On the Ground: Tega Okiti at FESPACO

Tega Okiti reports on her trip to mark 50 years of the Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO).

Two women discuss the materials on display while three men sit and listen to archive material.

Exploring the archive at FESPACO.

Photo by June Givanni

The power of African storytelling

'I have a 10,000 year contract with cinema, to be continued for 10,000 years more…'

An extreme close-up of a beard obscures the identity of the speaker. As he continues, the speaker is revealed to be Djibil Diop Mambéty expressing his faith in the beauty and eternity of African cinema. The film, no doubt inspired by Mambéty’s testimony, is Dix Mille Ans de Cinema (10,000 Years of Cinema, 1991) by Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda. The film plays in the backdrop of FESPACO’s bustling industry marketplace as part of an installation by the June Givanni Pan-African Cinema Archive, commemorating the festival’s 50th anniversary.

Shot at FESPACO in 1991 on film stock not quite black and white or sepia, Mambéty and other filmmakers, including Idrissa Ouédraogo and Moussa Sene Absa, express similar sentiments about the power of African storytelling. Visually their odes and aspirations are expressed through complex camera angles and layered superimposed images. At a post-screening discussion Bakupa-Kanyinda spoke of his intention to capture the rich variance of African complexions and evoke African cinema’s unique visual language.

Dix Mille was presented alongside a selection of documentaries shot at FESPACO between 1988 and 2019 by Aboubacar Sanogo, Nick Freand Jones, Carolyn Sides, and Ghanaian duo Kwate Nii Owoo and Kwesi Owusu. The most recent films, the festival newsreels, were created by students on assignment from the Imagine Institute led by one of FESPACO’s early pioneers, Burkinabé filmmaker Gaston Kaboré.

Curating FESPACO @50

June Givanni, founder of the archive and curator of the exhibition FESPACO @50, has attended every edition of the festival since 1985 after Kaboré encouraged her to attend when they met at London’s Third Eye Film Festival in 1983.

‘My first experience of the festival was during Burkina Faso’s revolutionary time. The country had only been in existence under the vision of Thomas Sankara for three years. It was a smaller event and since that time the festival has grown significantly. It was an opportunity to change the direction of people’s cultural understanding in ways that encouraged them to engage with culture to express their own vision.’

The archive exists as a testament of the contribution of African and African-descended film and video makers to cinema and moving image history in the last 35 years. Givanni’s career, like the collection, spans the most prolific years of Pan-African cinema creation. Objects in the collection were amassed by Givanni through her work as an international film programmer including a stint at Toronto International Film Festival’s Planet Africa and at home as the head of the BFI’s Afro-Caribbean Unit during the great cultural interventions of the Greater London Council.

From the view of the Anglophone-speaking world the installation reflected the presence of Black British filmmakers who have made their mark on the festival over the years. A dapper John Akomfrah collects the distinguished Paul Robeson award for his seminal work The Last Angel of History (1996) in 1997, while Producer Nadine Marsh-Edwards, who recently brought Been So Long (2018) to UK screens, speaks of the importance of FESPACO to create a context for African filmmakers to access their work.

The aspiration for the future of the archive? To continue to establish the collection as an independent archive, particularly with universities and researchers who have shown great interest, there is also potential for the collection to exist as a community resource, so the archives cultural value is accessible to people beyond the academy. And the obstacles? Space! A common issue faced by custodians of culture is where to keep objects as the collection expands. Another more urgent issue is the need for more funding, to make the important archive accessible to all.

A focal point for Pan African cinema

50 years on, FESPACO remains a meeting point for filmmakers on the continent to network, share ideas and propose new collaborations. For the beautiful desert city of Ouagadougou it remains a focal point in the calendar for citizen to come together through the prism of culture.

Learn more about FESPACO.

This article was first published in March 2019.