(Delali Ayivor is from Accra, Ghana, one of the happiest and hottest places on earth. I’ve been an admirer of Delali’s writing for some time now. A 2011 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts and a graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy, Delali is currently a sophomore studying English at Reed College in Portland, Oregon where she hopes to learn, as Miranda July put it, to be “something that needs nothing.” – IDM)
This year my mother made her triumphant return to FESPACO, Africa’s premier film festival held bi-annually and always in Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou. She was back, this time with my father and I in tow, both of us galvanized by six long years of my mother recounting anecdotes from her last trip. There was the Ouaga restaurant run by nuns who sang Ave Maria in an infamously off-kilter warble while carving your chicken. The late nights eating sticky fried plantain rolled in dried pepper at roadside jazz bars where one inevitably ran into several of the young bohemian American artists who had sunk all of their savings into a plane ticket to Ouaga and a pass to FESPACO and had no place to stay, knew not even enough to never order a drink with ice in West Africa, let alone the bribes, flattery and subtle threats inherent to any major third-world event. Beyond anything, there were the films, that, while, in the not-quite-familiar-enough-to-any-in-our-family language of French, were staggering.
I, for one, was excited. I was still secondhand high off the daily missives we’d received from my sister earlier that winter when she was a volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival. She had gotten close enough to Alexander Skarsgard to tell him she loved him and he’d giggled in response. She had ushered Will Smith and his son to their seats at a screening, wearing the special occasion calf-length faux-fur coat we’d bought her at a Burlington Coat Factory in Houston a month before.
Though I immersed myself in thoughts of a similar experience during the 15-hour car ride from my home in Accra to Ouagadougou, I don’t know who I thought I’d run into. After four years of schooling in the U.S. and one year of aimless wandering on a leave of absence from my small, private, liberal arts college, I am more ugly American than Ghanaian. And though I used to be an expert on the African movie channel offered on our satellite service and its tawdry Nigerian titles all inexplicably named after American celebrities, (Sharon Stone, Beyonce 2: The President’s Daughter), I could no longer remember any of the stars’ names, and doubted this was the caliber of movie to be screened at the festival anyway.
Ouagadougou was a feast for the eyes, endless aesthetic pleasure with its wide roads and modern geometric buildings somehow conveying Arab, somehow conveying, we hold history very close to ourselves here. More beautiful was FESPACO’s opening ceremony, which included a cultural display so wonderfully bonkers that it almost defies description. My most lasting memory is of 15-foot tall puppets of women in traditional Burkinabe clothing salsa dancing with their partners. These puppets were the women of the festival writ large.
There was a huge emphasis on women at FESPACO, something we were reminded of by the organizers repeatedly. That, this year, the guest of honor was the First Lady of Gabon and the film that was to officially open the festival was written, directed by and starring the same Algerian woman. The constant mention seemed—by turns—defensive, like an apology for an offense that would go otherwise unrecognized and aggressive, when it was regularly mentioned that, at this edition of FESPACO, every jury was chaired by a woman, unlike at Sundance, where not a single jury was.
The feminist slant went down a treat for most of the audience, especially with the white European families who called Ouaga home and the middle-aged black American women who collectively made up about 20% of the FESPACO attendees. The rest of the audience was mostly local Burkinabes as well as African filmmakers and filmgoers from all over the continent. There was also a contingent of the new phenomenon of predominantly white American exchange students sweating through their batik skirts and tank-tops who I recognized from their do-gooder ilk in Accra. They all looked vaguely pleased or indifferent; perhaps their French did not quite stretch to a discussion of gender politics.
My reaction had the two sides of myself, African and American, warring; I didn’t know whether to be proud that so many women were given a position of power at such a uniquely African event or shocked that so few women were at its American equivalent. It appeared miraculous to me that there would be such a vigorous debate on the empowerment of women in this city that seemed to exist nowhere, that rose out of the sand. But from the very beginning I had been impressed by the progressiveness of FESPACO and of Ouaga in general.
Ouagadougou had instantly seemed to me to be a land of women. There were thousands of them, mostly on motorbikes, their purses dangling from their wrists as they revved the puttering machines, their headscarves trailing in the wind, the kitten heels of their shoes stained red by the persistent desert dust. There was something feminine about this city. To my dreamy and romantic mind, it seemed, like an enigmatic woman, to hold some secret loosely in its grasp. I thought of the women on motorbikes, a sight I had never seen in Accra and then I thought of my sister, sharing a 3 bedroom condo with seven strangers in order to afford her volunteer position at Sundance; who’s empowered now?
I knew enough about Sundance to know that its leaders were not ignorant of the shocking gender gap between men and women in the film world; at the 2013 festival they released a study written in conjunction with Women in Film LA that examined the role of women in Sundance’s own history. This effort is admirable, but, in the face of what FESPACO accomplished, seven juries with seven female chairpersons, it seemed overly academic, especially considering that there were fewer female jurors at Sundance 2013 than in years past. It also seemed more thoughtful than FESPACO’s approach to throw as many women as possible into the mix after a 44-year history of no female chairpersons. I couldn’t help but wonder: how much of this celebration of the feminine was posturing?
This question was answered at the festival’s first screening, a film named Yema. Written, directed and starring Djamila Sahraoui, the movie opens with a woman, Ouardia, preparing the body of her son for burial and then digging his grave, placing him to rest despite her advanced age. This son is hinted to have been killed by his brother Ali who is the leader of an armed Islamic group. Ouardia is torn between her inherent love for Ali and her intuition that he is responsible for the death of his own brother. She lives completely isolated at the top of a rocky outcropping in rural Algeria, with only a one-armed shepherd who tends his flocks on her land for company. Ouardia spends most of her time tending to her garden, which becomes a metaphor for her strength, losing herself in heavy manual labor.
Yema is nothing if not a celebration of women, firstly because Djamila Sahraoui performed every major role possible in the creation of the film. But beyond that there is Ouardia, a woman put in position of choosing between the love of her two children, one already gone, the other being taken away by his own extremism, lost for all essential purposes. It is an excellent film, mostly silent, and mainly portrays Ouardia engaged in intensely physical acts-digging through the hard ground to create a grave for her son, pulling heavy buckets of water up from the simple well on her grounds to water her garden. The landscape becomes a character of its own. Harsh and unforgiving, it is still strikingly beautiful, much like Ouardia.
After seeing Yema, I understood that FESPACO’s obsession was not necessarily just with the feminine but with women like Djamila Sahroui, who is endemic of the kind of artist that makes it in Africa. At FESPACO there was a whole slate of ambitious female filmmakers, Africans, many of whom have lived abroad at some point, but realize the value of coming in on the ground floor of a cultural evolution that is sweeping developing African nations. For the first time, Africa has reached a level of sustainability that breeds homegrown artists, and not in a Beyonce & Rihanna 2 type of way.
Where it once was that every African filmmaker had to take the beauty of their lush heritage abroad to get their story told, now the continent is attracting its artistic talent back-African artisans are producing work in Africa for a global audience. That the selection of these artists at FESPACO was overwhelmingly female is fitting. Women have long been the gatekeepers of African history. For all the flexing and posturing, the tangible swag of the African male, African society is matriarchal. This new crop of female African artists are inheriting their traditional role as historian but giving it a modern twist, giving voice to the role of women in a continent that is rapidly developing, caught somewhere between third world depression and bourgeois ambition.
I saw then what FESPACO had that Sundance could not-an intersection between tradition and opportune timing. Africa and, to some extent, FESPACO are still deciding who they want to be. There’s a whole legion of female African artists who are not willing to step back and see themselves written out of those plans.
As the lights came up on Yema, I thought back to the drive to Ouaga and a teenaged boy I’d seen standing by the side of the road wearing a 3x ‘Say Neigh to Ketamine’ t-shirt and red snapback hat stitched with the initials T.I.N.A., This Is New Africa. Though he may not have known it, the boy in the red cap on the side of the road between Accra and Ouaga now seemed to be a seer of some kind. He was right: FESPACO was new Africa.