Images of women abound on the placards for the Fespaco Film Festival in Ouagadougou. Sometimes smiling. Sometimes recoiling in horror at rape, abuse and disillusionment.
Burkinabe director Apolline Traore's film "Frontieres" tells the story of a journey from Senegal to the Nigerian metropolis of Lagos. Four women from four different West African countries are thrown together and as the long, nerve-wracking trip progresses, they find themselves becoming better acquainted.
The group includes the petulant Emma from Ivory Coast who is paying for her children's education by smuggling colorful textiles. She is played by actress Naky Sy Savane who is delighted that the renowned Fespaco Festival (Festival Panafricain du Cinema et de la Television de Ouagadougou) opened with a film directed by a woman. "I feel honored," she said. "It is recognition for all African women who are normally condemned to the margins of society.
Bleak and gloomy
This West African road movie, which is widely tipped to win the Etalon de Yennanga festival prize on Saturday (04.03.2017), is not the only competition entry featuring resolute women protaganists. There are more films about women at Fespaco than ever before. Films to be seen in the nine cinemas hosting the festival include "Aisha" by Chande Omar from Tanzania and Alain Gomis' "Felicite." These are rather bleak works that generally end on a gloomy note. But they force the audience to think deeply about issues such as mass rape and the poverty of single mothers.
Not all of the films are steeped in despair. The young Senegalese director Fatou Toure Ndiaye has made a film about polygamy. "In our society it happens frequently and is not unusual," she said. But there is no public debate about the topic and Ndiaye isn't sure whether her short film "La Promese" (The Promise) will be able to trigger any such discussion. It is rather more important, she believes,to show how contemporary young women cope with polygamy. "My own experience of it enabled me to shoot the film," Ndiaye said.
There is heightened security at this year's festival. There were two attacks on police stations near the town of Djibou in the north of Burkina Faso on Monday night. It is unclear whether there any casualties. Attacks in Burkina Faso, especially in the border regions in the north, have become more frequent over the past year. Filmmakers, however, avoided the subject of terrorism in the films shown this year.
The same applies to migration from Africa to Europe, an issue which is deeply preoccupying many people on the European continent. Of far greater significance for West Africa, however, are migratory flows within the region itself, as defined by the 15 member countries that make up ECOWAS ( Economic Community of West African States). This internal African migration is one of the reasons why Traore felt compelled to make her film.
Illegal border fees
Naky Sy Savane was able to experience the difficulties of travelling through Africa first hand while "Frontieres" was being shot. At every border they were asked for money, which is actually illegal under ECOWAS regulations. "There is legislation but it is not being implemented," Savane said. This is also why she believes the female perspective is so important. It is the women who do a lot of the travelling as salespersons. "There are pillars of [West African] integration and possess the courage to tear down all borders," she said.
Denis Mukwege, gynecologist and human rights activist form eastern DR Congo, is also not lacking in courage. Belgian director Thierry Michel's film "The man who repairs women" has created a cinematic tribute to this man who campaigns tirelessly against the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The documentary, which has already been seen by audiences in several countries, is viewed by its creator as a potential catalyst for change. "We have shown the film to political decision-makers at the United Nations and in national assemblies. There was much lively debate," he said.
But in DR Congo, the violence rumbles on. "There needs to be regime change and the military clique that is now in power will have to stand down," Michel said.
Michel left his audience in Ouagadougou shocked but also deeply moved. They saw that it is women who suffer most in times of war and crisis.