NEW YORK — WHEN people around the world talk about movies, Hollywood is the first place they usually think of. And one of the last might be Africa, since developing countries there produce fewer films than nations on some other continents. Yet films are produced in African countries, and some of them reach out to moviegoers in far distant lands. Senegalese director Ousmano Sembene has made several internationally successful films, and his latest, ``Camp de Thiaroye,'' has appeared in various festivals recently, even though it's not one of his best efforts. Other filmmakers from Africa who have drawn widespread attention include Souleymane Cisse of Mali, who made ``Brightness''; Ngangura Mweze of Zaire, who codirected ``La Vie est belle''; and D'esir'e Ecar'e of the Ivory Coast, who made ``Faces of Women.'' There's even a film festival every other year in Burkina Faso (which used to be known as Upper Volta).
Once in a while - not nearly often enough - an African picture gets commercially distributed in the United States, attracting the notice of popular audiences as well as internationally-minded critics. That's happening this season with a movie from Burkina Faso, written and directed by a talented filmmaker named Idrissa Ouedraogo. It's called ``Yaaba,'' and it's now playing commercially in the US after a successful showing at the New York Film Festival. It also won the international critics prize at this year's Cannes film festival, and has become a hit in Paris, where it's been playing in six different theaters.
In the language of Burkina Faso, known as Moor'e, ``yaaba'' means grandmother, and one of the main characters is an old woman who's been given that nickname. But she's not an ordinary old woman. The superstitious people in her village have decided she's a witch who brings them bad luck, and she's been forced to live in exile on the fringe of the community.
Children sometimes see more clearly than their parents, though, and a little boy and girl make friends with the outcast. They're the ones who call her Yaaba, and they pay visits to her in secret. The plot reaches a turning point when these children get into a fight with some rough kids, and one of Yaaba's friends is badly injured. Yaaba helps save her, and the child's mother finally sees the truth about the old woman, leading to a bittersweet ending.
``Yaaba'' doesn't have much talk in it, partly because Burkina Faso has many different dialects from village to village. Since the filmmaker wanted his movie to be widely understandable, he made it as visual as possible, relying more on images than words. This is helpful to audiences who don't speak Moor'e, and it's also cinematically refreshing, at a time when many conventional films rely all too much on people chattering to one another instead of giving us creative and expressive imagery.
Also welcome is the warm humanity of the picture. In the past, African films have often emphasized political messages as a way of asserting independence and reacting against the colonialism that has plagued Africa. By contrast, ``Yaaba'' is a shining example of the new wave in African cinema, which doesn't want to be just African but worldwide in its appeal. It isn't a fancy or melodramatic film, and it moves rather slowly, especially if you compare it with hyperactive Hollywood pictures. But it glows with gentleness and charm, and it offers solid proof that moviemaking is alive and well on the African continent.