As was announced earlier a couple of weeks ago, by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, a record-setting 71 different countries submitted films for consideration to be nominees for next year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
A number of those countries are from continental Africa; in fact, one of them is submitting a film for the very first time (Kenya).
I’ll get to that country in another post, as I continue a new series that looks at Africa’s contributions to that specific Oscar category, since it was first introduced in 1956 (the 29th Academy Awards which were handed out in 1957), when a competitive Academy Award of Merit, known as the Best Foreign Language Film Award, was created for non-English speaking films, and has been given annually since then.
Prior to 1956, the Academy presented Special/Honorary Awards to the best foreign language films released in the United States; however, they weren’t handed out regularly, and it wasn’t competitive, unlike other categories. Although in the very early years of the ceremony, probably until after WWII, there was really no separate recognition for foreign language films.
And the film that would win the first official Best Foreign Language Oscar was Federico Fellini’s La Strada, beginning a trend that would go on to see European films dominate in terms of wins in that category, followed by Asian films, with African films, and films from Latin America, rounding out the list.
I won’t tell you exactly how many African films have won the Best Foreign Language category, but, as I’m sure you can guess, the number is low. However, I’m not just interesting in those films that won; I’m considering all the films that each country has submitted, since the award was first handed out some 55 years ago.
This series began about 2 weeks ago – a series that will be done in alphabetical order – starting with Algeria (read that post HERE if you missed it).
Continuing with the list of countries, based on my research, I had to skip over a few countries to finally get to today’s country, which is Burkina Faso. Why did I skip Angola, Benin and Botswana? Well, simple. None of those countries has ever submitted a film for consideration.
Burkina Faso, on the other hand, has submitted a film for consideration for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film just once: In 1990, Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Yaaba – one of his best-known works
The film, a morality tale, centers on Bila (played by Noufou Ouédraogo), a ten year old boy who befriends an old woman called Sana (Fatimata Sanga), who has been accused of witchcraft by her village, and has become a social outcast. Undeterred, Bila becomes Sana’s friend, and even calls her “Yaaba” (which means Grandmother). When Bila’s cousin, Nopoko (Roukietou Barry), is sick, a medicine man blames Sana, saying that she stole the girl’s soul. And as a result, Sana undergoes a long and grueling journey to find a medicine to save Nopoko’s life, which she is successful in doing. But even after that, she’s still thought of as a witch. Eventually Sana dies, and it’s after her death that the real reason why she is so-hated is revealed.
Yaaba was a critical darling at Cannes, where it won the FIPRESCI. It also won the Sakura Gold prize of $143,000 at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 1989, as well as the top prize at FESPACO. And it was thanks in large part to the international recognition it received that it received distribution in several territories.
It’s a simple, yet powerful, unpretentious film – a timeless coming-of-age story centered on 2 children and the special bond that they share with an elderly woman (who is ostracized by many in her village). It’s beautifully crafted in a graceful, effortless style that achieves a quiet, poetic and even magical quality (making great use of the locale, in long takes) that is very satisfying.
The actors were all amateurs and came from the village location in which the film was shot – a film that’s essentially a plea for tolerance.
Some have argued that it’s maybe the best film ever made by an African director.
And despite all the accolades, it never went beyond the submission step, because it didn’t make the short list of 5 films nominated that year, unfortunately.
And still despite all the accolades, the film isn’t easily accessible (you’d think otherwise); currently, you can buy used copies on VHS and DVD (but only region 2).
You can also rent it and watch online, via the African Film Library website (for $5); or, watch it in pieces on YouTube.
This is a film that really deserves something akin to the Criterion Collection treatment, and re-released.
Watch the first 10 minutes below: