Reporter's Notebook: Behind the scenes at the African Oscars
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FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto chronicles the backstage drama at FESPACO - Africa’s largest film festival and known as the African Oscars - in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.
Moussa goes to the movies
Friday, March 4
For our daily evening show today, we decide to follow an ordinary Burkinabe in this cinema-crazy West African nation. It’s a character-driven idea, and to carry it off we need the perfect “ordinary Burkinabe”.
I remember the taxi driver we hailed on our first morning here – this was after a disastrous earlier cab ride with a clueless driver through the scorching streets of Ouagadougou. After all these years in the business, I’m always on the lookout for smart, resourceful cab drivers – the kind you can depend on when on deadline.
Our second cab driver in Ouagadougou was a clued-in guy, a cinema buff who rattled off the names of epic African films and their directors.
We took down his number, but in the end never contacted him. Now, we decide to make that call.
Enter Moussa Ouedraogo, a cab driver and "ordinary" Burkinabe who can make or break our story today.
The minute he arrives at the hotel sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with his photograph, email and taxi service number, I know we have the right guy.
We drive to the screening across the city with our cameraman, Julien Sauvaget (or "Savage" as I call him), filming in the passenger seat as Moussa waxes eloquent on the price of film tickets.
Today’s screening – one of dozens in the city – is “Les Infideles”, a film by Ivorian director Marie-Louise Asseu.
A riotously funny African family drama complete with sisters, brothers, cheating husbands, buxom mistresses and equally buxom wives, "Les Infideles" is a morality tale of melodramatic proportions.
In my sleep-deprived state, I decide to take a nap. But it ain’t easy. With every twist in the family saga, the sound system crackles at full blast. If it’s not the film's audio track, it’s the persistently ringing cell phones in the audience.
In Africa, not only do cell phones ring in cinema halls, they’re also answered – and entire conversations take place while the film plays on.
Savage is savagely filming inside the cinema hall, but at one point I notice he’s stopped. I guess he has enough material. Minutes later, I catch him dozing. Another white guy down the row is fast asleep. When the film started, there were a couple of white folks in the front seats. I notice they aren’t there anymore.
The Africans, though, are enjoying the show. Moussa himself is cracking up at the jokes and he’s visibly moved when the cheating husbands get taught a lesson in morality.
I love it. This is African cinema by Africans, for Africans – a vital, enjoyable, easily identifiable film gripping the home crowd and boring the foreigners.
After the film, Moussa approaches director Marie-Louise Asseu to tell her how much he enjoyed the film. That’s FESPACO for you – a popular film festival that’s open to the public, where fans get to meet their icons.
On the cab ride back to the hotel, Moussa is in expansive mode. “I love my taxi and I love the cinema and I’m happy to share with you the two things I love.”
This, I reflect as I wave him goodbye, is what makes FESPACO special.
Here's our daily show featuring Moussa:
Electoral violence on screen as Ivory Coast burns south of the border
Wednesday, March 2
One of the films creating a buzz here at FESPACO is “En attendant le vote” - or “Awaiting the Vote” – by Burkinabe director Missa Hebie. The film is an adaptation of the epic African novel, “En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages” (translated as “Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote”) by Ahmadou Kourouma, the legendary Ivorian novelist widely considered the bard of contemporary African literature.
For director Hebie, the decision to adapt a Kourouma epic was a difficult one. “The decision to adapt was not easy,” he told me. “I had a lot of sleepless nights before arriving at this decision. I knew it would be a tough job, but finally I decided to go for it. But it's been difficult from start to finish - the scenarios, the funding...it was not easy. I worked with less than a quarter of my budget.”
The story unravels during the dying days of a particularly brutal dictatorship as it chalks - in manic flashbacks mirroring the insanity consuming the central character - the rise and fall of a tribal hunter’s ascent to absolute power masterfully played by leading Burkinabe actor, Barou Ouedraogo.
The book is inspired by the life and times of former Togolese President Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who ruled the impoverished West African nation from 1967 until his death in 2005. At the time of his death, Eyadéma was the longest-serving leader in Africa.
His son, Faure Gnassingbé, is the current president of Togo, an abysmal statement on the state of African democracy at a time when the northern rim of the continent is seized by pro-democracy uprisings.
Its surreal watching this film at FESPACO 2011 as the post-election violence in Burkina Faso’s southern neighbour, Ivory Coast, is spiraling into a civil war.
Art in Africa imitates life, and history in this continent has an unfortunate way of repeating itself.
Mamane in the madness
Monday, Feb. 28
Over the past few days, I’ve been seeing him at Ouagadougou’s Hotel Independance, THE happening place to be at the festival.
Whenever I see him though, there’s always a camera or two focused on him. Sometimes the media frenzy turns almost threatening when the cameras, perched on cranes, swoop and surge menacingly around him.
There are many cinema and media stars in the Burkinabe capital these days – FESPACO is not called the "African Oscars" for nothing. But it’s a whole new world of West African celebrities and I’m new to these parts, so I inquire about the mystery man before the cameras.
He’s Mamane, I’m told.
Mamane? Just one word? No surname?
You got it – one word, no surname.
But he does actually have a full name. It’s Mustapha Mohammed Mukhtari. He’s a comedian, and his radio show in French, “On a tout essayé” (“We tried everything”), on Radio France International (RFI) is wildly popular across French-speaking Africa.
His signature comic leitmotif is Gondwana – or “The Very, Very Democratic Republic of Gondwana” as he subversively calls it.
A figment of Mamane’s satirical imagination, Gondwana is a mythical African nation that the Niger-born, Paris-based comedian masterfully employs to lampoon the crises in mismanaged, resource-rich but impoverished, very, very un-democratic African countries.
Mamane’s subversive humour appeals to innumerable Africans weary of their longstanding leaders and their corrupt coteries.
Across French-speaking Africa, Gondwana has entered the lexicon as an adjective that gently pokes fun of the African experience.
When the Senegalese complain about the likelihood of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade’s son, Karim, succeeding their longstanding leader, they moan, “We’re in Gondwana”. Show up late for an appointment and you can be accused of being “a Gondwanese”.
Mamane is at FESPACO to promote his show, and he – or his team – seems to have done a damn good job. Gondwana fever has gripped the sidelines of the festival with T-shirts emblazoned with the now iconic, “The Very, Very Democratic Republic of Gondwana”.
There’s even a restaurant named after the mythic African nation in downtown Ouagadougou.
Mamane himself had no idea that such a restaurant existed in Ougadougou. But when Olga Sanvee, marketing director for the Azalai chain of hotels, decides to introduce him to the Gondwana restaurant, he’s happy to check it out.
A sprawling restaurant that features a “Mauritanian room” – complete with a talcum powder-soft sand floor – and a Touareg tent where people can dine.
Mamane’s presence at the restaurant sends ripples of excitement across the premises. But this is a plush, French-owned restaurant, so the response is very discreet, and very French.
The restaurant staff treats us with the decorum of well-practised courtiers in the presence of the emperor. They hover discreetly on the sidelines, attentive but not overbearing, as our table expands to include ever-more, ever-louder diners.
While the exceptionally mild-mannered comedian is happy to promote his show, sign autographs, pose for fan photographs and check out restaurants named after his creation, he seems mildly bemused by how his spoof nation has taken on a life of its own.
His show kicked off in 2000, shortly after the Niger-born immigrant dropped out of his Ph.D. program, thereby imperilling his visa status in France. Broke and directionless, he agreed to help out a theatre friend one night when a comedian suddenly dropped out.
Mamane’s first show – about a cannibal arriving in France only to find the quality of the meat very poor – was an instant success. Since then, there’s been no looking back.
But his program has attracted a fair share of critics, who accused Mamane of portraying Africa in the worst possible light.
“They don’t understand,” he shrugs. “It’s not me who’s giving Africa a bad image, it’s the politicians. It’s (Senegalese President Abdoulaye) Wade, (Ivorian incument leader Laurent) Gbagbo, who’s giving Africa a bad name,” he explains, referring to two of Subsaharan Africa’s longstanding leaders – some of whom have been in power for decades. “It’s the politicians, not the comedians.”