Ouagadougou — The moving and gut-wrenching tale of survival among a group of grubby, smelly street children in Casablanca, Morocco - who beg, sell cigarettes and homemade shell necklaces, sniff glue and survive violence and abuse - carried off the coveted Yennenga Stallion trophy, for best film, at the 17th edition of Fespaco, the pan African festival of film and television of Ouagadougou on Saturday night.
Ali Zaoua, by the Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch, is a beautifully-made movie starring real life street kids. The highly gifted child actors are complemented by a professional cast, which included the Maghreb star, Said Taghmaoui, who plays Djib, the tyrannical teenage gang leader who abuses the children.
The action begins in Casablanca, Morocco when four street boys, Boubker, Kouka, Omar, and their leader, Ali Zaoua - who dreams of being a sailor - fall foul of a gang they used to belong to. The four friends are playing football with empty tin cans on scrubland, near the harbor when they are surrounded and outnumbered by their rivals. Ali Zaoua is killed by a stone, thrown by one of the gang members, that hits him on the side of the temples and floors him.
The rest of the film is taken up by the exploits of Alis penniless friends, who are determined to make sure they give him a decent burial. Desperately trying to find enough money to pay for Alis funeral, the three friends run into Djib again.
As little Boubker, the make-believe driver, plays behind the wheel of a derelict bus, the frightening deaf mute scarfaced gang leader -- brandishing a rag doll at the top of a pole -- appears.
The rape of Boubker is not shown on screen. But in the next scene, he is back with a black bag of glue covering his mouth and nose. He asks: "Why did he do this to me, I havent done anything to him?" Then Boubker says, "It did not hurt really - but I just wanted to vomit all the time."
The cineaste, Nabil Ayouch, did not make it to Ouagadougou to receive the heavy bronze rearing stallion statuette, for his first feature-length film; it was handed to a stand-in by the President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore.
Indeed, Ali Zaoua was the untold story of Fespaco 2001. The low-key presence of the film in Ouagadougou, with neither director, producer nor actors around to promote it, and no movie posters up in Ouagadougou to publicize its three screenings, meant that the Moroccan offering was missed by many festival goers. But those who did see it raved about the cinematography, storyline, pathos, passion and power of Ali Zaoua. Clearly the jury agreed.
After a lacklustre closing ceremony at the Municipal Stadium, one viewer was overcome with emotion about Ali Zaoua, and admiration for the filmmaker, Nabil Ayouch, after the screening of the best film.
"I am deeply moved by the film," she said. "I feel it was a masterpiece. Cinematographically it was a success, but also the story. The power, the poetry - it was a powerful, unique and extraordinary piece - a true Yennenga Stallion winner."
Ayouch represents a new generation of young African directors. He is a 31 year old, Paris-born Moroccan, who cut his teeth making short films that won critical acclaim. In 1997, Mektoub which has been dubbed Ayouchs first 'real film, broke box office records in Morocco.
The chairman of the jury, that selected Ali Zaoua as the number one film at Fespaco 2001, the Tunisian filmmaker Ferid Boughedir, praised Ayouchs movie for the power of emotion, the excellence in the direction of the cast and for the sensitive description of the cruel existence of abandoned children in Africa. Boughedir said Ayouch had mastered the language of cinema and had given a continental story, and an African reality, universal appeal.
With the Yennenga Stallion award comes five million CFA francs ($7000) for Nabil Ayouch.
Sia, the Dream of the Python , by the Burkinabe cineaste, Dany Kouyate - whose popular film was applauded in cinemas all over Ouagadougou during the festival - came second and received the special jury prize for a feature film in competition at Fespaco.
The tragi-comic film, with heroes and villains, is about a tyrant king who orders the human sacrifice of the prettiest village virgin to placate the Python God. The community is torn about whether to maintain or jettison traditional practices, such as human sacrifice. The outspoken savant, depicted as the village fool Kerfa, speaks the truth and becomes the voice of the oppressed and a thorn in the side of the oppressors.
Kouyate, who mounted the podium several times, to accept different prizes for his film Sia during the award ceremony, thanked the jury for honoring his film and promised an enthusiastic audience that he would be back.
The young Nigerian filmmaker, Newton Aduaka, won the third prize in the feature film category for Rage.
Aduaka won the prize in Ouagadougou for his short film, On the Edge, at the 16th festival in 1999. In his acceptance speech on Saturday night for Rage, which won the Oumarou Ganda Most Promising Newcomer category, Aduaka said: "To come back with my first feature film and receive this award is a great honor and I think, I hope, a statement from the jury for the recognition of what we do as African filmmakers living in Europe -- the chance to lend our eyes to Africa, to see how we live in Europe.
Aduaka dedicated his award to his wife who was not with him in Ouagadougou. "She made everything possible," he said. "We make films very independently in Europe. We dont have any support from the government or anything. It is just the two of us".
The jury described Rage as a brilliant modern work of cinema, which marked the start of the third millennium, and told the story of youth, of African origin, searching for its identity in Europe.
In addition, Aduaka will receive assistance for distribution in the form of a one million CFA franc ($1400) award from the French-speaking commonwealth organization, La Francophonie.
The special Paul Robeson prize at Fespaco, for the best feature film from the diaspora, went to the Haitian filmmaker, Raoul Peck, for Lumumba. The film was a dramatic recreation of the final year of the life of the first prime minister of independent Congo-Kinshasa, Patrice Emery Lumumba, who was brutally murdered a few months later after he took office. Lumumba, the film, was praised for its "remarkable contribution to the defence of the political memory of contemporary Africa."
Another up and coming Burkinabe filmmaker, Fanta Regina Nacro, was honoured with the special jury prize in the short film category for Bintou. The action, with a strong social message, takes plays in a courtyard, where a man beats his wife, Bintou, because she uses the household food money to send her young daughter to school.
The 18th edition of Fespaco will be held in Ouagadougou from 22 February to 1 March 2003.