Security worries cloud celebrated African film festival

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Africa’s biggest film festival marks its 50th anniversary on Saturday, buoyed by its contributions to the continent’s cinema industry but overshadowed by security problems in host country Burkina Faso.

Fespaco - the acronym in French of the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou - unfolds in the Burkina capital every two years.

Launched in 1969 and loosely modelled on the Cannes Film Festival, Fespaco provides an opportunity for African movie and TV professionals to network and pitch their work to clients in Europe, North America, and beyond.

This year’s offering, under the theme “memory and future,” will screen 165 films over a week, ranging from features and TV series, cartoons, short films and film-school projects.

Twenty full-length movies will joust for the so-called “African Oscar” - the Golden Stallion of Yennenga, named after a mythical 12th-century warrior princess who founded the Mossi empire.

Past winners of the award - given for the film that best shows “Africa’s realities” -- have been “Felicite” (2017), a portrayal of the harsh life of a bar singer in Kinshasa by Senegalese-French Alain Gomis, and “Drum” (2005) by South Africa’s Zola Maseko, about an investigative journalist in Johannesburg during apartheid in the 1950s.

Organizers are expecting 4,500 film industry participants and a whopping 100,000 members of the public to turn out for the 450 screenings, taking place in nine venues in Ouagadougou and in Bobo Dioulasso and Ouahigouya, the country’s other major cities.

“The goal is to return to the festival’s basics -- to bring film-lovers and film-makers to the outlying areas of Ouagadougou,” said Fespaco’s chief, Adiouma Soma.

“The public can see the maximum number of films and directors have the chance of really meeting people who watch their work.”

Assessed purely in volume terms, movie-making in sub-Saharan Africa is dominated by Nigeria’s Nollywood -- the second biggest in the world after India’s Bollywood -- while Senegal and South Africa have long-established and respected industries.

In rich countries, African films may be screened in arthouse cinemas, but rarely make it to mass audience.

A common complaint is that African productions lack financial muscle to give films star power and glitzy - read expensive - special effects.

Experts say emerging digital technology can offer directors big savings in production and distribution costs -- a possibility that will be addressed in a special seminar at the festival this year.

Security will be tight at the opening ceremonies, taking place in Ouagadougou’s 25,000-seat municipal stadium.

Burkina Faso is on the frontline of a bloody extremists insurgency that has spread across the Sahel.

Raids began in the north of the country in 2015 before spreading to the east, leaving more than 300 dead.

Eighty civilians and security force members have been killed since early December alone.

Ouagadougou has been hit three times in the past three years, including a coordinated attack last March that targeted the French embassy and devastated the country’s military headquarters.

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