Shimoni (2022)

FESPACO 2023: Tunisia, Burkina Faso, and Kenya Represented in Top Awards

The 28th edition of Festival Pan-Africain du Cinéma et de la television de Ouagadougou, otherwise known as FESPACO (Pan-African Film & TV Festival of Ouagadougou) wrapped up celebrations today, March 4, 2023, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

The theme for this year’s festival, which has sometimes been referred to as the “African Cannes” (an indication of the aspirations that have been projected onto it), was “African Cinema and Culture of Peace.” It was visually represented in an illustrated version of Sarraouina — a Hausa chief/priestess who fought French colonial troops in the Battle of Lougou (in present-day Niger) in 1899. Sarraouinia inspired Med Hondo’s 1986 film, based on the novel of the same name by Nigerien writer Abdoulaye Mamani.

The film won FESPACO’s grand prize, the Etalon de Yennenga, in 1987 (presented by Burkinabé revolutionary Thomas Sankara a few months before he was assassinated).

This year, the festival’s top prize went to Tunisia’s Youssef Chebbi for his second narrative feature, ASHKAL. Starring Fatma Oussaifi, the film follows an investigation when the body of a caretaker is found calcined in the middle of a construction site in the gardens of Carthage, a new district where modern buildings are juxtaposed with abandoned sites and wastelands.

The film was released in France in January, but it is still without distribution elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Etalon d’Argent (the Silver Stallion) went to Burkina Faso’s own Apolline Traoré’s fifth feature, SIRA. This follows its Berlinale 2023 world premiere, where it also picked up an award (the Panorama audience prize). It’s a film set to have a big year — likely one that will be in the international awards season mix in the fall.

In SIRA — a feminist counterpoint to current reporting from the Sahel region — after a brutal attack, a young nomad named Sira (played by Nafissatou Cissé) refuses to surrender to her fate without a fight and instead takes a stand against Islamist terror.

The film is without distribution, but it’s still early.

And the Bronze Stallion goes to Kenyan filmmaker Angela Wamai’s SHIMONI — an assured feature debut that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2022, and continues to draw praise as it travels the international film festival circuit; although it’s still without distribution.

Starring Justin Mirichii, SHIMONI tells the story of a man named Geoffrey who, after being released from prison, is sent to the Kenyan village where he was raised. Formerly an English teacher, he is now forced to redirect his life in a community that he left behind, doing manual jobs that are alien to him — a tortured man trapped between the victim’s vulnerability and the perpetrator’s guilt.

I was under the assumption that the festival would become an annual event (it’s been biennial since it was created 50+ years ago), but the festival also announced that the next edition, FESPACO 2025, will be held from February 22 to March 1, 2025.

And once again, my biennial suggestion to FESPACO brass is to, once again, make the festival friendlier to English-language press, especially those covering it remotely. That is assuming they want to be an international event (see Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and other non-English language territories) that draws broad coverage. Even as someone who understands some French, it’s still a challenge to cover, and therefore frustrating. I have to translate much of its communication so that I can distribute the information to our audience of primarily non-French speakers. It’s one of a number of reasons why there’s barely any English-language coverage of what is supposed to be Africa’s premiere film event.

Awards still updating…