By Paul Ndiho
March 15, 2011
Movies can tell much about a country, its culture, values, aspirations and shared experiences. In some African countries, an emerging movie industry is helping Africans to tell their stories.
The 1982 film “Wend Kuuni,” also known as “God’s Gift,” was a breakthrough in West African cinema. Directed by Gaston Kabore from Burkina Faso, it brought the tradition of African oral storytelling to the big screen, ushering in a new genre of African movies, elegant in their simplicity and profound. “Wend Kuuni” tells the story of a young mute boy who lost his memory. Only when he remembers his past, does he regain his voice.
“…this child is told in parallel with the story of Africa, the colonial period, the slavery, and everything and how we take back our own voice and words.”
“Wend Kunni” was the first feature film ever made in Burkina Faso – and it catapulted Kabore onto the world stage. His success set him on a mission: to unlock the imagination of a whole new generation of filmmakers and help Africans to tell their own stories.
“Who are we? To me is the fundamental question. If the Africans do not see themselves on the screen they are going to disappear in their own minds and eyes.”
Kabore grew up in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital. After independence, despite few resources, the government committed to building a local film industry. Since 1969 it has hosted the Pan-African Film Festival – called FESPACO – the largest and most prestigious in sub-Saharan Africa. It also created a film archive and with the support of
UNESCO, founded the African Institute for Cinematographic Studies, which trained hundreds of filmmakers. Kabore taught there until 1986, when the school closed for lack of funds. Eleven years later, he released “Budd Yamm,” which won the top prize at the FESPACO film festival that year.
“I said, OK Gaston, now maybe as an individual you need to do something. That’s how the idea of Imagine started.”
Kabore began the Imagine Institute in 1999 – a film academy for young Africans, pouring in his own money to equip the school with state of the art technology. He raises funds to pay professionals to teach intense workshops that he believes should be free for students:
“If we want to have the best students, if we put the money like the filter to select, then we are going to lose many of them…”
Anna Piuri, from Zambia, is one of the 600 students who have attended Imagine with aid mainly from European donors. She says she could not have found quality training back home.
“What you have now in Zambia is a lot of vocational training. You might be able to learn the basics of how to handle a camera but you really don’t get the knowledge of how to really tell a story.”
An aspiring script writer, Anna is thrilled to be working with the man known as the father of Burkina Faso cinema.
“I think for Gaston to do that, to me was really amazing… I think it’s very valuable that he says OK. I made my films now. I am going to pass on the knowledge to other people… And I am not going to make you pay for it.”
“Filmmakers are not only people using techniques, they also need to continue shaping their inside world and vision…It’s not only a question of entertainment, it is also a question of survival in the cultural level.”
But today, after seven years, Imagine has been hit hard by the global financial crisis. Kabore says he wants Imagine to survive, and for students to create film Institutes in their own countries.
“My conviction is life is a journey, is a quest. We take something from those who have lived before us. We continue the journey and we have to pass something to the new generation for them to continue the journey.”
Despite the financial challenges, Kabore is committed to keeping Imagine open. He says helping other people make films is as important as making his own