OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso, Western Africa — As the sun set on this, the 13th-poorest nation in the world (behind such countries as Chad, Bhutan and Bangladesh), staff members of the ninth Pan African Film Festival loaded generators, projectors and film reels into government cars and set off for the city's slums.
In Sector 29, a dense collection of squalid mud huts along meandering dirt roads, several hundred Burkinabe had gathered in the dusty yard of a local two-room elementary school. There were barefoot children, turbaned women with infants tied to their backs, and men whose cheeks were slashed with three parallel lines, identifying them as members of the Mossi tribe. Like 81% of the national population, most were under the age of 40. Only a handful had ever seen a movie before. Almost all were illiterate.
The vintage Kalart/Victor projector, borrowed from the U.S. Cultural Center, was hooked to the generator and then focused on the school wall. A tremor of anticipation filled the air, and natives shifted restlessly in the heat--down to about 85 from more than 100 in the afternoon.
When the first film began, the women in the audience gasped. It was only a 20-minute documentary on the perils of diarrhea, with a local black doctor dispensing medical advice and demonstrating proper health techniques, but it held the audience spellbound. It was irrelevant that the film was in Dioula, a southern language that the More-speaking Mossi don't understand. The crowd, most of it standing, stared at the school wall, transfixed by the moving images.
Only someone who has witnessed such a scene can truly understand the power of cinema. And that, really, was what Fespaco '85 (known by its French acronym) was all about.
The weeklong event ended March 2 in this capital (pronounced WA-ga-doo-goo, and called Ouaga for short) of what was formerly Upper Volta and is now under military dictatorship. During several days of 21 free screenings, plus screenings at eight other theaters around town for 30 cents to a dollar, it reached many this year who had never before seen a motion picture.
Although festival organizers estimated that 250,000 viewed a mix of shorts, documentaries and feature-length films made by Africans about African life, many were repeat customers. A more reasonable figure is probably 60,000, since much of the population are infants and little children riding on their mothers' backs.
Fespaco '85 also drew a record 317 directors, producers, distributors and journalists, many of whom arrived from Europe aboard a special plane chartered to keep travel costs low (West African air fares are notoriously exorbitant: a one-way flight from Marseilles, 2,000 miles away, is about $500, but a round-trip charter about half that). They viewed 108 African productions and co-productions in the surprisingly luxurious Cinema Burkina, in the auditorium of the modern West African Economic Community Center, at two open-air theaters and other converted spaces.
It was a particularly impressive achievement for an impoverished, underdeveloped, overpopulated nation of 7.1 million where the average annual income is $200 and only 6.8% of the population lives past 55. The new military government is struggling to get the literacy rate into the teens by improving education and pressuring young people to attend school--not an easy goal in a country where subsistence farming is the main industry.
The festival directorate, led by Secretary General Filippe Savadogo, 29, did it all on a reported budget of only $270,000. With the northern farmlands ravished by drought and declared an international disaster area, spending more was out of the question.
"We Africans are fighting to save our culture," Savadogo said in an interview, justifying this event in a time of national suffering and austerity. "In these countries where illiteracy is so high, images are a good weapon with which to fight. There are no illiterates in the world of cinema."
The theme of Fespaco '85 was "Cinema and the Liberation of Peoples," chosen, said Savadogo, to remind African film makers that they still have a long way to go.
"In the time of the people, we need a cinema for the people. Each time they (the people) see a film it should teach them something, be somehow enlightening."
As pledged by the bright banners stretched across the city intersections, Fespaco '85 was a festival for the people. For the first time, Fespaco actually touched the lives of just about everyone in Ouaga--the ubiquitous bicycle riders, the moped mechanics who daily set up shop under the shady trees that line the main road, the tall women who walk for miles balancing jugs of water on their heads, the vegetable vendors who hawk mangos and bananas in the central market.
"The president (Capt. Thomas Sankara) himself gave the order," said Moustapha Thiombiano, the wiry Burkinabe musician responsible for creating "Fespaco Fever." "He said there should be direct contact between the festival guests and the people."