Friday, 22 February 2013


One of the films to be screened.
Africa's largest film festival begins tomorrow in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou, amid some concerns that the conflict in neighbouring Mali could have an impact on both the attendance and the atmosphere.

But Michel Ouedraogo, the “delegate-general" of FESPACO (the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou) has promised that security will be ensured.

At a recent briefing in Paris to unveil the event, Ouedraogo expressed his country’s “solidarity with the people of Mali”, while stressing that “Africa has a tolerant culture”. The organizers also pointed out that the festival has seen three coups since its beginning in 1969, but is still going strong.

Now in its 23rd edition, the biennial festival will screen 169 films from 35 countries over the next week, with the selection of the winning director eagerly awaited.

This year, for the first time, the Secretariat of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP), based in  Brussels, will give an  award of 3000 euros in the framework of the ACPCultures+ Programme. The award will go to the film that best reflects the objectives of the programme.

“We’re doing this because we strongly believe that culture is important to achieve  sustainable development,” said Michèle Dominique Raymond, the ACP Assistant-Secretary General for Political Affairs and Human Development.

“There is no future without culture,” she told SWAN. “We want to do our best to find means to provide some financial support to filmmakers, having in mind the global financial crisis.”

The festival’s central theme in 2013 is “African Cinema and Public Policy in Africa”, and the debates around the topic have ironically focused on the festival itself, with some observers wondering if it costs too much in a country where the 2012 unemployment rate was over 70 percent. Other critics wonder whether the event is too “elitist”.

"Cobwebs" tells a Malian story.
Responding to such questions, Burkina Faso’s Minister of Culture and Tourism Baba Hama said that the festival’s organizational cost of 978 million CFA francs (2 million dollars) brings returns in the form of increased tourism and development of African cinema.

He said that while the government of Burkina Faso and the European Union provided the largest share of funding, invaluable assistance also came from some NGOs and external organizations.

The festival has enabled African filmmakers to gain international attention, and also offers the public a means of seeing Africa's stories on screen, the event's supporters say.

Burkina Faso itself will have only one movie among the 101 feature films in competition, with the rest coming from South Africa, Morocco, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Angola, and other participating countries.

Mali will be represented by "Toiles d’araignée" (Cobwebs), the first feature film by Ibrahima Touré. It tells the wrenching story of a young woman named Mariama who rejects the old husband that her father wants her to marry and who is tortured and imprisoned as a result.

The film is an adaptation of the eponymous novel, by mathematics professor Ibrahima Ly, who himself was incarcerated from 1974 to 1978 at a time when Mali was under military rule.

The festival's “guest of honor” this year is Gabon, which celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence in 2012. According to Ardiouma Soma, FESPACO’s Artistic Delegate and head of programming, the Gabonese were already making films at the dawn of African independence. “This is a country that was part of the birth of African cinema,” Soma said.

The Gabonese entry in the feature film competition category is “Le collier de Makoko” (The King’s Necklace) by Henri Joseph Koumba Bididi. Filmed in Africa and France, it has been touted as the first high-budget film by an African director.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013


Article and photographs by Zofeen T. Ebrahim

Literature fans discover new books at the festival.
For three full days, from Feb 15-17, Pakistan's Karachi Literature Festival provided a menu designed to tempt the most discerning of literary palates, complemented by an enviable list of authors, writers, poets and journalists.

The place reverberated with discussions, dialogues, readings, conversations on subjects that ranged from social satire to films, from cricket to politics, from secularism to human rights. And the intense discussions were interspersed with theatre, music, poetry, storytelling for children, and puppet shows.

One could not help but notice how surreal the surrounding was. Held at the Beach Luxury Hotel grounds next to the creek, the festival experienced cool breezes and filtered sunlight that made the atmosphere perfect for the event. It was also more accessible and bigger than the previous venue.

Most sessions had packed audiences which showed how starved the dwellers of the violence-riddled city were for an intellectual discourse. "It goes to show that there are still educated people in Karachi," pointed out Farooq Sattar, a politician belonging to Mutahidda Qaumi Movement party. 
Amina Saiyid, the director of Oxford University Press, one of the co-organisers, traces the festival’s galloping growth from a modest 35 speakers and 34 sessions back in 2010, to as many as 240 authors and 100 sessions now in its fourth year.

A panel discusses Afghanistan.
Fifty of the authors were international, and attendance has risen steadily from 5,000 in 2010 to 10,000 in 2011, and to 15,000 last year. In addition, 23 books were launched. However, the director refuses to bask in the success of the event which she terms "every publisher's dream".

Saiyid, who was awarded the Knighthood of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Ambassador of France in Pakistan, Philippe Thiebaud, got the inspiration from the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF)" which she considers "the mother of all literature festivals in South Asia" (see earlier SWAN article). However, she does not want to tread the same path as the JLF's because it has "become a victim of its own success".

"It's become quite unwieldy and lost the intimacy and connection," she said. For that reason alone, she doesn't want the KLF to become "a totally wild mob scene".   

But her co-organiser, Dr Asif Farrukhi, wants to see a "bigger and better" KLF next year, but one that should "reflect Pakistan". Quite satisfied with how the events unfolded, he said he found that the questions asked by the audience after the panel discussions reflected how sharp and knowledgeable they were. 

Dr Azra Ahsan, Karachi's leading gynecologist and obstetrician, liked the "festive" atmosphere which she found infectious. She said it gave her a glimmer of hope for Pakistan when she saw the crowd comprising "people of all ages there talking and not fighting".

"The fact that there was so much intellectual stimulation, the opportunity to hear and meet some of the authors and to hear what their thought processes were behind their works" is what psychiatrist Dr Murad Moosa Khan liked best.

A session on politics and the Pakistani English novel.
Moderating the session on cricket and cricket writers, Khan said it gave him an "opportunity to get views of those (panelists) who have an in-depth knowledge of the game as well as great writing styles".

But there were some topics that people would like to see in the next KLF.

Sumera Naqvi, a Karachi-based journalist and a literature buff, said while there were sessions on poet Ghalib and short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto, there were other epic literary giants who didn't get even a mention. "Why were poets of the 80s like Habib Jalib and linguists like Jameel Jalibi completely ignored from the literary discourse?"

Also conspicuous by his absence was Mushtaq Yusufi, an Urdu satirical and humour writer. 
Psychiatrist Khan felt there should have been a session on the psychological impact of the violence that is happening to Pakistanis. In addition, he said, there was also nothing on "ethics and morality".

"I would like to see both these addressed in future KLF," said Khan.

Farrukhi, himself a writer and a critic, said he would have liked to see more of "Urdu and other Pakistani languages" represented. 
But there are people who also expressed the feeling that there was too much discussion on politics. 

"It may seem that there were more panels that could be termed political, but how can you separate politics from literature or from life because literature is about life?" countered Saiyid who does not subscribe to knowledge being compartmentalised. "And literature is not just about writing beautifully but also about beautiful thoughts and ideas."

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

Editor’s note: The city of Lahore in Pakistan will also hold a literary festival, its first, on Feb. 23 and 24.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013


Angelique Kidjo
Declaring that “if you want peace, you have to make peace”, the renowned African singer and activist Angélique Kidjo launched an evening of solidarity with Mali on Monday night in Paris that attracted hundreds of supporters of the West African nation.

The event was aimed at raising awareness of the need to restore and safeguard Mali’s centuries-old culture (see article below), following the destruction of World Heritage sites in the city of Timbuktu and elsewhere during a year of conflict.

“I’m here specially to support Mali’s cause and Malian culture … and also the culture and music of the wider African continent,” said the Benin-born star.

She said she was particularly concerned about the plight of girls and “all the women who suffer from violence during conflicts", with their violation seen as a weapon of war.

Kidjo, who also works as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, flew to Paris from New York to act as host for the evening of solidarity, and she welcomed other musicians to the stage for a poignant series of performances and speeches.

Rokia Traoré
Accompanied only by her guitar, French-based Malian singer Rokia Traoré delivered a haunting song that evoked aspects of the Sahara, while lute-player and vocalist Pedro Kouyaté expressed the joyous energy of African music in his performance. A troupe of drummers and dancers also pounded out a message of hope and resilience.

Notably absent were Malian icon Salif Keita and the husband and wife duo Amadou & Mariam, who apparently had previous, long-standing engagements. But echoes of their music drifted through the concert hall.

The “solidarity evening” capped a day in which government officials and international experts at Paris-based UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, adopted an Action Plan for the “Rehabilitation of Cultural Heritage and the Safeguarding of Ancient Manuscripts” in the country.

Pedro Kouyaté and band
Carrying out the plan will cost between 10 and 11 million dollars, officials said. It will include the digitization of Mali's priceless manuscripts and the training of professionals in culture conservation.

UNESCO has set up a special fund for donations by private and public sponsors and intends to “send a mission on the ground to make a full assessment" as soon as the situation permits. 

Monday, 4 February 2013


The United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO has promised to do “everything possible” to safeguard and to rebuild Mali’s “extraordinary” cultural heritage, but this will be no easy task given the uncertain future the West African nation is facing.

Irina Bokova
“Restoration and reconstruction (of cultural heritage) will give the people of Mali the strength and the confidence to rebuild national unity and look to the future,” said Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director general, during a lightning visit to the country over the weekend.

“Now that Timbuktu will return to normalcy, we must do everything to help the people of Mali turn a new page in the spirit of national cohesion,” she stated.

The recent escalation of "wanton destruction" of Mali’s heritage made action all the more urgent, Bokova said. "UNESCO will spare no effort to help rebuild the mausoleums of Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia in Gao, and we will mobilise all our expertise and resources to help safeguard and preserve the ancient manuscripts that testify to the region’s glorious past as a major centre of Islamic learning. I appeal to all our partners to work with us,” she added.

In addition to 16 mausoleums, Timbuktu’s three major mosques (Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahi) were first inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1988. The Tomb of Askia in the city of Gao was added to the list in 2004. But in July of last year, this tomb and Sidi Yahi were inscribed on the "In Danger" list following the destruction of 11 of the mausoleums, and of the doors of Sidi Yahi.

The destruction took place during a year of conflict that began in northern Mali in January 2012. The complex internecine warfare and military coups led French armed forces to launch a campaign last month with the purported goal or restoring stability and unity to the country, which had divided along ethnic and religious lines. As French and Malian forces retook Timbuktu in late January, retreating rebels set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute, which held precious ancient manuscripts.

Peacetime Timbuktu © OUR PLACE The World Heritage Collection
Bokova’s trip, with French President François Hollande, was aimed at assessing the state of Mali’s cultural heritage and of manuscripts after the recent fighting. 

The agency says that an estimated 300,000 manuscripts are kept in private and public collections in Timbuktu. Many of them date from the 13th to 16th centuries and "were produced by great scholars from the city and elsewhere".

UNESCO, whose headquarters are based in Paris, said it wishes to define a plan of action with the government of Mali that will guide the agency’s support to cultural reconstruction and safeguarding.

After visiting Timbuktu on Saturday, Bokova travelled to the Malian capital Bamako with Hollande to meet with government officials.

“At this moment, we must act quickly to safeguard and rebuild this country’s outstanding cultural heritage – this is essential for national unity and reconciliation,” she said. “This heritage is a source of strength and confidence for the people of Mali as they consolidate the foundations of peace.”

UNESCO also announced that it would hold a “Mali Day” in Paris on Feb. 18, to highlight the country’s culture and Timbuktu’s history as a centre of Islamic scholarship. The day will also be used for fund-raising.