African film capital struggles to support industry

OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO — For eight days last month, thousands of spectators gathered in Ouagadougou to watch the best of African film at the biannual Fespaco film festival.

But after the awards were handed out and the last rockets burst during the closing ceremony, there was a sense in the capital of this small West African republic that the films had packed up and left along with all the pageantry.

For a country that prides itself on being the capital of African film, Burkina Faso is still struggling to find a way to showcase the industry for which it is known.

“It’s a long road,” says Souleymane Ouedraogo, secretary general of the culture ministry.

Historically, Burkina Faso has done more than most African countries to support its local film industry. Since the 1970s, when the government began investing heavily in equipment and technical training, Ouagadougou has been a major production center for West African filmmakers.

Still, the cash-strapped country — consistently ranked among the world’s poorest — is rarely able to provide struggling helmers with financial support. According to Stanislas Meda, chairman of the Fespaco National Organizing Committee, just $200,000 a year is pumped into local productions.

Culture minister Ouedraogo says that the government’s support goes beyond the coin it offers helmers.

The tiny country of 16 million boasts five training institutes, post-production facilities, and a film-friendly environment that includes government assistance in the form of equipment and technical support.

“Even if we don’t have enough money, it’s really important to create an environment for cinema,” the culture minister says.

Digital technology has helped local filmmakers address some of their financial woes, by allowing them to shoot on shoestring budgets.

While 35mm production has tailed off for veterans like director Gaston Kabore, a newcomer like Boubacar Diallo has shot more than a dozen films in the past decade alone.

According to Meda, the country’s modest output has nearly doubled in recent years, with local helmers now producing roughly 15 films a year.

But the country has made little progress in solving its distribution and exhibition woes. In the weeks before Fespaco began, festival chief Michel Ouedraogo called piracy an “AIDS virus” destroying African film. It was a sentiment echoed by Kabore, who says he could go to Ouagadougou’s central market and find pirated copies of his films selling for less than $1.

The once-flourishing exhibition industry is stagnant; of the 55 movie theaters once operating across the country, just 14 remain. After the influx of African pics during Fespaco, which played to packed houses, most of the theaters returned to their normal fare once the festival ended: Hollywood blockbusters, Bollywood musicals and the occasional Nigerian melodrama.

There are signs, though, that the industry is addressing its woes. Kabore points to a joint initiative launched last year by helmers, producers and distribs with government support to try to create a centralized, streamlined distribution network.

“I’m really optimistic,” he says, “but nobody’s going to do it except ourselves.”

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