Thursday, May 1, 2008

African Cinema in New York

I've been interested in African cinema for about three years now. Recently, I've managed to catch a couple of new African films in New York. There's an African film festival going on here, based at the Lincoln Center, BAM and the Alliance Française at separate times. I managed to catch the thought-provoking Africa Paradis at the Lincoln Center a couple of weeks ago. (I will review that in a later blog). Here, I want to talk about a film I saw on Saturday at BAM (The Brooklyn Academy of Music, for those of you who don't know it).

It's a documentary entitled FESPACO (2007). Made by Kevin Arkadie, an African American who has worked for years on commercial TV, it takes the format of an 'insider's' view of FESPACO, the only pan-African film festival that has been taking place annually in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, for twenty years. The festival has existed for longer than that though - it first took place in 1969 and became an institution by governmental decree on 7 January 1972.

Arkadie first discovered FESPACO when he went there a few years ago, and wanted to share his experience with fellow (African) Americans who haven't heard of the festival. As it happens, my father went there in 1994 when he was working for Reuters in Nairobi. I still remember the themed notebook he brought back for me, with the space-age architecture of Burkina Faso's capital city on the front. (I am now aware that the photo depicts the aptly named Place des Cinéastes, a central focus of this cinema-loving city). Perhaps it was all those years ago, looking at that image aged ten, that my fascination with African cinema really began.

So, back to the film. The first thing that struck me was the over-use of photo montage and old-fashioned graphics, which distracted from the interesting subject matter. The documentary is also spoiled by the poor sound quality of the voiceover. However, I think Arkadie's film does provide a good insight into the festival, its history and the way it is developing now. Having never been before, I did feel I gained an insight into the atmosphere of the event, and the way it attracts the participation of the general public. The filmmaker's particular slant, following some African Americans who, nominated for the 'Paul Robeson' award (geared specifically towards African American filmmakers), went there for the first time. One of these directors actually won the award, which was a coup for the director.

I met the Arkadie before the screening. I found out his film has already been presented in California and in Denver, and it will travel to Atlanta later this summer. It hasn't yet made it to the UK, but I'm hoping it will soon. Not enough people know about the vibrant, exciting film scene in West Africa, and it's time to change this.

Images: Senegalese director Ben Diogaye Beye; Ousmane Sembene's Moolaade (2004); Haroun's Abouna (2002); Place des Cinéastes, Ouagadouou

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