What authorizes you to refer the mevungu ritual of Beti women in film?
I’m always torn between seriousness and levity. I go looking for a content, a meaning, which shapes « African » film, not in the modern meaning but mythological one too. I discovered the mevungu in the novel Le Tombeau du Soleil by Philippe Laburthe Tolra (Le Seuil / Point Odile Jacob) who teaches at the Sorbonne. We had even started to adapt the novel to the screen but the production went out of business and the project aborted. Though I’m myself a Beti, I didn’t know this rite. This secret society of women rarely performed this rite, only when everything was going wrong. They used to cast men out to do this rite aimed at restoring life in the face of serious events that could harm the community. Women used this force of nature to change the way of things. Sex wasn’t at the origin, it was more the female genitals. In Beti, the same root refers to cohabitation, offspring, progenitor – at least around fifteen words with no relation to sex. I was thinking that with all the bad things going on in Africa and in Cameroon in particular, it was time to practise that rite again! However, I didn’t want to mention it at the beginning: things had to be felt without mentioning it. I wanted to get something magic out of the editing; I didn’t want it to be assimilated with music videos. People had to feel it as being truly African. That made me add the woman’s voiceover talking about mevungu. But it didn’t mean it had to be defined. This force of feminine nature had a resonance with the ills of Cameroonian society today. During a stay in Cameroon, I wanted to meet a minister but I didn’t succeed. A young woman told me she could sort it out for me. I quickly understood it was a network and I could have met the whole government that way! These young women control the workings of the system and they have a certain power. There’s a collective complicity, which is understandable considering the context but it’s not without repercussions on a society’s ability to flourish. I also saw a beautiful girl whose family blamed her for leaving them in poverty by not making the most of her sex appeal! I wanted this ethical question to be in the film. Between the ages of 15 and 20, girls quickly ask themselves: this guy has what I want, should I sleep with him or not? Poverty does not justify a lack of ethics. Where should one draw the line? Girls play a lot with this line: should I trip? I was interested in this ethical question in addition to the idea of a rite healing a dying society. I didn’t want to simply depict a dying society with corrupted girls.
It might have quickly fallen into déjà-vu.
Yes, and above all to depict an image that everybody criticizes. If I criticize, who do I criticize? I’ve reached an age where I think that I’m not that powerless. I just can’t rebel without feeling responsible. So I thought it’d be a hell of a way out and not a descent into hell. The idea was to imagine an alternative. I wanted characters who are suffering at the beginning, who don’t have any plans, who make mistakes, who are confronted with these old watching women but who eventually fix up a plan that works more or less, that leads to a flight foreshadowing a sort of victory.
I edited the film myself because it was always in progress; to find a form that would be the closest to the mevungu’s mythological, social, political but also entertaining dimension. I wanted spirited girls who laugh and dance, and have a desire to take their revenge on men.
Let’s talk about the form, then. It was filmed practically by night only, with very constructed lightening, plays on colors, shady sets that highlight the characters, giving the impression that you are interested in moving bodies. At the same time, there is a systematic fragmentation, using jolts, slow motions, ellipses. These highlighted bodies are constantly the object of a modelling.
Yes, but it’s also a social modelling.
It’s true. The African body by day has become a code that doesn’t express its essence anymore.
So you felt the urge to deconstruct an image to rebuild it?
Exactly. Like in Aristotle’s Plot which was about rebuilding Africa, the night is a less definite set than the real natural Africa by day. Film enables you to reinvent a future. The lightening helped me redefine what we would like Africa to be. Many people do not think that Africa can look like that, but everything is possible with cinema. The first thing is to capture people’s imagination, to open possibilities. This escape from hell had to be beautiful. The girls have their bodies and mouths to negotiate with, because they speak a lot. Their bodies are their main material. Body, words, money, are the three elements of negotiation, it reflects what is going on in Cameroonian society.
Does the fast editing playing a role in this reconstruction?
The girls’ unhappiness is obvious. It should be felt like the presence of the mevungu, this invisible force. It all should be felt on the screen. It is said that everything is slow in Africa but the rhythms aren’t: if the editing is a rhythm, it needed this tension.
Lately, we have seen filmmakers multiplying jerky images like Manthia Diawara in his films on African cities. We can interpret it as an attempt to break with a voyeuristic or scenic vision. Is it right to say that Les Saignantes tries that type of rupture while still employing references that speak to youngsters; which is called nowadays the « imagery cinema ». Music video codes enable a move away from identification to establish a distance that is both a reflection, but also a belonging to an ultimately reassuring model. Isn’t this ambiguity of form problematic; the viewer might become a consumer of references?
Of course. When I was making the film, I kept in mind that the African population is less than 15 years old: I wondered how I could address them. I don’t have an objective viewpoint. The principle of identification is the starting point of cinema, and it begins with the casting call. If I see someone who looks like me or has something I want, he/she has my vote. I’ve always wondered who wanted to be like African film characters. It’s an elementary question. As a lecturer in the United States, high-school students were brought to my class to see how a black man teaches, just because it is thought that Blacks need to be able to identify and that seeing a Black man teaching shows them that it’s possible for them to learn or even to teach. Youngsters don’t reflect on the film, they take it at first degree. They often blame us for making Africa look bad: why don’t we make films like the others? The sape fashion style is typical of the Africans’ concern for their image. It’s by solving their image problem that the rest is solved. In the film, Yaoundé can be beautiful. Many African women don’t know that they’re more beautiful than African-American women. It’s this type of question that the film tries to advance.
The casting was therefore essential!
We had to find the two girls to pull off the film. Philippe Adrien from the Cartoucherie theatre in Paris helped me a lot. If they were too strong physically, they looked like professionals: we chose frailer girls, with different skins, different accents. We couldn’t choose just one but the pair because there were inseparable. They had to be beautiful otherwise it would have been a social film.
Emile Abossolo looks quite expressionless in comparison. The men in the film are not very attractive!
His accepting the role was a real gift because he’s a big name. He made the others comfortable and made things a lot easier. He’s a real perfectionist and pulled everybody up. Africa can learn from this culture of excellence! He got into the character’s skin and the way he interprets him has a profound echo in Cameroonian culture, with this heaviness of power. The bad guy is always the hardest to play in films! He is a sex maniac, a voodoo dictator, yet intelligent and handsome; it was a gamble to create the character! Working with actors is a true experience: they bring a lot when they appropriate the part.
What were the big difficulties when shooting in Yaoundé?
There are no good technicians there anymore. Youngsters don’t have the required experience yet. The costs are multiplied, without any additional aid. What is disastrous for the country is that we sit back and watch a project arrive without ever getting involved. There are no interlocutors. We were given a 20-euro reduction on our Cameroonian Airline tickets! Moreover, to change the date, we had to pay 100 euros. I’m lucky to be a little experienced but I don’t see how the young can manage. It would have been cheaper if I had shot in Paris! All the necessary logistics to bring people here and to put them up represent a lot of money while the local wages are not even that low. In Cameroon, everything is business. However, there are many excellent actors, many of whom are in the film.
« Quartier Mozart » made quite an impact, so Les Saignantes was greatly awaited in Cameroon.
Yes, I don’t want to lose that connection with the audience. The idioms, the vocabulary, the places are part of popular culture. It’s not realism but people will relate to it. However, this type of popular films has a hard time finding funds!
Don’t you sit at on an Agence de la Francophonie funding commission?
Yes, but only since very recently. I spend my time questioning the dynamic of cinema posed. How can we make sub-standard Yeelens or Hyenas nowadays? There are masters and masterpieces: when people come with projects of far poorer quality, how do you defend them? We must leave room for films that experiment with form. All genre films are systematically rejected, just because thought to be caricatured and cliché. I know something about it! I studied physics at the University of Yaoundé. When you know how to solve an equation, you feel at ease, you control. But in cinema, there’s a refusal of academic excellence. These commissions give « out of pity » with arguments that have nothing to do with cinema. Some play on this, cultivating difference.
Is the Bill Clinton foundation a funding alternative?
Bill Clinton created the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas: they selected 16 candidates for a leadership program for projects aimed at doing service to the community. That appealed to me as we have public service status. The foundation breaks its back to support the project we have defined, thanks to all their connections. At the end of the Les Saignantes’ shoot, the young people wanted to find ways to keep the energy going. I inherited an old building from my father in Yaoundé and I went to get authorization from the city hall to start something up. We’re looking for money to make it work; we want to create a local television: é4.
What do you teach in the United States?
I’ve taught cinema. The last course, at Duke University, was called the « invisible cinema ». Actually, I teach my approach: from where I start, how I proceed and what I have reached. We analyze extracts of films, shot by shot, to see from the editing point of view. It’s a course that attracts lots of students who are interested in this practical approach instead of theoretical lessons.
What have you learnt from this American experience?
I’ve been there since 1998. There are several United States and I have been lucky enough to be in the right one! There are some big names in universities. I have been lucky enough to meet Valentin Mudimbe or John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom’s author. I think pragmatism is interesting but I don’t like shallowness or lack of thoroughness. Black Americans impress me, even if the relationship isn’t easy. They’re like strangers in everyday life who have to constantly survive and struggle. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing convinced me as I was making Quartier Mozart that we could do films the way we are and with our culture, while still being modern. It was a tipping point: the way they speak English in the film is very close to the way we speak French in Cameroon. It gave me confidence. But the language remains a big obstacle because there aren’t lots of nuances. Africans annoy Americans man with their metaphors and the way they beat around the bush!
Translated by Sutarni Riesenmey///Article N° : 6934