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FESPACO 2013: An In-Depth Conversation w/ Michel Ouedraogo (Director General Of The Festival)

FESPACO 2013: An In-Depth Conversation w/ Michel Ouedraogo (Director General Of The Festival)

My many, many thanks to S&A reader and Facebook friend Martine Jean for taking the time to translate this interview for me, which was entirely on video, and in French. Obviously it was in print, I would’ve likely used Google to translate. But it was all a video interview – roughly 30 minutes long – so I appreciate that Martine took the time to translate and write up a summary of the whole thing up for me!

Anyone who’s transcribed interviews knows how much of a pain in the butt the work can be!

It’s a VOX Africa TV sit down interview with Michel Ouedraogo, who’s the Director General of FESPACO – essentially he’s the man running the show over there. The interview was done ahead of this year’s event, just last week, and you’re encouraged to read it!

The 23rd edition is taking place, as usual, in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, kicking off last Saturday, with an opening ceremony, and over 100 films ready to screen and vie for the top Etalon d’Or prize.

On key change this year is that all of the juries for the different categories will be presided by women, with the jury for the Etalon d’Or headed by Euzhan Palcy (Sugarcane Alley).

As Michel Ouedraogo himself said, “women have carried African cinema both behind and in front of the camera but Africa has not given them anything back.”

That, and much more, were covered in the below interview, including why the focus on women this year and whether having all women juries really makes up for past *wrongs*; whether the inclusion of films from outside of Africa (although part of the Diaspora, like black American cinema) might actually displace African cinema, since there’s a gap (financial, technological, overall filmic experience) between filmmakers from a poorer country like say Chad, and the USA; whether there should in fact be a distinction between African films, and films from outside Africa, instead of having them compete against each other; how to defend African cinema, and if following what other countries have done in limiting the number of Hollywood studio films, for example, that take up screens in African theaters; and more…

Like I said, it’s worth reading, athough it’s not a verbatim translation, but Martine hit the key points. If you’re a French speaker and would rather watch the full video version, it’s embedded underneath the translated transcript below:

On why come all the way to Brussels, so far from Ouagadougou.

Brussels indeed is very far but in reality it is close to Ouagadougou. There’s history between Europe and Africa. That history has to continue. In order to continue, we must see Europe as a true partner and vice-versa. The International FESPACO Conferences started in Brussels in 2009. At the time, our primary goals were first to have a launch in Africa which we had in Libreville (Gabon); second we thought there should be a launch in Europe as well. Since Brussels is the European capital it was a no-brainer to have the conference here, though traditionally the conference is held in Paris. Today, we are in Brussels and the conference went very well and we do not regret our decision. This is our 3rd year and there are reasons to believe that from now on Brussels will become a real platform to promote African Cinema. On whether this also seals the partnership between Fespaco and the group ACP (Africa/Caribbean/Pacific) which has an agreement to cooperate/collaborate with the European Union.

The European Union has been an important FESPACO partner for many years and we are working to reinforce that idea with ACP as well. As you know, FESPACO is a “Pan African” film festival. Pan Africanism includes Caribbean nations and nations of the Pacific. This year, at Ouagadougou, we are welcoming the 3rd edition of the ABCD, meaning filmmakers from Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean and the Pacific. African filmmakers and those of the Diaspora will meet and discuss ways to work together, co-productions, film markets etc.

On what’s new at FESPACO this year. What’s different from years past.

The first big change you’ll notice in 2013 is that all the chairpersons of the juries are women. They are all working, professional, African women. 7 out of 7. In addition, we wanted to ensure that men and women were represented equally on the juries. From now on, the image of the African woman will play a pivotal role in FESPACO. Filmmaking is a profession. Women learn this profession just like men. They are worth the same as men. There is no reason why they should be underrepresented in the industry.

Interviewer rebuttal: I could understand If the theme of FESPACO was “Women in Cinema” or perhaps “Women Filmmakers”, but the only thing you’re doing is having women chair the juries. That’s good PR and is great for photo ops, but what does it change? Are women any better at judging movies than men?

In our 44 year history, we’ve had one woman chair a jury. One.

Interviewer’s second rebuttal: It’s a little late for that epiphany, don’t you think?

It’s an injustice that we want to redress. And we’re not just making amends now, but it will be this way for all future FESPACO. This year, we wanted to start by having all female chairpersons, but from now on, we will make sure that women are better represented on juries. That’s a promise that I make personally. I am also cognizant of the fact that we can’t make amends with one group by being unfair to another group. We don’t want complaints from men who feel excluded. There has to be balance, fairness and equal representation. Our goal is that this starts with FESPACO but spreads across other sectors. In this year’s official selections (feature films), I think there are two or three women filmmakers chosen, not because they are women but because their movies truly were excellent.

On what makes a film “Pan African.”

Pan Africanism, of course, includes those born on the African Continent, but it also includes the Diaspora. The main criterion is that the Director of the film must be African.

On whether “Pan African” includes dual citizenship.

Yes, absolutely. We have filmmakers with dual citizenship at this year’s festival. The Director has to be sure to specify that he is also African, however. Same goes for movies from the Diaspora. A lot of filmmakers of the Diaspora are children of Africans who immigrated to other countries for whatever reasons (Dominicans, Haitians etc.) but they have African origin that they do not deny and in fact embrace. We have to keep that umbilical cord with them so that they know the mother land still needs them. The mother land needs their creativity and their competence to promote together African cinema and cinema of the Diaspora.

On whether the FESPACO competition category reserved for Diaspora films does not, in fact, draw a line and create a clear distinction between Africa and the Diaspora.

It was a big debate. I think it’s time to shake things up. Sometimes Africa makes the Diaspora feel unwelcomed, rejected even. And that’s another form of injustice that we will try to make amends for. The Diaspora should be on equal footing with Africa.

On whether that includes African-Americans (like Spike Lee)?

We do not exclude them. To the contrary, African cinema will benefit from their inclusion.

On whether this will give African-Americans an unfair advantage, since the Hollywood resources of someone like Spike Lee are not equivalent to those of a poor filmmaker in Chad for instance.

I am opposed to exclusion. We cannot continue to think like this. We have to think in terms of what African-American Cinema can do for Africa and for African Cinema. That’s how we encourage someone like Spike Lee to produce his films in Africa or open a film studio in Africa. We can’t accomplish that by being exclusionary. This exclusionary mindset has to stop, not just with the Diaspora but even within Africa. There’s no reason for there not to be collaboration among us.

No more exclusion. Period. We’ve started the debate and we will get there. FESPACO has to be the trailblazer on this. If we claim to be an open competition, there cannot be exclusion. That’s the only way for African cinema to move forward. If African cinema is stagnant it is because it is not benefitting from the resources of its sons in the U.S., the Caribbean, in Asia etc.

On whether Africa should follow the French model and institute cultural exceptions to protect its cinema.

France has been successful in preventing American productions from flooding its market. Can’t we protect African Cinema in the same manner? How do we defend African Cinema when we open the floodgates, welcoming the Diaspora?

Cultural exceptions are an interesting concept, certainly worth exploring. However, I believe that in the end, this will not benefit French culture very much. Many other cultures contributed to the creation of what is known as French culture. We have to avoid the type of nationalism that puts up barriers. There should not be cultural barriers. The more you create barriers the more sheltered and exclusionary a culture becomes. For there to be real dialogue, we have to accept the world as it is. The Diaspora can only enrich Africa, so why reject it? When we say integration we are not talking only about the continent. Simply put, Africa cannot continue to build and grow without the Diaspora.

On whether the festival’s film selections reflect current events. Essentially, do the films represent what’s happening in the world right now, like the Arab Spring, for instance?

Yes, but FESPACO is not a thematic festival. In 2011, one of the films we selected had a story similar to the Arab Spring which happened the following year. However, we are more concerned with the quality of the films, not necessarily the subject matter. The themes are diverse, but most important are the production, quality, performances and technical capabilities displayed.

On whether African Cinema should also have a role in African economic growth.

Yes, of course. We are always asking ourselves what we can do to grow, so that African cinema can become an integral part of the African economy. Other nations, like Japan, have done it successfully. Look at Nigeria with Nollywood, that’s a great economic model. Morocco, Algeria, Burkina Faso etc. Cinema has to create employment and wealth. Cinema is not like diamonds or iron or other resources that can vanish. Cinema’s has wealth that will never end. Culture is deep. We have to invest in man (human), invest in the African. And hats off to Burkina Faso. FESPACO is an initiative born out of a group of cinephiles who got together on May 13th, 1969 in Burkina Faso. They did not have the resources to keep it going. In 1972, it was re-launched. We owe a lot to those initial people of Burkina Faso.

On whether there is a partnership among African nations and the Diaspora to pay the expenses of FESPACO or whether Burkina Faso bears all the expenses.

We’ve created a document called 21 Vision which explains the steps to take to make sure this festival last and gets stronger for years to come. For this to happen, every nation has to agree to take on the costs for the filmmakers from that country that have been accepted into the festival. All of Africa must be involved. We’ve signed an agreement with the African Union. At the next FESPACO they will be awarding a “Peace and Security” award. But after that, it must mean the African Union is involved and we have think about how they can be further involved in FESPACO. But for now it’s all Burkina Faso and its partners that bear the expenses. The Gabon this year helped make Libreville a success. Ultimately, this festival is for all of Africa and Africa has to contribute.

On whether the unrest in neighboring Mali will affect FESPACO.

I don’t think there are any risks of that happening. I salute the filmmakers from Mali. We have directors from Mali with films in the festival and it would be unfortunate if they couldn’t participate. There’s an African proverb that says “If your neighbor’s house is on fire, bring water.” That’s what the people of Burkina Faso are doing. We hope peace returns quickly. Burkina Faso’s authorities are taking all precautions to make sure everything goes without a hitch at FESPACO.

His thoughts on “terrorists” in Mali destroying national heritage, indeed world treasures, in Timbuktu.

They are assassinating African history and thus world history. Extremists need to understand that destroying cultural patrimony will not bring back retrograde ideology. Everyone will regret what’s happening now. None of it can be rebuilt. We all want to respect a nation’s sovereignty and not interfere in their affairs. But sometimes you have to intervene for the sake of culture and humanity (a sort of cultural/humanitarian assistance), even if it’s at the cost of infringing on their sovereignty. And in that sense, the world has failed Mali.

Here’s the original video interview:

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