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Follow-up : Black African Film: The First Small Steps

March 24, 1985|JOAN BORSTEN

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — In 1973, when downtown Ouaga (the capital of this Western Africa country) still lacked paved streets, a special film screening took place in one of the city's three "movie houses"--all roofless garages. A VIP section was set up with folding chairs for the president and his cabinet. Everyone else stood or sat on the ground.

It was the premiere of the first feature ever made in Upper Volta (as Burkina Faso was then called) by a Voltaic. Titled "Pariah's Blood," directed by 33-year-old Djim Kola Mamadou and made in the local language of More, it was the story of two star-crossed Voltaic lovers who are prevented from marrying because the man belongs to the despised blacksmith caste.

The 70-minute, 35-millimeter color feature had been produced by the state so that, for the first time, Upper Volta could compete at the Pan African Film Festival (Fespaco), which Ouaga had already hosted three times.

Nasser Ktari, a Tunisian film maker who provided technical assistance, recalled the historic moment when the projector began to hum: "The images projected against the wall came into focus: A young Voltaic, carrying an attache case, walked through the streets of Ouaga. The scene lasted only one minute and had no dialogue, but it had an incredible effect on everyone. For the first time, Voltaics saw themselves on the screen. It was as extraordinary for them as watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon must have been for Americans. Their whole world had changed. No longer were they just consumers of cinema--now they were participants."

The Voltaic government, which had been financing documentaries and instructional films since 1960, noted the response. One of the poorest countries in the world, with almost no natural resources, almost no literacy, one of the most affected by the continuing Sahel drought, set out to become the Hollywood of Africa.

Twelve years and eight features later, Burkina Faso, like the rest of Black Africa, is making slow progress in bringing to the screen images of itself. Of the 150 or so films screened at Fespaco '85--most produced in the past 25 years, many of them shorts and documentaries, almost all done on minuscule budgets--not one included any of Hollywood's favorite African images: headhunters, cannibals, Pygmies, wild jungle beasts, missionaries or half-clothed Tarzans swinging through the trees.

The ninth Pan African Film Festival was also a testament to the passion and commitment of film makers everywhere to get their films made: one from Ghana risked losing his wife in a deal to finance his modest picture.

Yet for all the dedication and sacrifice, the "new" African film images remain confined largely to the African continent. Think for a minute--have you ever seen a black African movie? The currently popular "The Gods Must Be Crazy" was made in Botswana, but it was produced, written and directed by South Africans. "Black and White in Color" (1976), which won a foreign-language-film Oscar for the Ivory Coast, the only African country ever to win an Academy Award, was produced by a Swiss and written, directed and financed by the French.

There is a world of difference between movies made in Black Africa and those made by Black Africa, as Fespaco '85 attested.

With varying degrees of technical and artistic ability, Black Africa's film makers are documenting life on a continent that since the 1950s has been rocked by political and economic upheavals, traumatized by social and cultural mutations, ravaged by poverty and drought. With distinct visions, often lyrical, never Western, the African directors probed the issues that most preoccupy Africa today: dowry, superstition, caste, forced marriage, sorcery, corruption, the consequence of the rural exodus, the dream of emigrating to Europe, the status of women, the Western invasion of African culture.

"They see the transformations of the continent daily, and with such intensity, that the clash between new and old is almost the only theme of their movies," said Tunisian film critic Ferid Boughedir, director of the authoritative documentary "African Camera." "Even innocent comedies, made with only commercial intentions, center around the conflict between traditional and modern."

Black Africa joined the international film community in 1963 when "Borem Sarret" ("Buggy Driver") won the best-first-work award at France's Tours Festival. The 20-minute, black-and-white, French-language feature, screened during the recent Fespaco's African Retrospective, was written and directed by Ousmane Sembene, a native of Senegal.

(One of the former French colonies that straddle Africa's Western coast, Senegal is today the continent's most prolific and prestigious film-making country, home to a dozen cinema/television directors and 72 technicians trained in Paris, Rome, Moscow and Bombay.)

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