Since the 1980's, Stoneman has been a frequent visitor- and sometimes jury member- to the FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso's capital city, Ouagadougou. The festival is a Pan-African film and television festival held every 2 years which promotes African filmmakers and facilitates the screening of African films in what has come to be the largest regular cultural event on the African continent. When Stoneman came to NUI Galway to set up the Huston School of Film & Digital Media he was still attending the festival every two years and had build a strong relationship with Burkinabé Director Gaston Kaboré who wanted to set up a new film school in Ouagadougou. In 2005, Kaboré opened the Imagine film school with the idea of providing a more modern, more flexible film school that would have focused training workshops on specific elements of craft and direction for the skills involved in filmmaking. It was with this in mind that in 2005 Stoneman put on a weeklong, small-scale screenwriting course at the Imagine film school during FESPACO. This was just the beginning of the work that Stoneman would do in collaboration with Kaboré and the Imagine film school, with the support of CKI, Stoneman returned in 2009 with the idea of doing a workshop that would lead to the production of 3 newsreels on the FESPACO festival itself.
The first newsreels were done by a group of English speaking students from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and South Africa who had been doing a course on short film making at Imagine and the project folded nicely into an end product that then went online. Stoneman recalls that it was here that he first began to see the real potential of the internet in filmmaking as the videos went up on Daily Motion and began to collect more and more hits and reach an ever-growing audience. Stoneman describes the idea for the newsreels as a focused training exercise that produces something that can function directly as professional work. The newsreels," says Stoneman, "seemed like a useful pedagogic exercise, but they're made well enough to work publicly." In fact they are screened before features at the festival and put on Burkinabé television so they're seen in bars, hotels, and homes around the area in addition to being put on the web.
As Stoneman sees it, though, creating a professional finished product and developing the technical skills necessary to so isn't the only goal of the newsreels. Producing them is an good way for students to see that interesting work can be done in a smaller, more modest way than many aspiring filmmakers often think. "Even producing 3 minutes about a new film," says Stoneman, "even doing an interview, you can do with care and have something to say and have a bit of style. It's trying to find interesting ways of working within a more constrained place and its nice to do more imaginative stuff and see that it can be done even in newsreels."
This year's FESPACO was especially interesting from a social change point of view because there was an initiative to have women chair each of the juries at the festival. There are broad social and cultural challenges that those making films in Africa face and programs like FESPACO often try to counter these challenges or offer support in the face of them. But having juries chaired entirely by women is a huge step. "To actually say not only are we going have women, we're going focus on women and we're going chair the juries with women- I mean that is a really brilliant initiative," says Stoneman. "There is a complex slow process of support that begins to have useful effects in that area."
This year's FESPACO festival celebrated 10 years of the Imagine institute and the newsreels have been a great way to highlight the work that students there are doing. They come up with all of the ideas and provide the initiative and impetus for making the newsreels. Stoneman's role is best described as a kind of editorial producer helping to fit the pieces together in good running order but he credits the students for their work and Imagine with having a different version of training than the larger, old-fashioned, state run film schools. He hopes to expand on his collaboration with them in the future and in fact, this year Imagine will send one of their students to the Huston School's summer course in Cinema, Human Rights, and Advocacy. Along with the traditional students there will be a student from Myanmar, one from Jordan, and one from Imagine. Stoneman hopes that these different perspectives will enrich the experience of everyone in the course and broaden the work they can do on Human Rights in cinema. He has a long history of seeing the power of film as an instrument of cultural exchange and a way to better understand people's diverse lived experiences of the world. "I think you should be showing films form other parts of the world on television. Because you need to have some sense of other cultures and other places at least to give some sense to how the world is lived and seen in other parts of the world." For Stoneman both documentary film and fiction film carry the texture of life of a given culture and have an element of truth that we can all learn from. He describes the Imagine newsreels as a "fast moving, colourful, energetic way to say that there's a lot of interesting stuff happening in the 3rd world" and that Africa is a good starting point for looking at it. His ongoing collaboration with Imagine is something to keep an eye on and an initiative that CKI is proud to support and be a part of. We look forward to this summer's Human Rights and Advocacy course and what they will create as well as to whatever Rod Stoneman has planned for the future of film here at NUI Galway and in Ouagadougou.