…For me, all the aspects of my work as a creator complement and respond to one another. An independent filmmaker like me, who does not have much in the way of means to produce his films, needs to be versatile, to be able to work the camera, to know how to draw, to design the set, and to make whatever is needed for it. I feel that everything is linked, and that what is essential is to be able to express oneself, to go from an idea to a film, to tell a story and realize one’s vision…and like many other filmmakers, I am forced to work tremendously for my films to exist.
Gaston: But all the same, it seems that you are unique among those traveling this path, considering the diversity of your projects and the longevity of your career. I find your work fascinating; do you not find it so?
Moustapha: To tell you the truth, I see myself a little like the youth of your country, Burkina Faso: when I go to Ouagadougou, I am shocked and amazed by what they create with wire, boxes, pieces of plastic, and plenty of other found materials. It’s really extraordinary! Like them, I believe that nature gave me the gift of being skilled with my hands. Every day I try to create something from my imagination. It is lonely work, and people do not always appreciate the importance of what I am doing. It is only now, after I have worked tirelessly for so long, that people are starting to recognize the value of all I have tried to do. It is true that, today, I receive many invitations from festivals, and that teams come all the way to Tawa to shoot films about me and my work. I assure you that it has not been easy. Though today I am accorded certain recognition, I will always stay the same, with my passion and my pleasure to invent, to direct, and to communicate my vision.
Gaston: How did all of this start?
Moustapha: Oh, it started a very long time ago! I would say that my career started at the end of the 1940s, when I put on shows with ombres chinoises, or shadow puppets. This fascinated the audience. At that time, cinema hardly existed in Niger, but I understood that what I was doing with shadow puppetry was practically cinema, and so I continued in that direction. I believe that I have always been lucky enough to succeed at doing what I have wanted to do; I find that once I have the will to do something, fortune is on my side, and I find the people and the opportunities that I need to help me accomplish my projects.
Gaston: You call it luck, but is it not first and foremost your passion and your determination that make your projects possible?
Moustapha: I am a Muslim, and in my religion, we call that luck. You see, when you called me to discuss your desire to interview me, you were not sure that you would be able to come to Niger . . . but finally you were able to come, and I consider myself lucky that you are here. Here, I also have other friends who have joined me to welcome you, and who have paid for the meal that we had together. I think that all of this reflects the convergence of positive things that helps me to move forward in the right direction.
Gaston: From where do you derive your energy?
Moustapha: I love to create, I love to give life . . . Really, it is the pleasure of doing things that pushes me forward. I do not know how to stay seated, doing nothing.
Gaston: You have been creating, filming, and telling stories for over sixty years. What is the secret to the long life of your career?
Moustapha: If there is a secret, it is the love and passion I feel for my profession, and it is the pleasure that I derive from it. I never stop inventing things, trying to tell stories, day in and day out. I observe my society, and together my observations and my curiosity feed my imagination.
Gaston: How have African audiences received your films?
Moustapha: Everywhere that my films have been shown for Africans, it has been marvelous. Just last year, I was in Senegal screening my films at the Douta Seck Cultural Center, and the reaction of the audience was extraordinary. After the screening, I had a discussion with the audience, which was very gratifying. Again this year they have asked me to send three films to be shown at that same festival, because their audiences demand it.
Gaston: Do your films circulate within Africa as much as you would like?
Moustapha: Not enough . . . My films circulate, but not as much as I would hope, because there are many difficulties . . . You know the situation in Africa. First of all, African television stations don’t buy our films—they want us to donate them for free, because the stations are used to receiving programs for free from European countries. I would estimate that Africans don’t even see 5 percent of the films that are made in Africa. Most of what is shown comes from outside of Africa. If people in our own countries won’t even buy our films, how are we going to make a living?
There is also the system of “bartering,” which allows African television to get great deals on programs thanks to international advertisers. Then finally there is video piracy, which is a real cancer and which destroys any chance we have of making a profit from our films within our own countries: when one of our films is shown on television, there are people who record them on VHS tapes or DVD, then sell them right under our noses and make money without our really being able to fight against it. Our governments need to take charge, to pass laws, and to take advantage of all legal measures available to them in the fight against piracy. We cannot let these things continue, or else the film industry, and particularly the industry of animation, will never really develop in Africa.
Once I was able to discuss this with the director of a Senegalese television station, and he told me the following: “Yes, Moustapha, we saw your films, they are beautiful, and we would really like to be able to program them. The problem is that there are very few animated African films, and so we would not be able to maintain an animated program for very long; that is why we don’t want to start, because when the public continues to request animated African films, we will not be able to satisfy the demand.”
I replied to him and said that everything must start somewhere, and to count into the tens or hundreds or thousands, you always have to start at one. I also told him that if television takes the initial step forward of showing animated African films, we would see more animated films being produced.
To demonstrate how determined I have been, I subtitled my film Kokoa in Wolof and gave it to a Senegalese filmmaker, who was able to pass it on to Senegalese television—but I still have not received any word of the money from the sale. I made a similar attempt in Mali by having one of my films dubbed in Bambara, but the person to whom I gave the film has never given me any news. I think that if we want to advance, we have to be serious about it at each level, and everyone involved needs to be true to their words, to respect the contract or the terms of the partnership.
Gaston: Moustapha Alassane, can you explain to me how cinema in Niger suddenly broke down, even though Niger was one of the pioneering forces of African cinema?
Moustapha: What you are saying there is true for many things: track and field, boxing, cycling, soccer, etc. We can ask the same question of all these activities: why have they not developed in Niger? These types of things must be driven by men and women; there need to be people who believe in them, who fight for them, if we are to see results.
For example, I have never received any money from the Nigerien government to make one of my films, and I am obligated to go and collect money from all sorts of places, left and right—and I am left to primarily count on myself. With my experience and the recognition that I’ve had over the years, it is a little easier for me; but a young person who starts as a filmmaker has barely any chance of finding the support necessary to make a live-action feature film, and even less chance of finding support for an animated film. The Nigerien government absolutely needs to put policies in place to support film and audiovisual production, and to reinforce the infrastructure and tools necessary for the distribution of our films. The Nigerien national television must also find a way to support Nigerien producers, since it is in need of programs with local content. The State and the government must understand that film and other areas of audiovisual production are economic sectors that can provide local jobs and contribute to development—not to mention the cultural and social importance of local cinema, or the visibility that our films offer to our country.
As we speak, there are young people who really want to get things moving, and they have asked me to play the symbolic role of president in their movement. I accepted because everyone, young and old, needs to lend a hand to push things forward…
About the director
Moustapha Alassane is widely recognized as Niger’s first filmmaker and as the doyen of African animation. After studying art in Niamey, Niger, he met the French filmmaker Jean Rouch and began to focus on filmmaking. In 1965 Alassane directed La mort de Gandji, which is widely thought to be the first animated film by a West African director. In 1972 he directed his first feature film, F.v.v.a. (Femmes, villas, voiture, argent), which denounced the social climbing of the new social classes. Alassane was director of the film department of Niamey University for fifteen years, and he was honored with the Légion d’Honneur at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.