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Prolific African Filmmaker Idrissa Ouedraogo Dies at 64

Burkina Faso’s Idrissa Ouedraogo, a towering figure of African cinema, died at the age of 64 on Sunday, according to a statement from the national filmmakers guild.

A prolific director over the course of his celebrated career, Ouedraogo was best known for “Tilai,” a powerful drama about family honor that won the Cannes Jury Prize in 1990.

President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said in a statement that his country “has lost a filmmaker of immense talent,” noting that the director “truly contributed to turning the spotlight on Burkinabe and African cinema beyond our borders.”

Tributes and condolences from around the African film world poured out on social media. Congolese helmer Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda described his “deep sadness” at the passing of a man affectionately known as “the teacher,” adding that “the maestro has come home, behind the screen.”

Gilles Jacob, president of the Cannes film festival when Ouedraogo’s “Yaaba” and “Tilai” were selected, mourned the passing of a screen legend who “closed his eyes for good right when the sun which illuminated his body of work was setting.”

In Berlin, where filmmakers were gathered on Sunday at the Berlinale Africa Hub, many shared thoughts on Ouedraogo’s life and celebrated career.

Long-time friend and veteran fest programmer Keith Shiri called Ouedraogo “a great and generous man” who welcomed him on his first visit to Burkina Faso in 1989, for the pan-African film festival, Fespaco, where Ouedraogo would become a staple in the following years.

When Shiri returned the favor, Ouedraogo not only visited him in his native Zimbabwe: he stayed to lens a feature film. “He became a dear friend,” said Shiri, who added that “given [Ouedraogo’s] body of work,” he remained committed to “cinema for Burkinabe first.”

Born Jan. 21, 1954, in what was then the French colony of Upper Volta, Ouedraogo studied in Kiev before moving to Paris, where he attended the prestigious Institut d’Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques and graduated with a degree in film studies from the Sorbonne in 1985.

Returning to Burkina Faso, he lensed his first feature, “Yam Daabo” (1986), which was soon followed by “Yaaba,” a story of the love between a young boy and an elderly woman spurned by villagers who believe her to be a witch. The film, which won the FIPRESCI Prize in Cannes in 1989, catapulted Ouedraogo to international acclaim, a reputation that was bolstered by his masterpiece, “Tilai.”

Along with his work onscreen, Ouedraogo was also a veteran of the theater, directing “The Tragedy of King Christopher” at Paris’ Comedie-Francaise. Though he directed a short film in the 9/11 omnibus “11’9″01,” Ouedraogo had largely turned to TV work in recent years, and was thought by many to have become disillusioned with the challenges of funding the films he insisted on filming on celluloid. “He was one of those purists of cinema,” said Shiri.

Recently, Ouedraogo had been planning a comeback to feature films, according to Shiri, who felt the director was energized by his recent teaching experiences at the Ouaga Film Lab, a training academy in Ouagadougou. Ouedraogo was also part of the planning committee to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Fespaco next year. “He was about to come back again,” said Shiri. “All of a sudden, he’s gone.”

Janaina Oliveira, of Brazil’s Center for Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous Studies, was preparing a retrospective of Ouedraogo’s work this May. “We talked two weeks ago,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I was bringing him to Brazil. Tickets, screening, tribute…it was all set. He was so happy.”

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