Sira can hardly wait: the nomad is on her way to her groom with her family. But on the way, the group is attacked by Islamist terrorists and the men are murdered. Sira is delivered to her seemingly certain death in the middle of the desert. But she is a fighter.
Apolline Traoré’s film tells the story of a gripping struggle for survival. “It’s about resistance, about never giving up,” the director from Burkina Faso told DW. And something else is close to her heart: showing women as strong characters.
“I just have to give them a voice. Most of the time they are portrayed as victims: you show women in refugee camps who have lost their fathers or husbands.” But it is precisely these women who protect their children. Who took dangerous escape routes to save them.” Women who would have shown how to survive. It is precisely these women, according to Traoré, who played a major role in the fight against the jihadists in Africa.
Bloody reality on screen
In Europe, her film “Sira” won the audience award at the Berlinale. For viewers in Germany, the story is a distant drama, for Traoré’s compatriots in Burkina Faso it is bloody reality. Armed jihadists have been terrorizing the population for years. That’s why the Burkinabe director wanted to shoot her film in the north of her home country – where people have been suffering from terror for years, an authentic location.
But things turned out differently. “Just before I wanted to travel there with the film team for three months, there was another attack. The government informed me that I had to take soldiers with me for protection – but that would have gone down badly, they really have other tasks.”
Filming in your own country too dangerous
Traoré had to look for another location and ended up in Mauritania. The support there was great, she says, but she’s still very sad that she couldn’t film in Burkina Faso. Maybe she hopes it will work out next time. And even then she wants to focus on one of the many burning social problems. “I learned my craft in the US,” she says. “But I can’t make people laugh in my films, I can only make them cry. I just have to show what grievances there are and what people have to suffer. For me, it’s also a kind of therapy.”
Apolline Traoré isn’t the only one showing grim realities at FESPACO (French for: Pan-African Film and Television Festival) in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. Moussa Séné Absa from Senegal addresses forced marriage in “Xalé, les blessures de l’enfance” (The Injuries of Childhood), while “Le Bleu du Caftan” (The Blue of the Caftan) by Moroccan director Maryam Touzani tackles the taboo subject of homosexuality and “Bravo, Burkina!” by Nigerian director Walé Oyéjidé tells the story of a young person who is unsuccessfully looking for his fortune in distant Europe.
Films by and for Africans
Exclusively Films by Africans come to the screen at FESPACO: the aim is to offer them a platform to show their skills – and not to show the local population films from the USA or Europe. However, it is not easy to organize a film festival in a country where many residents are desperately poor and people suffer from recurring droughts. There are only four cinemas – far too few for the immense crowds at FESPACO. But who cares – the organizers simply show the films in the open air.
That was already the case in 1969, when a group of cinema enthusiasts launched the FESPACO in Burkina Faso (then known as Upper Volta). At that time it was only nine years since the country had become independent. When it was still under France’s aegis, Africans were forbidden from filming in the colonies for a long time. The first African film ever, “Afrique-sur-Seine” (Africa on the Seine) was made in Paris in 1955, shot by students. Among them: Paulin Soumanou-Vieyra from Benin, who is considered a pioneer of African cinema.
“The audience now wants to see our stories”
So in 1969 in Burkina Faso they didn’t have much experience with cinema, but they had all the more passion. Since it was founded, the festival has taken place every two years – with a few exceptions. “African cinema is the youngest in the world,” Apolline Traoré tells DW. “For a long time it was funded entirely by the West. Now we’re trying to raise the money for our films ourselves.” And further: “I have the impression that all stories in the West have been used up, the audience now wants to see ours.”
However, Traoré sees the danger that financially strong countries will not only help with tips during the shoot, but will also interfere to show African history from a Western perspective. “We have to fight back against that. We have to show the West that we are capable of making our own story and that we can tell it better than anyone else – because it’s our story and we know it better than they do.”
There are now many outstanding African filmmakers, especially female filmmakers. Of the 170 films submitted to FESPACO that compete for the coveted prizes – they come from countries including Egypt, Angola, Kenya, Morocco and Senegal – around half were shot by women.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Tunisian jury president Dora Bouchoucha told DW. “And I don’t think that surprises anyone in all of Africa, just outside of the continent. I made my first film 25 years ago, my crew was almost all women. The best production managers are women. Filmmaking is about the details. And everyone I know that women pay more attention to detail. Also, women don’t care as much about their ego. We make films our way – and we do it very well.”
A cinematic appeal for peace
FESPACO was opened on February 25th, 2023 by the Burkinabe and Malian prime ministers – because Mali is the guest of honor at the festival this year. Despite – or perhaps because of – all the problems that Burkina Faso, Mali and other African countries undoubtedly have, especially with terrorism: “The culture of peace” was chosen as the FESPACO motto 2023. “The world today is confronted with many problems, all of which are due to social inequalities, exclusion, extremism and the arms race,” says the festival’s website. Films could help to think together about how peace and social cohesion can be secured.
Apolline Traoré, who is competing for the main prize, the “Golden Stallion of Yennega” with “Sira”, also wants that. This trophy is also a homage to the strong women: Princess Yennega was a warrior who rode into battle on her stallion and feared nothing and nobody.
The FESPACO runs until March 4th, 2023.