The best of African filmmakers had a moment to throw their kisses to cheering fans as they picked their shinning awards, hordes of journalist- ranging from seasoned to amateurs- were on the mark for the best. Just like the football matches that dominate African screens, the event was live on national television.
At the well choreographed opening and closing ceremony graced by government ministers, extravagant fireworks shot into the sky as dramatically as the imaginative shots of the over six hundred films screened at the 21th edition (and 40th anniversary) of Fespaco organized in Burkina Faso's humble capital of Ouagadougou. This is the Pan African Film & Television Festival of Ouagadougou.
"It's the most important event where African cinema gathers once every two years to catch up and network," said Clément Tapsoba a Burkina Faso film critic and a member of the organizing committee of the festival that has been running since conception in 1969.
At the Ouagadougou international airport, a bevy of uniformed girls line up to usher festival goers into the country. Anyone for Fespaco, they all chorus as the pick luggage for all those who answer in the affirmative.
At the festival, Kenya was represented by a small delegation of filmmakers that seemed lost in the confusion- not a stand to display promotional materials an doffer information, not much mobilization of the festival goers to patronize the two films that Kenya was screening. Out of the hundreds of screening hours, Kenya only secured about fifty minutes of screen presence: Subira that tracks a little girl transitioning into teenage and Judy Kibinge's Killer Necklace an MNET funded initiative that dramatizes what a poor young boy must go through to impress a girl who is also in love with a classy necklace but has absolutely no idea how to pay for it.
None of the Kenya films was contesting the major awards at the festival, the only East African film that recognised was Tanzanian- in a one of the lobby category awards.
"I felt like East Africans don't exist anywhere," said Sarah Nsigaye a Ugandan journalist and coordinator of Uganda's Amakula International film festival. "There is a need for East Africans to get on board and link up with West Africa; the rest of the continent."
In the case of South Africa, there were promotional materials and a lot of lobbying of the festival goers into South African screenings. Information was disseminated from a central desk; every South African who was at the festival was part of the delegation regardless of how they got there.
Nigeria, even without many films to screen at the festival decided to make their presence felt by launching the African Movie Academy awards at the festival to capitalize on the presence of international media and leading industry captains.
When the award winners were announced, in the presence of Blaise Compaoré, the president of Burkina Faso, Teza by Ethiopian-born director, Haile Gerima led the pack. A serious lobbyist for African cinema abroad, Gerima has been celebrated elsewhere for his efforts.
Set in the 1980s in the context of the Marxist Red Terror raids, Teza took home the Golden Yennenga Stallion prize at the festival's glamorous closing ceremony held last Saturday.
Having bagged two other awards at the Venice film festival last year, Teza was no surprise winner.
Fespaco has been perceived a Francophone Africa affair, something that the festival organisers have been trying to dispel over the years. In 2006, Newton Aduaka's film on child soldiers won the award despite being a technically shaky story in what some film critics attributed to the festival's attempt at Anglophone appeal.
The other film that had the festival goers talking was Mama Keïta's L'Absence, a French Guinea film with English subtitle.
The gripping, involving story of a man who returns after a fifteen years of absence at home, L'Absence is told in though provoking symbolism.
Without taking time to understand the situation that his orphaned family lives in, the man goes ahead to condemn everything. He even attempts to kill his mute sister who is now a hooker- suggesting the neglect of Africa by the intelligentsia abroad; their inability to provide answers to solve the complex puzzles that Africa has to deal with
The characters in the film are so well developed that at some moments, one gets emphatic in other situations, one feels like throwing stones at some characters.
Pacing is very well calculated to invite the eye and keep it awake. The drama opens gently, warms up before it heats up and takes you through awkward places and people.
Each of the character has some resonance and uniqueness that offer variety.
The pimp takes one to the grievous underbelly, the crazy drunk so memorable- once played the biggle in the army but has now shifted to trumpet. As he blows the trumpet in the noisy pub, tension eases to tolerable levels even though the situation is still grim.
Two South African films that triumphed at the festival- Nothing But The Truth and Jerusalema all recently shot tells the story of an awakening giant in the African cinema.
In the last years, South Africa has been used as a set for Hollywood movies with little action from the local industry. That has been the situation in Kenya too.
At some point, the South African government realized the power of cinema as a cultural tool, has set up institutions and legislation to support. With proper funding, skills acquired from involvement with foreign films and equipment, South African is now churning out internationally competitive films.
Jerusalema- though criticized for glorifying violence and depicting South Africa as a bitter victim-captures attention effortless.
The flawless production tells a story of poor black boy recruited into thuggery and now doing everything to get to the tops. When he turns himself into a criminal property dealer, other blacks cheer him up. But even with the cheers, there are several challenges he must deal with. That makes the absorbing drama of Jerusalema, already available on DVDs.
Behind the glamour on the screens, Fespaco was a serious field of lobbying and networking.
"You only come to Fespaco if you have a friend you are meeting or if you have a serious programme you are coming to pitch," says Ogova Ondego a Kenyan film critic and director Lola Kenya Screen.
Traditionally, festival goers-filmmakers, festival directors from around the world coming to collect films, journalists, some tourists coming to sample African cinema etc- would gather by the poolside at the hotel Indepadance to exchange contacts and ideas. This might had changed slightly this year with the establishment of the Fespaco headquarters and spreading of the festival to more screening halls.
With use of French in most activities of the festival, most Anglophone countries felt left out.
"If it continues being too disorganized and lacks the spirit of being together, in that was if South Africans are more organized, it will be in South Africa in the next ten years may be," said Olivier Barlet, a French film critic and expert in African cinema who has not missed a single Fespaco edition since 1993.
by Mwenda wa Micheni
Fespaco Awards 2009
-Golden Yennenga Stallion for best film went to Haile Gerima, for Teza
-Jerusalema, won best actor (Rapulana Seiphemo), best editing and best cinematography
-Egyptian filmmaker Jihan El-Tahri won best documentary (second prize) for her film about South Africa's ruling ANC party, Behind the Rainbow
-Khalo Matabane's When We Were Black, was best television series
-John Kani's Nothing But the Truth was awarded the Silver Stallion Prize and Ousmane Sembene Prize for Peace
-Best Short Film - Sektou! (They have Stopped Talking!) - Khalid Benaissa (Algeria)
Best Documentary - Nos Lieux Interdits (Our Forbidden Places) - Leila Kilani (Morocco)
-Best Sreenplay - L'Absence by Mama Keita (Guinea)
-Best Actress - Les Jardins de Samira - Sana Mouziane (Morocco)
-Best Set - Adieu Mères - Abdelkrim Akallach (Morocco)
-Best Music - Adieu Mères - Kamal Kamal (Morocco)
This article was first published in the Sunday Nation of March 15, 2009