Africa’s largest film festival, Fespaco, recently celebrated its 25th edition. The main venue, as always, was the old and respectable Cine Burkina, in the heart of the capital Ouagadougou. The city used to have at least nine dedicated cinemas — now only two remain.
It is a picture that is repeated across the continent.
In Senegal, don’t go looking for the Cinema de Paris, the old film temple at the Place de l’Independence in downtown Dakar. It’s gone. It was knocked down in 2011, and the hole it left behind was filled with hotels and office blocks.
And in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde, the number of cinemas is …
“Zero. In Yaounde, we’re three million [people] but we don’t have a single functioning cinema,” said Cameroonian culture journalist Parfait Tabapsi.
The arrival of DVDs and the failure of the big cinemas to go digital are two of the reasons for the demise in West Africa.
People can watch the latest Hollywood flicks — often pirated, of course — for a pittance on TVs at little neighborhood viewing spots, but try to find any African films, besides perhaps a bit of Nollywood, and you will be disappointed.
Changing that is at the heart of Tabapsi’s work in Cameroon with an organization called Mobile Digital Cinema.
“Our aim is to bring movies to the places where they cannot go,” he said. “Because there’s no communication means, there’s no electricity, the roads are bad. … But people need to see artists and directors that tell the story of Africa. So we buy the film rights and screen the films for free.”
And now, belatedly, the old-fashioned cinema is catching up.
Fespaco joined the digital age two editions ago, when it announced that directors were no longer required to deliver their films in the expensive and cumbersome 33-mm format.
It’s a shift that can also be seen elsewhere in the industry.
Young Ivorian film director and actress Kadhy Toure has proven that home-grown movies can be made, and can make money.
Her film, L’Interprete, is the biggest box office hit in Ivorian history.
“In Ivory Coast, we only have one big company that has three cinemas,” Toure said. “They were blown away. They kept asking me: How did you do it? This is the first time that they see a line of people just wanting to see an African film.”
The film is about the many twists and turns in the love life of an Abidjan woman who works as an interpreter. It’s a story, Toure says, about us — and that’s why people queue around the block to see it.
Toure says a sequel is on the way. Elsewhere, her fellow African directors are working equally hard to have their films shown — in their countries.
The award-winning Chadian Mahamat-Saleh Haroun single-handedly revived Le Normandie, in the capital N’Djamena. And in Burkina Faso, another mythical cinema, Guimbi, in the country’s second-largest city of Bobo Dioulasso, is under reconstruction, according to the project’s spokeswoman Rosalie Zida.
Reconstruction of the cinema — the only one in the city — started in mid-2015 and is the initiative of local filmmakers, along with the help of friends in Belgium and France. One hall will open later this year, Zida says, and the full complex will be finished in 2018.
And, in Ouagadougou, this year’s Fespaco coincided with the opening of a new screening venue, the Canal Olympia. It is part of a series of multifunctional cultural venues owned by the French chain Canal+ and already present in Conakry, Guinea.
So what is the takeaway, as Fespaco goes into its habitual two-year slumber? That mostly private initiatives are helping to resurrect African cinema, and that this applies to the buildings and to what is shown on the big screens. Produce it — and they will come.