‘The Siren of Faso Fani’ (‘La Sirene de Faso Fani’): Berlin Review

Another tragic tale of globalization and its discontents, though one with the promise of a happy ending

Burkinabe director Michel K. Zongo brings his homegrown documentary to the Berlinale

We tend to think of deindustrialization as a First World problem, with documentaries ranging from Roger & Me to Detropia to Braddock, Pennsylvania depicting what happens in Western cities when the factories close and the jobs disappear. But as a few other films have shown, its effects have spread far beyond U.S. and European borders to countries like Argentina (The Take), Jamaica (Life and Debt) and even China (West of the Tracks), where the repercussions can be even more devastating.

In Michel K. Zongo’s The Siren of Faso Fani (La Sirene de Faso Fani), the closing of a textile plant in Koudougou, Burkina Faso is shown to have a major impact on the surrounding community, leaving many unemployed while wrecking the firm socio-economic foundation the factory built and supported for several decades. It’s yet another case of a country being harmed by IMF and World Bank policies opening up local markets to foreign speculation, though as Zongo’s film ultimately reveals, the people of Koudougou have too much pride to let their industry slip away. Festival and pubcaster slots should follow a premiere in Berlin's Forum sidebar.

Opening archive footage viewed on an iPhone depicts a politically-charged speech hailing Faso Fani, whose name means “the cloth of the country,” as the bastion of local industry, mass-producing high quality fabric that was sold throughout Burkina Faso and neighboring African nations. “The city was alive back then,” claims one of many former workers interviewed by Zongo as he roams the streets of his native town, which saw its heyday in the 1970’s and 80’s when the manufacture thrived.

But starting in the 1990’s, the IMF and World Bank made loans to the Burkinabe government under its Structural Adjustment Programs (or SAPs), calling for major economic reforms in return. Public industries were privatized and opened up to foreign investment, leaving homegrown businesses like Faso Fani subject to the whims of international finance. Soon there were layoffs and pay freezes, until the factory was shut down and residents of Koudougou found themselves without jobs or benefits.

It’s a story we’ve heard many times before, though never quite in this specific way, and Zongo allows several employees to wax nostalgic about the days before the crisis, while others explain how their country was clearly bamboozled by the West-induced SAPs. The various conversations are intercut with vintage commercials and radio broadcasts revealing how Faso Fani represented much more to the city than a source of employment: it was a way of life.

It would be easy to end things there, as many documentaries have, but Zongo switches gears in the second half to focus on the women of Koudougou, who continue to produce fabric with handweaving machines that existed before the factory was built, and have now outlasted it. The narrative drags a bit at this point, delving into the nitty-gritty of weaving, but leads to an optimistic conclusion when Zongo decides to organize the women into a collective – one where they’re trained by the very men who lost their jobs so long ago. To that extent, the siren of Faso Fani may be heard once again.

Tech credits are solid, with Zongo handling camerawork and showcasing a few nifty moves – no more so than when he cranes up for a hopeful, Hollywood-style ending.

Production companies: Cinedoc Films, Diam Production, Perfect Shot Films
Director: Michel K. Zongo
Producers: Christian Lelong, Michel K. Zongo, Michael Bogar
Director of photography: Michel K. Zongo
Editor: Francois Sculier
Composer: Smokey
Sales agent: Cinedoc Films

No rating, 90 minutes