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Among the best surprises of the 17th edition of the Festival of Pan-African Cinema in Ouagadougou (FESPACO) was a mini-barrage of films portraying independent-minded women within the half-Muslim, half-animist cultures that dominate the semidesert region of the Sahel. In Faat-Kine, the Mondrian-colored new film by Ousmane Sembene, the eponymous heroine is a kind of liberated Madame Hulot, a Senegalese woman with a sharp tongue who runs a Total gas station. In Bintou, a short from up-and-coming Burkinabe director Fanta Regina Nacro, a housewife decides to start a home brewery to pay for her daughter’s education, to the horror of her husband and his meddling friends. This sort of indigenous feminism forms an ongoing battlefront even in those films—such as Dani Kouyate’s The Dream of the Python—that take place entirely within a contended fairy-tale world of the past.
The fluidity of past and present is sometimes difficult to perceive in the timeless countryside of the rural Sahel. But for a new generation influenced by the romantic films of Gaston Kabore, the redemption of the environment is at the forefront of their ideas. The Highway concerns a fictionalized present-day conflict between a minister of highways and a little village called Dukmato, whose sacred tree-god happens to be located in the middle of the proposed route. War and misery follow, but there is never any doubt that every act of destruction will be avenged by the mystical forces that govern the place. Jean-Marie Teno’s documentary Vacation in the Country juxtaposes spectacular images of the seemingly untouched Cameroonian landscape with shots of decaying schools and abandoned villages. Also deserving of mention is Djim Cola’s The Foreigners, a Burkinabe film concerning a government’s decision to solve its economic problems by kicking out all aliens. The resulting violence, with machete-bearing mobs roaming the streets, serves as a reflection on the wars in Sierra Leone and Rwanda, as well as a warning about the current political stagnation in Burkina Faso.
Indeed, the ruling party in Burkina Faso takes full advantage of FESPACO as a means of publicity for itself (and gendarmes in the cinematheques were omnipresent). FESPACO also assists the French government in justifying a postcolonial economic policy that holds most of West Africa in half-slavery through its control of the currency. But the American firm that recently took over Air Afrique also undermined the event, refusing to honor previous agreements with the Burkinabe government to fly directors to the festival; as a result, three entries by Jean Odoutan never arrived. That said, FESPACO is still the premier event in African film and left little question that Africa’s cinema has truly come of age in the past few years, taking on ambitious subjects with a new spirit of levity.