Abderrahmane Sissako’s film lesson

Ouagadougou, February 2003
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Invited by the Côté Doc programme to give a lesson on film, Abderrahmane Sissako agreed to speak before a captivated audience about himself for the first time ever. His personal path is a lesson in itself on African film and modern cinema in general

Believing that anything is possible was what made it possible for me to go to film school. The directing section of the Moscow film school lasted five years. Every student had to make three films. At the end of the second year, I had to make a film. I wasn’t happy with what I made and I couldn’t finish it. The same thing happened at the end of the third year. The real reason was my fear of filming. I was scared of making something I wouldn’t like and of feeling a sense of failure.
At the end of the fourth year, we had to hand in a scenario. « Le Jeu » was meant to be my degree film. After my previous refusals, they didn’t believe that I really wanted to be a filmmaker. I had to convince them. I said, « If you expect me to complete « Le Jeu« , I can’t promise to do so and will leave this school without a degree ». I went right to the end of this film. The first two screenplays were set in Moscow, a town I didn’t master well. « Le Jeu » was set in the Mauritanian desert, and shot in Turkmenistan (1989).
A film cannot be perfect. It’s an imperfect act, just as we are ourselves. The real definition of cinema is an invitation to the freedom of the other. If someone says they don’t like something, I accept that.
Jean-Marie Barbe: We are all impregnated with images. Which films or mental or graphic images have marked you?
Three films marked me before going to Moscow:
1. « On l’appelle Trinita »
2. « Le retour de Trinita »
3. « On continue de l’appeler Trinita »
Spaghetti westerns have marked my entire film culture. They were very important for me. Westerns had a social foundation.
« Le Pullover Rouge« , the story of a judicial error, of a prisoner sentenced to death who wears the jumper that was found at the scene of the crime, which proves that he is innocent because it is too big for him – we left the cinema because it was such an injustice. The power of images can mark us.
I was not a film buff and still rarely go to the cinema.
In Moscow, we had to see three films a day for five years. It was obligatory. There were films of all origins, but no African films – things were completely closed to an entire continent. I loved Italian film, German film, American film…
We would go from cinema to cinema. The art of viewing became a sensation.
To do and to watch are different things. I go to see a film when I am invited.
I don’t try to produce a classical or easy narrative because I don’t think that you necessarily have to convince. A film is about asking someone to take a step in your direction, about asking him or her to share.
You have to know what type of shot you choose. I am aware that people can get very bored in my film. After a while, there is always something that explodes to wake up those who’ve fallen asleep! You use film techniques to draw the spectator in your direction…
A film is not in the bag once the scenario exists. You have to forget the scenario to go to shoot. And you have to forget the shoot to go to edit…
The scenario is never definitive. I consider it a developed synopsis that I work from during the shoot.
« Octobre« : Russia was a difficult country. I needed to make a film that would enable me to leave. I met a very great Russian director of photography, who had shot three films with Tarkovski – Gheorghy Rerberg. I explained the screenplay of the feature film « Le fou de Sokolo » to him, a film that I have never made. It’s the story of a man who returns to his village and who meets up with a childhood friend who is fettered for being mad. He devotes his life to him to protect him. In the end, he goes mad himself. It’s in part my father’s story.
He said to me: can you not make it? I never did.
For « Octobre« , he said that he was interested but that the key element was missing from the scenario. « You have to find it. You can call me until midnight ». I thought and I called him: « She’s pregnant and he doesn’t know it ». It wasn’t in the scenario. « Octobre » was made in that spirit.
With « Heremakono« , whatever happened one day determined the next. I met Maata when our car got stuck in the sand by the sea. I asked if he would act in the film. You have to accept cinema as something magical.
The problem is that you feel extremely anxious when you don’t plan everything out.
Mama Keïta: You have managed to impose your approach, which goes against the grain of what people expect when someone makes a film. That was definitely the case with « La Vie sur terre »…
The film was one of a series of ten films that recount the entry into the third millennium. I was the only African asked whereas the other continents were represented more than once. It wasn’t a comfortable position.
They called me in Angola, asking me to send a synopsis the very next day. I asked for more time – for two days. They agreed to three. I was making « Rostov-Luanda« , and didn’t have the time to think about it.
I sent « La Chute d’Apollo« : a train driver stops en route at the different villages that ask him to stop. Apollo has woman problems in every station and has four minutes to resolve them! ARTE and Haut et Court agreed.
I asked for a scriptwriter. They suggested three names, including Olivier Laurel who had worked with Idrissa Ouedraogo. He came to a cottage in South Africa and we began to write « La Chute d’Apollo« . The production company wanted the film to be set in South Africa. We went looking for locations and came back to Paris where I realised that I could never shoot in South Africa, which is a foreign country to me.
I phoned the production company to say I wouldn’t do the project.
I explained to Pierre Chevalier (ARTE) that there was a great injustice vis-à-vis Africa. I wanted to explain that this subject wasn’t suitable for this series. I suggested that he let me to go to my father’s village, to Sokolo, to make the film for the series. Pierre Chevalier asked me what the story would be. A radio set and a telephone that doesn’t work to say that the intention to communicate is more important than communication itself. There is a world that invents means of communication but which isn’t capable of greeting its neighbour.
I wanted to go to see my father and to film him. My father taught me to be able to renounce things. He went to flying school at the St Cyr (military academy) and his mother forbade him to fly. He didn’t fly and retrained in meteorology.
Missed encounters are the most important of all. We needed a female character for a meeting that never takes place. I also asked for there to be no screenplay. Pierrre Chevalier said: « If I had to explain to my boss in one sentence why a film should be made without a screenplay, what would that sentence be? » The sentence came straight out of me: « My conception of film is that it is about chance ». He said that the film had to be made for the love of chance.
Nana entered the picture with her bike, dressed exactly as she is in the film.
My father said to me: « If you want to speak about me, you have to speak about others to get to me ». And that’s the truth.
Question: You stage yourself in « La Vie sur terre ».
That’s the right term – I stage myself and I won’t do it again! I’m no actor. You have to be involved in a documentary. Coming to a village that has never been filmed was very delicate. We didn’t film inside any compound. I felt that I needed to be ridiculous too, on the same level as those I filmed.
Question: Is your work autobiographical?
Nearly all my films. Film is deeply autobiographical for me, even if you adapt a novel. When you manage to resemble the other, you exist more.
Through Abdallah in « Heremakono« , I construct characters he would like to be like, their failings included. Maata’s death was not planned in the scenario. The most important elements aren’t in it. It was guided by the unconscious. I wanted death to be a beginning, to be sublimated. When Maata wants the child to be witness to his death, it isn’t to destroy him, but for him to be alive.
We are in constant contact with death in my culture. I’ve been living in Paris for ten years now. People aren’t aware of death on a day-to-day basis. The child is strong because death is not necessarily a weakness.
Question: What value do you attribute to symbols?
They contain what you feel. When a light bulb doesn’t work, it’s the child who comforts. We say Karamoro (master) in Dioula to someone we don’t know when we hail them.
Question: The real between documentary and fiction…
I am unable to formulate what I know. Others can help me. You don’t make films if you are someone who doubts. I abandon things that are precious and go towards other things. I’d make my film weaker if I made it fixed. I give myself margins of freedom at the risk of not being understood. The first twenty minutes don’t work well. Very few people get into the film easily.
Question: Which public do you film for?
I try to address all audiences, whilst recognising that film is a language that is more or less accessible. I strongly believe that this continent’s major deficit is that it is recounted by outsiders. It’s a continent of anonymous souls. I try to focus on people. I try to communicate to those who think, who are strangers to my universe, that you can be poor everywhere. When people reduce immigration to a question of economics when humanity was founded on exchange, we are impoverished. These bodies that are washed up are the very symbol of the rejection of the other. To leave is a freedom. Anyone who has not journeyed away from home, even if only in his or her mind, misses out on something. But when an African wants to leave, we reduce him to the economic. There is no respect for the other.
Moussa Touré’s « Toza è bélé » (« We are many« ) is an extraordinary film because it contains both horror and humanity. Others reduce Africa to just to the horror.
You can stop to contemplate something everyday. If you are capable of waiting three hours for a lizard to move, you are in the realm of creation. In this respect, documentary is as hard as fiction.

///Article N° : 5671


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