March 5, 2017 / 4:50 PM / 9 months ago

Burkina Faso film festival Fespaco defies Islamist menace

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - On the dusty streets of Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou soldiers searched visitors to the pan-African Fespaco film festival on Thursday night after they’d emptied their pockets and passed through a metal detector.

The red carpet used by film directors for the opening ceremony is seen in the street next to cine Burkina during the Panafrican Film and Television Festival (FESPACO) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso March 2, 2017. Picture taken March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Close by a soldier manned a heavy machinegun mounted to the back of a military pick-up.

Other international events in West Africa, including the Paris-Dakar Rally and Mali’s Festival in the Desert music event, have been relocated or canceled due to the threat posed by jihadist groups.

Burkina Faso’s government, however, has been insistent that Fespaco, one of Africa’s pre-eminent film festivals, would continue despite security concerns since a deadly raid last year by al Qaeda militants, the first major attack of its kind in the country.

While security in Burkino Faso remains fragile, this year’s festival, which closed on Saturday, drew robust attendance.

Hubert Kabre, a bank employee in Ouagadougou, has attended the festival for the past three decades and wasn’t about to let al Qaeda militants deter him this year.

“We’re not going to allow ourselves be controlled by terrorists,” he said as he waited, ticket in hand, for the second evening screening at the CineBurkina cinema. “This is the best response.”

Until not long ago, landlocked Burkina Faso, an ally of the West against jihadist groups in the arid West African Sahel region, had largely been spared the violence that plagued its neighbors and all but destroyed tourism and cultural events.

That changed in January last year when militants loyal to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) stormed the packed Cappuccino restaurant and the high-end Splendid Hotel in downtown Ouagadougou in a raid that left 30 people dead and dozens more wounded.

The Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Challouf walks as he passes a banner during the Panafrican Film and Television Festival (FESPACO) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso March 3, 2017. The banner reads "FESPACO 2017. Welcome to the colloquy". Picture taken March 3, 2017. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

The attack struck a blow to the city’s relaxed vibe, and for a time the future of Fespaco, which has been held every two years since 1969, appeared in doubt.

During the week of this year’s festival at least two attacks occurred in Burkino Faso near the border with Mali. The first targeted a police station and the second killed two people at a school.

Edith Ouedraogo, 25, had initially planned not to go to the festival fearing it would be too dangerous, but later changed her mind.

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“I had friends who kept inviting me. As soon as they’d say ‘Hey, we’re going to Fespaco’, I’d say no, no, no. I‘m not going where there are jihadists,” she said.

Security forces were out checking vehicles and identification papers at roads into the capital a week before the festival started and a heavy security presence was visible at all of the venues. But for those who attended, it was worth it.

“We don’t have cinemas. Our films don’t circulate in the commercial distribution circuit in Africa. So missing Fespaco would mean not experiencing the thing we love the most,” said Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Challouf.

“Felicite” a film about a Congolese nightclub singer’s struggle to care for her son following a motorcycle accident, by Senegalese director Alain Gomis won the top prize this year.

“When you stay at home ... (the jihadists) can achieve what they want,” said Tako Daouda, 30, following an encore screening of “Felicite” on Saturday night.

“You have to go out and take those people on and say ‘No’.”

Reporting by Joe Bavier; Editing by Susan Fenton

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