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'Ouaga Paradiso': Welcome to documentary cinema, African style

"Ouaga Paradiso" is a sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, but always gripping documentary about four African film-makers plying their trade as they negotiate between cinematic hell and paradise.


Under the feeble light of a collapsing African cinema-hall in a dusty village in Burkina Faso, a wizened grandmother consoles her film-maker grandson after his disaster-plagued screening, where the projector has failed. The young man was ultimately forced to play his film on a tiny TV screen for a 200-strong audience.

Meanwhile, at a football stadium in the Burkinabe capital of Ouagadougou, another film-maker – older and more successful – thanks his wife as he receives an award before a 35,000-strong audience gathered for the closing ceremony of the 2009 Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou, or FESPACO).

Listening to his speech on the radio as she cooks dinner for her husband and infant son at home, another aspiring film-maker makes a solemn vow. “In 2011, I’m sure I will be on the FESPACO walk,” she says, referring to the next round of the biennial African film festival.

The 2011 FESPACO festival is finally here and it’s only fitting that “Ouaga Paradiso,” a moving, soaring, heartbreaking, hilarious 52-minute documentary on African cinema be premiered here.

The premiere happens to come in the thick of Oscar mania and if audiences across the globe happen to know more about Natalie Portman’s gown and the fake conflict between “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network” than the cinema produced by an entire continent, it’s sad but understandable. It’s a tough world, and whoever said it was a just one?

But if you do want to redress a woeful ignorance of African cinema, and if you have no idea where to start, “Ouaga Paradiso” is a perfect film to begin with.

For those who avidly follow African cinema, “Ouaga Paradiso” is a cinematic tour de force featuring some of the giants – such as Idrissa Ouedraogo and Mahmut Haroun Saleh – displaying a surprisingly modest, nurturing side of successful African film-makers.

Papa hasn’t finished his film yet!

Directed by Thierry Robert, “Ouaga Paradiso” follows four film-makers as they go about their business, overcoming varying levels of hurdles.

There’s Boubakar Diallo, a star film-maker in Burkina Faso, whose film, “Coeur de Lion” (Lionheart) won the 2009 European Union Award at FESPACO.

Carine Sawadogo, the only female film-maker in the documentary, is working on a documentary on female incontinence, a relatively minor medical condition that ruins lives and leads to social ostracism and often debilitating psychological trauma in many African nations.

Kouka Aimé Zongo is a young Burkinabe director who takes his film all the way to his grandmother's remote village of Zorgho to show her the first film of her life. The old woman has never watched TV or a film in her life and her grandson would like his film to be the first his grandmother has ever seen.

Finally, there’s Emmanuel Rotoubam M’Baide, a Chadian immigrant who lied to his parents and left Chad in search of his big break in Burkina Faso, the tiny West African nation that has a tradition of supporting cinema and the arts.

In the interest of full disclosure, the film’s co-authors, Yong Chim and Alix Bayle, currently work for FRANCE 24. The film was shot before they joined FRANCE 24.

“Ouaga Paradiso” exquisitely weaves the strands of the four film-makers’ journeys as Zongo worries about providing for his infant daughter, pregnant wife and the new baby.

At one stage, M’Baide is having a spirited argument with his girlfriend who reminds him that the rent has to be paid. The couple argue in their modest apartment as the television, a relic from the 1980s, is playing. They stop as Diallo appears on TV as the star Burinabe director is being interviewed by a TV host.

The strands of interconnection get increasingly dense as M’Baide, the impoverished Chadian immigrant, walks into Ouagadougou’s plush Hotel Independence for a meeting with Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, a successful Chadian film-maker.

During the poolside meeting, M’Baide asks Haroun what he’s currently working on. “It’s a film called ‘Un homme qui crie’ (The Screaming Man)” replies Haroun, explaining that the film's title is a quotation from a poem by legendary African-Martinican writer, Aimé Césaire.

“You can work on the film,” Haroun promises M’Baide.

“Un homme qui crie” went on to win the Jury Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and it’s a frontrunner for this year’s most prestigious prize – The Golden Stallion of Yennenga” at FESPACO. Haroun kept to his promise and gave his fellow countryman a production job in the film.

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