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Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 161-179

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"I am a storyteller, drawing water from the well of my culture":
Gaston Kaboré, Griot of African Cinema

An interview with Michael T. Martin


Framed by narratives of the precolonial past, decolonization struggles, and postcoloniality, filmmaking practices and cinema cultures in Black Africa are neither monolithic nor limited to Western genres. 1 Distinguished by national, cultural, gender, and ideological concerns, differences among Black African filmmakers are perhaps most evident and accented in films concerned with defining African identities. However, the dissimilarities between these filmmakers are seemingly bridged in the universalizing concerns distilled from the African specificity by the Burkinabé director Gaston Kaboré.

Ranked among Africa's most distinguished filmmakers, Kaboré's oeuvre is of extraordinary depth, conviction, and lucidity. Born in Burkina Faso in 1951, Kaboré began his cinematographic formation during adolescence when he would draw sketches to accompany the stories he read in books. He completed primary and secondary education in Burkina Faso and then pursued studies in history at the Centre d'Etudes Supérieuresd'Histoire de Ouagadougou and later at the Sorbonne where he received a master's degree. During the academic sojourn in Paris, Kaboré also pursued his interest in film at the Ecole Supérieure d'Etudes Cinématographiques (ESEC). Upon completion of film studies, Kaboré returned to Burkina Faso where he worked in various professional capacities to promote and improve conditions for African cinema. His appointments included: Technical Adviser for cinema at the Ministry of Information and Culture, Director of the Centre National du Cinéma, teacher at the Institut Africain d'Education Cinématographique (INAFEC), member of the Expert Committee for the Establishment of the Inter-African Consortium of Film Distribution (CIDC) and of the Inter-African Centre for Film Production (COPROFILM), and General Secretary of FEPACI (Fédération panafricaine des cinéastes).

Kaboré's first film, Je viens de Bokin/I Come from Bokin (1977), was made by students of INAFEC under his direction. The short film concerns a tailor who leaves his village to seek more opportunities in the city; a theme—the city/village—Kaboré returns to in the context of urbanization and postcolonial society in a later film. He then completed two documentaries, Stocker et conserver les grains/Storing and Conserving the Grain (1978) and Utilisation des énergies nouvelles en milieu rural/The Use of New Energies in Rural Areas (1980), which address farming methods and energy management while Regard sur le VIème FESPACO/A Look at the 6th FESPACO (1979) and Propos sur le cinéma/Reflections on the Cinema (1986) promote and examine the obstacles to filmmaking in Africa, respectively.2 [End Page 161] [Begin Page 163]

However, it was not until his first feature, Wend Kuuni/God's Gift (1982), for which he won the César award for best francophone film, that Kaboré distinguished himself as a filmmaker who would engage the social and moral problems of modern Africa. Set in precolonial Africa during the climax of the Mossi Empire, Wend Kuuni is the story of a mute and memoryless child given the name God's Gift by his adopted family. Unable to explain his past until he is shocked by discovering a man's corpse and regains speech, the boy accounts for his father's disappearance while hunting and his mother's expulsion from a village for witchcraft after refusing to remarry, followed by her death in the bush. In this seemingly simple fable, Kaboré at once "returns to the sources" of his ancient culture
to address the problems of modern Africa and denounces the archaic and repressive aspects of custom and tradition, and the inferior and debilitating status of women in a complex narrative that invokes the oral storytelling form.

In his second feature, Zan Boko (1988), Kaboré takes up the conflict between tradition and change, and the role of journalism and television in African countries. Awarded the Grand Prize at FESPACO, the film's...


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