donnie l. betts
Special to Blackflix.com
donnie l. betts, who'll be a guest performer at the Denver Pan African Film Festival, can be reached at:
You say you know all about film festivals Cannes, New York, Taos, Denver, and Sundance. But for serious filmgoers and students of films about Africans and the African Diaspora, you need to know about FESPACO. Held every other year in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, West Africa, it is the largest cinematographic event on the continent.
For the past 30 years, the small, poor country has hosted some of the finest filmmakers assembled anywhere in the world. These filmmakers have taken the art form to new heights and they continue to garner prizes at many festivals.
I recently had the honor to attend FESPACO 1999 to screen Dearfield, the Road Less Traveled, a documentary I directed and co-produced at the special invitation of FESPACO.
For months, I anticipated my trip because this was to be my first trip to Africa, the motherland. I felt excitement, the fear of the unknown, and calm before the trip. Before leaving, I spoke to several friends who had been to Burkina Faso and FESPACO. They all said it was great, a place you will never forget. I have read many accounts of trips to Africa, and of course there were always different versions depending on whether they were Conscience or not.
I wanted to go and see for myself. I asked the ancestors to guide me on my trip and indeed they did. My trip brought me great joy, laughter, and tears.
I left Denver open to whatever was to come. During my stopover in Paris, I began to feel Africa in the sounds, smells, and faces of the people in the waiting area. Muslim brothers laid out their prayer cloths, clothing changed to traditional, and the language changed to French, Moore, Arabic, and many other languages I had never heard. In 90 minutes, the waiting area was transformed from a few White faces to a sea of Black.
During my flight to Ouagadougou, I sat next to a brother from the Congo, and over the course of our conversation I realized Damn, I'm going home.
The hot, dusky city of Ouagadougou welcomes you with open arms, honking horns, and motor bikes thousands of them. The exhaust fumes and dust is so thick you think it is fog. Driving is a real adventure and trust is the key word. Red lights please, a mere inconvenience you stop sometimes. Go, go, small, small. Go slow, please. I don't think so.
The family (The Seyes) that I was to live with met me at the airport. They called me beets, for betts I loved it. I stored my bags at Doctor Seyes' and then the two of us drove down Avenue Kwame-Nrumah and headed straight to Harlem City nightclub, where you enter through a door to go back outside. Center stage is truly center stage. We drank Castel (a local beer) and the music flowed, and we felt the beat and dance, dance, dance. Singers from the Congo, Senegal, and Burkina Faso all kept our ears massaged with great songs. The best part is that no one talks about Bill Clinton or the Ramsey case.
Welcome Home! I see my brothers, sisters, uncles, and friends. Africans that look like me or you, only Black, really Black in color. We greeted and shared laughs as we tried to understand each other through broken French (me) and broken English (them). This world would be the theme for the next 15 days.
Now let's talk about the films.
Opening ceremonies are held in a soccer stadium with about 40,000 people attending. The opening musical guest was reggae star Alpha Blondy. There was dancing by Ballet de Burkina Faso and a spectacular fireworks display and a tribute to the past FESPACO grand prizewinners.
We watched the opening film, La Genese, by Cheick Sissoko, which was based on the period following the disappearance of the biblical Joseph, who had been sold by his brothers under the African moon and stars.
Cheick Oumar Sissoko of Mali directed La Genese. Inspired by chapters 23 and 37 of the first book of the Bible, the story is based on the clashes between the clan of stock breeder Jacob and that of the hunter Esau, his brother, as well as the distant cousins of Canaan led by Hamer the farmer. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of famine, all gather for an evening meeting to trace the course of this divine curse and, if possible, to reclaim God's mercy. This powerful film was screened at the Denver International Film Festival.
The film that just blew me away was La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil (The Story of the Little People). Directed by Djibril Diop Membety of Senegal, it is the story of a young handicapped girl who goes to work to take care of her blind grandmother. The beauty and the power of the storytelling will touch everyone who sees it. Demand your local movie theatre to screen a print of this great film. (Membety recently died of cancer.)
Pieces D'Identites, directed by Mweze Dieudonne Ngangura from Zaire) was the overall African feature film winner of the coveted Etalons de Yennenga. In the story, Mani Kongo, an aging Zairian king, resolves to search for his daughter Mwana, who he has not heard from since she was sent to study in Belgium at the age of 8. Mani Kongo arrives at the Brussels airport clad in the symbols of his traditional power: a sculptured headpiece, a finely carved stick, and a beautiful pearl necklace. All these things that make up his ID, which he might have to relinquish to find his daughter.
Filmmaker Mweze Ngangura was honored at the 22nd Denver International Film Festival. There were many other great films that will be shown in April 2000 at the Denver Pan African Film Festival.
I urge everyone to visit Africa with their children. Give thanks and pour libations as I did in Burkina Faso and Ghana. I think you will experience joy as you see people that look like you taking care of business. There is great sadness too as you see the dire poverty that still exists on this great continent.
And if you can attend FESPACO in 2001, do it. See for yourself that the world has another face.