Africa: Ai Keita Yara - From Queen to Soothsayer, From Celluloid to Video

26 February 2001

Ouagadougou — You cannot miss Ai Keita Yara. She could easily pass for a queen. She is tall, dark and regal with a commanding presence, just as one would imagine an imposing African monarch of old. And that is precisely the role that made the Burkinabe actress famous. Ai Keita Yara played Sarraounia, the queen, warrior and horsewoman from Niger who was the star of the film of the same name, directed by the Mauritanian filmmaker, Med Hondo.

The movie was shot in 1985 and won the coveted Yennenga Stallion award for best film in 1987 at FESPACO, the prestigious pan African festival of film and television held every two years in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

"It was my first role and my first film" Keita Yara told "I had never acted before, on screen or on stage. It was tough, because I'd never done a movie or been in a play before. I also had to learn how to ride a horse and then memorise my lines in the script of course," continued Keita Yara, as the memories of those early days of her career as an actress came flooding back. "On top of everything else, I was performing in front of the camera for the first time in my life".

Keita Yara remembers it as a really exciting experience, because she was playing the role, she says, of a real African woman in all her strength and character. Sarraounia was an African queen who decided that she was not going to cajoled into a forced marriage and who stood up to the colonists who tried to destroy her kingdom. This amazon queen, Sarraounia, would not be cowed. She fought the invasion and she won.

So, what was it like playing the part of a queen? "It is difficult to talk about oneself, so I let movie goers make up their own minds when they see me on screen" said Keita Yara modestly. "But I must say that it was an honour to portray Queen Sarraounia. And even now, when people see me on the street, they always come up to me shouting, there's the queen, hello Queen Sarraounia and that makes me proud".

Since the success of Sarraounia, Ai Keita Yara has acted in many other films, including Les Etrangers (The Foreigners), L'Epopee (The Epic), Les Tourbillons (The Twisters), Message pour (for) Beijing, Haramouya and SIDA dans la Cite (AIDS in the City). She has also had parts in many sitcoms.

But are there many jobs for African actresses? "Yes, of course" responds a surprised Keita Yara, "How can you make an African film without women, without African woman? There are plenty of opportunities for African actresses."

Asked whether those roles were, in any way, limited because of language - Keita Yara is a French-speaking African from Burkina Faso - she replied promptly: "My dream is to play any role in any language. And, with dubbing, it's absolutely possible. It really is my dream and, let's face it, this would certainly enhance my curriculum vitae, my resume, wouldn't it?" she concludes with a laugh.

In the film AIDS in the City, Keita Yara plays the role of a clairvoyant from the Peul tribe. "It was really an AIDS' awareness film," she says, "the story of a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, but sadly, her lover was HIV-positive and she got pregnant. And I was the soothsayer who had looked into the future and foreseen the fate of this woman".

Her current project is a video film, called Sondja, which examines polygamy in African families. The film is not in competition at FESPACO 2001, but it is being screened in Ouagadougou.

Ai Keita Yara has worked on both celluloid and video films and is excited about new technology in cinema, the theme of this 17th edition of FESPACO. Video and especially digital video, are arguably the key and the future to the film industry in Africa. This view is the subject of considerable discussion in Ouagadougou. Keita Yara agrees and sides with the 'yeahs'. "Where I come from," she says "if you can't be suckled by your mother, then you must be breastfed by your grandmother".

By way of explanation, she adds: "Celluloid cinema is big money. You need huge resources. And we in Africa don't have that sort of money. That's why it sometimes takes years to make a film. But this new video technology can only be a good thing, because we can shoot movies all year round and we, the actors, will become household names".

More importantly, says Ai Keita Yara, increasingly people choose not to go out to a cinema to watch a movie, preferring to stay home and watch a video. "And if the big television stations buy these African videos, then that's good for us, the actors and film directors" she says with a big smile.

"If filmmakers shoot the video with a digital camera, they can still upgrade it and release it as a real movie on the big screen", adds Keita, an afterthought which, would probably raise a healthy round of support in any African cinema house, especially at FESPACO in Ouagadougou.

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