For many in attendance at Fespaco — Africa’s biggest film festival — the conspicuous absence of English-language films seemed to suggest that not everyone was invited to the party.
French-language films dominated the competition at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, which brought helmers from across the continent and diaspora to the dusty capital of Burkina Faso from Feb. 26 to March 5. The French influence is understandable for a festival that remains, in its 22nd biannual edition, heavily subsidized by French coin.
Still, many felt that the absence of English-language pics undermines the increasing strength of domestic markets in countries like South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.
“When you come to Fespaco, you see a certain world,” says Kisha Cameron-Dingle, prexy of Completion Films. “It’s not as diverse as you would expect it to be if you’ve been in Africa and seen the different kinds of films, the different kinds of filmmakers, that come out of (here).”
Twelve of the 18 official selections in the feature film competition are from French-speaking nations, as are all 13 shorts in competition.
Festival chief Michel Ouedraogo defended the selection process, saying that it simply reflected the strongest films being made on the continent today. In fact, the past three winners of the Etalon d’or de Yennenga, the fest’s highest honor, came from Anglophone countries: Zola Maseko’s “Drum” (South Africa) in 2005; Newtown Aduaka’s “Ezra” (Nigeria) in 2007; and Ethiopian helmer Haile Gerima’s “Teza” in 2009.
But from the absence of English subtitles on entries to miscommunications with fest officials, the perception on the ground remained that this is a fest for the French film world.
Perhaps most tellingly, digital productions at Fespaco are relegated to a side category, making the festival seem out of touch at a time when video has become the dominant production method in English-speaking countries.
“The format shouldn’t be what determines how good your film is,” says Nashen Moodley, programmer of the Durban Film Festival. Kunle Afolayan, Nigerian helmer of digitally-shot “The Figurine,” which unspooled in the TV/video sidebar competition, says he felt marginalized by his film’s placement. “Despite the challenges, the mood remained festive around the storied pool of the Hotel Independance, where pioneers like Ousmane Sembene once held court. For African helmers scattered across the world, Fespaco offers a rare chance to gather, reminisce and exchange hopes for the future of African filmmaking.
Still, over the clinking of glasses and the din of conversation on a recent evening, there was a hint of regret in the air.
“This really should be the meeting point for all African filmmakers to come and learn from each other,” says Cameron-Dingle. “But it doesn’t give you the full scope, which I think is a missed opportunity.”