A stadium-sized rebuke to critics of film festivals
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At the opening of Africa's largest film festival, FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto witnesses a stadium-sized rebuke to critics who complain that festivals are elite, accredited affairs cut away from the cinema-loving, ticket-paying public.
The 35,000 capacity football stadium teems with a sea of humanity, with long lines snaking out of every entrance.
Finally, after 23 months of waiting, the biennial 22nd Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou, or FESPACO) is here.
Africa’s largest film festival opens shortly after sunset at the August 4 stadium in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. August 4 happens to be the date when the former French West African colony changed its name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means "the land of the upright people" in Mooré and Dioula, the two major native languages.
Rather unusually for a film festival opening, FESPACO opens with a gigantic ceremony in a football stadium that is free and open to the public. I find that rather honourable and fitting for a country that has chosen to model itself after the moral integrity of its ancestral warriors.
The August 4 stadium is packed to capacity with grannies, granddads, mothers, fathers and children waiting to get in. Most of the women are dressed in the graceful traditional long, slim wraparound skirt coupled with elaborately draped turbans in a riot of colours.
Every conceivable snack and beverage is being hawked here, from the lowly West African sugared peanut staple to bowls of fish marinated in delectably spicy sauces.
The human spirit of commerce and private enterprise is on magnificent display here as children dart around the stadium selling sealed packets of ice, and weather-beaten crones refuse to prise open the cloth covering their steaming cauldrons for a photograph unless you buy their fish stew.
I have eight more days of reporting to do, so I opt for gastric prudence over photo-op.
A smiling little boy dashes up to us, waving cardboard strips torn out of cartons.
“C’est quoi?” What’s this? I ask the boy.
They are pieces of cardboard to sit on inside the stadium, explains Stephane, who says he’s 15, although I don’t believe him, he looks much younger.
Little Stephane has no time or inclination to answer my nosy questions. Am I willing to buy a cardboard strip for 15 CFAs – the equivalent of a few cents – or no?
Aha! Fifteen – or quinze in French – is the price of the cardboard, not his age. I’m not getting much information besides “quinze, quinze” from this kid. So I just buy two cardboard strips – for Stephane, for his family in some part of Ouagadougou or outside Ouagadougou, for the Burkinabe economy that seems to be flourishing on the sidelines of FESPACO, for the spirit of human enterprise and mankind’s drive to earn an honest living in the most difficult circumstances.
Armed with our much sought-after and fought-after press creds, we make our way to the calmer, more sanitized press enclosure.
But as we’re about to enter, I see the most improbable of sights. The enclosure next to the press section has a line-up of troops stationed next to a winding, unused red carpet. Sundry ambassadors and their wives – as well as eminent festival jurists from across the continent – trip along the edges of the carpet, apparently unworthy of a red carpet entry.
Pardon my naiveté, but I wasn’t expecting ceremonial troops at a film festival opening. I’m so tickled that we decide to try to enter the VVIP lounge.
It’s a bit of a challenge. But on my personal scale of clawing, scratching, charming and wheedling to enter out-of-bound spaces, this ranks a low two-out-of-ten.
The only time we get into almost serious trouble is when my shoes accidentally scrape the edge of the red carpet as I’m manoeuvring through armies of festival organizers trying to block our paths. That’s when security officials approach menacingly yelling at us to keep off the carpet.
Now, I’m really excited. This smells of high-level official presence. Will Burkinabé President Blaise Campaoré attend the ceremony? I slip into a reporter’s reverie: will he enter with his old African Union chum, Libyan Col. Muammar Gaddafi? Will Gaddafi’s Amazonian securitywomen proceed to erect a tent on the football grounds in a last display of megalomaniacal chutzpah? The possibilities are endless and the evening is wide open for drama…
Inside the stadium, the master of ceremonies Noscotte Joseph Tapsoba – I have no idea who he is, but folks here say he’s famous – revs up the crowd.
“Ouaga est-ce que ça va?” Ouaga, how you doin’? he asks, compelling the crowd to shout their replies ever louder.
A line-up of bands belt out songs, while the crowd roars, stomps and dances with African abandon. For all the critics who bitch about film festivals restricted to accredited festival circles cut away from the cinema-loving, ticket-paying public, this opening is a stadium-sized rebuke.
Suddenly a line-up of guards in splendid red capes appears in our VVIP spot on the stadium grounds. Next, a bevy of female festival volunteers – all young, slim, beautiful and bedecked in blue traditional robes – stand in formation. Something is about to happen…
Tapsoba – the very famous MC I’ve never heard of – announces that Burkinabe Prime Minister Tertius Zongo, on behalf of the Burkinabe government, is here to officially open the festival.
I guess this means no Campaoré or Gaddafi. But by now, I’m enjoying myself so immensely, I don’t particularly care.
Zongo declares the festival open. It’s followed by spectacular dance routines by schoolchildren and young dancers dressed in primary colours. The crowd goes wild. A roaring sound from the left side of the grounds heralds a heart-stopping cavalry show with riders performing daredevil stunts on horses galloping at full-lick.
The cavalry show is a tribute to Burkina Faso’s proud pre-colonial tradition as an equestrian nation.
The most prestigious festival award – the FESPACO equivalent or the Cannes Palme d’Or – is called the Stallion of Yennenga, which is named after a 12th century African warrior princess whose son Ouedraogo founded the Mossi Kingdoms, which ruled this region from the medieval ages until the 19th century colonial era.
Let the festival begin. Every single Burkinabe I’ve interviewed at the stadium has told me that he or she intends to see as many films as possible for the next eight days. There are a mind-numbing package of 111 films in competition, which do not include the hundreds of screenings of non-competition feature films, short films, documentaries and TV and video productions to be sampled in the coming days. This cinema-mad country has its agenda set for the next few days.