A breeding ground for sects

Interview with Roger Gnoan M'Bala, by Michel Amarger

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Constructing a fiction around a strong theme
How would you characterise the story of Au nom du Christ?
It’s a painful story. I think that it’s a highly topical film. The theme is universal because sects, cranks, megalomaniacs, and nuts, who consider themselves gods, half-gods, quarter-gods, continue to proliferate today. They are people who live in their own worlds and who delude everyone to build their own power. The film’s story can be summed up in three words: deceit, megalomania, and fraud.
You depict a character who, at the start of the film, is ostracised by the rest of the village. Is that what suddenly makes him feel that he is invested with a mission?
No. It’s more a pretext used to reinforce the narrative. If we had taken someone from the farming milieu, a villager, the narrative wouldn’t have allowed for this confrontation, this shock of ideas and behaviour. Making him an outcast was a way of modelling the character when we were writing the film. We made him an outcast to give him a certain depth throughout the film.
Did you try to make this character appealing?
No, not at all. We even found him disturbing when writing the script. At one point, this character disturbed us. His philosophy eluded we three scriptwriters and his contours were hazy. We had to make sure he met with a brutal end, to make sure that he died so that things would have a more positive meaning.
Your hero plays on a serious register. Do you think people might be surprised by this dramatic tone compared with your early film works?
We did try to include a few touches of humour, but I think that you sometimes have to remove your shell to try other experiences. Diversity can help prove your real value.
Christian influence in Africa
Why did you choose the Christian religion as the film’s starting point and a man who claims to be « the cousin of Christ »?
Firstly, it has to be said that we are constantly aggressed by this phenomenon in West Africa and perhaps even in the world. In the United States, there was a guy who shut himself in a farm, where he claimed to be awaiting a message from God. He claimed to be a reincarnation of Christ. Look at Jim Jones and his mass suicide in Guyana. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. In Africa, it’s slightly different because we have religions like Islam, or the Roman Catholic and Christian Churches that are sent, imported religions.
One also gets the impression that Africans make poor copies of what was already bad in the first place. In Côte d’Ivoire, therefore, you get prophets in every household. There are prophets everywhere. There are prophets in the parks, in our lifts. It’s a phenomenon that surrounds us, that permeates our environment and which forces itself on us. As artists, as filmmakers, I feel that we have to take a stance in relation to History. That’s what we have done here.
Why did you decide to portray a village that so quickly succumbs to the prophet’s word and which hastily burns its idols and all that it has worshipped for years?
It’s a tragedy for Africa. Africa is losing its soul because, if you look carefully, Africa has a religious culture. Africa doesn’t only have bad spirits. There are very good spirits too and everybody knows that. All Africans know that. It’s tragic to kill these idols, these gods, to kill your own soul, your personality. Metaphorically speaking, I think that that’s how our filmic treatment poses the equation.
But don’t you radicalise this subjugation a little?
Yes, it’s an extrapolation. You always have to extrapolate in film. You have to exaggerate, maybe to make the events real and visual. If you minimise an action in a film, it doesn’t always work. But we remained faithful to ourselves, to what we believe.
Is the impact of Christianity greater today than when you started writing the screenplay?
Yes, especially since the film was actually shot. I get the impression that the debates triggered prove that people want to discuss the question. They want to pause a moment to reflect, to ask what should be done with this array of prophets, of faiths, which target the same individual, the same god, and which are all based on the same text – the Bible. Everybody reads the Bible, all the prophets. But they all read it differently. In a word, there is a huge nuance between two prophets. It’s incredible. I think that, in this respect, the film contributes to this reflection.
A contestable hero
You depict a character who doesn’t know how to write but who claims to do so looking at a book, a character who, as he rises, as his audience grows, becomes less and less active. What were you trying to show through this evolution?
He is less and less active, but remains a very self-confident megalomaniac. He pushes his « confessional lucidity » to the extreme – to death – going as far as being crucified to resemble Christ who he claims is his cousin. There is a madness in the character’s evolution. It is this madness that affects all those Africans who are at a loose end, who are haunted by economic crisis, who are hungry, who are badly treated. There are all these phenomena that are perhaps forms of desperateness. They have unfulfilled hopes, a lot of deception vis-à-vis the major religions, vis-à-vis the hopes they had in the other. I think that all of this contributes to this proliferation of prophets. It is a breeding ground for this kind of fraud, this kind of blackmail.
Do you think that by making the character follow his commitment right to the bitter end, asking the others to crucify him, you ultimately make him more endearing and thereby mitigate the criticisms we might make of him?
But the film is critical right from the moment he enters the village. Ten minutes into the film, it is critical. Having said that, I think that everyone can interpret the end, what the outcome should be in his or her own way. No one has a monopoly on the truth. I always say that we aren’t here to give lessons. We can trigger a debate, point out the truth or untruths even, and make references. That’s already important in itself. It is everybody’s role to emancipate Africa, in all respects, including the politicians, artists, and financiers. Everybody has to play his or her role. I don’t think he becomes likeable even when he dies. For me, he will always remain unpleasant. Moreover, look who kills him. He is killed by a brotherhood of Senufo hunter-initiates. So, ultimately, you could say that it’s traditional Africa versus modern Africa and its Christianity. We see who rises to the challenge. The film has to be read on several levels.
Adapting the style to the subject
In the forest amongst the trees at the beginning of Au nom du Christ the camerawork is very fluid, as it was in Bouka. Why does it become static when you film the prophet?
Given the theme, we wanted the character to have a majestic aura. A prophet has to be convincing to address his people. He has to adopt specific movements when speaking. So, there was a risk of detracting from, or lessening the impact we wanted to have on the audience if the camera moved too much.
How did you choose your actors?
For their composition, above all. Pierre Gondo, who plays the prophet, is well known for his theatre compositions. He often plays comic, burlesque roles. I wanted the character to be pretty dramatic, strong. So we tried. Naky Sy Savané is a well-known actress in both Côte d’Ivoire and France. She played in Henri Duparc’s Bal Poussière. For the first time here, she plays a different, distinctive type of role, that of a madwoman. The rest are television and theatre actors.

///Article N° : 5578

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