Burkina Faso filmmaker takes story of women resisting jihadists to Oscars

By Melissa Chemam with RFI
Burkina Faso © Getty Images via AFP / MATHEW TSANG
© Getty Images via AFP / MATHEW TSANG

Burkinabé filmmaker Apolline Traoré's feature "Sira" tells the story of a young woman abducted by jihadists who draws on her wits and courage to survive. Offering a rare insight into the lives of thousands living with Islamist violence in the Sahel, the film has already won prizes at home and abroad – and is now in the running for the 2024 Academy Awards.

"Sira" is the first film Burkina Faso has submitted to the Oscars since 1989. Judges will announce on 21 December whether it's made it onto the shortlist for Best International Feature Film.

The film's protagonist, 25-year-old Fulani nomad Sira, sees her journey through the Sahel desert to her wedding stormed by Islamist attackers.

Surrounded by death, pain and violence, she refuses to surrender without a fight. She manages to survive and even take a stand against Islamist terror.

Starring Nafissatou Cissé, the film offers a female-centred counterpoint to much of the reporting from Burkina Faso, and the whole Sahel region.

"It's been 20 years of very hard work," Traoré told RFI. "This film is my hardest and my deepest one, because it's really about what is happening in my country and the Sahel."

Traoré faced considerable difficulties getting the feature made.

"Making a film, an independent film, a feature film in West Africa, especially right now, where everything is going upside down, trying to get money in and to actually do this work that we love, cinema, was difficult," she said.

After a massacre in the village of Solhan in June 2021 left over 130 people dead, the authorities in Burkina Faso declined to renew Traoré's permit to film in Burkina's deeply troubled north. The film was finally shot in neighbouring Mauritania.

"I was lucky enough to be able to approach really closely the army and also the people in the north of the country and the desert that are actually living this day by day," Traoré said.

"My first intention with this film is really to communicate what I had in my heart and how hurt I was and how my people were. And the second was to tell the world what was happening."

A female take on war

As she started her research, Traoré said she realised that women had "a very big role in this war" – even if they were typically portrayed as victims, mostly in refugee camps.

"When I started writing it, I went to a refugee camp and I spoke to those women, and an incredible story came out of it. Then I knew that I needed to make my protagonist a woman."

Few movies have been made about jihadism in Africa and even fewer have focused on the plight of women at the hands of extremists.

"I really wanted to show that this is not happening only in Burkina," Traoré told RFI. "We can find the Fulani community in Nigeria, in Niger, in Burkina, in Senegal."

Cisse, the Burkinabé actress who plays the lead role of Sira, said she had drawn on "the rage" of women caught in the nightmare of terrorism.

More than 10,000 people have lost their lives in Burkina Faso since jihadists swept in from neighbouring Mali in 2015 and more than two million people have fled their homes.

Around 40 percent of the country is now controlled by the insurgents.

International success

Traoré's film has already won awards at festivals in Berlin, Ouagadougou, Amsterdam, Toronto, Rabat and more.

Last month, Traoré showed the film to a wider audience in Burkina Faso, where more than a thousand people came to the premiere.

It was the most nervous she'd been before a showing in 20 years of filmmaking, she told RFI. The film ended up receiving a standing ovation.

Co-produced between Burkina Faso, Senegal, France and Germany, the film is now touring festivals in Europe before further releases to the general public in 2024.

"It's one thing telling your story about what's happening in your country, then it's another to make it universal and touch other communities, other cultures, and this film was able to do it," Traoré said.

"So I'm really happy."

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Started: 02-07-2024 | Ends: 31-10-2024