With FESPACO, through the years, there has continued to be a conscious effort to resonate with the realities of African societies. The selected themes reflect the state of African cinema and society at each point in time.
By Joseph Jonathan
Emerging at a critical period when African countries sought to redefine their post-colonial identity, the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) has continued to provide a platform for African filmmakers to tell stories reflective of their cultures, struggles, and triumphs. Being one of the oldest and largest film festivals in Africa, FESPACO has stood as a beacon of light for African cinema for over five decades.
Founded by a group of enterprising filmmakers and cinephiles – among which were Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, Dahomeyan/Senegalese filmmaker and scholar; Ousmane Sembène, Senegalese filmmaker and author, popularly called the father of African film; and Alimata Salambere, a former Minister of Culture in Burkina Faso – in 1969 as Semaine du Cinéma Africain, or African Cinema Week, the biennial film festival was intended as an avenue to provide Ouagadougou’s teeming population with access to new African films. This came on the heels of the struggles between the Burkina Faso government (then Upper Volta) and French distribution companies over the monopolisation of the industry. The event opened with a total of 23 films from seven participating nations; Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Niger, Senegal, France, and the Netherlands.
The second edition, which was held in 1970, was even more symbolic than the first, as it had more entries, receiving 37 films and with 9 participating nations. In addition, it took place at a time when Burkina Faso had become the first Sub-Saharan African country to nationalise its film distribution by creating the Société Nationale Voltaïque du Cinéma (SONAVOCI) on January 5, 1970. By this act, Burkina Faso had broken free from the monopoly of film distribution by French companies SECMA and COMACICO which held sway since the 1920s.
In a bid to become more Pan-African, Semaine du Cinéma Africain underwent some structural changes in 1972. Through a government decree on January 7, it was renamed Festival Pan-Africain du Cinéma d’Ouagadougou, or Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), with a new competitive outlook and prizes for outstanding films. The most notable prizes include; the “Étalon d’or de Yennenga” (Golden Stallion of Yennenga), named after a legendary warrior princess, Yennenga, considered to be the mother of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso, and the founder of the Mossi empire. The “Étalon d’or de Yennenga” is the festival’s most prestigious award and is given to the African film that best shows “Africa’s realities”.
The first winner of the best film award was Le Wazzou Polygame (1971) by Oumarou Ganda of Niger. Le Wazzou Polygame is a drama film about El Hadji, an Islamic faithful, who falls in love with his daughter’s friend Santou, who is already engaged to be married, despite himself being married with two wives. The film depicts the conflict between tradition and modernity during the period of Nigerien’s emancipation, and it cultivated a theme of liberation and humanisation in African cinema. Some other winners of the award include; Teza (2009) by Haile Gerima (Ethiopia), The Gravedigger’s Wife (2021) by Ahmed Khadar (Somalia’s first Oscars entry), and most recently, Ashkal (2023) by Youssef Chebbi (Tunisia).
There is also the Oumarou Ganda Prize, given for the best first film. Some past winners include Love Brewed in the African Pot (1981) by Kwaw Ansah (Ghana), which is reportedly the first privately financed Ghanaian feature film, and Barakat! (2007) by Djamila Sahraoui (Algeria), which also won Best Arab Film at the third Dubai International Film Festival. The Paul Robeson Prize for the best film by a director of the African diaspora is another notable award at the FESPACO, with previous winners that include Ori (1989) by Raquel Gerber (Brazil), Almacita Di Desolato (1991) by Felix de Rooy (The Netherlands), and Beah: A Black Woman Speaks (2003) by Lisa Gay Hamilton (United States), which also won the Documentary Award at the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival in 2003 and a Peabody Award in 2004.
Beyond the awards, FESPACO holds great cultural significance to African cinema. The most important being the way the festival showcases African stories told by Africans and the thoughtful themes of the festival over the years. For the pioneer founders of the festival, it was necessary to take back control of the art of cinema on the African continent, where it had predominantly been deployed as a colonial tool. Therefore, the clear message at inception was that “there exists an African cinema, which was made in Africa, by Africans, on African subjects.”
With FESPACO, through the years, there has continued to be a conscious effort to resonate with the realities of African societies. The selected themes reflect the state of African cinema and society at each point in time. The 1985 theme for instance, “The Cinema, People, and Liberation”, was used to highlight a time when several African countries still grappled with the uncertainties of military rule and thus, their film industries suffered heavy censorship and increased lack of government support. The theme for the 2007 festival was “The Actor in the Creation and Promotion of African Films”, and at this time, African cinema was experiencing a resurgence following the first African Film Summit of 2006. Therefore, FESPACO 2007 was aimed towards ensuring the continued promotion of African cinema to a worldwide audience.
This can be seen again with the most recent edition (2023) with the theme “African Cinema and Culture of Peace”. This theme came on the back of armed insurgency across parts of Africa and it speaks to the hopes of civilians in war-torn areas of the continent. For instance, the host country, Burkina Faso, is going through a humanitarian crisis, which has been worsened as attacks by non-state armed groups continue. This crisis stems from armed Islamist violence that erupted in 2016, as conflicts expanded in neighbouring Mali. That year, Al Qaeda-affiliated groups carried out an unprecedented terrorist attack in Ouagadougou that left 30 people dead. It was no surprise that the Silver Stallion winner (2nd best film) at the 2023 edition was Sira by Burkinabe director Apolline Traore. Sira shows the resilience and strength of African women as they fight to keep their families together in jihadist-controlled territories. It follows the story of a young nomad named Sira, who after a brutal attack refuses to surrender to her fate without a fight and instead takes a stand against Islamist terror.
In addition to showcasing African stories by Africans, FESPACO is committed to preserving Africa’s cinema heritage through the African Film Library of Ouagadougou. The library was created in 1989 on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of FESPACO and features a film archive and data bank. Located in Ouagadougou, the library has been affiliated with the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) since 1994 and features a collection of African films and any works relating to Africa. The festival also features MICA (Le Marche International du Cinema et de la Television Africaine or The African International Film and Television Market) which is a market for African film stock and video footage. MICA facilitates contact and exchange between film and audiovisual professionals of Africa and also contributes to the expansion and development of African cinema as a means of expression and education. Through MICA, investors can have an opportunity to purchase film stock from African filmmakers after prior discussion or negotiation.
FESPACO also fosters a unique synergy among African filmmakers. These filmmakers from across the continent – from seasoned veterans to neophytes – get the opportunity to share ideas and resources for growth. Festival workshops, panels, and screenings have become breeding grounds for co-productions, shared knowledge, and artistic inspiration. For the 2023 edition, the workshops were in two phases: Yennenga Post-Production for filmmakers in the production phase to pitch their films to professionals and international distributors who would support them in post-production grants, and Yennenga Academy is a training program dedicated to young talents in African cinema through masterclasses around different areas of film: Production, Directing, Screenwriting, Distribution, Film Critique and more.
The recent years have cast a shadow of doubt over FESPACO’s future and sustainability. Burkina Faso’s struggle with insurgency has threatened the very fabric of the festival. Despite the success of the 2023 edition, the festival grapples with reduced attendance and the palpable fear of violence. FESPACO’s enduring challenge is not merely existential, but about adapting to a changing world. In 2015, the festival began accepting film submissions in digital format as against the earlier insistence on celluloid. Considering the growing security concerns, would embracing virtual platforms be an option? It is no longer news that various film festivals across the world now offer virtual sessions, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Sundance Film Festival, the world’s most prestigious festival, for instance, currently offers both virtual and in-person events. In Africa, we have seen the Durban International Film Festival offer both in-person and virtual events.
Amidst these challenges lies a crucial question; can FESPACO endure in the face of adversity? The answer lies not just in the hands of organisers, but in the very essence of the festival itself, which is rooted in its unwavering commitment to African storytelling. It is a platform not just for entertainment, but for critical discourse, social commentary, and a celebration of the continent’s rich culture.
Joseph Jonathan is a historian who seeks to understand how film shapes our cultural identity as a people. He believes that history is more about the future than the past. When he’s not writing about film, you can catch him listening to music or discussing politics. He tweets @JosieJp3