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In Celebration of Idrissa Ouedraogo (1954-2018)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 August 2018

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Forum in Celebration of Idrissa Ouedraogo
Copyright © African Studies Association 2018 

In Melissa Thackway’s introduction to her interview (in this issue) with Idrissa Ouedraogo, she cites him as saying: “We shoot as a matter of urgency. Whatever the style of the films, we all share the same desire to give African audiences and people back their pride.”

The remarkable thing about Ouedraogo’s work is how it was so representative of its times. In the 1980s, Ouedraogo formed his own production company (Les Films de la Plaine) and began to make films; by the late 1980s and 1990s he was meeting with his major successes (Yam Daabo [1987], Yaaba [1989], Tilaï [1990], Le cri du Coeur [1994]). He continued to make feature films until 2006. By then he had turned increasingly to television production, working in Ouagadougou until his recent death in February of 2018.

By the time Ouedraogo had started on his career, FESPACO had been in existence for more than a decade. The first generation of great African filmmakers had left their mark, and we can note of few of the major films that preceded Ouedraogo’s work, including Maldoror’s Sambizanga (1972), Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973), Sembene’s Xala (1974) and Ceddo (1976), Dikonge-Pipa’s Muno Moto (1975), and Cissé’s Finye (1982), made the same year as Kaboré’s Wend Kuuni. Cissé’s Yeelen (1987) appeared in the same year as Ouedraogo’s first major success, Yam Daabo (1987). Following Ouedraogo’s Yaaba [1989] and Tilaï [1990] came Bassek ba Kobhio’s Sango Malo, and then in 1992 a slew of critically important films: Blue Eyes of Yonta (Flora Gomes); Hyènes (Djibril Diop Mambéty); Afrique, je te plumerai (Jean-Marie Teno); Quartier Mozart (Jean-Pierre Bekolo); Guelwaar by Sembène; and Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s Finzan.

Looking back at Ouedraogo’s place in this abbreviated history of African cinema, we can say that he formed part of that second generation of filmmakers who were coming into their own. FESPACO’s role signaled the arrival of a body of works that conveyed the desire of African filmmakers to establish their place in the world of cinema, and whose works were identified to some extent as Third Cinema. It was also deemed a cinema of resistance, a cinema expressive of the peoples of West Africa, expressive of their history and culture. The filmmakers were considered exponents of a cinematic and political language that reflected and met the needs of an African audience. An African cinema had been born in the 1960s and 1970s, and now it had blossomed into a glorious tree of the savannah: it was recognizable in its own landscape, with its own poesis, its own compelling voice and regard.

Looking back, we can also see, only now, how that blossoming was also something of a turning point, where the possibilities of imagining a unique cinema to be called African, or more specifically “Africain”—a film heavily inflected by francophone voices, industries, and histories—would begin to cede to financial and commercial pressures. This would eventually lead to a radically different approach to filmmaking, resulting in something less amenable to the all-encompassing label “African” and more to the echoes of a movie industry driven by commercial considerations. This new African cinema was to be dubbed Nollywood, and its first major success, Living in Bondage, was to appear in that same anna mirabilis for African films of 1992.

The list of films cited above, when considered closely, evoke a passage from the period of a cinema of opposition, of national liberation and its immediate aftermath, to a period of postcolonialism, when the ululations in celebration of independence metamorphosed into tones of disillusionment. Examples of this disenchantment include The Blue Eyes of Yonta, where the younger generation turned away from the original revolutionary leaders and now wished to enter into their own world of modernity; and Mambéty’s Hyènes in which we would see emerge the critique of neoliberalism and globalization.

Ouedraogo’s importance lay in his emphasis on the qualities of an African aesthetic that had not had its chance to be given the screen time it deserved, the chance to present an African visage like that of the old grandmother, Yaaba. This African aesthetic was represented by the power of the village’s collective voice, as in Tilaï; or the imaginary of an African spirituality, increasingly dismissed in the European notions of modernity, as in Le cri du Coeur. These choices led Ouedraogo to focus on scenarios where the mise-en-scène would be placed, often enough, in the Sahelian village, in the regions like those of Burkina Faso where he had grown up. The choice was to turn not to a film like Xala, and to neocolonialism as a target for political activism, but more to his countryman Gaston Kabore’s Wend Kuuni, which had its grand opening in 1984 in FESPACO, the same year Burkina’s new president Thomas Sankara lifted the revolution’s curfew in Ouagadougou for FESPACO. Wend Kuuni provided a vision of Africa before the coming of the Europeans and their colonial conquest—what was later to be derided as “calabash cinema.”

In Ouedraogo’s films, the “village” was not idealized; the community not held up as a model for social organization; the beliefs held by the villagers not celebrated as holding uncontaminated “African” values. Like Kabore, Sissoko, Cissé, and later Sissako, Ouedraogo was a humanist who sought to put a human face on his characters, who sought to represent social issues dramatized at the level of the family or community, and not as a national concern. The cinema of his time was decidedly regional, encompassing filmmakers from Burkina, along with those of Mali and Senegal. They turned to a body of music and languages that spanned the region of the Sahel, and that shared precolonial cultures and traditions that could be recognizably figured in sorcerers, marabouts, griots, warriors, witches, and especially family members, both old and young, and whose voices would resonate with the audiences of the region, in More, Bambara, and Mande languages.

For that resonance to work, however, the films would have to be seen in Africa, and by the time Ouedraogo had begun to abandon the craft, it had become increasingly difficult to fund his films without a collection of foreign financial sources, including European television channels, NGOs, and French government organizations, while African endeavors to establish financial backing languished.

Teno celebrated the figure that Idrissa Ouedraogo had become in Lieux saints (2009), at the moment when television sets were transforming into large LED screens for thousands of dollars. By then, movie theaters across the continent had largely closed down, and the neighborhood video venues, bars, or living rooms, replaced them. Meanwhile pirated DVDs had swallowed up the space from what had been thought to be African film. Ouedraogo had become one of the fathers whose sons now refused to follow in the footsteps of social realist filmmaking intended to restore pride to a people in need.

As early as 1989, Mambéty had recognized in Ouedraogo’s modest and poetic style a value that would transcend any of the reductive criticisms of his work as “calabash cinema.” Mambéty made a short gem of a film about the making of Yaaba, and at one point captures Ouedraogo’s own homage to the wonderful actress Fatimata Sanga who played the role of Yaaba in the film. One of the key scenes in Yaaba involved a group of nasty boys throwing stones at the old woman. Mambéty intersperses shots of the filming of this scene with shots of Yaaba walking alone, carrying her calabash of water, a shot of vultures, and then finally a pan of the entire crew assembled next to a large graffiti inscription of the word YAABA on an adjacent wall. The music never stops. We hear Ouedraogo coax the boy who plays Bila to add urgency to his voice as he calls out, “Yaaba, Yaaba.” We hear Ouedraogo add a note of alarm with a rising intonation in the last “Yaaba”; we hear “Yaaba,” see the word “YAABA,” and see Yaaba herself in various poses as she takes water from a pot, as her hair is being tressed by Nopoko, as she turns to smile, as she falls over dead in a later scene. She walks with great dignity, fully dressed this time, to take her place among all the cast and crew for a publicity shot. Djibril brings us a tight close-up of her face. She fills the screen, the music never stopping. She becomes one with the praise-singing music, and as she joins the crew and cast for what we take to be one more shot, Ouedraogo moves next to her and squats down, chatting and smiling. It is then that we see, for one brief moment, crouched down on the other side of her, the figure of a smiling Djibril Diop Mambéty. The homage is complete.

To celebrate the passing of Ouedraogo, African Studies Review has put together this forum to pay homage to the Burkinabe filmmaker. The contributions include Olivier Barlet’s full article from Africultures (2018); Melissa Thackaway’s 1995 interview; and tributes by Olivier Tchouaffe, Alexie Tcheuyap, Boukary Sawadogo, Jean-Marie Teno, and Olympe Bhêly-Quenum. All of these authors have been touched by Ouedraogo’s work in one way or another, by the influence it has had on their own lives or work. The diversity of these remarks attests to the enduring appeal and pervasive humanity of this talented man.

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