Thousands of film lovers are paying $2 per ticket at Africa's largest film festival, the Pan African Film and Television - FESPACO - festival in Ouagadougou. Although the festival has offered documentary programming for the past three years, it is going one step further and holding an official documentary competition for the first time. Even before the award is announced, filmmakers are already celebrating what they say is long-overdue attention for their genre. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West Africa Bureau in Dakar with additional reporting by Zoumana Wonogo in Ouagadougou.

Samba Felix Ndiaye's film Questions to My Native Land is one of 15 films competing for Best Documentary prize.

He says returning to his native Senegal after 35 years away made him question whether Africa had made any progress.

He traveled through West Africa asking leaders to share their thoughts on Africa's future.

He says, at 61 years old, this is his first FESPACO competition.

Ndiaye says this new competition recognizes Africa's documentary tradition. He says realistic films 50 years ago about post-war life influenced early African cinema. The filmmaker says many documentaries - especially short films - are still made in Africa, but are not promoted.

French film critic Jean Roy says FESPACO's documentary competition can hopefully create a local market.

"Not many documentaries are released in cinemas. And, African television is very poor," Roy notes. "They prefer to show feature films to get a wider audiences. We all know that many films are pirated copies. When you are showing popular features without paying for the rights, why would you show documentaries? It is a pity because documentaries are a very important part of cinema."

Congolese filmmaker Balufu Bakupa says young African filmmakers tend to make dramas or feature films because they do not think documentaries can make them famous or earn money. As Bakupa says, there are rarely red carpet screenings for documentaries.

However, he says FESPACO may change things.

"Now there is a kind of new stage for documentary. There is a place, a visibility. Now, people can come to FESPACO and say, 'Oh, I want to see a documentary'. This is a new window. Our young people can say 'oh, it is also important,'" he explains.

Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Marie Teno says, it is even more important to encourage African documentary production.

"We are in a situation where in most of our countries, freedom of speech is something we are fighting for," Teno explains. "Are we just going to give cameras only to our chiefs, our kings to speak on our behalf? No. I have my camera. I look at the world and I try to bring my own contribution to it. That is why documentaries are important. [A] documentary is a lesson of liberty, freedom. A documentary [is about] touching other people's humanity. "

Teno says a documentary is more than a tool. He says the genre searches for truth.

"[A] documentary is what goes beneath, that goes beyond, that questions, that interrogates, that really makes you ask yourself questions," he says.

A film called Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon by Khalo Matabane is part of a series of South African documentaries showing at the festival.

Filmed in four languages, the film tells the story of refugees who settle in South Africa and ask what a richer African country can do for its poorer neighbors?

Filmmakers from 10 countries are competing for the first-time documentary prize of $6,000.