Television as a Cultural Weapon: An Interview with Idrissa Ouedraogo
Mira Emmerling | On 21, Nov 2013
Even when legendary, Burkina Faso-born 60-year-old director Idrissa Ouedraogo comes in second place, he’s still arguably doing more to bring African cinema into the modern era than any other working African filmmakers. Consider the history: At the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, Ouedraogo took second place to David Lynch. At the Berlin International Film Festival three years later, he again came in second … to Ang Lee. Rightfully dubbed “the maestro,” Ouedraogo now warns that higher-quality, African-made TV is imperative: “The only way for a people to exist is to produce its own culture, especially TV culture.”
Disbook: What characteristics define French-speaking African cinema?
Idrissa Ouedraogo: It is a cinéma d’auteur [art house or independent cinema], a tradition that comes directly from France. Another characteristic is that there is no common language except for French. For example, in Burkina, a country of five million people, there are no less than 42 different ethnic groups, which means 42 different languages are spoken. The market is extremely fragmented and it is hard to communicate. For English speakers, there is a common language, so dubbing and translating are not issues at all. When I shot in Zimbabwe, I realized to what extent a unique language makes things easier. In Africa, there also are inequalities regarding market potentials. A country like Nigeria has a market as big as South Africa’s, but that’s not the case for many small, French-speaking countries. Besides, French-speaking countries were colonized for a longer period of time. They have integrated this French notion that, in cinema, the most important thing is art, while English speakers believe it’s content. This is a fundamental philosophical difference. English-speaking Africans can more easily conquer markets and build economies around the notion of content (even when high-quality content is not to be found), while a French-speaking director could hardly imagine making a “disposable” movie. Despite all these differences, I think there’s only one [kind of] cinema that can be called “African cinema.” English and French speakers encounter the same issues regarding the distribution of their movies around the world.
Disbook: Is there a cinematic tradition in Burkina Faso?
Idrissa Ouedraogo: Within the galaxy of African cinema, Burkinabe movies have a specific place, since this is the country where the political will toward cinema was the most powerful before and after the revolution. General Tiemoko Marc Garango, who was the almighty Minister of Economy and Finance, quickly understood the importance of cinema for broadcasting culture. The nationalization of movie theaters made possible the implementation of a 15% tax on revenues and the creation of a support fund. For a long time, Burkina Faso has been the capital of African cinema in terms of quantity and quality. African directors were so satisfied with these policies that they created what would later become the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou.
Disbook: One of your movies, “Tilaï,” which won the Jury Grand Prize at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, established your fame internationally. What are the movie’s messages?
Idrissa Ouedraogo: “Tilaï” is, above all, the staging of an African tragedy. In my opinion, modern African tragedy and Greek tragedy are exactly the same. My goal was to show that when people share the same pattern of tragedies, they share the same kind of human civilizations, and that no civilization is superior to another. Through “Tilaï,” Africa rises to the same emotional level as any other civilization. With cinema, it is possible to show that even if external manifestations of human emotions – happiness, violence, hatred, love – are different from one person to the other, the essence is the same. When you look at a young couple, whether they are Asian, European or African, you will always recognize love. They might not talk to each other the same way, but their core feelings are the same.
Disbook: “Kadi Jolie,” your successful Franco-Burkinabe TV show, was co-produced with CFI TV and broadcast on the French channel Comédie! What made you decide to direct for TV?
Idrissa Ouedraogo: “Kadi Jolie” was an amazing experience. With a few friends, we invented and wrote stories from hand to mouth. To our great surprise, the outcome was very positive. This was also an adventure that allowed me to understand, before others did, what can be made for TV. Africa should focus its efforts on TV production. In my opinion, it is a strategic media, if only in terms of audience, since it has more viewers than cinema. In every family, people watch TV, and those who do not own a screen watch TV at their neighbor’s house.
I’m currently finishing a five-episode TV show and I am fully convinced of the importance of this project. When I watch South African TV shows, such as “The Wild,” I get really enthusiastic. At the same time, it scares me, because the worst thing that can happen to a people is that they only consume foreign culture. Let me remind you that colonization was not only made with weapons, but also with culture. The only way for a people to exist is to produce its own culture, especially a TV culture that reaches out to the general public. African countries must seriously start producing their own TV content.
Disbook: When “Kadi Jolie” was released, some spoke of a boom in African TV shows. Where does that stand today?
Idrissa Ouedraogo: Burkina distinguishes itself from other African countries in regards to the amount of series produced. But more generally, I regret that TV shows produced in Africa are not quality enough to captivate the general public. Let’s [reach] the level of South African productions and stop making nonsense series! To be competitive, French-speaking directors must rise to international standards. Otherwise, the African audience will rapidly get bored and turn to high-quality, foreign productions.
Disbook: Do you think borders mean anything in TV and film? Can the daily life of a villager in Burkina Faso interest viewers from France or anywhere else?
Idrissa Ouedraogo: I sincerely believe that the strength of cinema lies in the similarities of emotions that men and women around the world can have. I am very interested in exploring the human experience. We know and understand others because we have lived the same experiences. This is called analogical knowledge: If I’m able to see that someone cries, this is because I have already cried myself. We all share the same emotional experiences. This is the universality of great feelings. But there is something else; if cinema can convey this universality of feelings, it is because its technical means are based on international conventions. If you do not have the appropriate rails for a tracking shot, you can use a motorbike or shoot from a wheelbarrow. It will still be a tracking shot. The movement will be there and, with it, the emotion.