“Filmmaking can show the way”

Interview with Souleymane Cissé

Ten years have gone since Waati, your last big movie. What are your perspectives for filmmaking today in 2005?

Filmmaking with a big F is taking a break, not because of the filmmakers, but because of those who are around them, around us. Those we are trying hard to understand.

Are you referring to a type of economic censorship?

Yes, an intentional economic censorship that keeps on going. We are only facing silent walls, but we got the message and we would like to fight on another ground. Find our own financing, impose our rules, try to create new structures with the professionals in order they can create. Hence the foundation of the UCECAO (Union des créateurs et entrepreneurs du cinema et de l’audiovisuel de l’Afrique de l’Ouest/ Organization of film and video makers and entrepreneurs in West Africa). At the beginning, some saw this as an attempt against the FEPACI (Federation panafricaine des cinéastes/ African federation of filmmakers) and the FESPACO (Festival panafricain du film de Ouagadougou), but they first did not understand that it was in fact an instrument to lay the foundation of a real film industry in our region, an instrument to strengthen the Fespaco and the filmmakers association. One cannot speak about filmmaking without movie theaters and actual movies! We were lucky to be able to turn on a light: let’s make sure it does not get turned off. Some are trying to do so, to destroy it in order nobody can speak about it anymore. We are still at an age of civilization war, with the language, the economics and all this gives a wrong image of African Filmmaking. African filmmaking needs to find a solution. If the filmmakers are not united, if those who become the leaders destroy their country’s film industry, it’s getting more and more serious and dangerous: It’s time to stop. As far as I am concerned, it’s just childish. The place of filmmakers in each country is so huge that each of them could build a castle if he wished. It is counterproductive that one filmmakers made his projects and that others are opposing him. It’s bad for him, it’s bad for his country. If filmmakers could start holding each others’ hands and create African structures, we would move forward.

 I can understand this call for reconciliation, but considering that competition and conflicts are the reality in the whole film industry and not only in Africa,  isn’t  it  useless to do so?

I think perspectives do exist. What happened to Idrissa Ouedraogo, will happen to me and the others. It’s time to realize it. We are all fighting for an ideal, filmmaking, and I think that, at our level, we are able to assume our actions.

 Is your initiative being successful?

Yes. We created UCECAO in 1997. Nobody believed in it, except us but we have survived with our own meager means, persuaded that this structure is necessary for the upcoming generations. We have gathered our own funding in order that the organization could survive. We have developed a network with other professionals, for instance in France with the ARP (Association des réalisateurs et des producteurs / Organization of filmmakers and producers). We are opened to film professionals in the whole world.

The current situation seems favorable: L’UEMOA (Union économique et monétaire de l’Afrique de l’Ouest / Economic and monetary association in West Africa) wrote a report in depth about decision making in production and distribution of images. On the same token,  film distribution is in such a maze that one could wonder what to do to make things go forward?

We have arrived at a time when we have to think over and be patient. Today, in Africa, some politicians who called themselves men of culture sold movie theaters without realizing that there are some men and women who have given their lives to create movies that their own people would watch. When these politicians were in power, filmmaking became their enemy. They have destroyed 27 small movie theaters to build one in Bamaka – one theater reserved for the elites. They do not care about the people. Popular movies who made us what we are, these politicians can’t understand it. And one can then comprehend why Africa is still behind. But we haven’t lost our hopes: We know that one day Africa will explode. This change is unavoidable: The day will come.

 What are  the  basis of your hopes today?

My hope is that a whole generation wakes up and march in favor of the development of filmmaking culture. We have to give a frame to this upcoming movement. For example, we are organizing a festival for video amateur who shoot wedding ceremonies from November 9 to 13 2005, in Nyamina, a town located 120 km from Bamako. They are devoting their time to video and make a living out of it. It would be a good thing if tomorrow they could become filmmakers and surprise their people. Nayamina is a historical city, a crossroad of cultures. Prizes will be given: for a documentary that costs 10,000 Fcfa (18 dollars), the first prize is 150,000 Fcfa, the second prize 100,000 Fcfa, the third prize 50,000 Fcfa. This generation will be delighted that someone is acknowledging their activity. We could also organize some tests to find and send the best directors to good schools. Our organization does not intend to superficially organize social events. We do want to have some effects on our profession.

That is to lay your foundations in the center of filmmaking.

Yes, we want a mental education for the entire generation, which can serve filmmaking. That is why we have hopes. We have some support even if they do not talk about it. I am referring to a Secretary of Education in Mali who would like to open a film department at the university. Each time we ask him something, this “ministre” is ready to give us some cars and gas: These are strong symbolic gestures. The Secretary of Tourism welcomes the heads of UCECAO when they come to Bamako. If every department in the government could think that filmmaking is the country’s problem, as well as an important matter for its sovereignty, I think it would start to move forward….

Do you still manage to develop film projects in spite of this tension?

I have been holding a script of a great movie-to-be for two years, but I’ve also made some documentaries. In 2002, I directed a 51 minutes film, L’enfant de Nyamina (The Child Of Nyamina), about a young man who die brutally in the town he went to study. They all remembered him, and we collected these testimonies. We  also developed a 10 minutes fiction based on this character. I also made a fiction-documentary about a sage that I first called Un devin (A Soothsayer), but it is now bearing the name of his neighborhood, Ngolonina. It was a meeting with a character, who isolates himself from the rest of the world and lives with his philosophy. Some call him a “soufi” others “the fool”. We are letting him speak: He speaks about his vision of Mali, the future he’s envisioning. I have also a bunch of short films still in process: One of them -it still has no title- was shot in the United States. It’s about a Tsunami survivor from Mali, who tells us his story. I have not forgotten the camera. I practice with it, but I do not want to make anymore amateur films. I’m fooling around with the video camera, but as soon as things are going to get better, in six months or a year,  I will devote myself to my feature length project, because this is the continuation of my work.

In which direction does this project go?

I’d better remain discreet on this matter.

Do documentaries and short films find any distribution?

Through Malian TV or through Africacâble… I had asked some funding to the Agence de la francophonie, but my request came back with some advices. I have no advices to receive from this institution. It really upsets me. It’s our job to create images that others will come to see. If I have interrupted my career to devote my time to UCECAO, it’s because there is so much humiliation around. If that goes on, our children will give up. These institutions tells us .. whatever… but the thing is that they do not want our projects to be finalized. Filmmaking is like the one who steps on the needle and said he lost it in order that everyone looks for it without ever finding it.

While examining your work as I was preparing for the retrospective in Pontarlier, I noticed three contradictory themes. The first one appears to be confrontation and violence –  by the way, you’ve said that your films are created in the midst of violence and that you are filming confrontations to be able to then close the chapter and start a new one. This is not a pacifist speech: clashes must develop… This represents a peculiar vision of social changes.

I’ve never seen any important social change in any country which took place peacefully. Well, we could mention Ukraine, but the people really worked on these changes to happen: the clash happened mainly inside with a few consequences in the outside. At home in Africa, it will be very difficult to have this type of confrontation because the people is not prepared. There are some individuals that are fighting and that are eliminated, physically, morally every day. In Africa, you can find a lot of his type of people who die defending their ideals. Without a genuine confrontation, one will not be able to develop fully. Without the demonstrations in Mali in 1991, we would not be standing where we are today. Our vision of change is that it results in a real democracy. At any level. That is the only way that a revolution makes sense. We’ve reached a place where people do not know where to turn anymore. Real changes are necessary and they will take place sooner or later, especially in Mali. People need more aspirations, more openings. People from Mali need to settle behind the moon if there is any room since one says that the Soninké are there! Those who take the power and do not understand this are only vulgar salesmen. Time will come this will not be possible anymore. The soul needs food and we need to give it to her.

 I think of the final scene of Waati which is very clear and powerful, in a place where confrontation and struggle were always happening but  the charisma of one man will have prevented a bloodshed. But no one can confirm that it won’t happen.

Regarding South Africa, I am not a soothsayer but its problems are tied up to the whole continent. What is happening everywhere will happen in South Africa one day or the other. There is no turning back. The economic power as long as it lasts will allow it. One has to tear it off and to do so, one has to rise. It’s not a question of saying to the African people to rebel, but this is the reality. Waati was never shown in South Africa. Even the leaders do not want to hear about it. Those who are in power now, Black people, refuse it. But this reality goes beyond Africa’s borders, it concerns the entire world, because what you see at the end of Waati, it’s happening everywhere but people do not want to see it. I don’t want to be the one who ignites the fire everywhere but I would have hoped that our leaders had a wider vision for our future. One cannot suppress people for too long of a time, it always ends up badly. One needs a vision for the future. Otherwise, on the day a politician falls, he is forgotten at once. That has happened to a lot of them.

Second direction: your films refer to the necessity of knowledge and education and to the myth as a basis to understand the world. Your films also give a radical review of tradition and encourage people to take care of their own life. Must rebellion draw from the fundamental values,  different from the values of our society?

We live in a world of contradictions. I’m thinking of Quand les statues meurent aussi by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. In this movie, man is the purpose of man, may he be Black, Red, Yellow or White. We have the same structure. Lives can be different but the outcome is the same. They are trying to study millenium values in order man’s life evolves. This film says that African art is a major art and one ought to try to understand it. Whoever has made these art pieces have never signed them. They never bear the artist’s name : that is a subject of invistigation. What was the status of this art? That is what one has to understand. Why would man commit himself in leaving an art piece which would speak, but without his name ? Europeans and Americans historians never wonder. This Art has other aspects that one needs to reveal. Cheick Anta Diop has tried but he was called a fool. Although he has shown that « l’Art Noir », Black Art existed in Antiquity. In the Western Art World, they do not want to listen to the small Black man who claims his civilization is the most ancient. One cannot go deep into what was called « L’Art Noir ». One has to search for knowledge where it lays. Why did nobody sign their own art piece ?

Third direction. At the beginning of Waati, the grandmother speaks about the multicultural origin of humankind. Between the self-assertion one can see in the Black intellectuals movement and the acknowledgement  of belonging to a greater human family, there is still a dynamic contradiction that appears in your films. You are defending yourself and in the same time, you are defending the vision of one united world.

As far as I am concerned, humankind is one and indivisible. The story of the young Bambara concerns the French young one, as well as the German or Japanese young ones. It is obvious that if we approach ethnic reality, we have to speak of cultural diversity. We have defended it through our films, still no one has cared to see it. We were said when our films were in Wolof that it has no value. Where is the cultural diversity if we cannot accept the other? The world goes so fast that we can’t comprehend it, but if one day we manage to slow down, we will see that it is unique. Why not create in this humankind in this world of diversity which allows us to keep our richness? These have been my words from the beginning because I believe in the universality of human being, our nature, our life. Filmmaking is universal and can show the way.

About the Director

Olivier Barlet

Olivier Barlet is a journalist and author of Les Cinemas d’Afrique noire: le regard en question, a regular contributor of film criticism in the monthly magazines Africa international, Le Nouvel Afrique Asie and Continental. He is also editor of Africultures, a monthly magazine and website.