Thursday, April 09, 2009

NY African Film Festival: Sacred Places

In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, every film screened is a festival film. That is because in the home of the FESPACO Pan-African film festival, all the regular movie theaters have closed. Director Jean-Marie Teno contemplates the cultural implications of this situation, which is increasingly the norm across Africa, in his new documentary Sacred Places, which screened last night at the 2009 New York African Film Festival.

It is hardly the case that the Burkinabè lost interest in cinema. Economic forces simply conspired to force the proper theaters out of business. In there place, a number of underground cinema clubs have sprung up, screening pirated DVDs with no regard for artist residuals. Nanema Boubakar runs one such establish: the Votre Cine Club. Usually, he makes do with poorly dubbed action fare, but is delighted when offered a bootleg copy of Burkinabè director Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Cannes favorite Yaaba. When Teno informs Ouedraogo of the planned screening, the director actually comes to Boubakar’s club, giving them his implied blessing.

Sacred is an interesting meditation on the nature of story-telling. It contrasts Boubakar the underground cineaste with his friend Jules César Bamouni, a djembe drum-maker, representative of the griot tradition of oral story-telling. It raises some difficult questions about the growing divide between African filmmakers, the new story-tellers, and their intended domestic audience.

Though Boubakar draws some patrons for Yaaba, it is far from a capacity house, which he blames on competition from an important televised soccer match. How much interest is there really for an art-house picture? Are Ouedraogo and Teno simply making subsidized films for the international festival circuit? These questions remain unresolved for Teno.

It is Boubakar’s patrons Ouedraogo wants to reconnect with regardless of the minimal royalties he might be denied. (This is not a problem unique to Africa either. Although the situation is not as extreme, at the 2008 Romanian Film Festival, director Radu Gabrea also complained Romanian filmmakers also have difficulty securing domestic distribution, largely as a result of competition for screens from American and European imports.)

Blaming so-called globalization for the challenges facing African filmmakers seems off point when watching Sacred. Certainly, they face international competition, particularly from Hindi films, at least according to Teno’s early interview segments. Yet, the international festival scene is arguably the most important market for their films.

Teno raises some interesting questions about the state of African cinema in Sacred. As a result, it was a somewhat ironic, but completely appropriate film for the opening night of the New York African Film Festival. Relatively brief, but thought-provoking, Sacred screens again at the Walter Reade Theater on Saturday (4/11) at 1:00. Its next American festival screening will be at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 24th.