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Reporter's notebook: Racing around Ouaga, seeking credentials and answers

At FESPACO, Africa’s largest film festival, FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto embarks on a wild goose chase for press credentials and festival statistics on the streets of the Burkinabe capital of Ouagadougou.


Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso - Saturday, February 26, 2011


Festival opening day dawns suddenly and expansively, like most West African mornings. No gentle build-up of rosy predawn hues here – and that matches the mood in this city.

Ouagadougou – or just “Ouaga,” as the film cognoscenti know it – is home to the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou, or FESPACO).

It’s the biggest African film festival, it takes place once every two years in this teeming capital of a tiny West African nation and it seems like the city’s one million-odd population spend the 23 months between festivals just waiting for the day Ouaga gets its time under the international spotlight.

Taxi drivers, mobile phone-card vendors and impromptu city tour guides crowd the entrance of the Azalai Hotel Indépendance, ready to go wherever you like or recommend you to a cabbie friend parked on the other side of the street.

Taxi drivers, hawkers and instant tour guides gather outside Ouagadougou's Hotel Indépendance, ready for the big day. (Photo: L. Jacinto)
Taxi drivers, hawkers and instant tour guides gather outside Ouagadougou's Hotel Indépendance, ready for the big day. (Photo: L. Jacinto)

We have a mission this morning after the drama of last night’s inauspicious arrival at Ouaga airport minus one checked-in baggage. This morning, we have to snag our press credentials – the all-important key to screenings, press conferences and other ceremonies.

“This is Africa,” warned several seasoned festival hands, and so we go about it African style.

We haggle a cab fare to the official press centre building called the Liptako Gouma.

“Liptako, Liptako,” sings the cab driver confidently. He neglects to mention that he has no idea where it is. One does not expect every Ouaga cabbie to know one inconsequential press office in the city, he could have just said he doesn’t know. But in some countries, ‘fessing up to not knowing a destination is as grave a crime as patricide.

And so, we have innumerable screeching brakes and U-turns before we stop for consultations with sundry street-corner experts until we finally arrive at “Liptako, Liptako,” – this time the tone is both relieved and jubilant.

The world’s press is here of course, lining up impatiently as harried, but charmingly polite festival volunteers struggle to keep up with the crush.

After half-an-hour of patiently waiting in line, we are told that this is the wrong place to get press creds. This line is just to pick up the press kit. We can’t collect our press kit without our press cred though. So it’s back to square one.

Where can we get our press cred? At “le siege de FESPACO” – literally “the seat of FESPACO”. So where is this seat of festival power? Another long taxi ride away.

We dash out of Liptako, Liptako. I see a bright green Mercedes Benz and wave frantically.

Hailing a cab: Let's get out of here - fast! (Photo: F. Wane)
Hailing a cab: Let's get out of here - fast! (Photo: F. Wane)

“What are you doing?” asks fellow FRANCE 24 correspondent Fatimata Wane.

"Getting a cab," I reply.

“How do you know it’s a cab?” demands Wane.

"It’s a Mercedes S-Class of 1970s vintage," I reply. "This is Africa," I intone the mantra of the moment. "It has to be a cab."

It is a cab.

This time, the driver knows the destination. That’s the power of “le siege de FESPACO.”

We drive through the ochre dust-coated streets of Ouaga, careening past tanker-top-clad moped taxi-women. I make a mental note to try these female moped cabbies – for the sisterhood’s sake. But then as we narrowly miss one darting moped, I reconsider.

Mercedes S-Class taxi hurtles past mopeds, past the iconic Place des Cineastes – or Cinema Square – where an immense, gaily African sculpture depicting a film-maker’s tools stands testimony to this little country’s cinema mania.

Finally, we arrive at “le siege de FESPACO” – or the FESPACO headquarters – a hulking building crammed with major and minor Burkinabe government and festival officials.

Festival chief Michel Ouedraogo suddenly dashes out of nowhere past the snaking lines in the drab corridors followed by a trail of minions. Earlier this week, I spent an entire day unsuccessfully trying to reach him from Paris on his two cell phones and two landlines, so I’m not letting him slip by.

FESPACO chief Michel Ouedraogo pauses briefly to consider a banal question. (Photo: L. Jacinto)
FESPACO chief Michel Ouedraogo pauses briefly to consider a banal question. (Photo: L. Jacinto)

We dash to Ouedraogo. He handles us like a pro, tearing his way through the crowd, as we join his trailing minions, promising us everything, delivering no fixed time or date to keep his promises.

"What’s the budget of FESPACO?" I yell out as he’s about to get into a waiting car. It’s the one obvious statistic I’ve been chasing for days. I’ve asked several experts who’ve looked stunned, muttered "good question" and then proceeded to bore me to tears with the old spiel about the glory and challenges of African cinema complete with a discourse of postcolonial African art.

Finally, here’s the man who would know.

But the second I ask my question, Ouedraogo pauses long enough to snort dismissively before getting into a waiting car.

How dare I ask about mundane stats when the creative potential of an entire continent is at stake?

I’m going to have to keep trying to get that answer. Luckily the press office at the FESPACO headquarters had my festival press card, complete with screening pass ready for me. Armed with my new arsenal, I’m ready to go forth bravely into this festival, haranguing very important festival officials du jour with my tedious questions.



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