In the incredibly crowded, and slightly myopic sphere of a genre focused film festival the sheen of every filmmaker, every doc just pushing harder and harder slowly forces everything to be viewed through a dazed and distorted lens. Agendas to the left of me, oblique subjective camera angles to the right; here I am, stuck in the middle doubting my notions of what a doc actually is.
Thank heavens then for Sacred Places: a straight, observational, old skool doc, unburdened from the responsibility of pushing an agenda, or being wholly representative (even when it says it is not). Director Jean-Marie Teno takes her camera to the streets of St Leon in French speaking Burkina Faso, where Nanema Boubakar runs a cineclub screening films to all and sundry.
The festival notes salaciously describe this as an ‘underground’ cinema, but it’s nothing of the sort, it’s just a cinema that happens to be off the main distribution circuit. It is a smallish hut, with rows and rows of benches in front of a standard TV, the size of any you might in any western living room. Boubakar rents pirated DVD’s of the latest Hollywood action and kung-fu films for the evenings, and intersperses a programme thick with Jackie Chan and Wesley Snipes with the occasional African feature he can get hold of. Despite his illegitimate status, his margins are ridiculously tight, and Boubo (as he’s called) struggles to pay rent for the small hall.
To help him he enlists the support of Karo, his artisan friend who makes and plays the traditional djembe drum. He too struggles to make ends meet, but uses his talents as a musician and craftsman to find varied work as a music tutor, instrument tuner, and occasional the local troubadour/poet in the spirit of the West African Griot. In this capacity he does his friend Boubo a favour by doing the rounds, beating his drum and announcing the fine features expected at the cineclub that evening.
The status of these purveyors of culture is not raised, deified or criticized in any particular way. They are just working with the means they have, plying a trade and scraping a living with the arts that they love. When a director of one of the pirated films learns that his local cineclub is screening his films illegally the threat of high drama looms large.
But the ‘confrontation’ is left off screen, and in being interviewed after the event the director admits that he’s just glad that audiences are still being drawn to his relatively old film. He made it to be seen, it’s a shame that the pirated copy is such poor quality, but he still wishes he could make these films more affordable to the cineclubs. Exhibition is just as important as production, and cineclubs such as Boubo’s are giving new audiences the chance to find films they would otherwise be oblivious to. Boubo does of course pine after a particularly large TV, but it has less to do with his desire to present High Definition cinema, and more to do with his desire to draw more bums to his benches.
Western filmmakers/cinephiles/nerds would no doubt cry a river at the prospect of forcing 50+ punters around a 32” TV to see their widescreen, technicolour, 5.1 surround sound masterpiece, but this is cinema in one corner of the developing world. It’s not for us to say that this is or is not cinema, when droves of locals are more than willing to shell out a dime for the pleasure.
But then again, that’s the agenda I derived from the film, another point to illustrate my personal reflections on cinegoing past and present. The film itself stands well above that, and is a superb document of cinegoing in its own right.