Film Review: Africannes...

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The Independent Culture
Europe loves its film festivals. Last month, the cineastes were enjoying Rotterdam. At the moment, they're busy in Berlin. And come May they will descend on that shabby little seaside town in the south of France for the 50th Cannes bun fight. There is one festival, however, which they routinely avoid. Most of them can't even pronounce the name of the host city - Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Ironically, Fespaco (The Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagdougou) easily puts its European cousins to shame in terms of sheer scope and colour. What started in 1969 as a small, somewhat parochial affair run by a handful of cinema fans is now an international event, second only to their annual soccer championship in size. (Which other film festival opens in a sports stadium?) This year, an expected 400,000 visitors will turn up, eager to see the best in African cinema.

But when did you last see an African film? Channel 4 and BBC2 don't seem to show them any more. The art-house cinemas rarely pick them up. True, most of the European festivals like to include one or two, but precious few of them ever go on to receive distribution. Why not? It is assumed that nobody wants them and that they aren't much good anyway. If you are an enthusiast, you may have faint memories of Idrissa Oudreago's movies, Yaaba and Tilai. You may have heard of film-makers like Sembene Ousmane or Med Hondo. Chances are, though, that not even these names will ring many bells.

If you are ignorant of African cinema, you are in good company - so are the vast majority of African filmgoers. Their continent has long been a dumping ground for European and American distributors. In most African cinemas, you are more likely to see a spaghetti western or a Kung Fu flick than an African film. Whenever individual countries have tried to take control of their own programming, western distributors have threatened to boycott them altogether.

This is one of the reasons why Fespaco is so important. Held every two years (alternating with the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia) it provides a rare opportunity for African audiences to see the best African films. The festival's new general-secretary, Baba Hama explains: "Fespaco remains vital as a platform for African filmmakers. It gives them the opportunity to think about and discuss their profession." But he acknowledges there are huge difficulties. "We need to produce more films, but wedon't have the means to make more films. And the films that are made are not sufficiently released in African cinemas. We must find a solution."

Many of the problems they face are to do with internal divisions. Nobody can agree on quite what kind of movies to make - movies with messages or for entertainment. Some directors, Idrissa Oudreago for one, have been accused of making pictures that package the kind of exotic images of village life that western audiences want to see. Others have been excoriated for making films so obscure that they have no chance of being shown anywhere, let alone in an African cinema. Whatever problems the African industry faces, this year's Fespaco competition films look stronger than ever. Titles worth looking out for include Ingrid Sinclair's Flame (Zimbabwe) and Jose Laplaine's Macadam Tribu (France / Zaire), both shown to some acclaim in Cannes last year. While the favourite to win the Etalon De Yenenga award (named after a warrior princess), is Tsltsi Dangarembga's Everyone's Child. Regardless of how her film fares, Dangarembga enters the history books as the first black Zimbabwean woman to direct a feature.

Will any of these films ever reach Britain? Outside specialist seasons of African cinema, probably not. Nevertheless, is that any reason for ignoring one of the biggest, brightest film festivals in the world? Fespaco 22 Feb to 1 March