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Directors in Focus - Gaston Kaboré in Retrospect

The Harvard Film Archive is honored to welcome Gaston Kaboré, this year’s recipient of the sixth annual Genevieve McMillan and Reba Stewart Fellowship for Distinguished Filmmaking. Born in Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) and raised in the capital city of Ougadougou, Kaboré maintained a lifelong interest in his family’s rural heritage while pursuing studies that eventually led him to the Sorbonne in Paris. There he divided his time between pursuit of an advanced degree in history and his burgeoning interest in the cinema, fed in part by his interest in the representation of Africa abroad and by an encounter with the work of Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene (a Fellowship recipient in 2001). 

Kaboré returned to Burkina Faso in 1976 after completing film school in France and was named director of the Centre National du Cinéma. He also became a teacher at the Institut African d'Etudes Cinématographiques, where his screenwriting and filmmaking courses were augmented by his own early productions. His first feature, Wend Kuuni (1982), was the first full-length film to be made in Burkina Faso, and it launched a career that would by turns mix extraordinary artistic achievement—rewarded by major awards at international festivals and a French César—with significant service to the field, especially as president of the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers. Kaboré’s films are most often noted for his reclamation of the poetry and clarity of traditional African storytelling and for his singularly lyrical cinematic language. Yet the director has long insisted that his films—like those of other leading African directors—represent a “cinema of urgency,” engaged by the attempt to “profoundly explain today’s reality.” 


Director Gaston Kaboré in Person
October 25 (Friday) 7 pm
October 26 (Saturday) 9 pm

A Tree Called Karite (Un arbre appelé Karité)

Directed by Gaston Kaboré
Burkina Faso 1993, 16mm, color, 17 min.

This is the study of a tree considered to be blessed by the gods because of the place it occupies in the traditional food, medicine, and cosmetics of West Africa and in the region’s rich culture and public imagination.

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Screens with A Tree Called Karite (see above)

Wend Kuuni (God’s Gift)

Directed by Gaston Kaboré
Burkina Faso 1982, 35mm, color, 75 min.
With Serge Yanogo, Joseph Nikiema
Mòoré with English subtitles 

One of the first films to adapt the measured rhythms of traditional African storytelling, Wend Kuuni recasts a precolonial tale of village life during the Mossi empire into a lyrical cinematic form. A peddler crossing the savanna discovers a child lying unconscious in the bush. When the boy comes to, he can’t explain who he is, where he has come from, or what has happened to him: he is mute. The peddler leads him back to the nearest village, where a family welcomes him, gives him the name Wend Kuuni—“God’s Gift”—and a loving sister with whom he bonds deeply. Wend Kuuni regains his speech only after witnessing a tragic event that prompts him to reveal his own painful story. Kaboré uses this simple tale to demonstrate that traditional Mossi values of community can still provide answers to many problems besetting modern Africa, fractured by rural dislocation and political conflict.

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Director Gaston Kaboré in Person October 25
October 25 (Friday) 9 pm
October 29 (Tuesday) 9:15 pm

Madame Hado

Directed by Gaston Kaboré
Burkina Faso/UK 1992, 16mm, color, 13 min.
With Hado Porgho Léontine
Mòoré with French subtitles

This film portrait of the celebrated Mossi folk singer and dancer Madame Hado, in her early sixties at the time of filming, presents the artist’s music and dance as she reveals aspects of her rich artistic life. 


Screens with Madame Hado (see above)

Zan Boko (Homeland)

Directed by Gaston Kaboré
Burkina Faso 1988, 35mm, color, 91 min.
With Joseph Nikiema, Colette Kaboré
Mòoré with English subtitles

In the Mossi culture, one of the rites attending the birth of a child and its induction as a new member of the community involves the burial of the placenta. This act consecrates the first link between the newborn and the nurturing earth, dwelling place of ancestors and spirits that protect the family and social group. The space in which the placenta is buried is called “Zan Boko”—a phrase that connotes the religious, cultural, and affective relations that bind the child to the land and that embraces the notions of “rootedness” and “belonging.” Kaboré tells the poignant story of Tinga, who resists the encroaching urbanization of his native territory. The specific rhythms and vision of the rural community—as well as its values, social relationships, and individual and collective destinies—are brutally altered as the urban universe implants itself, in the form of a palatial mansion replete with swimming pool, onto this ancient rural territory.

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Director Gaston Kaboré in Person
October 26 (Saturday) 7 pm

Roger, Civil Servant (Roger, le fonctionnaire)

Directed by Gaston Kaboré and Ouoba Motandi 
Burkina Faso 1993, video, color, 20 min.
Mòoré with English subtitles

Roger has just passed the civil service exams with flying colors and applies himself with enthusiasm to the new job he has won. Because of his honesty, assiduity, proficiency, and punctuality, he quickly becomes an object of scorn to his coworkers and superiors, who find his altruism a threat to the system of self-serving complacency they have long enjoyed.

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Screens with Roger, Civil Servant (see above)

Rabi

Directed by Gaston Kaboré
Burkina Faso 1992, 35mm, color, 62 min.
With Yacouba Kaboré, Tinfissi Yenbanga
Mòoré with English subtitles

A blacksmith falls off his bicycle when he tries to avoid a tortoise who crosses his path. He brings the animal to his twelve-year-old son, Rabi, who becomes so fascinated that he forgets his chores at his father’s shop. When the angry smith gets rid of the tortoise, it is an elderly neighbor, Pusga, who finds another to console the boy. Rabi wants desperately to tame the animal, and this new obsession leads him to defy paternal authority. Pusga comes to the rescue again, gently opening the boy’s eyes through his Socratic teachings to the visible and invisible ways of nature. Rabi gains access to concepts of liberty, responsibility, and respect for life and, in turn, awakens in the septuagenarian sentiments that had been long buried.

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Screens with Rabi, and Roger, Civil Servant (see above)

Chronicle of a Declared Failure (Chronique d’un échec annoncé)

Directed by Gaston Kaboré
Burkina Faso 1993, video, color, 22 min.
French

This caricature of government service tells the story of a man who has just received a ministerial post and wishes to serve his country with honor and competence. Quickly, however, he is sucked into the quicksand of unproductive public servants and paralyzing alliances.

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Director Gaston Kaboré in Person October 27
October 27 (Sunday) 7 pm
October 30 (Wednesday) 9:15 pm

The Cora Player (Le Joueur de Cora)

Directed by Cilia Sawadogo
Produced by Gaston Kaboré
Burkina Faso/Canada 1996, 35mm, color, 7 min.
Mòoré with English subtitles

When a young high-school girl invites her new boyfriend home to study, her father becomes enraged and orders the youth to play the cora, a traditional West African musical instument. Throwing some change at the young “griot,” the father indicates the class divisions that necessarily preclude a relationship with his daughter.

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Screens with The Cora Player (see above)

Buud Yam

Directed by Gaston Kaboré
Burkina Faso 1997, 35mm, color, 97 min.
With Serge Yanogo, Amssatou Maiga
Mòoré with English subtitles

Kaboré’s most recent feature film, which took the prestigious Etalon De Yenenga award at the Pan-African Film Festival in Ougadougou, is a sequel of sorts to his celebrated Wend Kuuni. Set at the beginning of the nineteenth century, deep in a bend of the River Niger, it reprises the title character of the earlier film—the mute orphan boy adopted by a village family, now a young man doted on by his stepparents but shunned as an outsider by the villagers. When his beloved adopted sister falls mysteriously ill, Wend Kuuni is blamed and, desperate to restore her to health, he sets out on an epic journey in search of “lion’s herbs,” the elusive cure described to him by a village elder. While it presents a traditional coming-of-age narrative, the film broaches broader issues that in Kaboré’s view have the capacity either to affirm or to destroy the world and its humanity: acceptance, tolerance, and dialogue on the one hand; fear of the other, defiance, intolerance, and exclusion on the other.

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