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Read the synopsis for the man who stopped the desert


by the director, Mark Dodd

Spring 2007, I was on a visit to Burkina Faso to meet my old college friend, Ashley Norton, who was living in Ouahigouya (pron; why-ee-goo-ya) in the north of the country. There is not a lot to see for the average tourist around here. Most visitors use the city as a stop-off on their way to visit Mali. So I was intrigued when Ashley suggested I visit an ‘interesting man’ who lived in a nearby village.

After a short car journey out of town, we turned off the rough dirt road and followed a small track through the fields. Ashley’s friend Naaba, a respected elder in the city, accompanied us as our guide and translator.

Goats and chickens scattered as we pulled up outside a pale mud wall, marking the edge of a small habitation. The now familiar blast of heat hit us as we stepped out of the air-conditioned Toyota. But our would-be host was nowhere to be seen.

Some young lads advised us to sit and wait under the shade of a tree. It was wintoogo, the time when the sun is at its fiercest. Then, through the screeching of the crickets, we heard the sound of a motorbike approaching.

Dressed in a long brown smock with a pick-axe balanced over his shoulder, Yacouba Sawadogo brought his motorbike to a halt. I didn’t really know what I was expecting, but this sixty-something year old peasant farmer certainly confounded any preconceptions I may have had.

He showed me around his farm and forest, then back under the shade of the tree we sat down and he told me his story. It was a turning point in my life. At the time I was a successful cameraman working for the BBC. I had filmed documentaries all over the world, but here in front of me the most incredible story was waiting to be told.

Back home, my obvious first point of call was to the various internal production departments within the BBC. But the idea was not taken up. So the following year I resigned my post after twenty-two years’ service and started 1080 Films. The country was about to dive into the deepest recession since the 1930’s. This could have been seen as a somewhat crazy decision, but the commissioners did not want to take on the film, and I felt that Yacouba’s story just had to be told.

After receiving a small bursary from The Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, I returned to Burkina Faso to make a ‘taster’ film. Things moved quickly after this. In spring 2009 I secured full production funding from a private company which has a charitable fund supporting environmental work in the Sahel. This was the dream scenario - I could now make the film I wanted.

I made two more filming trips to Burkina Faso. My friend Ashley became the location manager and all the setting up was done over a dodgy email connection to a sweaty internet café in Ouahigouya. When it finally came to filming I can honestly say this was one of the smoothest shoots I have ever done. The local people were incredibly patient and understanding. I could not have wished for more.

The final shoot was in Washington DC. We were following Yacouba on his visit to the USA where he was to make a series of presentations on Capitol Hill. Oxfam America had invited him as part of a small delegation of farmer-innovators from the Sahel. This made an incredible climax to the story as we see Yacouba walking the streets of downtown DC, then taking his case to the staffers of Obama’s administration.

Since completion in spring 2010 the film sold out on its opening night at a local cinema. We had to make a second screening which also sold out.

In November 2010 the film received high acclaim at a screening on Capitol Hill to the Sub-committee on Africa and Global Health. Policy advisors from USAID and The World Bank attended. A repeat screening was requested for January 2011.
In early 2011, after winning a Special Jury Award at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, the film was screened at the launch of International Year of the Forests at United nations HQ, New York.

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1080 Films