Preeminent African Film Festival (FESPACO) & Stateside Black Film Festivals - Critical Parallels

by Tambay A. Obenson
June 12, 2011 12:41 PM
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Reading the below recent lament from internationally celebrated Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Un Homme Qui Crie) on FESPACO, the largest, and most significant African film festival, held biennially in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, I was immediately reminded that, over the years, black film festivals here in the USA have also often been heavily criticized by filmmakers and audiences alike, unfairly some may say. We've touched on the matter on this site in previous posts; I also recall a thread on my old website - The Obenson Report - that unexpectedly attracted a stream of comments, most of them quite impassioned, expressing all sides, and even drew the ire of black film festival directors.

"In September 1997, we set up the Guild because we faced the same problems. We had no rooms and spent the night around the Hotel Indépendance poolside talking till six in the morning. Today, the same things are happening again! These small, incidental [hiccups] take[...] on huge proportions when the problems cumulate. In his opening speech at the stadium, the Minister of Culture didn't seem to think fit to talk about film; he spoke about Burkina's culinary specialties, such as "bicycle" and rabilé chicken. I know the Minister of Culture is also the Minister of Tourism, but the Fespaco is first and foremost a film event. Does this festival truly respect cinema, or is it simply a popular festivity people come to for the sun and millions distributed in special awards? Must we continue to accept this due to an essentialism that is specific to us? It's a typically African social comedy, rooted in our traditions, in which there is no solidarity between the filmmakers. And we sustain this farce by our presence. I get the impression that there is no longer any reflection on film here, and if we don't reflect on film, it's difficult to take it elsewhere and to escape the ghetto we are shut in. We become just image-makers. In Burkina, since Idrissa Ouedraogo stopped shooting, there's no cinema anymore.. "

All very similar criticisms that have been launched against black film festivals here in the USA.

It's worth adding that, as Bombastic Element notes, earlier this year, after the 2011 installment of FESPACO, Haroun proclaimed that he would no longer attend the film festival.

Also, I recall a series of tweets from Cameron Bailey (director of the Toronto International Film Festival, and a long-time FESPACO regular) during the latter half of this year's festival, expressing a simultaneous regret and hope, stating, for example, "getting harder to swallow disappointment here, and it's not the choking dust. So much goodwill in Ouaga, but..."

Criticism of black film festivals, however unfairly, both those here in the states and at FESPACO, seem to center mostly around matters of organization, focus/emphasis, and opportunity. Are we starting to hear less of those cries from filmmakers and audiences? I'll point to the success of AFFRM as a gauge.

What to make of all this? The issues are larger than the festivals themselves, as I see it.

I just thought that the continental (and diasporic) parallels were interesting and worth noting.

Bombastic Element has a more thorough writeup about this, and you can read it HERE.

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