« Africa will necessarily find its pace and inspiration soon »

An interview with Gaston Kaboré, by Olivier Barlet

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During the Africamania festival at the Cinémathèque française in Paris (from Jan. 16 to March 17, 2008), Gaston Kaboré will give a cinema lesson. A short version of this interview is published in the program of the festival. In the full version which follows, the filmmaker from Burkina-Faso goes back over his work, his conception of cinema, his responsibilities within the FEPACI and the various educational projects he sets up with the Imagine center in Ouagadougou.

1- Gaston Kaboré, you studied History at university before coming to the world of cinema. For you, as for many other filmmakers, it was important to change the way in which Africa was considered, to challenge prejudices, to reappropriate its gaze and memory. Thus, all your films deal with the quest for identity, which is a controversial concept. Do you think it is still necessary for African films?
I do not think my films are about identity as such but rather about the quest for identity, for memory, for the understanding of our path in history, because to me this understanding is the only way to grasp and build our present. I do not believe identity is something fixed or a static spot to be rediscovered. It is a journey rather, a quest to discover oneself. We must be curious about ourselves, not to find the perfect man who is supposed to have existed, but to realize that we are not what we are by chance, that something mental, psychological, cultural, historical and imaginary conditions our attitude – be it deliberate or not, at a given moment in time, in relation to exterior events and the world that surrounds us. Since I first of all worked in the field of history, I progressively understood that Africa’s history was told and written almost exclusively by Europeans, and I found this situation more and more disturbing. It became unbearable in my eyes, mind and consciousness that Africa be so blind and mute vis-à-vis itself. I had the feeling that Africa was literally drowned and suffocated by the West’s all-powerful gaze, and that it was a deadly handicap. I started to feel an urgent need to act against this process of disfigurement and dispossession; cinema then appeared to me as a favourable means to journey in the self-consciousness of Africans. I like to focus on the future, but I know I come from somewhere; that is what I want to examine because it helps to understand the future. I am wary of the words’identity’ and’authenticity’ because they are heavily connoted; they are even traps due to Africa and the West’s past traumatic relations and current ambiguous links. I want to understand who I am, discover myself dynamically and, at the same time, shape myself and take part in the process of reworking of a collective and plural memory in perpetual motion. I would love to believe there is a reason for me to be on earth. This is not an obsession but I think about it all the time; it gives me the energy to get to know other people and understand the world that surrounds me. I firmly believe that all Africans vaguely feel this vital need to reappropriate their own experience of history, their view and their interpretation of the world. African peoples must find their own inspiration again.
2- The starting point is Aimé Césaire’s wonderful phrase,’Who and what are we? What an admirable question!’ and we go on to a quest for the self which is defined as constant.
Absolutely. And I think we cannot live without an acute consciousness of our existence. What we lack is a greater popularization of history and philosophy; we no longer have time to reflect, that is the saddest thing. We are losing grip amid certainties we keep being told, because the real salvation of our reason and deep soul lies in questioning. Only questioning takes us to new shores from where our quest will take us elsewhere.
3- In view of today’s identity drifts, isn’t your cinema -like all cinemas in Africa- forced onto the fringes?
What is surprising is that such a question is never asked about European and North-American films. In whose eyes is African film considered to be marginalized? The whole question lies there. The whole of Africa is being marginalized all the time by people who compare it again and again to other parts of the world, on the basis of criteria and parameters set outside of Africa’s own ideological frameworks and scales of value… Actually, my conviction is that Africa must first and foremost deal with its own necessities of cultural and social creation and communication. We are faced with the huge and urgent job of reappropriating ourselves, our gaze, our perception of the world, and of remobilizing our mental, psychological and social energies, and regaining our imaginary world and genius. Cinema must contribute to this as incisively as possible; Africa has barely started to produce the films it deserves, in terms of quality and quantity. African people have barely started to see themselves through their own eyes and to tell their stories with their own words and images. The only danger I see is not our marginalization in relation to a territory which excludes us, but our complete loss in the absence of ourselves. This is what I believe.
4- You like to say that images are worth a thousand words. To what extent do you think the reversal of the other’s gaze and the construction of one’s own gaze is more easily done through cinema?
Cinema is an art, but also a mass medium. The way it is consumed gives it a particular impact. In Africa, we used to consume images and narratives that were made by others and we were reduced to the position of viewers deprived of their own cinematographic vision of their surrounding reality.
In all the images screened across Africa (in cinemas, on TV and on video), Africa itself is underrepresented, which makes African people invisible to themselves. Africa absolutely must increase its capacity to produce images exponentially in order to curb this lack of representation on its own soil.
In such a context, our films inevitably have a specific positioning, because viewers have singular expectations; our images talk to them differently than most of those they are bombarded with every day. I am convinced that the films by African filmmakers ask the audience singular questions and take the viewers to specific parts of their consciousness, of their memory and imagination…
This is the reason why we must fight, whatever it takes, to continue to make films because they play an irreplaceable role in our audiences’ vision and consciousness. If by chance we should stop our struggle and our job as producers of images and stories targeted at our own peoples, the earth would not stand still but it would cause tremendous damage to the young people of our countries who yearn for references, meaning and social projects.
5- You started making films in the 1980’s, in a time of disillusionment after the dreams of independences. Yet, you took a certain energy from the tale, as well as a narrative technique. Was it a way to look further?
I hope so. I think the reworking of memory is a long job and almost imperceptible, but all the rest depends on it. Of course, we must live with our time and act politically to move on toward a better development and fulfilment of our societies, but I believe we are conscious beings, which requires acting and reacting constantly. The most difficult part is to manage time with a deep perception of duration, a duration that is beyond us because we are limited by death. Remaining within this limited time is derisory; we act for a continuation. Similarly, I potentially existed even before I was born because people preceded me, I am their successor. I will eventually leave this earth without the feeling of having progressed a lot, but the will to achieve something is already the beginning of my transformation into another self. The tale has a real strength and that is not specific to Africa. Storytelling evenings are more and more frequent all over the world; authors are storytellers again, as in ancient times. In this era characterized by new technologies, people need to get to meet each other, to gather at a given place to listen together to words and stories. The need for stories and narratives is part of human consciousness. It is most likely that there will be a renewed passion for such meetings around tales. The force of the tale lies in its capacity to renew itself constantly, to be anchored to a contemporary reality.
6- Is the tale a permanently new reading of the world’s reality and social relationships?
It absolutely is. And I am willing to think that people have the capacity to achieve this actualization instinctively. Today, it has a really specific meaning to them, if they take the time needed to open up to it. I strongly believe in the intuitive intelligence of the viewer. For me, it was obvious that I needed to find a narrative form that was deeply anchored in human experience, so that I would be able to express myself through cinema for the first time. The tale was one of these forms. Wend Kuuni is a simple story which sparked interest beyond my wildest dreams. I wanted to tell a story which would be understood immediately by people from my homeland. Behind this simplicity of the film, people could understand themselves in a complex manner. That is the paradox. The tale leaves place for individual experience; everyone can see what one wishes according to one’s own personal experience and can tell oneself something different.
7- This is the starting-point of a specific conception of cinema. In Wend Kuuni as well as in Buud Yam, there is a firm will to escape fate. Yet, the characters are not heroes. Learning to speak in Wend Kuuni and the quest for the father in Buud Yam are only attempts at understanding oneself to approach the world. Do you prefer to describe an initiation rather than to stage a crisis?
Yes, probably. But isn’t our existence a crisis in itself? The initiatory aspect is omnipresent. The entire course of life is initiatory. I am not saying your wording is wrong, but our world is changing all the time. We try to establish markers but we quickly realize they are changing too. The solving of a crisis is only a moment that vanishes fast, and other crises arise at once to be eventually solved as ephemerally.
8- While Zan Boko theorizes it, all your other films deal with the loss of rural values caused by modern practices. Rabi’s grandfather advises his grandson to listen to nature, thus closely linking the environment and the respect of the human being. Can we say this is programmatic for you and African cinemas at large?
I don’t think modernity is totally incompatible with humaneness, but in Zan Boko I ask the question of the possibility of an improvement of our living conditions together with a preserved human dimension.
The message in Zan Boko is not so much to condemn the bourgeois who resorts to reprehensible means to dispossess farmer Tenga of his land. It is rather to denounce the tragic mistake of purely and simply denying the rural world’s legitimacy to participate in the definition of a social project at the heart of which is the human. The rural word’s economic insignificance does not mean ipso facto that it is morally and philosophically insignificant. There are riches that cannot be bought. You do not have to be against modernity, but you absolutely must avoid reducing yourself simply to the material, and ultimately derisory, manifestations of this modernity, which is in itself waiting to acquire the status of tradition.
9- What accounts for the place given to length in the handling of time in your screenwriting: cultural intuition or theoretical intention?
It is more related to personal experiences, and thus to intuition. I do not believe we can build a theory without experimentation. I tried to communicate in the deepest and most intuitive way possible; things progressively appeared essential to me. I understood that when people take the time to say hello, this is not a waste of time. All this did not occur to me just like that. First, I wanted to understand the social practices and go beyond appearances in order to reach the substance, the aesthetic and the ethic. Secondly, I started to look for the right way to convey such things in my films. Naturally, it resulted in an expression and a style that are still evolving.
10- Are there scenes where the question came up, in a disagreement with the editor for instance?
As soon as I started making films, I had the good luck and extreme satisfaction to have Andrée Davanture as my main editor, so such a disagreement never occurred. She is a real professional, curious about other cultures. She has always respected expressive attempts, sensibilities and the narrative traditions of the directors she has worked with. Andrée Davanture believes that each film develops its own necessity to live and to reach audiences. She thinks each auteur expresses an intense desire to communicate and tell his or her own stories, and that as a result every « cinematographic being », every movie deserves to attain its proper uniqueness. The consequence of Andrée’s philosophy is that she works for the auteurs and the films through a creative and fertile collaboration in which discovery, astonishment, enlightenment, depth, nuances, force, complexity and poetic quality combine.
Flaubert used to say:’Rely firmly on the rules, they are bound to give way in the end.’ To me, this is an invitation to refuse submission to academicism, standardization and dogmatism. It is a call for exploration, inventiveness and fruitful risk. It seems to me Andrée Davanture has always acted as a ferment, a stimulation for the directors who work with her, with a total respect for their desires, their quests for meaning, their will and aspirations for telling and confiding. When you think about it, when you work with Andrée Davanture, the cutting room becomes a living laboratory in which you undertake an initiatory trip to the edge of your desire to be…
11- You have often said that in African cinemas,’reality is always the body and heart of films.’ Do you still think it is true, at a time when in response to Europeans’ sociological demands, filmmakers refuse the necessity to testify?
Reality is the basis of almost all our films. Whatever Africa has experienced so far is an inevitable burden. We are faced with the urgent need to set the elements of our own definition because we are the prisoners of the Western gaze. We have been conditioned and we must work on changing that and get rid of what was imposed on us! It is the condition of our singular experience, which will encounter unavoidable hitches but will enable us to find the key to kickstart our imaginations! Clashes will continue; this is what helps us to shape. We must learn to get rid of what is useless, of what weighs us down and prevents us from moving on. We must free ourselves from the net of the Western gaze. However, if the freedom of creation must remain an essential creed, we always create from places that are part of us and dwell within us… We are condemned to speak out, and the refusal to acknowledge this fact is in itself the sign of a deeply significant disorder.
12- Do you feel there are more blockages or hopes today?
We are scared of questioning ourselves too much for fear of what we might learn about ourselves! We do not make films just for ourselves. While they are not autobiographical, my films are about me and also an infinite ensemble of concentric territories animated, besides, by a double movement that is centrifugal and centripetal. Is there a blockage today? We often define ourselves in too narrow a way. We should instead define ourselves within the process of a constantly renewed initiation. I do not know much, but it’s my duty to seek to understand myself, understand others and the vast world. We sought too early to categorize African cinematographic expression, which turned out to be very harmful in many respects. How many momentums were stopped? How many filmmakers’ personalities were stifled? How many false conflicts were artificially created between filmmakers who could have enriched each other? How many generations of families, clans, and statuses of filmmakers were hastily established, thus spreading confusion, frustration and futile acrimony within the community of African filmmakers? The worst blockages are those that prevent us from opening up to others and their works, from considering that their successes and conquests enrich us instead of depriving us of something. Of course, all the other unanswered questions as to the financing of our films, the distribution and the exploitation across our continent, the training of young professionals, the emergence of endogenous critics, the lack of exposure of African stories on TV channels etc., all these are real blockages too, but I place my hopes in our capacity to overcome them step by step. I am perfectly optimistic because I believe Africa has all the human and economic resources, all the energies and talents needed to build its own destiny. This may take time but, whatever, the movement has begun and many fertile creative groups are already active. Images, accounts and stories are waiting to continually flourish and nothing will ever be able to contain them. Africa will necessarily find its pace and inspiration soon.
13- Between 1985 and 1997, you were the devoted leader of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (or FEPACI). What is your assessment of this experience?
If the FEPACI did not exist, it should be invented today! Since the day it was set up in Tunis in 1970, nothing else has ever been in a better position to express the desire of professionals to work together to make cinema serve the cultural, historical, political and social development of Africa’s peoples. It is no easy task to inform, convince and motivate various partners like African governments, institutions, cooperation organizations (either continental or regional), economic operators and investors to act in a coherent way. That is why some are weary and impatient, but we cannot skip this long and necessary effort to inform and lobby. Only the FEPACI has the technical and moral legitimacy to do so. This is why I remain a staunch defender of the FEPACI. If today we put an end to the FEPACI on the pretext that it is unable to transform reality fast, we would lose all the benefits of forty years’ work carried out by at least three generations of filmmakers demanding the right for Africa to control its plural image and gaze.
14- In 2003, you created the training organization Imagine in Ouagadougou in order to provide high-level training, but also to start a multidisciplinary and critical reflection to enrich cinematographic creation in Africa. Is an assessment of it already possible?
On February 28, the Imagine institute will be five years old. As many as 418 professionals have benefited from training within the institute. Many of them have kept in touch with us because they are convinced they spent time in a place that is exceptional on the human and creative levels. The technical content of the training, as well as the exchanges and sharing of experiences make Imagine a singular melting-pot which contributes greatly to give everybody new stimulation. Many of them have since been able to put what they learnt into practice and wish to receive other trainings. Young people often tell us that they feel they do not receive enough consideration in their need for training. It is not easy to make them understand that at Imagine, we would like to set up three to four times as many workshops as there are now. Actually, the ambition of the institute is to organize 24 workshops a year for around 300 participants, from 2009 on. So we can say that considering all the constraints and restrictions we have to face, the results so far are quite satisfying, even if they are far from our ambitions and our initial goals.
15- What makes Imagine different from a film school?
By philosophical choice, the Imagine institute has focused since its beginning on offering specialist training and adult education in the film industry, television or multimedia professions. As a consequence, until further notice, we do not offer long, basic training courses, which makes us different from a standard school. Relatively speaking, I would say we are closer to the educational principles of the INA (1) in France than to Louis Lumière or the FEMIS (2). Besides, in Burkina, our work is complementary to that of the Institut Supérieur de l’Image et du Son (ISIS), a two-years basic training school created by the Burkinabè government which welcomes French-speaking students from all over Africa.

1. French national institute for audiovisual archives, training and research – translator’s note.
2. European Foundation for Image and Sound.
This interview carried out in December 2007 was revised by Gaston Kaboré before its publication.
Translation by Thibaud Faguer-Redig///Article N° : 7953


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