‘Video clubs’ and watching on mobile is taking over from the joyful experience of going to the cinema
10 March 2019 | Ruth Maclean | The Guardian
Three riders on horseback canter up a dusty road in Ouagadougou to deliver the top prize, a golden horse, to the awards ceremony of Africa’s most important film festival. Dressed head to toe in glitter, film-themed wax fabric and flowing silks, celebrities of African cinema settle down, Rwanda’s national ballet performs and the presidents of Burkina Faso, Rwanda and Mali look on from golden chairs as gongs, cheques and conical Fulani grass hats are handed out for more than three hours.
The pan-African film and television festival of Ouagadougou (Fespaco) is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and the ceremony was the culmination of two weeks of screenings, parties and debates over the future of African cinema.
But cinemas across the African continent have closed in droves as they are expensive to attend compared with watching pirate versions on the mobile phones that more and more people own, or on televisions in informal “video clubs” in residential neighbourhoods.
Burkina Faso, known as the spiritual home of African cinema, values film: taxi drivers can recite the festival schedule with precision, and one of its most prominent roundabouts (often prestigious spaces in African cities) is a tower of cinema reels represented in orange and green-painted cement, with statues of previous best picture winners nearby.
“My appreciation just keeps growing for the talent, the power and the wisdom of African cinema,” said Martin Scorsese, whose African film heritage project is working to restore 50 classic African films, in a video message.
Going to the cinema in Ouagadougou is a joyful experience, with audiences fully invested in the stories told, no matter how clichéd, and responding appropriately: cheering the heroes on, tutting at stingy or bad-tempered characters, belly-laughing as one, collectively yelling at the technicians when subtitles fail to load, and reflecting loudly on the films’ themes with their fellow viewers.
But even in Burkina Faso, few people see movies on the big screen any more outside Fespaco. “Even here, the cinemas have been sold. It’s sad,” said Barou Ouédraogo, a Burkinabè comedian. “People today don’t really go to the cinema much.”
Two of Ouagadougou’s classic cinemas, Cine Burkina and Cine Neerwaya, are still going strong, but many others have had to close. Cine Oubri in the city centre was one of the earliest and its open-air films used to attract huge audiences. But now its facade houses shops selling phones, solar panels and Fespaco-themed fabric, and colourful mats create a makeshift prayer area under its now dusty and cracked screen.
“I used to go to the cheap seats, but it was total chaos,” said Pascal Kaboré, who said he would line up hundreds of cinema-goers’ motorbikes on his section of pavement per day when he began as a parking attendant in his teens. “If you wanted to hear, you went to the VIP seats.”
When he started, you could get a cheap seat for 60 west African francs; today tickets cost 1,500 francs.
However, at the video clubs, which Ouédraogo said were ruining the film industry, punters pay as little as 50 francs (7p). “They project the films so people pay very little to go, but the owner of the film doesn’t know it’s happening. It’s bad. The director loses money, while someone who has done nothing earns it.”
The wooden benches of Zepasgo Video Club in the night market in Patte d’Oie, a residential area of Ouagadougou, fill up with locals watching whatever American action film Marssino Elboedo feels like showing that night. Either he travels to the city centre to rent the films every week, or young men come round with hard drives full of them for sale; either way he pays about 200 francs (28p) per film.
Such businesses have contributed to cinema closures, but his has also suffered in recent years. “Since phones came in, not as many people come – they just sit at home and watch stuff by themselves,” said Elboedo.
Some film-makers are sanguine about the change, and have adapted their craft to the new economic reality. “When a Burkinabè does a film, they put it in a cinema like [Cine Burkina], they show it for two weeks, gain some money, and he’s OK with it,” said Ambrose B Cooke, a Ghanaian director who moved to Burkina Faso years ago because of its reputation as the heart of African cinema, and who won best television series at Fespaco. “You can’t put it on CD and sell it – someone is already selling it.”
That ruled out big-budget productions for most film-makers, he said, adding that full-length features could be made for less than £8,000 and that some were shot in under a week. “They are cheap – it’s possible here,” he said.
In his short film , a woman who has mysteriously lost the use of her legs asks her best friend to satisfy her husband’s “needs” while she is indisposed, kickstarting a tale of betrayal, poison and miraculous toe-wiggling.
“Everybody can make a film, but then everybody’s making a film,” said Peter Machen, the former curator of Durban’s film festival, who said this economic dynamic produced a lot of interesting cinema.
He added: “It plays out in the content produced by African film-makers. The idiom is much more television-oriented than big, sweeping cinema – it’s episodic, lots of close-ups.” Indeed, Netflix is commissioning more films and TV from African countries.
Meanwhile not all the old cinema buildings house shops. “Every 15 kilometres in Ghana, they used to have a cinema,” said Cooke. “They’ve all closed down. They’ve turned them into churches.”
Machen said the same had happened in South Africa, whose old bioscopes have closed down and where now all but two cinemas are in shopping malls, the exceptions being Cape Town’s Labia and Johannesburg’s Bioscope.
“It’s just because they’re nice big spaces with good acoustics,” said Machen, who left Durban several years ago because “there’s so little culturally there left” and moved to Berlin, where many of its old cinemas are still working.
He watched the demise of cinema-going as the evangelical churches in some African countries grew. He pointed out that in both there was a lot of audience and congregation participation, and that performance was involved. “I think, in a way, they perform similar social functions,” he said.