Blame my Eurocentric art-film education. Until recent viewings of his vibrant work, I was totally unfamiliar with the cinema of Gaston Kabore, the Burkino Faso filmmaker. Kabore, who grew up in the capital city of Ouagadouga and did postgraduate work at the Sorbonne, is this year's winner at Harvard University of the sixth Genevieve McMillan and Reba Stewart Fellowship for Distinguished Filmmaking.
"...(M)y father taught me a lot of things," Kabore said in a 1984 Liberation interview. "In spite of the fact that he had left his village at the age of ten. . ., he kept an intimate relationship with his native environment, which he transmitted to me. For instance, he has always been closely attached to land."
So is Kabore. His utopian folk tales, all set in an unnamed bush village thirty kilometers from Ouagadougou, chronicle the native people (of the Mossi ethnic group, speaking in the Moore language) who have made homes here for centuries, and celebrate their civility: their respect for the elderly, their communal conscience, their symbiotic relationship with animal and vegetable life, and with the earth.
Film to film:the same yellow-grass topography, the same arrid terrain, semi-amateur actors mixed in with real villagers doing their business: goat herding, whittling, selling wares in the market. As Kabore shows it, the ebb-and-flow between the sexes is mostly egalitarian; and because his own vantage is so non-sexist, he spends quality time with women being jokey and chummy, and being pregnant.
Kabore's shooting style? Liesurely takes, medium and long shots, a very occasional closeup. Kabore discovered cinema, he's explained, through Senegal's Ousmane Sembene, not through plot-driven Hollywood. Scenes with protagonists are given no more weight than anecdotal sequences with unidentified villagers.
Kabore has two kinds of films: (a) mythic ones set in pre-colonial times, before the arrival of the white man, in which the Mossi people see themselves, and their (oral) history, as the center of the universe, and (b) satiric ones set in today's post-colonialist world, in which the upwardly mobile populace has taken on the worst trappings of their former captives, the French.
Wend Kuuni (1982) is an early mythic work, about a foundling boy (Serge Yanogo) discovered unconscious in the bush and brought by the man who finds him to reside among the hospitable Mossi people. The entrails of Moses and Oedipus? A mute, he's called "wend kuuni" (God's gift), though one traumatic day, he regains speech and also his memory: of his mother lying dead in the wilderness, of a somewhere lost father. Playing with Wend Kuuni is an ecological short, A Tree Called Karite, a hymn to a tree which supplies food, medicine, even cosmetics.
Rabi (1992) also pre-colonialist, is a universal story about children, parents, and pets. Rabi (Yacouba Kabore) adopts a tortoise that his father brings home. He spends so much time with that tortoise, that his annoyed dad throws it back into the bush. Rabi cries and cries, until an old man takes him to find his own tortoise. Rabi returns triumphant with a humungus one. Of course, there's a lesson to be grasped: Rabi must gain the wisdom that tortoises sbould be set free.
Buud Yam (1997), Kabore's newest feature film, is a 14-years-later sequel to Wend Kuuni, with the same actor, Serge Yanogo, brought back in the lead. I mentioned Oedipus Rex. Wend Kuuni's village is overcome with pestilence and death, and his adopted sister has sunk into a perhaps-fatal depression. Is Wend Kuuni blindly causing all this? On a chestnut stallion, he departs on a Lord of the Rings-like journey in search of a mysterious healer, and also his missing father. Kabore's camera ventures far, where it's never been before, including into a desert of camel-riding people out of The Arabian Nights.
The post-colonialist movies? Zan Boko (1988), a semi-comedy, has a French-speaking yuppie-African family buy up land smack in the middle of our perennial village and build there a hotel-sized estate, dwarfing the bush people who live just outside of its gates. Roger, Civil Servant (1993) and Chronicle of a Declared Failure (1993), both playing with Rabi, are two versions of the same sad story: an honest, hard-working bureaucrat falls afoul of incompetent and dishonest government employees in today's hip, with-it, Francophile Ouagadougo.
(Boston Phoenix, October, 2002)