This year’s edition of the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) closes on high note today having registered 50 years of celebrating African cinema. The gaze is now on the next half-century.
Rwanda participated as the Country Guest of Honour and President Paul Kagame on Friday arrived in Ouagadougou for the same.
At a workshop at the fete titled “Confronting the memory”, it directed the gaze with a series of questions beginning with this one: Would it be true to say that Fespaco has been the witness of an evolution of African cinemas?
In another pointed question, it also sought to understand how to capitalise on a collective film experience and build a living, vibrant and accessible culture.
To consciously bear witness to unfolding events is to anticipate the benefit of hindsight when the time comes to build the future drawing from the experience.
To this, the first question already had an answer. As a measure of the festival’s accomplishment, I will recall the two paragraphs here in full as written in an introduction to the festival; how Fespaco, described in an apt metaphor as a cinema screen, has more than borne witness, and how by the same token it has been a repository of our collective cinematic memory.
FESPACO, to quote the lengthy description, has been the screen on which has been projected 50 years of Africa's history, marked not only by the ups and downs of colonialism, the failure of the new post-independence ruling classes, neo-colonialism, economic and political imperialism, the assassination of resistance fighters but also by struggles for independence, pan-Africanist experiments, liberation movements and independence acquired with weapons.
The festival also served as a screen for Afro-pessimism, the resignation of intellectuals, disillusionment and disenchantment, disasters induced by measures dictated by the Bretton Woods institutions, the unacceptable deterioration in the terms of trade, the looting of African mining resources, wars waged by external actors, the tragedy of migration to the West, and land grabbing, violent extremism, religious radicalism, but also the birth of the African Union, non-violent practices, the anti-imperialist struggle, the fall of apartheid, the non-aligned movement, the revolt of peoples and the wind of democracy, the fight against corruption, the release of Nelson Mandela, Afro-futurism, the desire and fight for Africa’s renaissance.
It makes for quite a feat, capturing the successes and exposing the failures. But while it may, in retrospect, reveal the possibilities for a hopeful future, it is also a testament to the daunting challenges that must be surmounted.
It is thus the above-noted workshop soberly lends the necessary doubt to the festival in “confronting the memory”.
It is the verdict of many experts that the African film is still nascent, that it could do better. The industry has been described as undernourished with a number of challenges ranging infrastructure and inadequate skill to poor financing, equipment and promotion.
Aside from the technological and production concerns, commercial opportunities are also compromised by piracy which eats into the industry income affecting producers’ morale and denying revenue that could be ploughed back to improve the industry standards.
It has also been lamented how African productions often lack global appeal due to the plainness of the product – that it often lacks special effects and recognisable the star actors who may heighten enthusiasm to watch an African movie.
Special effects are expensive to incorporate while attracting star power requires good money, which African productions often don’t have. The consequence is that African films rarely reach mass audiences outside the continent.
These challenges have presented a long-running concern that was sure to be revisited at Fespaco as it often has been in other film festivals on the continent and in the Diaspora.
But salvation is within grasp. It is acknowledged that part of the salvation may lie in the emergence of digital technology which already shows promise at cost saving in production and distribution.
With the emergence of Video-On-Demand platforms in Africa such as ShowMax, Kwese iFlix, iROKOtv and others, the internet offers a cheaper avenue to a broader audience which may not only provide exposure for the local talent but could attract investment in the sector.
Fespaco is notable because, in addition to being one of the largest and most established film festivals in Africa, it arguably also holds one of the most comprehensive continental memories in film and television cinema.
And, as the Nigerian playwright and essayist Wole Soyinka once remarked at a previous Fespaco workshop, the objective of art, which cinema is a one form, is also – among other purposes – Revelation.
In this case, the revelation must lie in the Fespaco memory which we should expect will inform the festival’s next 50 years.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.