Plot: Zan Boko's title is evocative of its central theme, the crisis of traditional culture. The term refers to the place where the placenta is buried at the birth of a baby among the Mossi in West Africa, a place that marks the baby's ties with the earth and with the ancestors. It is this connection that the film celebrates; the ways in which that connection is threatened are heralded with alarm, both in the bricks-and-mud facts of urbanization and in the attitudes that ignore its consequences. A rich landowner decides to build a palatial European-style home smack up against its walls. Soon villagers are selling their plots to the landowner, who has plans for a swimming pool. One of the villagers uses the money to buy a cart and donkey, to be able to pick up garbage to support his family. Only Tinga (whose name means "the earth" in the More language) refuses obstinately.
Meanwhile, in the bowels of the city's information bureaucracy, a journalist labors under the assumption that his job doesn't end with doing government public relations. Suspended from his job in print journalism for undue truthfulness, he becomes a TV producer for the Ministry of Information (where Kabore has worked for the last 11 years). His first job there is to host a forum on urbanization.
In the TV studio, in front of a ghastly backdrop of high-rises under a smog-filled sky, several functionaries gather to pontificate on development plans. Suddenly the fifth guest arrives--and it's Tinga, who the journalist has met in a bar. That's the signal for a hasty series of phone calls that pulls the plug on the show. The journalist faces expulsion, while Tinga sits alone in the studio, the last and still-unheard from speaker.
Zan Boko is as much about problems of articulating the problem of urbanization as it is about the problem itself. Most boldly, of course, it puts the problem of government censorship on screen. But more powerful in the film is self-censorship and the will not to perceive issues that touch one's own self-interest.
Style: Zan Boko addresses its issues with a gentle respect for the rhythms of those on the front lines of urbanization, with sharp wit and humor, and with an occasional savage poke at the pretentions of the powerful. Alternating as it does between the story of the villagers, the aspirations of the urban bourgeoisie and the struggles of the journalist, and ending without a cathartic resolution, the film refuses to conform to classic Western dramatic structure. It also demands a certain patience in the viewer to accomodate the dignity of rural customs. But it thus also commands a viewer's respect, and forces us to recast familiar (and unHelpful) ways of thinking. Appropriately, it leaves us realizing that the social drama it portrays goes on after the credits.
The director, in an interview with Pat Aufderheide at Filmfest DC in 1989, said,
"Sometimes the film looks like a documentary, and that's not accidental. I wanted to give the feeling that these people may be living their last days like that.
"The film violates the classic structure of Greek tragedy, it's true. In fact, at every point where the film goes toward a climax, I cut it off. I didn't want it to be spectacular or melodramatic. I rarely show the height of action, and focus on building toward those moments and the denouements. I didn't want people to say, 'Oh, the poor farmer, thrown off his land, isn't it revolting,' and be satisfied with that reaction. I also wanted audiences to realize that these are not passive victims. They will keep true to themselves, as Tinga says at the end of the film."
Background on director/film: Burkina Faso filmmaker Gaston Kabore debuted with his winsome and award-winning historical drama of rural life Wend Kuuni in 1982. Indeed, the village is the same one where Wend Kuuni was shot. Having followed this with a short film and a video, he completed in 1988 a long tenure as head of the National Film Center and launched Zan Boko. Encouraged by Sankara to make the film as a critique of corruption, he sees the film as an auto-critique: "We ourselves have contributed to this new style of life with its negative aspects. I experience this myself. All of us [professionals] are one generation at most from the village, and we still have our extended families there. And when we go home, we become like strangers.
"But each of us is a farmer still in some part of himself, if for only this generation. In our minds, there is still hope, because we still have those values."
Kabore began working on the script for Zan Boko in 1979, before he shot Wend Kuuni, and it took six years to raise the $4 million French francs, which came from the Ministry of Cooperation in France, German TV network WDR, English TV Channel 4, as well as a non-governmental organization in Italy and a token amount from a small company in Belgium. The National Company of Film Distribution (CIDC) in Burkina Faso offered material and equipment.
Kabore avoided censorship issues by first delaying a request for authorization until he was ready to shoot; conveniently for the subject of the film, the current elite can regard it as a critique of the former regime. He described walking a delicate political line:
"I started writing the script because I happened to go to the headquarters of the national film consortium, and from the balcony I could look down and see a farmer's house, just like you see in the film. Once I had this image, behind it I knew I could put questions of politics, culture and economy.
"I didn't write the script in order to make a scandal about censorship, but to raise questions about how urbanization policy doesn't take the farmers into account. I included the problem of censorship because everyone 'knows' the problem of urbanization, but everyone also says it's inevitable. I created the journalist in order to say that we have to be vigilant about what this process is killing at the cultural level.
"Consciousness has increased, through the revolution, of many issues. But state policy doesn't change overnight. The discourse is different, and the will is different from before. It's still true that no regime wants this kind of criticism. "But if you want liberty of expression, you must fight for it every day. It's not a given, once and for all. If I have had courage, it was the courage to conquer my own self-censorship."
Film production context: Landlocked Burkina Faso in West Africa has long been an important site of Francophone African film production. Support for cinema has been government policy since 1969, with the first week of African cinema held in Ouagadougou, which became the African film festival FESPACO in 1971. The government nationalized distribution and exhibition of cinema in 1970, after a fracas with foreign companies over taxes on exhibition. When Lt. Thomas Sankara came to power in 1982, cinema was already well established. Sankara had been a secretary of state in the Ministry of Information, and he paid particular atention to culture. After his murder, the regime continued to support cinema.
Importance: In its interweaving of economic crisis and problems of perception, Zan Boko breaks new ground and marks an impressive sophistication in filmmaking. It was shown at many festivals and included in California Newsreel's Library of African Cinema. Scholar Manthia Diawara reports, in California Newsreel's catalog, "When Zan Boko was shown in Niger, Mali and Senegal, journalists thanked Kabore for telling their own story."
Francoise Pfaff, Twenty-five Black African Filmmakers: A critical study, with filmography and bio-bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Francoise Pfaff, "Africa from Within: The films of Gaston Kabore and Idrissa Ouedraogo as anthropological sources," SVA Review, 6:1 (Spring 1990), 50-59.
Library of African Cinema: A Guide to video resources for colleges and public libraries, catalog, California Newsreel, 1991.
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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