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.

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