The Cinema According to Idrissa Ouédraogo
Aboubakar Sanogo on the legacy of one of the greatest of all African filmmakers
In conjunction with the second edition of our series Black Star, we present this tribute by African cinema scholar Aboubakar Sanogo to the great Burkinabean filmmaker Idrissa Ouédraogo, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 64.
“Beyond their external manifestations, which may differ depending on the society, at their heart, feelings are the same everywhere.” —Idrissa Ouédraogo
When Idrissa Ouédraogo died in February 2018, Burkinabean, African, and world cinema lost one of their major voices, In his life and his work both, Ouédraogo embodied the promise and the challenges of bringing these three political, cultural, and artistic spaces into conversation with one another, and in doing so, he sought to address one of the cardinal problems of world cinema: that of representational inequality, which structures the field of world cinema through and through.
Ouédraogo was born in 1954, in the age of decolonization, a major transitional period that saw many African nations throwing off the yoke of colonialism. He was first introduced to the magic of the cinema during his elementary school years by Catholic priests, who screened films for children as part of their proselytizing efforts; some of his early memories of cinema include the films of Charlie Chaplin and Albert Lamorisse’s classic French children’s film White Mane (1953). Later, he joined his secondary school film club and diligently attended its Thursday evening screenings.
Choosing to pursue an undergraduate degree in English at the University of Ouagadougou, the future filmmaker had his studies cut short when he was expelled due to his role as a student leader in a strike action. He subsequently enrolled in the UNESCO-sponsored regional film school INAFEC (Institut Africain d’Education Cinématographique de Ouagadougou), where he graduated at the top of his cohort and directed his first major short, Poko (1981).
Poko sees Ouédraogo trying to find his artistic voice between a cinema of poetry and a cinema-actionas he chronicles, with great pathos, the impossible conditions in which rural and urban African populations are forced to live. The film pointedly explores the issue of access to health care through its story of a pregnant woman who dies on a cart before she is able to reach a maternity ward, which is too far from her village — a scenario that may be read as a remake of and homage to a sequence from the great Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s Borom Sarret (1963), in which a wagoner takes a pregnant woman and her husband to the hospital so she can deliver. Poko won the award for Best Short Film at that year’s FESPACO, where Ouédraogo received the prize from the hands of Sembène himself — a memory that Ouédraogo would cherish for the rest of his life.
Seeking to further his studies in Europe, Ouédraogo was offered a scholarship to study in the Soviet Union. However, instead of being sent to Moscow to attend the prestigious Russian cinematography school VGIK, which had previously trained such other notable African filmmakers as Souleymane Cissé (and, later, Abderrahmane Sissako), or even to the Gorky Film Studios (which had trained the likes of Sembène and Sarah Maldoror), he was sent to Kiev, where he remained for only four months. From there he departed for France, where he was accepted at the famous IDHEC (Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques), which had trained such pioneering African filmmakers as Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and such giants of French cinema as Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and René Vautier.
In 1986, Ouédraogo directed his first feature, Yam Daabo, which marks a major leap in both his career and, more importantly, his art: no longer content to simply posit a social problem, as he did in Poko, Ouédraogo here resolves it diegetically as well. In its story of a family in a small village that refuses to wait for foreign aid and chooses instead to strike out for the more fertile lands of the country’s south, Yam Daabo gives cinematic form to the late Burkinabé leader Thomas Sankara’s ideology of self-reliance and agency, rejecting the dependency that had been instilled as the primary mode of living for many on the continent. (It’s interesting to note that, just as Poko was very much in conversation with Sembène’s Borom Sarret, so can Sembène’s 1992 masterpiece Guelwaar — in which a community chooses to destroy foreign food aid as a precondition to reconquering its sense of self-worth and dignity — be seen as a response to the younger filmmaker’s Yam Daabo.)
Yaaba (1989) marked the beginning of Ouédraogo’s most prolific and successful period of filmmaking, a nearly decade-long stretch in which he directed a feature film every year or every other year and took home major international festival prizes. With Tilaï (1990), perhaps his most accomplished film, he became the first Burkinabé filmmaker in history to win the top prize of the Yennenga Stallion at FESPACO, as well as the Grand Prix at Cannes; two years later, Samba Traoré (1992) won both the Silver Tanit at the Carthage Film Festival and the Silver Bear at the Berlinale. This period also saw Ouédraogo experimenting both linguistically and locationally, making Le Cri du coeur (1994) in France and the English-language Kini and Adams (1997) in Zimbabwe with South African actors.
Unfortunately, in the final two decades of his life and career Ouédraogo was unable to make another major feature film. This period roughly coincides with his return to Burkina Faso (from 2001 on) and his embrace of more affordable digital technology (which he would become extremely critical of later on) and formats (television series, shorts, commissioned films and omnibuses). Highlights from this time include the feature The Anger of the Gods (2003), the Burkinabé episode of the September 11 omnibus film 11’09”01 (2002), and the television comedy series Kadi Jolie (1999).
At the heart of both Ouédraogo’s politics and poetics of intimacy is the conviction that cultural understanding can take place only through affective, not cognitive, conceptual, or abstract knowledge. For Ouédraogo, the way to combatmodes of looking and feeling that underwrite a dominant social-political-cultural order lay not in renouncing cinematic pleasure, celebrating unpleasure, or engaging in confrontation: rather, Ouédraogo believed that it is the sharability of affect that might well open the world onto the road to egalitarianism, and he accordingly sought to address the great human problems through the prisms of love, hatred, violence, vengeance.
Ouédraogo long believed that Africans had a major advantage over their former colonial masters by virtue of inhabiting two cultures at once: that of the (former) colonizer and that of the (formerly) colonized. Countries and cultures that live under the domination of an external power are necessarily structured by that power, and in all things are compelled to situate themselves relative to that power even as they seek to extricate themselves from it. Thus, rather than seeking to forge a “purer” form of aesthetics, one free of the taint of the dominant order, in his cinema Ouédraogo made productive use of that inescapable relationality. By constantly placing his films in dialogue with or as responses to other films and filmmakers — to Sembène, to Gaston Kaboré, to Djibril Diop Mambéty, to Chaplin, to Western cinema itself — Ouédraogo pointed towards the existence of a true geo-aesthetics, an aesthetics that can navigate the dialects of specificity and generalizability and redress the representational inequality that lies at the core of world cinema.
Although the extent to which Ouédraogo was successful in realizing these geo-aesthetics is yet to evaluated, his work has unquestionably had tremendous significance. Having identified with towering figures like Sembène and Cissé, he succeeded in equalling them and joining them in the pantheon of great African filmmakers. Having taken Burkinabé cinema further than any other director in terms of international recognition and technical and artistic brilliance, he also established himself as a major voice in this planetary medium, one whose work made visible and served as a corrective to representational inequality. For all these reasons and more, he must be remembered and celebrated, and his struggle continued.