until there is enough money in the national kitty to finance new features, after first giving other directors a chance--and Kabore is going blind.
"The main problem is money," said Boughedir. "Only a few of the Francophone countries (Cameroun, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso) are doing anything to help finance films, and then, once the films are made, most of the directors have trouble getting them distributed, sometimes even in their own countries."
Paradoxically, it was similar problems in the United States that brought the first official black American delegation to Ouaga, where the 13 men and women gave seminars based on their U.S. experiences and lobbied for membership in Fepaci (the Pan African film makers federation).
"Many of us with feature-length films that win top prizes at important European festivals such as Cannes and Berlin have trouble getting distribution in the U.S.," said Larry Clark, director of "Passing Through," an independent American feature made in 1977, and a representative of more than 100 independent black American film makers. "We've approached the majors, who always say they aren't interested because our films need 'special handling.' That may be true, but . . . black Americans, like black Africans, like to see themselves on the screen."
Added Clare Watkins, who teaches film at Boston's Emory University: "If we aren't significant in America, we are in the Third World. Here we're seen as a resource. We're going to begin training African film makers at our universities and (investigating) co-production. If we are accepted in Fepaci, we'll begin showing our new works here in Ouaga every two years."
The situation isn't much better in Britain's former African colonies, where movie makers turn out glossier products, more often than not modeled on the popular Indian and Egyptian melodramas. Many directors from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania, believe, in fact, that they are worse off than their French-speaking counterparts who, at least, are eligible for discounts at Paris laboratories and scholarships to France's best film schools.
"Financing my first film was so difficult that my father-in-law had to mortgage his house, which meant that if my movie failed I lost my wife," recalled Kwah Ansaw, a 44-year-old Ghanaian who served on this year's Fespaco jury. His comedy, "Love Brewed in an African Pot," won a top award (best first work) at the seventh Fespaco, the first English-language film ever honored.
"Because of political instability, filming took four years. I was among the first in Ghana to know about one coup d' etat --soldiers came running through my studio sets on their way to capture the broadcasting authority located next door.
"None of the Lebanese and Indians who owned the movie theaters in Accra, Ghana's capital, and who are insensitive to local aspirations, would give me a decent deal on the box-office takes. I had to release my films in one of the government-owned cinemas, which aren't as nice.
"My film was such a hit in Ghana that I was able to more than recoup my production costs ($500,000) and pay back my investors. Nonetheless, to get distribution in the rest of English-speaking Africa, I literally had to carry the reels from one country to another.
"The film broke all records in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), Sierra Leone, Liberia, Zambia and Kenya, making so much money that I was able to personally pay all pre-production costs on my new film, budgeted at $3 million. You'd think with that kind of track record, the banks would agree to give me a loan, but they won't."
Before the 10th Fespaco is held again in two years' time, directors will have to prove to distributors working on the continent, whether American, European or Africans, that the box-office success of such movies as "African Pot," "Wend Kuuni" and the Ivory Coast's Djei Mali's "Finye" were not flukes.
This year's week in Ouaga, where the intersections were draped with banners warning "African Filmmakers: Unite or Die," gave them hope for the struggle.