Co-director of the film Le Silence de la Forêt with the Cameroonian director Bassek ba Kobhio, Didier Ouenangaré comes from the Central African Republic.
What was your initial intention with this film?
The initial idea was to draw attention to the Pygmies, an ethnic minority ignored by the politicians, the administration, and the world in general. When you go into the heart of the forest, you realise that deforestation is making it impossible for them to live from hunting, gathering, and nature as they used to. They are at risk of being wiped out like the Native Americans, only they wont even be confined to reserves! Gonaba’s role serves to hold a mirror up to show the Central Africans what they are doing.
It’s not only racist; it’s a human catastrophe too. I have had several opportunities to make documentaries about the Pygmies. Catholic nuns are trying to integrate them into the civil population by sending the youngest members of the Pygmy population to schools, but it doesn’t work because they go about it the wrong way. You can’t take someone who has lived a life firmly rooted in the forest and ask him to live like a Westerner. It isn’t for us to impose what we want. It’s true that Westerners came and imposed the way in which we live today on us, which isn’t only negative, but it’s better to ask people what they want.
The film seems to address both Westerners and Africans.
Gonaba doesn’t pull off the change he hopes for when he brings the Pygmies the revolution that learning to read and write represents. The patriarch asks him what use it is to them in the heart of the forest when their prime concern is to move about and to hunt deep in the forest. We ought to leave the Pygmies in their natural environment. Deforestation represents a real danger for them, as it does for the rest of the world.
Didn’t making a film amongst the Pygmies, with all the equipment and methods that had to be brought in, risk having the opposite effect from what the film advocates?
No, because I got them to act in their natural language, Aka. Eriq Ebouaney had to learn the Central African language, Sango, to play his role. I am the first to be fascinated by the Pygmies. Two had already gone on tour in folkloric dance troupes abroad, but the rest had never left their village! I told them that we were going to film a tale and that they needed to think that they were in the tale itself. But when I wanted to marry two actors in the film, they refused for fear of the husband’s reaction But with some cigarettes, a drink, and a good long discussion, they agreed.
The old patriarch character is incredible.
Yes, he is one of the people who have never been to the town. He even played it up a bit at times. On some days he didn’t want to work in the morning until I gave him something to drink. They find it hard to do without alcohol. They make it themselves, and drink palm wine. Their life is natural, and you can’t call it lazy, but it is very peaceful!
An entire crew in a Pygmy village couldn’t have been very easy logistically speaking.
We looked for a site that wasn’t too far from a town, but at the same time was sufficiently far away. We built a village to house the Pygmies, and another for the studio. Everything that you see in the film is a village-studio, built according to the screenplay. They lived in an adjoining village built specially for them.
Gonaba does not go back to Simone at the end of the film. It’s a bit frustrating for the viewer.
It was never intended that he go back to Simone to respect the screenplay and each person’s choice to imagine what comes next.
We met in Bangui in 2000 when the country was getting back on its feet after the 1997 riots. With everything that has happened since in the Central African Republic, how were you able to shoot this film?
It was difficult, but it wasn’t impossible. I have a stubborn nature. I was a TV cameraman at France 3 for ten years. When I decided to go back to the Central African Republic, everyone told me that there was nothing there and that I would never be able to make a film. But I knew that if I gave up, no one would do it in my place. I knew the difficulties that lay ahead. Bassek ba Kobhio was exactly the right man for the job, being as stubborn as I am. We shot in a very difficult militaro-political situation, during curfews even, but we managed.
Was it your first shoot?
I had made several video shorts, including Pourquoi voter?, which attacks the fact that people only vote for their ethnic group for fear of being considered a traitor. It was the 50 000 FF grant awarded by the Agence intergouvernmentale de la francophonie at the Amiens film festival that clinched things for this film. The final budget stood at 12 million FF. We received backing from various institutions, but also from the government who backed our application to the European Union. And the local population was really willing to work with us.
What were your and Bassek’s roles?
It was initially my project, but as I wanted to put as many strengths as possible on my side, I didn’t hesitate to ask him for his help to work on the screenplay. Bassek is a well-known filmmaker, which gave the film credibility. I went to the INA in 1999 to work on the screenplay, and then to Amiens. I suggested that we worked together on the shoot. He mainly took care of the technical side of the shoot, whereas I was in charge of the artistic direction of the Pygmies, as I know how to speak Sango and Aka.
Did the fact that Bassek is well known de-posses you of the film at all?
It’s the first Central African feature film, Didier Ouenangaré’s project, who agreed to work with Bassek ba Kobhio as he is a professional. He played a large part in making this film a success. We both put our hearts into it. It’s a collective collaboration. Sembene Ousmane co-directed Camp de Thiaroye with two other directors.
Given that the Central African Republic was totally devastated, how did you manage to shoot a film?
We had to import everything – the main technicians and leading actors. When I decided that the Cameroonian actor Eriq Ebouaney would play Gonaba, Bassek was worried that the press would go mad.
Did he really eat live caterpillars?
Yes. They’re very succulent, like oysters!
Nadège Beausson-Diagne told me that it wasn’t easy with the Central Africans, who felt that their roles had been stolen from them.
Yes, I was the first to suffer from this because people reproached me even at a governmental level for choosing foreigners. But the joint funding agreements had to be respected. Gabon and Cameroon invested money in the film and it was logical that we use technicians from these countries. In the Central African Republic, we employed a dozen young trainees who we trained in each area. They can now apply for a training grant from the French technical assistance programme.
Will it be possible to show the film in the Central African Republic?
The Minister of Culture is going to discuss the matter in a government cabinet meeting. He wants to make it a national event in October 2003, with a week of festivities. Since General François Bouzizé came to power, calm has returned and we can hope that the future will be brighter.
What was the greatest difficulty at the end of the day?
The financial difficulties, but also the solitude! I divorced four times. People never understood me when I was working to make this film happen. They saw me working away, but without any concrete outcome. I hope that they will understand me now, now that the film exists!
///Article N° : 5698