Cinema As An Act Of Resistance

On 16 December 1998, around 20,000 people accompanied Norbert Zongo to his final resting place in Ouagadougou. The funeral cortege was over 10 kilometers long. “We left the mortuary at 10AM and we arrived at 4PM at the cemetery”, remembered Abdoulaye Diallo, coordinator of  the Norbert Zongo Press Centre. [Soré, 2008]

I am sitting with Abdoulaye Diallo in his small office. More than half of it is covered by his desk, the surface of which is filled with file folders, local and international magazines, newspapers, DVD tapes and other paraphernalia from his role as Director of the Norbert Zongo Center, and of the Cine Droit Libre film production house. A large, imposing man, Diallo exudes an air of self-confidence, mixed with mischievousness and self-consciousness. Before we had stepped in, snaking our way past his secretary’s desk in the adjoining room–that room too a very small one with the desk occupying more than half of its area, he had asked her to bring us some fresh tea. Strangely, for a country that was once a French colonial zone, there isn’t a coffee culture in Burkina Faso. Diallo’s telephone–both his personal mobile phone, and the land line, ring constantly and he tries, with not much success, to deftly handle each call, while also trying to make me feel welcome. Though now, as we prepare to start our discussions, he simply picks up the ringing phone and says,  ‘I will call you back!” without even inquiring into who it was. He seems eager to get started.

The Norbert Zongo Press Centre has become one of the most critical resources for journalists in the city. “We started it as a place where journalists–particularly investigative journalists, could feel safe.” Diallo’s secretary enters the room quietly with tea and an obligatory plate of biscuits, and proceeds to serve us. “Here they could do research, catch up on the developments in the international press and most importantly, meet each other without fear, and talk without fear.” He had met Zongo at university and had studied under him. Over the years they would often meet at cultural events and social evenings, and Zongo recognised Diallo’s professionalism and commitment. When Zongo decided to set up a centre for press and investigative journalists, he turned to Diallo to lead it. “I got my baccalaureate in Ivory Coast,” Diallo answers in response to my question. “But then I went to university here in Ouagadougou. It is here that I meet people like Norbert Zongo.”

Whereas I had arrived in Ouagadougou in search of the role Sankara’s ideas had played in the uprising against Blaise Campaoré’s regime, Norbert Zongo’s names was always close by. I began to notice that many murals of Sankara also had images of Zongo alongside. “They knew each other,” Diallo would tell me later. “Zongo was also Sankara’s teacher.” In fact, Zongo had been compelled–perhaps by his own desires, and that of the wider society, to pick up Sankara’s mantle after he was assassinated, and carry the struggle forward. It was only a few years after Sankara’s assassination that Zongo launched his independent newspaper and becomes the voice of conscience and public accountability. A voice that would eventually get him killed. “We really started to get to know each other after Zongo created Génération Cheick Anta Diop here in Burkina Faso.”

Image Information: At Smockey’y recording studio, images of Thomas Sankara and Norbert Zongo are displayed in the foyer. Copyright @ Asim Rafiqui. 2015. 

Cheick Anta Diop. Another name that rolled off people’s lips here in Ouagadougou. A Marxist.

Diop was greatly influenced by the work of French Marxist anthropologists who have had a major impact on our understanding of the internal social structures tied to the forces of production in African rural societies, on the analysis of social relations of production (including control over land, crafts, or trade), and especially on identifying the interactions between economic domination and political power  [Ferguson, 2011].

Diop’s name had come up a few times in conversations with artists and activists here in Ouagadougou. Yet another Senegalese intellectual with a wide political, intellectual, and ideological influence in the region. An avid political activist, a scientist, a historian, an anthropologist, a physicist, a Pan-Africanist, he was the Secretary-General of the Rassemblement Democratique Africain (RDA)–an African nationalist organisation led by (no irony!) Félix Houphouët-Boigny. He later also helped establish the first Pan-African Student Congress in Paris in 1951. His books such as The African Origins of Civilisation and Black Africa: The Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federated State were and are widely read and form the basis of continued Pan-Africanist and Federalist thought in the region. “He is perhaps the biggest influence on my intellectual development,” Diallo would later tell me in the Centre library.

“After Sankara there was anger, but also a sense of resignation.” Campoaré’s regime was able to consolidate control, and eradicate all evidence of Sankara’s social, economic and political achievements. We are standing in a small verandah outside the Centre. There is a large, covered, training room behind us. However, Diallo has bought me here to show me the flame that the staff at the centre maintains in memory of Norbert Zongo. “Norbert Zongo then picked up where Sankara left of.” He explains. Felix Kaboré, a staff member, steps up and checks on the paraffin levels in the lantern. “The people expected it, and Zongo chose it.” When Zongo too was assassinated–a cold-blooded killing in a remote location, and carried out with a grenade thrown into the locked car, the people reacted. “They finally realised that now it was up to us all.”

Image Information: Felix Kaboré, at the Norbert Zongo Press Centre, who maintains the flame kept lit in memory of Norbert Zongo. Copyright @ Asim Rafiqui. 2015. 

The following morning I meet Diallo at the editing and production centre of Cine Droit Libre–a documentary and reportage film organisation that he helped found and now also runs. It is located on the second floor of residential building, and comprises of a number of small rooms filled with editing and filming equipment. “When we released our first documentary feature–an investigation into the killing of Norbert Zongo, no one would show it. Not even FESPACO!” He explains as he takes me around and introduces me to the team. “We created the Cine Droit Libre and the festival just to create our own screening space.”

Burkina Faso, surprisingly, is the capital of West African cinema. I learn this fact after my visit to the country. Another consequence of the regime’s attempt to cultivate a mainstream artistic culture in the country. Burkina Faso’s rich cinema history is yet another surprise–given the marginality of the country, and it retains a powerful influence on the African cinema scene and has produced some of the continents finest directors and screen-writers. Manthia Diawara, in a review of FESPACO beautifully captures the energy, excitement and commitment that such festivals, and the art of cinema have long enjoyed in the country.

“Every two years a unique kind of film festival takes place in the heart of Africa. Called FESPACO or the Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou, it attracts more than 500,000 spectators, doubling the size of the population of the city. Unlike the Academy Awards, where stars wear tuxedoes and gowns as badges of belonging, in Ouaga, as people endearingly refer to the picturesque capital of Burkina Faso, filmmakers, politicians and the cultural elites come bedecked in multicoloured traditional bourboues. Film is seriously linked to tradition, and this cinema festival unleashes traditional manners of dress, demeanour, and customs that are proudly exhibited in both the films and in reality during the rendez-vous. The festival and the films communicate the ideal vision of African united, economically and culturally strong, and equal to its counterparts in Asia, American and Europe.” [Diawara, 1995]

Thomas Sankara had considered arts–particular the art of the cinema, as a core part of his revolution, and lay the foundations of Burkina Faso’s surprisingly strong influence in West African and African cinema in general. As Mark Nash points out:

Cinema was a defining feature of Burkina Faso’s independence. From 1983 until his assassination in 1987, Thomas Sankara attempted a massive self-help development movement. As part of this, film schools were established and cinemas built and furnished. Ouagadougou, though the capital of a poor landlocked country, became one of the most connected cities in the developing world in terms of cinema. Filmmaker Gaston Kaboré’s private training institute for film and television production, Imagine Institute, is a successor of these initiatives. [Nash, 2006]

Diallo shows me DVDs of the latest films his organisation has commissioned or funded. All of them are social documentary works. “An image is more powerful than words, “He tells me. “Film is for everyone–it transcends education, class, ethnicity. It reaches everyone.” Whom does he consider his principal audience? “We focus on the new generation, the students, but we will show it to anyone who will watch.” One of his assistants, who has been quietly following us on our tour, adds, “The first festival was in Ouagadougou, and then we took it to seven other cities.” He looks surprised when I turn around to acknowledge him, as if unaccustomed to addressing someone directly. “We attracted 2000-3000 people to see each of these films.” As I slowly read through the dust jackets of the DVDs, he points out what I can already surmise. “Our films are documentary films.” He is now showing me specific titles. “They focus on human rights, freedom of expression, women’s issues, children’s rights, marginal communities, local struggles for rights, social problems and society’s issues, education, daily life and living, political corruption and so on.”

I meet Diallo the following day back at the Norbert Zongo Press Centre. We meet in the library and decide to have a quick talk there. Oddly, I feel more at ease this morning. The Centre feels more like the private-club that it is meant to be. Perhaps it is the warmth of the morning, and the bright sunlight streaming through the windows. Perhaps it is that I am more at ease with Diallo now that I have gotten to know him better, and feel more at ease being at the Centre. Its casual atmosphere is more apparent now, with people engaged in various animated conversations, and hot coffee being served to all those who arrive.

“People ask me this question all the time.” He seems a little irritated. “The answer is not complicated–you do not need social sciences to understand out motivation” Everyone in the library seems to know him, and no one objects to our moving our discussion there. A few men sit at the tables reading local newspapers, and the librarian politely steps out. A basic room, glass-door cabinets hold a few hundred books, and open wooden shelves feature a number of local and French newspapers. A painting of Zongo and that of the burnt out 4×4 truck in which he was killed, is placed on top of one of the cabinets. I had asked Diallo to explain to me why he had chosen the more difficult path–the riskier career choice? 

“We had Gods around us. Presidents who were like Gods and wanted us to treat them as Gods–Félix Houphouët-Boigny in the Ivory Coast for example. Sankara was the antithesis of that. He spoke about things that we were thinking about–food, education, healthcare, and most importantly, respect. He gave us self-respect. He put honour back in our hearts. We were once again able to hold our heads up high, even though we were poor. We were poor, but we were not slaves. Sankara–speaking at the UN, made us proud, and made us complete.” Diallo speaks with a vehemence that I had not seen earlier. His casual, laid-back demeanour has disappeared. He has lost some of his earlier calm, and I sense that he has had to answer and explain this question once too often. I can understand his frustration–the desire of many to search for complex socio-political reasons, when in the hearts of man is the one simple one: a desire to be respected as an equal. “He showed the world that we were a people with imagination, with courage, with intelligence and with self-respect. That we could do and make and build and stand on our own.” He isn’t looking at me. “We were willing to die for this.” He takes a deep breath. “We still are prepared.”