Cinema Ouagadougou: The home of African film

Forget Cannes, Venice and Berlin – if you're passionate about film, Burkina Faso is the place to go, writes Katrina Manson

Sitting next to David Ouasali brings out how much local African cinema means to its viewers, who often don't speak the languages of international films and don't read so cannot follow subtitles. We are perched on a bench in Pissy, 7km from the centre of Burkina Faso's equally deliciously named capital, Ouagadougou. Darkness is all around but the reflected light of a fuzzy projection picks out Ouasali's intense concentration and the odd smile. This is cinema in much of rural Africa; under the stars in the open air, surrounded by crumbling concrete, in a language people understand.

But, even as Ouaga's pan-African Fespaco film festival showcases more than 300 films this week and pits 19 feature films against each other, African-made films struggle for the exposure and backing they deserve the rest of the year.

Pissy's aged projector, encased in a technical suite made of ochre sand, clunks to a halt for 10 minutes. People barely shift. No one knows what film is showing as they buy their ticket, no one minds when the film starts, there is no rush for popcorn or trailers; they wander in whenever.

But once in, they are transfixed by Buud Yam which won the top prize in 1997. It's about a young, mute man's search for his parents, and it's all in Moore, the language of the Mossi people who make up half the country's 12 million population. Its experienced director, Gaston Kaboré, known as the father of Burkinabe cinema and this year's senior judge at Fespaco, says the mute boy represents Africa after colonialism – searching for its voice and new direction. "In cinema we can reflect the trajectory and the history of Africa; it is a way to seek and explain our identity," says Kaboré, 57. "We have lost a lot: I am trying to rediscover, to rebuild and to go further into my deep soul."

Here, amid the splutters of a wayward projector, the search continues. It's one of the only places and the only times black Africans can see themselves writ large, handling the challenges of daily life. Usually, the big screens show US gun fights, kung fu and Indian musicals.

"I prefer African history films," says 60-year-old Sanou Kalifa, a retired colonel, who chose that night to go to the cinema for the first time in a decade. "It helps me understand my culture and the past better."

Another audience member, Rose Sawadogo, couldn't afford the grand opening of Fespaco, which took place in the 35,000-capacity national stadium closer to the town centre. Even though the spectacle of pop singers, outsize puppets, dance troupes and fireworks was free, the transport cost too much. Instead, she is taking her six-year-old son out to see a film about his country.

Burkina Faso is a country of dust, cattle and grain. And somehow cinema. After several twists in its post-colonial history – Burkina Faso threw out the French in 1960 – one of the world's financially poorest countries became home to an industry that could support 55 cinemas. Since its launch in 1969, Fespaco has grown to support the industry in style, becoming the sub-Saharan Cannes.

Poolside hotel chit-chat trills across the warm night air; producers who arrive frantic for funds strain to adopt the élan of calm composure; and amid red carpets, bunting and bright lights, the aura of prestige drifts about the orderly town, filled with columns of mopeds seven lanes thick.

This year's contenders offer a varied selection. Soweto carjackers with street smarts; an albino killed for his head; corruption in the workplace; flight from authoritarian regimes; a romantic road trip; incest among poor whites; a Moroccan dancer in New York; and black Africans' role in slavery all feature.

But as film-makers get into their creative stride, the commercial side is struggling. Of late, 20 cinemas in Burkina have closed and today only 10 work. More and more filmmakers are turning to the cheap and cheerful video market that has made Nigeria's "Nollywood" the world's third-biggest film industry after Hollywood and Bollywood, churning out 2,000 television movies a year.

The Cameroonian director Daniel Kamwa knows only too well how crucial cinema halls are if anyone is to watch his work. His tender, funny, moving film of young love in a village that triumphs against the wishes of the elders to ensure the pretty young heroine becomes the fourth wife of a local big man, is among the 19 contenders for the top award. But Mah Saah-Sah, shot in the Bamoun language in a village 300km from the next town in western Cameroon, was shown for only a month in his home country before riots, linked to the rising cost of food and fuel, shut down cinema halls.

Just over a month ago, Cameroon, a nation of 18.5 million people, said goodbye to its final three screens. Kamwa has no distribution outside Africa and no African television channel has the money to buy the rights to his £425,000 film, and that means it may never be aired.

"It's the end of cinema in Cameroon," says Kamwa of the closures. "After the first showings, young people told me they were so glad I was telling their stories. But if you don't have theatres to show films, why are you making films?"

He faces an expensive failure. French donors put up half the cash, but private investors made up the rest, including Kamwa, who put in £62,000. His only option is to bring it out on DVD, but he knows it will be copied within moments of its release and sold on the black market on cheap CDs. As sales fall, donor funds dry up and piracy spreads, Africa's directors may have to embrace the technical revolution further and film on cheaper, digital cameras, aiming solely for television or video release. "We film for our public – we have to do films that are seen by the African public," says Kaboré. "For nearly 34 years I've been trying to find out how."

With Ouagadougou bringing the magic of the big screen to Burkina's people and the hundreds of foreign visitors who fly in for Fespaco, there's a chance that festivals with its brand of style and fun might keep African cinema going a little bit longer.

Burkina Faso in brief

*Known as Upper Volta until independence from France in 1960

*One of the poorest countries in the world. Almost 50 per cent of the country survives on less than $1 a day

*Population is 15 million

*Head of state is Blaise Compaore who came to power in a military coup in 1987 while a junior officer. Since then, he has won every election.

*Exports are cotton and gold.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week