Jude G. Akudinobi: How would you define African cinema?
Gaston Kaboré: When I speak about African cinema, I am addressing the historical context of the birth of a cinema in Africa, the conditions in which filmmakers across the continent are trying to portray their realities, and how they are speaking about their histories and their cultural backgrounds, like elsewhere in the world. So, when I say African cinema, names like Med Hondo, Yusuf Chahine, Isaac Mabhikwa, Souleymane Cissé, Kwah Ansah, Ola Balogun, Safi Faye, Anne Mungai, Sara Maldoror, Tsitsi Dangarembga, among many others, come to mind. It is about how filmmakers are trying to repossess their vision and from these few names that I have just mentioned, it is clear that there is no particular way of making films in Africa. I hope that we will continue to have a diversity of films, narratives, styles, and so on.
JGA: What do you make of this talk, lately, about trying to universalize African cinema?
GK: It doesn’t represent my point of view; it’s a different perspective, you know. Those people are saying that we do not care to make a specific cinema, we just want to make films like America or Hollywood to create a market, make money and so on. But I think it is an illusion because the Americans first count on their own market before the markets outside. Even more, it is because they are strongly rooted in their own land, that they are able to conquer the rest of the world with stories about uniquely American situations. Sometimes, we are insecure and feel that we have to imitate others to be recognized by them. I think that the more rooted we are in our own land, the more we can expect to be respected by the West, the more they will see our work as significant cinema. Otherwise, we will be doing very, very…
JGA: Poor imitations?
GK: Of course. This does not mean, however, that one wants to make esoteric films. No. I inspire myself with oral traditions, the traditional way of telling stories in my culture, and invest that with my expertise in film because I want to tell stories to my people first. I know that through this approach I can, also, reach audiences all over the world. My films have proved that this is possible. To me, therefore, universalism is an illusion invented by Hollywood, to subdue the cinematic expressions of the rest of the world. As long as you speak to the human condition (to fear, illusions, dreams) you will be understood by audiences from the South Pole to North. So, we must continue to plant this tree of specificity. There are standards, of course, but that is a different matter. I also know that there are many ways of telling stories even in the US. You have quite different styles and temperaments of filmmaking in the US and it is important that we keep this diversity. Universalism, for me is born from specificity, not the contrary.
JGA: Could you speak a little bit about your sources of inspiration and how they shape your directorial vision?
GK: I think the freer one is in the sphere of creation, the better. I even try to escape my own auto-censor because sometimes you just censor yourself without realizing it. My sources of inspiration come from basic human experiences and my fields of study. I studied history before cinema and started teaching cinema even before my first film. I wanted to learn the language of cinema so as to investigate how documentary filmmaking today still perpetrates stereotypes about Africa. Subsequently, I wanted to apply the cinematic medium to history. My goal was to use cinema not only to record history, but to tell stories, as well, and bring my audience to identify with itself, through the characters that I create. That way, I am able to participate in history. In other words, I wanted to use cinema as a tool for reconstructing the collective memory, excavating history, trying to define who I am, where I am going and so on. Those sources, elements especially, inspired my first fiction film, Wend Kuuni. I am not a fruit of hazard or chance. I have a history and believe that the way I see has already been sketched by prior generations. For me, therefore, it is important to show that we have a specific sensitivity, a vision of the world and our rationality.
JGA: Manthia Diawara has written that making his film, Rouch in Reverse, was a rite of passage, a process through which he has come to discover something of himself. How would you react to that?
GK: I think that Rouch is, somehow, a drama for Africans. I do not want to make easy statements about the experience of Manthia with Rouch because I cannot judge it. I know Rouch personally and think that Rouch is Rouch. He is a French guy who came to Africa and shot films. Some of them are quite interesting. So, we have to see it through his own experience of being a French anthropologist shooting in Africa. Those give us some elements of investigation. But we should not mix it with other things. I do not say that my film is more true or less true than Rouch is. My film is mine and my position is different from Rouch. I do not have to define myself according to Rouch. Rouch exists, Gaston exists. Period.
JGA: This obviously raises a cluster of questions for the discourse of African cinema, especially around the issues of subjectivity, agency, and such like … true?
GK: The problem is that, always, the African is seen like a child, you know. When I say it is a drama, it is because there is a lot of confusion in some minds whether to take Rouch like an African filmmaker. I disagree; not because I am ostracizing him. No! Only because even if I stay in France for four decades making films, I never become French. In my culture and it should be the same in yours, it is said that the piece of wood does not become a crocodile because it has stayed long in the water. I think that we have to pass this Jean Rouch trauma. Why should we define ourselves or take any position through Jean Rouch? I don’t see the necessity. I don’t see the necessity.
JGA: In what ways then, do you think African cinema can assert its specificity and perhaps challenge certain stereotypes of Africa?
GK: By making films, period. We have been making films for very long, yet our history, legends, and mythology are so rich, you know. The more we make films, the more the cinema in Africa will specify itself. Ousmane Sembéne once said that we will make African films by making films. So, let us make films which speak to ourselves and in time, we will see an aesthetic, rhythm, and styles evolve. The challenge involves intellectual work and, creativity. We have to think about our choices, why we do this and that, and through all those dynamics we will see something come up. I do not try to make films like Gaston. I just try to be myself and make films; in this way, our films are going to exist, with their specificities. Challenging stereotypes should not only be a task for cinema, because it is so pervasive and calls for tremendous work between scholars and filmmakers. I don’t say I am going to make a film to respond to Jean Rouch, I just try to make what I feel has to do with my personal history.
JGA: Comment a bit, if you will, on the discourse of change in your films?
GK: All societies contain internal dynamics of change. To me it was important for my first film, Wend Kuuni, not to get into this so-called opposition between traditional Africa and modern Africa because again we are put in prison by others who say: just stay here, this is the place where you can play. The film shows that we our own self-reliant societies, with the good and bad, with oppressions but, also, rebellions and everything. Further, there is a parallel between the story of this young boy and Africa itself muted by colonialism recovering the voice to tell its own history, and story. It is really important that we keep confident in our capability to think for ourselves. All my films speak about rootedness and reconnections because sometimes one loses bearings. So we always have to revisit certain things.
JGA: Could you, briefly, give your take on the issue of funding and its implications for specificity in African cinema?
GK: Funding, of course, raises questions of perspective and target audiences since African cinema depends, largely, on the West for its production. Even then, I think the issues are similar to the experiences of independent filmmakers living in the West trying to make different cinemas and who, more or less, make compromises to get funding. I would prefer that we find the money in Africa, so that we are more free to do what we want, in accordance with our own ideals and the needs of our people. But since we have to seek funding in the West, we have, each of us, to examine the nature and extent of compromise. It is the responsibility of each filmmaker. There is, however, a residual risk that the axes of our inspiration could shift towards outside expectations. That is the danger. But I think that it has to be seen film by film.
JGA: How do you think the situation could be effectively addressed?
GK: We can put the spotlight on this danger and say to the respective governments in Africa that if the continent wants to have it’s own vision, we have to establish the possibilities of funding our films mainly in Africa because nobody else is going to do it. I think that is our responsibility.There are lots of festivals dedicated to African cinema, for instance, yet we don’t see much in terms of promotion of the films. I think the situation poses very critical questions which have to be addressed with meticulous care.
JGA: On a final note, what are your thoughts about the study of African cinema in Western institutions?
GK: I feel it is interesting because once a film has been made, it belongs to anybody who wants to see it, and would like to think and write about it. A film renews its life at every screening and it should be something dynamic. So, I respect the work others do with my film once it is made. I think the filmmakers and scholars have different levels of responsibilities and, to me, any serious work on the films should include an analysis of the narrative content, aesthetic strategies, contexts of production and everything else. In other words, the films have to be analyzed on their own terms. There has to be a constant negotiation of certitudes. The scholars are there for the filmmakers and should pose questions rather than certitudes.
Gaston Kaboré’s contributions to the development of filmmaking in Africa go beyond his unprecedented third-term as Secretary General of the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers, Fepaci, to include the remarkable efforts he has made toward establishing Burkina Faso as a veritable hub of African cinema. As a director, his film credits include <i>Wend Kuuni</i> (1982), <i>Zan Boko</i> (1988), <i>Rabi</i> (1992), and <i>Buud Yam</i> (1997) which won the prestigious Etalon de Yennenga at the 1997 FESPACO, in addition to featuring at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. In this interview with Jude G. Akudinobi, Gaston Kaboré journeys through the debates and issues which frame contemporary African cinema to state, quite boldly, that specificity is central to any serious discussion of African cinema.