The phone rang promptly at 7 a.m. "The president will see you today," a cool voice said. "A car will pick you up outside your hotel at 10:30." I didn't have to be told that it would be a good idea to be ready on time.
Even before I left Los Angeles for FESPACO, the word had come from Burkina Faso that if I wanted an interview with Blaise Compaore, "president of Faso, chief of state, president of the council of ministers," it could be arranged. Since most film festivals won't even let you talk to the president of the jury, this seemed an opportunity not to be passed up.
Compaore's path to the presidency, I knew, had not been a tranquil one. He first came to power in a violent 1987 coup d'etat that resulted in the death of the country's leader, Thomas Sankara. In the years since, Compaore had begun to liberalize the political process, but when he ran for president in 1991, not surprisingly winning a seven-year term, the opposition parties boycotted the election, resulting in a voter turnout of only 25%.
Meeting me in the lobby of the hotel was the owner of that cool voice, Naye Nell Diallo, a woman with a story that seemed straight out of a novel. The Alabama native had worked for international organizations in Africa for 10 years and was married to Compaore's closest adviser, making her important enough to have been the first American to receive one of Burkina's highest national decoration, the Chevalier de l'Ordre national .
The president would meet us at his Camp David-type compound about 20 minutes north of the capital at Zinaire, the site of the village where he was born. "He relaxes here," Diallo explained. "In town, everybody tells him all the problems."
No signs, obviously, announced the compound--just a plain wire fence, a group of red and white painted concrete poles and a handful of lounging soldiers who casually approached our car. "I don't play with the military," Diallo said, rolling down the window and taking care to tell the soldiers who we were.
The compound, surrounded by a large light-brown wall over which green tile roofs were visible, consisted of a main house and several smaller alcoves surrounding a swimming pool and a large open pavilion. The whole effect was tasteful but not opulent.
"This was donated to the president by his friends," Diallo said as we entered. "It will be eventually given to the country." Almost as an afterthought, she added, "There is a lion around here somewhere. It was given to the president," and sure enough, the unleashed animal could be seen pawing a nearby tree, with a handler hovering just behind. As we moved slowly toward the pool in the intense heat, the lion's presence made the entire situation seem only marginally more surreal.
Wearing black shoes, sharply creased black pants, and a white shirt worn outside, Compaore laughed when Diallo teased him that his staff says he's not the president with his shirt out. The president, a handsome man with watchful eyes and a nice smile that he used only sparingly, gave serious answers to serious questions but relaxed more when the talk turned to film, revealing that 13 years earlier he too had felt the restless urge to direct.
The result was a half-hour documentary on the National Commandos, a military group of which he was commander.
"People consider them bizarre, like your Marines," he said in French, with Diallo translating. "So I made this to show they were real people." After he added that he has "many, many stories in his head for future films," Diallo suggested that he go to Hollywood, and everyone laughed.
Asked if he'd seen many American films, the president smiled and, echoing the French cultural imperialism line, said, "Every film is American." It turned out he'd most recently seen, of all things, " 'Dirty Harry' with Clint Eastwood." The thought and the film seemed to amuse him.
"It was in English, so I didn't understand everything, but it seemed a typical American film, with a lot of violence, a lot of action and always a good car chase."
Asked if he'd seen anything from the current FESPACO, the president mentioned that "Guimba," a film from Mali, had been brought out to the compound. "It's a good one," he said, which did not seem surprising, because who would want the responsibility of bringing a bad film to the president.
And when, a week later, "Guimba" walked off with the festival's top prize, that did not come as a total surprise either.