Your main character starts out very sure of himself, but then has a truly rough ride before finally finding himself again. What were you trying to show through this kind of path?
It’s the story of a young man whose action and will are determined by a lot of things: his origins, his nationality, the society in which he grew up, and his culture, both in terms of its social and familial organisation. He is determined and defends just ideas. He is a student in France, but says it’s essential to return to Senegal to rebuild his country. He considers it a necessary mission. And yet this fine and just idea is not necessarily dictated by what he is deep down, but by what he is « contextually ». He in fact needs to peel off all this determinism quite simply to become a human being rather than an idea or a will. It is a difficult process, because not doing all these fine things represents a betrayal, not being up to it, not having the stature, renouncing and thus accepting a situation. However, it is extremely difficult to realise that the persona we have constructed, the image we have of ourselves is false when this image is pretty pleasant and gratifying. It was a pleasing self-conception, so shedding it off necessarily means having to destroy it. The armour has to be broken and that can’t be done gently. He has to spit on what he was, he has to be able show the others that he is so bad. He has the right to live what he wants to live and it doesn’t matter where he comes from, even if clearly extremely important things are going on there. Wherever you come from, there are essential realities and yet I still think we have the right to live, even if it is hard at times.
One finds the phenomenon of being forced to destroy one’s own image, or the image of the other, in order to rebuild it again later in a lot of artistic undertakings. But in your film it is made more complex by being torn between two cultures and the issues of specificities, of identity. Your approach is radical from the outset, with the texts by Sékou Touré, Lumumba, etc. Why did you choose to start out from written texts?
Because at the outset, it is more about a theoretical and rhetorical desire than a human being. We’re looking at someone who doesn’t construct his persona through action. On the contrary, his persona is destroyed through action. I wanted to start out from writings because my character formed himself through them, not through simple, basic feelings.
His father is so distant that he no longer plays his role. Doesn’t the written text replace him?
The father and the text do not fulfil the same function. The transmission from father to son implies that we do not exist personally, that we are first and foremost a link in a chain that existed before us and which will exist after us. There is simply a continuity to ensure. This struggle, which is an old political struggle as I refer back to political texts from the Sixties, shared the same desire to position society within its history. In Lumumba’s last letter to his wife, for example, he speaks about his children, his own children and more generally about the children of the Congo, asking them to take up and to continue the fight that he himself led. So, with the father, it becomes more a form of continuity of a kind of « tradition » (even if I don’t like this often ambiguous word), or rather a social identity. It is about perpetuating a vision and a state towards things and that is why the political discourses appeal to my character so much: because they completely concord with the kind of transmission he is familiar with in the family circle.
Hence his desire for teaching?
Yes, hence his desire for teaching later.
The film makes a pretty pessimistic observation about the lack of change in French society’s relation to the colonised. We see how these exclusions affect the character. There seems to be no change in sight.
I don’t know whether it’s pessimistic because I have no idea which way the perspective that I foreground might evolve. I have no idyllic vision, no vision that is either optimistic or pessimistic. It seems to me that is more of an observation, which does not necessarily concern everybody, but which does concern this character. Today, the situation is a lot less simple than we might think. The French are often surprised to see people from the South, particularly Africans, living in France. And yet, many of them, who consider themselves progressive, think that we must absolutely help these people who want to stay, but they don’t realise that staying might be a problem. Integration, which people call for so ardently, is not easy for everyone. Some people don’t want to integrate because they want to stay what they are and know very well that they lose a little of their identity everyday. Yet it’s up to them to find a solution. No one can survive simply by denouncing what already exists. It is deadly only to observe and not to act.
But projections still abound.
Yes, and unfortunately things are changing on the surface, but not deep down because there is huge ignorance, even amongst well-meaning people We ask kids to club together for little African children. In itself, why not, but the problem is when this is not counter-balanced by something else. When relationships only go in this direction, how are you supposed to grow up without this vision of poverty and this feeling of superiority, or suppressed superiority? How, when you sense that there is a problem, can you try to find adequate solutions without being racist? But I’m not necessarily pessimistic all the same, because it only needs a generation, it only needs for us to learn things correctly at school. I am mixed-race and have dreadlocks at the moment. When I’m in the metro, the police will not hesitate to stop me and ask if I am carrying any illicit substances. And then ten metres on, a white French person will take my defence, saying, « those pigs are real bastards ». But, at the end of the conversation, he’ll ask me if I have any skins His view is the same as the policeman’s, only the first reaction was terrible and the second one cool. But they both saw me in the same way. The second guy, who is basically all right, would willingly go and demonstrate for me, but is completely unaware of what’s in his own head. That’s what is really hard, though, not the acts of violence. In the film, the character finds himself up against the administration, but they aren’t violent.
You film very close to bodies. One gets the impression that you try to capture this intimacy, the characters’ very interiority
It is something that is pretty natural. I had the impression that what they were living was obviously interior, but at the same time it became epidermal. So, I wanted not only to capture gazes but skins too and everything related to their complexions. I was often afraid in this film that people would see my character as an African an African in the broadest sense of the term when I wanted him first and foremost quite simply to be a man, a man with hands, arms, and the same questions as everybody else.
Did you shoot on digital video?
Two-thirds of the film were shot on super-16mm and one third on digital video. As it’s the story of a man who evolves from his idea of a hero to that of an everyday man, I tried to introduce the DV gently. Not just because it’s a different, flatter image, but because, thanks to our television culture, it is closer to the idea we have of the everyday: there isn’t the same relationship to time. Globally, the idea was to accompany the character’s arrival in the day-to-day by gradually introducing the DV in the film.
You presented a film called « Tourbillion » at the Fespaco. Where do you situate yourself in relation to the « African film » world?
I don’t situate myself; I see it as a nebulous entity. I have friends in it. I don’t feel like I do or don’t belong But « African film » has become a kind of expression, which I find quite strange. I don’t want to be an African writer-director; I just want to be a director, to try to make films and to improve. What’s strange is that you have to define yourself in terms of a nationality to be contacted. But I don’t see myself like that.
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