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Cinemalibero. FESPACO 1969 – 2019

Posted by keith1942 on November 28, 2019

Film-makers at the grave of Thomas Sankara

The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou or FESPACO) is a film festival in Burkina Faso, held biennially in Ouagadougou, and dedicated to African and African film-makers. It was founded in 1969 . Then the host state was known as Upper Volta. The state became Burkina Faso under the leadership of Thomas Sankara, a revolutionary anti-colonial figure. In an early speech Sankara drew on the traditions of the US War of Independence, the French Revolution and the Great October Revolution. His socialist style programme was bought to a halt in a military coup in 1987: clearly involving intrigues by foreign states, in an area where French neo-colonialism is potent. The Festival has continued and remains the most important forum for African Cinema. In the same year an association of African filmmakers was formed, The Pan African Federation of Filmmakers / Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes. Several of the film-makers featured this year were important in this development, including Med Hondo and Gaston Kaboré, who later became Secretary-General. And there was Ousmane Sembène who is the best-known of these film-makers and who features have been fairly widely available.

Il Cinema Ritrovato has developed a productive relationship with the World Film Foundation, dedicated to the restoration of important films across world cinema. Their new project aims at restoring fifty African films that are considered important as films, as cultural products and historical artifacts. The programme in Bologna this year presented eleven films, eight in new restorations, as examples from the African Film heritage.

I have already posted on one of the titles: Arabs and Niggers, Your Neighbours / Les Bicots-Negres, vos voisins (1974). This was one of the films screened in its original 35mm format. And it provided a tribute to the film work of Med Hondo, who died early this year. The film provided a link between the other films shown in a Ritrovato retrospective in 2017.

Among the titles were a number seen here in the 1980s but not seen since. From 1975 in Cameroon came Muna Moto directed by Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa. This was  a critical study of the dowry system, but which was constrained by the censorship operating at that time. Dikongue-Pipa felt that he was able to present

“only one fifth of what he felt in his heart.”

In the film a young woman, because she is pregnant, has to marry an older man who already has there wives, all sterile. The drama develops when the young man who fathered the child takes drastic steps.

‘Muna Moto’

Problems also attended the restoration as there was mould on some sections of the original negative and Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique had to work in part with a dupe print. The film, in black and white, used indigenous Duala and French with English sub-titles

Baara from Mali (1978) was directed Souleymane Cissé. His subsequent feature Yeelen (1987) has become a classic of African films seen in Europe.  Cissé had suffered arrest and jail for his previous film which addressed the question of rape; the charge was for accepting French funding; something the ruling class in this state have done right up until today. Set in Bamako this film is a study of trade unionism in a country struggling to escape neo-colonialism. There are two key character, of similar ages; one an intellectual the other a manual worker. Both work at a factory where the exploitation leads to confrontation and the need for people to identify their interests, individual and collective.

“The various elements operating in the film are unified by the narrative strategy employed – specifically related to the Marxist notion of history as essentially collective.”

The film screened from a colour 35mm print and used indigenous Bambara language. This was a version with Italian sub-titles and an English translation.

Wend Kuuni was from Burkina Faso itself and made in 1982 by Gaston Kaboré. A young boy is abandoned in the bush. Found, he adopted into a village family. The simple drama develops as we learn the trauma that made him mute and the further action that leads to a cure.

Kaboré, in 2017, explained that

“My preoccupation has been to find a film-making form to address my own people enshrined in both cinematic language and the legacy of our own story-telling tradition.”

This offers as sense of the form of the ‘griot’, a traditional story-teller whose function can be seen at work in a number of African films. The dialogue was in the local language of Mooré with English subtitles.

‘Wend Kuuni’

This was another restoration by the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique. The digital version looked really good. We also had an introduction by Nicola Mazzanti from the Cinémathèque which was less happy. His intentions seemed good but the delivery was rather like a harangue on the neglect of African films. Given that the audience were cineastes who had traveled distances for the festival and for this particular screening, then queued up to get a seat, [some had to stand] this seemed to me completely misdirected.

There were two films by the Senegalese film-maker Djibril Diop Mambéty. His two most famous films, Touki Bouki (1973) and Hyènes (1992) were both features. The two titles were intended to be part a trilogy, Histories de petites gens / Tales of ordinary people, but Mambéty died before he could complete the third part.

Le Franc [which refers to a lottery ticket] runs for 45 minutes. The protagonist, Marigo (Dieye ma) is an itinerant musician.

“With his easy-going walk and Chaplinesque clothes, Marigo immediately expresses his irreverent nature: …” (Alessaandre Speciale, quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

Indeed Marigo does share some characteristics with the famous ‘silent’ tramp. And the film  has its  moments of humour. But it also shares Mambety’s taste for sardonic comment, bricolage and a narrative that literally jumps around characters and settings. Marigo shares Chaplin’s famous characters ability to stare down adversity. But such adversities are more dramatic and oppressive in a neo-colonial setting. This is a landscape in which poverty and decay surround everybody. Yet the characters are vital as is the music which repeatedly disrupts the action.

We had a good transfer to digital with the Wolof dialogue accompanied by English sub-titles. However, the songs were not translated and I am sure they added to the dynamic but bitter story.

‘Le Franc’

La Petite vendeuse de Soleil / The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun. The ‘sun’ of the title is a daily newspaper which children tout round the streets of [I think] Dakar but it clearly has a double meaning [at least] in the story.. Sili (Lissa Baléra) is a paraplegic. Despite this and her crutches she gamely works round the streets selling what seems to be a popular tabloid. She also gamely ignores the taunts and tricks of the other sellers, all teenage boys. This is a film about facing adversity but with a more upbeat and less sardonic tone than Le Franc.

Mambéty, who died in 1998, was unable to finish the film which was at that point ready for editing. It was completed by colleagues after his death. It is an affecting drama with an emotional punch. It is also more in a linear fashion that Mambety’s other films and there is little sense of the irony that he usually offers. I did wonder if the final film is exactly as he himself would have made it. Like the other title it was in a good quality DCP, running 45 minutes and again in Wolof with English sub-titles.

There were several other features and  material on FESPACO. Notably, nearly all the films came from North and West Africa. The exceptions were the Hondo and a title from Morocco. A number were in French though we also had titles in indigenous languages like that by Cissé and by Mambéty. This is an area once termed ‘Francophone’ because  France was the dominant colonial power. This offers an interesting cultural factor, since narrative films are more common from this area than other parts which were dominated by Britain and the English language. France has continued to exercise a neo-colonial dominance in the region including military adventures. The flip side being the cultural plank and many films had to rely on French technical resources in their production. One of the key aims of FESPACO was to develop the indigenous film industries. This lead to a flowering in the late 1970s and 1980s, witnessed by some of the films at the festival. This fell away in the 1990s but there have been some important cinematic ventures in recent years; [see posts under ‘African Cinema’].

We can look forward to more of the restorations by the World Film Foundation at future festivals.

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