Ouagadougou – Africa’s biggest film festival opened on Saturday marking its 50th anniversary and buoyed by its contributions to the continent’s film industry but overshadowed by security problems in host country Burkina Faso.
Fespaco — the acronym in French of the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou — unfolds in the Burkinabe capital every two years.
Launched in 1969 and loosely modelled on the Cannes Film Festival, Fespaco provides an opportunity for African movie and TV professionals to network and pitch their work to clients in Europe, North America, and beyond.
This year’s offering, under the theme “memory and future,” will screen 165 films over a week, ranging from features and TV series, cartoons, short films and film-school projects.
“Film makers of Africa, we love you,” said Yacouba Traore, the festival’s chief organiser, at the opening ceremony in the capital’s municipal stadium.
Twenty full-length movies will joust for the so-called “African Oscar” — the Golden Stallion of Yennenga, named after a mythical 12th-century warrior princess who founded the Mossi empire.
Past winners of the award — given for the film that best shows “Africa’s realities” — have been “Felicite” (2017), a portrayal of the harsh life of a bar singer in Kinshasa by Senegalese-French Alain Gomis; and “Drum” (2005), by South Africa’s Zola Maseko, about an investigative journalist in Johannesburg during apartheid in the 1950s.
This year much attention is on Kenyan film “Rafiki” by Wanuri Kahiu, which already made it into the official competition at Cannes and was temporarily banned in Kenya last year because of its lesbian love theme.
Another frontrunner is “Desrances” by Burkina Faso director Apolline Traore about post-electoral troubles in Ivory Coast in 2010 and 2011.
Organisers are expecting 4,500 film industry participants and a whopping 100,000 members of the public to turn out for the 450 screenings, taking place in nine venues in Ouagadougou and in Bobo Dioulasso and Ouahigouya, the country’s other major cities.
“The goal is to return to the festival’s basics — to bring film-lovers and film-makers to the outlying areas of Ouagadougou,” said Fespaco’s chief, Adiouma Soma.
“The public can see the maximum number of films and directors have the chance of really meeting people who watch their work.”
Assessed purely in volume terms, movie-making in sub-Saharan Africa is dominated by Nigeria’s Nollywood — the second biggest in the world after India’s Bollywood — while Senegal and South Africa have long-established and respected industries.
In rich countries, African films may be screened in arthouse cinemas, but rarely reach mass audiences.
A common complaint is that African productions lack financial muscle to give films star power and glitzy — read expensive — special effects.
Experts say emerging digital technology can offer directors big savings in production and distribution costs — a possibility that will be addressed in a special seminar at the festival this year.
Security was tight on the opening day, with checkpoints set up around the stadium, armoured vehicles deployed and snipers placed on rooftops.
In total, some 2,000 security personnel are being deployed for the festival, to patrol day and night and guarantee the safety of hotel guests and cinemagoers and perform on-the-spot checks.
Burkina Faso is on the frontline of a bloody jihadist insurgency that has spread across the Sahel.
Raids began in the north of the country in 2015 before spreading to the east, leaving more than 300 dead.
Eighty civilians and security force members have been killed since early December alone.
Ouagadougou has been hit three times in the past three years, including in a coordinated attack last March that targeted the French embassy and devastated the country’s military headquarters.