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date: 06 December 2022

African Films and FESPACOlocked

African Films and FESPACOlocked

  • Kate CowcherKate CowcherSchool of Art History, University of St Andrews

Summary

The Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) was founded in 1969. It began as an intimate week-long gathering of filmmakers and enthusiasts in the capital of what is now Burkina Faso to watch contemporary films made by African filmmakers. At its peak in the 1990s, it attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators, both local and international. Since the 2000s, iterations have been smaller affairs, significantly impacted by both changes of government in Burkina Faso and wider political instability in West Africa, as well as ongoing debates about what films it should be showcasing. Despite such challenges (and with only one exception in the mid-1970s), however, FESPACO has remained a constant on the African continent, faithfully screening films by African and diaspora filmmakers every two years for more than half a century.

FESPACO was conceived in the age of decolonization by a group of men and women who are considered to be the pioneers of African cinema, including the Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. It was established as the first sub-Saharan showcase of African filmmaking, an emergent and significant field in the era of independence when cinema was prized for its ability to make visible African realities and to (re)constitute national histories eclipsed by colonial rule. The concept of a distinctly “African” cinema was articulated most extensively by filmmaker and scholar Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and referred to films made by Africans, telling African stories, principally for African audiences. For Vieyra, Sembène, and their contemporaries, it was essential to take back control of the art of cinema on the African continent, where it had predominantly been deployed as a colonial tool; FESPACO was conceived as the regular forum for those committed to its development to come together and share their work.

Through the course of its development, FESPACO has been confronted with a number of challenges regarding its form and its evolution. Its strong connections with the Burkinabe state have been seen as both a significant factor for its growth and its success, and, particularly in the era of Blaise Compaoré, as a source for concern regarding freedom of expression. Since the turn of the 21st century, questions about where video filmmaking—an industry that has proliferated on the African continent in a manner unprecedented internationally—fits within FESPACO’s definition of cinema have been consistent. The festival has, over the years, been accused of being both outdated and elitist in its commitment to celluloid, but also of straying from its original remit to showcase African stories for African audiences, accusations it has responded to by the creation of new prize categories and requirements for submission. The year 2019 was one of reflection, but many critics felt that after some difficult years the festival was showing signs of rejuvenation. Though it is now one of many film festivals on the continent committed to showcasing African cinema, there remains significant appreciation for the historic status of FESPACO as a preeminent sub-Saharan cultural institution.

Subjects

  • Cultural History
  • Image of Africa

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