OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — The film festival crowd had filled the last seats in the Cine Neerwaya and, when there was no room left, sat four abreast in the aisles. The opening credits hardly dimmed the buzz in the theater; for those who missed a crucial plot twist, a neighbor was always eager to offer a running commentary.
Whatever pieties had been observed for more solemn films at the Fespaco festival, which ended this month, there was a sense that "Congé de Mariage" (Marriage Holiday), a romantic comedy by local director Boubacar Diallo, was something different: a communal event, a movie to be shared, enjoyed, and remarked upon — in real time — by all.
A journalist, novelist and self-taught filmmaker, Diallo, 50, is unknown outside a small, French-speaking wedge of West Africa. But he has been Burkina Faso's most prolific director for the last decade and an inspiration for the younger filmmakers who want to, as he puts it, "see their lives" on screen.
He's helmed a crime drama ("Chasing Ouaga," 2004), a gold-rush Western ("The Gold of Younga," 2006) and an adaptation of Shakespeare ("Julie and Roméo," 2011), among other films. "Congé," his latest, is a humorous look at a philandering husband who gets a taste of his own medicine. With his flair for popular entertainment, Diallo sees his work as an attempt to address a problem that has long frustrated African filmmakers: "The African public doesn't like African films," he says bluntly.
A generation ago, deep-pocketed Western institutions funded scores of carefully crafted, slow-moving portraits of African village life that were trotted out to great acclaim at Western film festivals. In Burkina Faso, they cemented the reputations of such auteurs as Gaston Kaboré and Idrissa Ouédraogo, whose masterpiece "Tilaï" won the Cannes Grand Jury Prize in 1990. But such films, today known broadly — and unflatteringly — as "calabash films," often played more to Western audiences than local ones.
"When I saw African films, they didn't speak to me," Diallo said, recalling his moviegoing experiences in the late '90s. Watching the sort of popular entertainment from Europe and Hollywood that screened in Ouagadougou's colonial-era movie theaters, he wondered why such films weren't being produced in Burkina Faso, a former French colony of 17 million. "I asked [myself] whether African filmmakers were giving African audiences what they were looking for."
While beset by the same funding and distribution challenges that have plagued filmmakers across the continent for decades, Burkina Faso's film industry is slowly adopting techniques that have achieved dramatic success in nearby Nigeria, whose "Nollywood" film industry has proved that a market exists in Africa for local, low-budget, popular cinema. Using cheap digital technology, hectic production schedules and shoestring budgets, Nollywood produces more than 1,000 films a year that are unabashedly focused less on art than entertainment.
Whereas their predecessors shot lavish celluloid spectacles largely underwritten by European checkbooks, the younger generation of Burkinabé filmmakers are making low-budget movies shot on HD cameras with local funding and geared toward local audiences. Instead of thatched huts in the bush, they're set in living rooms in the 'burbs, as in Oumar Dagnon's Fespaco selection "Passion's Trap," about a young woman who leaves her village for the city in search of a better life.
The result is that, for the first time in this nation's long cinematic history, something like popular entertainment is being made. When "Congé" was released in local theaters last year, said Diallo, it outperformed its Hollywood competitors. "As soon as we started, people came back to the cinemas," he said.
International to local
Few countries punch above their cinematic weight quite like Burkina Faso, a small, poor nation that for more than four decades has been the improbable capital of the African film world.
Largely this is the legacy of the biannual Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (known by its French acronym, FESPACO), which was created in 1969 and quickly established Burkina Faso as the destination for a new wave of African filmmakers. By 1979, when a local businessman unveiled a splashy $3-million studio called Cinafric, a reporter for Variety was writing breathlessly about Burkina Faso's "ambitions to become a Black Hollywood."
In 1982, Gaston Kaboré's "Wend Kuuni," a tender tale about a mute orphan adopted by villagers far from his home, ushered in a golden age for Burkinabé film, with Kaboré, Ouédraogo, Pierre Yameogo and Dani Kouyaté at the forefront. But the era was short-lived. After another prolific burst in the 1990s, including Ouédraogo's triumph at Cannes, European funding for African cinema stalled.
Harsh economic measures imposed on Burkina Faso by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund meant that a government that had long been an ardent champion of its local industry was forced to divert its resources elsewhere.
But the fundamental mechanisms of filmmaking began to change. As cheap digital cameras proliferated in the 2000s, Burkinabé filmmakers saw it was possible to make movies on shoestring budgets raised closer to home.
"Every time we wait for money from Europe, we can wait one year, two years, just twiddling our thumbs," said Diallo, whose films are typically shot on budgets of less than $80,000. Rather than relying on government funds or checks from European cultural institutions, he hustles to cut deals with corporate sponsors like Nokia, the national lottery of Burkina Faso, and Lafi, a local brand of bottled water, who pick up the production tab.
In return, Diallo pockets whatever he can generate at the box office — between $10,000 and $30,000 per film, he estimates, an impressive take in this developing country.