Celebrating Africa’s OSCARS: FESPACO African Film & TV Festival
Nollywood, Nigeria’s moviemaking industry, may be the most prolific on the continent but when it comes to large platforms that celebrate the work of film professionals, we may have to look elsewhere; elsewhere being Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou – Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou – or FESPACO is a film festival found to “contribute to the expansion and development of African cinema as a means of expression, education and awareness-raising“.
Created in 1969 and held once every two years in Ouagadougou, the festival is a large cultural event in Africa and focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on African film and filmmakers – a welcome occurrence because the continent could do with many more film festivals showcasing, celebrating and promoting indigenous work. FESPACO also promotes film screenings in rural areas – an initiative I find particularly endearing because it provides Africans in areas with minimal basic infrastructure (when compared with Africa’s urban areas), an opportunity to also watch films made on the continent.
Fun fact – US actor Danny Glover, inspired by his visit to FESPACO, initiated his own Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year.
A hallmark of the festival is its elaborate opening and closing ceremony – a feature that’s VERY African. Given the festival’s prominence for the African film industry, FESPACO has been nicknamed “Africa’s Oscars”. But unlike the Oscar’s golden “man” statuette, one winner gets to take home a different golden statuette – Étalon de Yennenga or Stallion of Yennenga – the most prestigious award of the night, given to the African film that best shows the “realities of Africa”.
Since its inception, FESPACO has striven to show a fuller and richer picture of Africa. Celebrating its 23rd event this year, the festival screened 101 titles, compared with only 23 films from five African countries when it first opened its doors in 1969. Still, one would have to physically be at the festival in order to watch any of the 101 films, let alone the 23 films from waaay back then – a problem that should soon fade away as hundreds of old African films, which have been collecting dust and grime in a FESPACO back room in Ouagadougou, are being digitized by the Martin Scorsese Foundation in partnership with UNESCO and the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers. Great news!
There’s talk of FESPACO taking a backseat to DIFF, the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa, given its logistical, organizational and resource problems – all of which tend to dominate (or even overshadow) the conversation as much as the films being screened. There are accounts of power outages during the festival, directors who never receive tickets, poor picture display and/or sound projection at the screening, juries stranded at airports and miscommunication between the festival and its attendees – issues that are compelling some African filmmakers to choose to show their films at other events such as international screenings in Germany or France, which are increasingly beginning to accept African films.
Despite these issues, FESPACO remains an inspiration to many.
So here’s hoping that the power problem, among others, gets fixed so that we may return to the business of watching films — and watching them uninterrupted.