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Who calls the shots?
Vultures circle the set, torrential rain threatens, the budget is pitiful and white Europeans hold the purse strings. Rich Cookson reports from Burkina Faso on the perils of making a movie in one of the world's poorest countries.

The sun is setting in the west African city of Ouagadougou. Down a long, dusty dirt track, a 20-minute hair-raising scooter ride from the city centre, 30 tired-looking people have just returned to a small tin-roofed building in a nondescript suburb. A few sit on deck chairs in the courtyard quietly sipping Pastis, while outside others unload two battered white articulated lorries. It may be modest, but this tiny building is the headquarters of one of the most important film companies in African cinema, Sahelis Productions.

The crew members have reason to be tired - they've been shooting a tricky scene on a bus since 6.30 this morning. "We've had problems with the sound today," says director Dani Kouyaté. "With the engine going it was very difficult to record dialogue - we did much less than we wanted to." Kouyaté, an award-winning director in Burkina Faso, Africa's most important film-making country, has just five weeks to shoot his latest movie, a 90-minute feature film called Ouaga Saga. It's the 19th day of filming and he's already one day behind schedule - in a country as poor as Burkina that's a major problem.

Even though sub-Saharan Burkina is rated by the UN as the fifth poorest country in the world, Ouaga is widely acknowledged as the capital of African cinema and it's the only city in the world with a square dedicated to film-makers. During Fespaco, a two-week festival of African film held every two years in Ouagadougou, thousands of actors, actresses, directors, producers, financiers, critics and cinephiles from across the continent met here to watch almost 400 African films. At the festival's closing ceremony, 50,000 people gathered in the August 4th stadium - named to mark the 1983 coup that brought cinema-loving President Thomas Sankara to power - to watch Mauritanian director Adberrahmane Sissako win the Étalan de Yennenga, the African equivalent of the Oscar.

But even though Burkinabé say their country is to black film what Jamaica is to black music, the film industry here faces intractable difficulties. Shortly before Fespaco, one of Burkina's most important directors, Idrissa Oudraogo (who won the 1990 Grand Prix at Cannes for his film Tilai), said that African cinema is "very sick" and called for radical changes in distribution.

Fespaco may be a major event but only two or three feature films are shot in Burkina every year. Financial support from the government is now so scarce that President Blaise Compaoré (also a film enthusiast) has bailed out several productions with his own cash. Ouaga Saga tells the story of 11 characters fighting poverty to realise their dreams; the making of the film is a parallel tale of battling against the odds in one of the poorest countries on earth.

Faced with conditions like these, Kouyaté could be forgiven for choosing a film that's easy to make. But he hasn't. The lead actors are young, inexperienced and - save one - totally unknown. The film has a cast of about 50 supporting actors, a crew of 50, a specially-commissioned hip-hop soundtrack, and a finale scene in a football stadium involving 300 children, pom-pom girls, football teams, dancers and drummers. Oh, and three stilt-walkers dressed as a giraffe, a peacock and a stork. The scene is to be shot outside, at night, and there's a strong possibility it will rain.

It's just before 7am on the 20th day of shooting. The two trucks followed by a handful of vans and cars park on the side of the Rue de L'Olympisme, in the shadow of the August 4th stadium. Crew members weave through the busy traffic and set up two cameras, protecting them from the sun with towels and parasols - it may be early but the temperature is already rapidly heading towards 40C. Overhead a huge, scraggy vulture circles the set. Behind one of the cameras a lizard scuttles up the wall and disappears down the other side.

Filming starts just after 8am. Bourémah, the main character, will cross the busy road, walk to a bright yellow lottery stall, talk to the vendor and buy a ticket. Only two actors can work today because the rest have to take part in a school sports day. The cameras are sprayed with compressed air to get rid of dust. "Silence!" shouts Kouyaté's first assistant Issa Traoré de Brahima. " En place [places]... moteur [roll cameras]," says Kouyaté. Bourémah looks left and right, crosses the road and approaches the lottery stall.

Passers-by are corralled by Brahima and told to walk by in the background of the shot. Ten policemen, waving truncheons a little too enthusiastically, have closed the road so that the dialogue can be recorded. But a motor-scooter weaves through the police line and starts heading down the road. The teenage driver is caught by a policeman, given a hard slap and shouted at for several minutes. Some of the crew shake their heads in disbelief.

By midday the filming is complete and the set is quickly dismantled. It's taken five and a half hours to shoot a scene one minute long, but the crew say it's a good morning's work.

Producer Sékou Traoré - who runs Sahelis along with Brahima and Kouyaté - explains the plot: the film is about 10 young friends that live together in one of Ouaga's poorest districts. Each one has an ambition - to own a music shop, to be a professional footballer - but they are all poor and realising their dreams seems almost impossible. But when the boys see a wealthy young woman go into an expensive dress shop and leave her motor-scooter unlocked, they can't resist the chance to make some quick money. They steal the bike and sell it for CFA200,000 (West African francs, £200), sharing out half the money and stashing the rest at the compound where they live with Bourémah, their older "brother".

However one of their neighbours soon notices that the atmosphere in the boys' compound has changed and starts to eavesdrop on them. The boys find him and beat him up so severely that he calls the police. Bourémah realises that the police will find the rest of the money if they search the house, so he puts it in a bag and flees. The boys don't realise he's doing it to help them, and think that he's stolen the cash. Bourémah leaves for another town and lies low in a hotel. Eventually he only has a fraction of the money left so he decides to play the lottery. He wins the CFA500m (£500,000) jackpot and comes back to Ouaga to help each of his friends fulfil their dream.

"The film shows the reality of life for Ouaga people. It's not easy for us here," says the actor who plays Bourémah, a handsome 25-year-old simply called Bam. The story of how he came to play the main character could be part of the film's plot. "I used to be a barber but I've always loved music," he explains over a lunch of mutton stew, couscous and fried yam.

"When I was young, I always dreamed of being a musician, so one day I stopped cutting hair, took the little money I had and recorded my own album. I paid CFA1.3m (£1,300) to do the recording, make a video and produce posters and a sleeve for the CD. Then I took it round radio stations." Bam's gamble paid off: he became an overnight success, and when Kouyaté saw his video, he asked him to be in Ouaga Saga.

"When I saw Will Smith and Eddie Murphy on the TV I wanted to be an actor," says Bam. "But I didn't think it would be this hard. I didn't know it could take 12 or 13 times to shoot a scene. I thought you could shoot a film in a week or so! But I love it - I really want to be an actor in the future. I want to be international!"

But he isn't alone in this ambition: almost all of the actors, and even some of the crew, say they want to act in Europe or the US. If they do go abroad, they're likely to wind up in Paris, home to PM Audiovisuel, the French company co-producing Ouaga Saga. As an ex-colony, Burkina has strong links with France - indeed, the French government has provided much of the funding for Ouaga Saga.

In fact, the film is a direct result of French colonialism. The scriptwriter is a Frenchman called Jean Denis Berenbaum, who did his military service here 35 years ago. "It was still called Upper Volta then, and I was in Ouaga and Bobo-Dioulasso [Burkina's second city] under the orders of the cultural attache at the French embassy, a man called Michel Mifsud," he says. "The two of us loved Upper Volta and told ourselves that we would come back one day.

"It's an amazing experience to see it being made," he says, watching rushes of the day's filming. "Coming back to Burkina has been really great - it's the first time I've returned in 35 years. I want it to be an African film, made in Africa, with African actors, but also an international film."

Even though PM Audiovisuel has had to import two and a half tonnes of equipment, executive producer Agnès Datin, who heads the seven-strong team working in Ouaga, and lighting expert Jean-Claude Schfrine, say that shooting in Burkina doesn't present any particular difficulties. The size of the crew and amount of kit is the same as if they were filming in France, and surprisingly, the dust and sun don't affect the cameras. "But the light here is very harsh and it is difficult to work with black skin," says Schfrine. "I've had to develop some techniques for lighting and make-up to overcome these challenges here."

What Schfrine really wants to talk about is the cameras. "We're using Sony HD Cam 750 cameras. This kind of [digital] technology is very easy to work with, especially for special effects. The quality is very good." And he's right: the rushes look fantastic... until a power cut plunges the city into darkness.

The French are very convivial but there's something slightly troubling about their relationship with the Burkinabé crew. Perhaps it's because the French are holed up in Ouaga's top hotel, the luxury Sofitel Silmandé, whose tennis courts, pool, nightclub and boutiques are a world away from the realities Ouaga Saga is portraying.

The discomfort becomes clear when Kouyaté explains why the film is being co-produced. "It's rare [for us] to make films alone these days," he says. "The [post-production] labs are over there in the west and it's not possible for us to work without westerners. When Sahelis goes to labs in Paris they have no confidence in us - you say, 'I'll send the money to you later' but they want it there and then. So we have to have foreign partners."

And as government funding has dried up, Kouyaté and other film-makers have become increasingly dependent on the west, particularly France, for cash. About 80% of the money for films in Burkina now comes from Europe. Ouaga Saga will cost some CFA700m (£700,000): CFA200m to shoot in Ouaga and CFA500m for post-production in Paris. Datin has provided most of the money through the French government-funded Centre National de Cinéma.

"Former president Thomas Sankara said that our culture is our most valuable raw material," Kouyaté says. But he argues that Burkinabés need, above all, to be independent of Europeans to make great films. "If we can do that without needing Europe, we can produce films for Burkinabé people," he says.

But in the absence of an effective market and the political will to finance films, directors are heavily dependent on France. "Paris is the capital of African film - unless you go there, you can't make films in Burkina," he says. "I live in Paris, my family is there and my daughter goes to school there." Kouyaté himself, the son of one of the first ever Burkinabé actors, Sotigui Kouyaté, spent five years at the Sorbonne, after studying film in Ouaga. He is also clear why so many of the actors in Ouaga Saga have ambitions to go abroad: "Why do young people want to flee? Because there's only one film a year here, that's why."

Kouyaté is also highly critical of the Burkina government which is usually lauded for its commitment to cinema. "The president personally loves cinema but why does he have to give his own money? That shows there is a problem somewhere. If the government helps us so much why is it that there's a lack of Burkinabé films at Fespaco?

"We only have two real cinemas and they are not up to international standards. My film Sia [which took second place and the special jury prize Fespaco 2001] is mixed in Dolby but I can't screen it here. I can't screen any of my films in normal conditions - and we call Ouaga the capital of African cinema!"

He also attacks western distributors. "Most of our distributors are Americans and Europeans. We are the last market, the dustbin, for their films. They send us films by the tonne, not by the title, because by the time they reach us here they no longer have any value. The market here is so feeble, which means we cannot give proper cinema to our people because of this. For instance, when Rambo came here it attracted a lot of young people. It was very profitable for the owner of the cinema. But my films can't compete with Rambo because they are new and costly - Rambo had made money around the world before it reached here. I just can't sell my film for the same price."

But Kouyaté says he isn't despondent: "I'm not a pessimist - I believe in the fight. The solution is to be independent. Maybe because of new technology there'll be a new autonomy that will permit us to work alone."

That optimism is echoed by Gaston Kaboré, one of Kouyaté's teachers and a colossus in Burkina's film history. He too sees digital technology as the answer to Burkina's film woes. "Unfortunately cinema is costly but that's why we need to invent a new economy of film-making using digital technology," he says. "Making a film here is easier than in many other places in Africa and at least we are still co-producing with Chad, Mali, Cameroon and Ghana. It's a problem of money. The distribution and commercial side of cinema is not developed - it's not making money. We need a regional policy of film-making to create much larger markets for our films."

However, the aim, he says, is not to produce films that can compete internationally, but to make films that really speak to Burkina. "It's not important for us to compete with international films - we've already proved that we can make nice pieces. What's important is that our films speak to our people. When you make a movie that really speaks to people, they will take it for their own," he says.

At 10pm on the 22nd day of shooting, it's clear that Kouyaté's film is doing just that. He's shooting one of the most complex scenes of the film: the football stadium finale. The 300 children are here. So are the pom-pom girls, dressed in white tops and shiny red skirts; the footballers are lying on the ground, listless while Danny talks to the crowd. In the wings are masked traditional dancers and a host of young children dressed as animals.

For the crew, the pressure's really on. For the last three nights, spectacular electrical storms have drifted over the city, threatening a downpour that finally arrived with a vengeance last night. An hour of heavy rain left streets flooded and sewers overflowing. If the heavens open again tonight, filming will have to be abandoned, costing another precious day.

But among the actors and extras, there's a carnival atmosphere. In the scene, one of the boys, appropriately called Pélé, realises his dream of being a great footballer. The crowd has been briefed, the stilt-walkers are in costume, and the shooting begins.

Five drummers start up an infectious rhythm that immediately has the crowd - and some of the crew - dancing. One of the drummers, playing maracas, runs backwards and forwards whipping the children into a frenzy of cheering. The animals make their entrance: a tiny elephant, a lion, a monkey, a rabbit, a giant peacock, a stork, another elephant and a buffalo with a wonderfully contorting and expressive face. In front of them, Danny dances and waves them into even higher pitches of fervour.

The animals are dancing, the crew are smiling, and the crowd is cheering, whooping, clapping and shouting - it looks fantastic on camera. In the distance the odd flash of lightning ruptures the African sky, but it looks like the rain will hold off tonight.

The Guardian – England – Friday June 27, 2003
www.guardian.co.uk

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