When it comes to African film, there is one festival on the circuit you don’t want to miss. Every two years, film enthusiasts and filmmakers from all over the continent troop to Ouagadougou for the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO). The festival, which was inaugurated in 1969 by the Burkina Faso Cultural ministry sought to bring together all interested parties in the African film industry to meet, share ideas and collectively grow the artistic enterprise of telling stories through film in the spirit of panafricanism.
FESPACO has grown to become the gold standard of african film. The grand prize, “Étalon de Yennenga” (Stallion of Yennenga), is highly coveted and has been won by legends of African filmmaking include , Kwaw Ansah and Haile Gerima. However, over the past years, interest in the festival has been dwindling. FESPACO no longer feels like the place to discover the best of african films or connect with artist. There is hardly any publicity or branding on the event. Non-french media and visitors of the festival are also excluded from the majority of the activities due to the language barrier. FESPACO, at the moment, is running solely on nostalgia, despite the great potential it holds.
Claire Diao, an african film critic and the co-founder of AWOTELE (a journal of african film criticism), looped DANDANO in on everything going on at FESPACO 2017. Being a perennial presence at the festival, we caught up with her to examine the troubles that Africa’s most prestigious film festival is facing and also remedies for them. She also shared insights into her work projects, which include a platform to distribute african film.
We hope you enjoyed FESPACO 2017. In one sentence how would you describe this edition of Africa’s most prestigious film festival, for those of us who missed out?
Claire Diao: Lot of moviegoers but a disappointing selection.
Dandano: We understand that FESPACO is opening up and going digital which led to the submission of close to 1000 films from filmmakers on the continent and in the diaspora as well. Do you think FESPACO should be organized annually instead of biannually to accommodate for this expansion?
Claire Diao: Regarding the problem FESPACO is facing every two years, I don’t think it would be a good idea to turn it into an annual film festival like Carthage – its “twin” festival founded in 1966 in Tunisia. On one hand, if the organization is problematic every two years, it will be worse if this happens every year (except if a completely different management is invented). On the other hand, the biannual edition offers the opportunity for other film festivals to happen on the continent. And except the countries at war, the good news is that almost every African country has, at least, one film festival. To answer your question, I would also be really careful regarding “the expansion of digital productions”, especially because most of them are not movies but terrible copies of bad quality TV content. To have the tools to make movies does not mean making good movies. Out of the quantity hopefully will come the quality. A historical film festival like FESPACO should focus on that, to have any real meaning in the film festival circuit and to also be a source of recognition for every selected filmmaker.
Dandano: Despite its legacy as Africa’s most prestigious film and television festival, FESPACO feels inaccessible. It’s particularly hard to follow if you did not get the chance to be in Ouaga. Why do you think this publicity issue exists?
Claire Diao: I have lot of respect for the people working at the FESPACO offices but they do not look at what other film festivals do and what works. As a journalist, I am really upset about not receiving daily email, in French and in English, of the festival’s program. We have no access to the list of journalists in attendance, there are no press conferences or Q&A organized for the filmmakers, the introductions at the beginning of a screening are really basic. And we can’t say that’s a money problem. I’ve been to hundreds of film festivals, and some of them, without money, are much more organized in terms of PR. Every journalist is fighting to find a trailer, poster or informations about a movie. That should be the work of the FESPACO to present this information! So, if a journalist attending FESPACO is fighting to get information, what about the ones who are not in Ouagadougou? They have to wait for others publishing something about FESPACO… In 2017, I think this is sad. Because the festival is losing its prestigious rank. And international press you see in Toronto, Cannes or Berlin are not even interested in coming to Ouaga. If FESPACO’s main goal is to promote African films, the “promotion” role of the festival has disappeared…
Dandano: Aside the historical prestige, why would new filmmakers still be interested in FESPACO? Do you feel that the festival is still achieving its goals of fostering interactions of capacity building among Africans in the film industry far and wide?
Claire Diao: FESPACO is a historical festival where you can meet all the filmmakers, producers and festival directors interested by Africa. The others are not coming – whereas the XXIth Century goal should be to get the attention from the ones who do not care about African cinema. Except the prestige of the award you will receive, I think something is missing: the old generation and new generation are not exchanging ideas. The film business is completely missing. If you want to do business, you should go to Durban FilmMart in South Africa where there is money and international film professionals are in attendance. If you want to learn from the older generation, you should attend other film festivals where masterclasses and meetings are organized. The current power of FESPACO is to still bring all the African filmmakers together for one week. There you realize you’re not alone. You’ll see hundreds of people attending screenings. You’ll drink beer and discuss until 3am. But if you speak English, I recommend you to find a translator. Otherwise you’ll be on your own.
Dandano: What were some of your highlights (feature film, documentary, actor, director) from this year’s edition?
Claire Diao: Alain Gomis’ Félicité (Senegal), who won the Golden stallion, of course. For his aesthetics proposal and his depiction of Kinshasa. Daouda Coulibaly’s Wulu (Mali) who didn’t win any official award unfortunately but highlights the capacity of this filmmaker to put a look on situation. It’s a first feature and definitely a director to follow. Aicha Macky’s documentary L’arbre sans fruits (Niger), is also the best testimony on infertility I’ve ever seen. A soft, powerful, and intimate look on this taboo issue. And Dani Kouyaté’s Medan vi Lever (Burkina Faso) who was out of competition and depicts how a mixed-race teenager moved to Gambia in order to pacify himself and his relation to his widow mother. The movie won the Burkinabè Film Critic Award.
Dandano: If you had the chance to influence the organizing and planning of the festival, what one thing would you try to implement?
Claire Diao: The selection. It is not possible to enter in a screening room and wish to get out after 15 min. FESPACO is the place where you watch movies you will perhaps never watch somewhere else! So I want to be driven by passion when I’m going to the cinema. Not to think “OMG, why did they select that?”
Dandano: We’re also big fans of “Awotele”, a pan African magazine for the review of African cinema which you co-founded. We particularly love that it is bilingual, making it more accessible. Obviously this must come with some logistical challenges. How would you describe your experience of putting this very critical venture together?
Claire Diao: Thank you! The first issue was released at Fespaco 2015 because the film critic workshop that usually take place and is organized by the African Film Critic Association didn’t happen (this year neither). With Michel Amarger and Samir Ardjoum, two other film critics, we considered that film critics should not be forgotten during the film festival. Then we realize that they are three main rendez-vous on the continent: Carthage in Tunisia in November, Fespaco in Ouagadougou in February and Durban in South Africa in July. Each one has its own linguistic focus (Arab, French, English) but the main interest of cinema is to abolish barriers. So we’ve decided to release our magazine during these three events, to focus, at the end of the magazine, on the festival that happens just before, and of course, to translate everything in French & in English. It is a hard work because people are not used to buying a magazine and we do not receive support for the moment but it needs to exist. This is why I’ve created a company, Sudu Connexion, to publish it. And this is why we run from festival to festival with issues in our suitcases! Behind the idea of promoting a magazine, we promote African films. And these cinemas deserve high quality support.
Dandano: You seem to have a very hands-on approach to confront some of the challenges you have identified facing african cinema. This, I believe is one of the reasons why you started Sudu Connexion to distribute African films. Can you briefly describe what it is and the opportunity it offers African filmmakers and enthusiasts?
Claire Diao: I became a journalist when I realized African films suffered from miscommunication. Everyone is doing things but no one knows! After ten years writing on films and traveling worldwide to film festivals, I realized that the other lack is distribution. Famous Tunisian film critic Tahar Cheriaa, founder of Carthage Film Festival, once said: “Who owns distribution owns cinema”. I think he understood everything. Filmmakers are focused on doing their movie. Producers are looking for money. The distributor is the one looking for frames to broadcast the movies. There is no reason to leave Africa being the only continent where movies are broadcasted for free. A mentality change is happening on the continent, especially from the English-speaking countries who understood the film business. Francophones are still stuck with subsidies. I’ve also decided to distribute PanAfrican content because I’m running Quartiers Lointains, a shortfilm touring program since 2013 between African countries, USA and France and I’ve understood that if exhibitors are not programming African films its because they mostly don’t know where they are and how to reach them! This is why I want to be the intermediary between producers and broadcasters. To fight for them and help them existing on screen as much as I fought to write about them. I want a PanAfrican movie to win a Palme d’Or at Cannes before 2075! (the only one, the Algerian Chronicles of the year of fire, won in 1975). And last but not least, because it is through distribution that filmmakers and producers can get money! Sudu Connexion means ‘home’ in fulfulde. The company is the home for the ones who want to connect around strong PanAfrican content: we send movies to film festivals and deal with TV broadcasters.
Conducted by Hakeem Adam