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  • FESPACO 2015:After the Transition, What Next?
  • Olivier Barlet
    Translated by Melissa Thackway

The twenty-fourth edition of the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), held from February 28 to March 7, 2015, was one of transition. It was organized in extremis after the revolution—which led to the ousting of festival director general Michel Ouedraogo, deemed too close to Blaise Compaoré’s party—and amid fears of cancellation due to the political upheaval and the threat of the Ebola virus. Smaller, with far fewer guests and festival-goers than usual, and without its habitual festivities and popular outdoor screenings, this year’s selection was highly problematic. With the exception of several safe bets that had already made the rounds at the festivals, and lacking any new discoveries, this edition confirmed a trend that compromises the future of a festival that, for the first time this year, now accepts digital films and has abolished the Diaspora category, integrating diaspora films into the main competition.

Timbuktu’s Success

The composition of a jury is political, and it was obvious that this twenty-fourth edition of FESPACO was not going to award any of its many prizes to the major auteur films in competition. Yet these films found their audience at FESPACO. Crowds flocked to see Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014), winner of seven Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars), and unfairly overlooked by the Cannes Film Festival jury, despite being classed a favorite by the press.

The film opens with a shot of a fleeing gazelle. “Don’t kill it, tire it out!” shouts the head of the Jihadists pursuing the animal in a jeep. That is what they do to the population too. In other words, they trample and destroy their cultural references. Masks and statues serve as targets for firing practice. They impose bans on everything, from cigarettes, to games, music, and even sitting [End Page 238] out on one’s doorstep. They impose black veils, socks, and gloves on the women, including the fishmongers in the market. For the women are their first targets, subjected to forced marriages, against their parents’ will. Only the madwoman, Zabou—played by Bamako-based Haitian dancer Kettly Noël—eludes them. A local Linguere,1 proud and untouchable (the Jihadists have no sway over madness), evokes January 12, 2010 in Haiti: “The earthquake is my body. I’m fissured all over.” The earth quakes there where human life is flouted.

In the city of Timbuktu, everything is earth-colored. The film is impregnated with the ochres of the desert and adobe walls. If the earth is shaken, so, too, is the world, so long as it can represent this drama. That is the role of cinema. The repression is shown: the beatings, the expeditious judgments, and a stoning during which all that is visible are the heads of bodies buried in this same earth; a stoning that, according to Abderrahmane Sissako, was at the origin of the film. But to avoid descending into pathos, Sissako injects humor in this “tragedy seen from behind,” to cite Gérard Genette. The more tragic the subject, the greater the distance required. Sissako’s humor is scathing, revealing the hypocrisy of the invaders and their ridiculous contradictions. The Islamic police try to localize the singing and music, only to realize that they are religious praise songs. Coming from Libya, the Jihadists only speak Arabic in a land where Tamashek and Bambara are spoken, forcing them to resort to French. This creates some delightful situations, like the filmed propaganda message that needs to be effective. Like in Jean-Luc Godard’s Ici et ailleurs / Here and Elsewhere (1976), every facet of the image has to be composed to make it politically meaningful. As ever, established discourse masks the realities of desire and pleasure in the image of Abdelkrim (Abdel Jafri), the Jihadist chief who behaves like a child.

This earth is stirred up, too, by the cosmic dance of the Jihadist played by Hichem Yacoubi, in his prayer-cum-choreography. It is a magnificent scene, brilliantly filmed by Sofiane El Fani (also director of photography on Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Ad...