Ottawa film scholar teams up with Martin Scorsese to restore lost African classics

Aboubakar Sanogo is working to locate, restore and disseminate films from his home continent — with the help of legendary American film director Martin Scorsese.

Some Africans never see some of the continent's most famous films, Aboubakar Sanogo says

Growing up in Burkina Faso, Aboubakar Sanogo says it was difficult to see African movies after they were first shown at film festivals. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

An African film scholar in Ottawa is working to locate, restore and disseminate films from his home continent — with the help of legendary American director Martin Scorsese.

The African Film Heritage Project, a joint program from UNESCO, Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation World Cinema Project and the Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes, aims to preserve culturally significant movies and allow more Africans to see themselves on the silver screen.
Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation World Cinema Project is working on the African Film Project. (Charles Sykes/Invision/Associated Press)

Lifelong cinephile Aboubakar Sanogo says it's an unfortunate reality that people can spend their entire lives in Africa without seeing some of the continent's most famous films.

"Once the festival life [of a film] ends, the life ends, almost," said Sanogo, an assistant professor of film studies at Carleton University. 

"It's part of the historic problems of African cinema which is the question of film distribution."

With film's biggest distributors clustered in Hollywood, Sanogo said it's often easier for Americans to see African films than for people who actually grow up there to see them.

'A dream come true'

Earlier this year, Sanogo met with Scorsese to work on a plan to change that. 

"It was really a dream come true for me," he said. "We need more of Martin Scorsese in the world, frankly." 

The World Cinema Project has already restored several classics, including Soleil, Ô, a 1967 film about "migration gone wrong" that tells the story of a young African man who moves to Paris in search of a better life.
Director Med Hondo's 1967 film Soleil, Ô (Oh, Sun) tells the story of an African immigrant seeking a better life in Paris.

"The film starts with hope and ends with complete disillusionment," Sanogo said.

While Sanogo became a fan of director Med Hondo's later films while growing up in Burkina Faso, he says Soleil, Ô was "a mystery."

After the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970, it became virtually impossible to locate a copy.

It wasn't until Sanogo received one from Hondo himself that he was able to see what he describes as a cinematic "revelation."

Thanks to this new project, a restored version of Soleil, Ô was revealed to a new generation of film lovers at this year's Cannes festival.

'Giving an idea of Africa to the world'

The importance of this project can't be understated for the people reflected within them, according to Sanogo.

"These films are many things at once," he said. "They first are a reflection of a major talent … but, more important, it's about giving an idea of Africa to the world."
Director Med Hondo and Aboubakar Sanogo answer questions during a screening at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto. (Submitted by Aboubakar Sanogo)

Far from merely a cinematic escape, Sanogo said connecting with their lost stories could help Africans explore their cultural identity. 

"We don't see enough of how Africans have come to terms with these fundamental questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we headed? What are our dreams, our aspirations and our fears?

"The world without Africa is not the world," he said. "We don't want to be forgotten."