African Festival Promotes Native Work

But other entertainment media vie for indigenous audiences

Nearly a million people will turn out in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, for the Festival Panafricain de Cinema de Ouagadougou (FESPACO) from Feb. 25 to March 4. The prestigious biennial event, which showcases African film, is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its founding.

Although FESPACO attracts many big names from abroad, it's also a major event for Africans. For many families, FESPACO is an opportunity to see African films, some of which are made in Burkinabe national languages. At the last festival, 71 countries participated in the showing of 156 movies, which were attended by 421 media representatives and 187 film producers.

As FESPACO '95 unfolds, filmmakers and producers are confronted with the first signs of growing pains for the African entertainment industry, as competition intensifies from television productions that are cheaper and are increasingly shown on national TV. Filmmakers are banking on FESPACO's ability to find ways to distribute African movies in the more lucrative European and American markets.

FESPACO is also faced with the task of sensitizing African audiences to the need for supporting African film artists. Despite rising popularity, indigenous films are still lagging at the box office. After FESPACO, African films will again be rarely shown on the continent. Even when they are, most moviegoers will opt to see Asian martial-arts movies, or action films produced by American, French, and Italian companies, or Indian love stories, which they often watch without the benefit of dubbing or subtitles in their own language.

Despite the size and prestige of FESPACO, this is still an event where filmmakers and actors have remained very close to their roots and to their audience. Filmmakers and actors eat in the same restaurants and take the same buses as audience members, so it's easy to discuss their next project with anyone who asks.

The idea for an African film festival came out of a 1968 meeting of 15 friends in Ouagadougou. The group, which included celebrated Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, met to discuss their frustrations over the quantity and social quality of African movies. As one of the founding members said, FESPACO's goal is to ''decolonize African cinema.'' The filmmakers were committed to connecting with their audiences by addressing social, cultural, and political realities familiar to Africans.

Most of the festival's success can be attributed to the political and cultural commitment of Burkina Faso, the host country. In the 1960s, the Burkinabe government nationalized all movie theaters, giving the state more control over showing African movies. This was perceived as a courageous political decision, since it challenged France's cultural and economic grip over its former colony at a time when movie theaters were still owned by French companies.

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