For well-thought films

Interview with Mahamat Saleh Haroun by Olivier Barlet

Apt, November 2004
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An informal meeting at the Apt festival provided the opportunity to explore the ongoing trends and stakes of African film.
When referring to African film you like to talk about « a cinema of schizophrenia ». Why?
It is a reference to an article I wrote entitled « From Militant to Schizophrenic cinema »: which refers to a cinema that is leaving the realm of reality to entertain, but disguised as auteur films. I am not blaming anybody, but it is important to take responsibility for that. There are no bad films, everybody is trying to do what they can, but this type of films are trying to create an audience by imitating Hollywood films without admitting so. Alongside that are films that are not artistic films in the strict instinctive sense, which, like Moustapha Alassane’s for instance, depict their country, their traditions, and their culture, but are films made by people completely aware of the place they live in and the fight that needs to be fought. This necessarily brings about a new aesthetic. Frustrations, quarrels and jealousies are many but the issue is to make sure that we do not make a sub- cinema: we belong to a part of the world that is under-represented but we are trying to put it in the center, claiming that there is enough room for us. What’s new is this claim, which is no longer just an ambition anymore, to represent Africa insisting that its place is at the center and not on the margins.
Because they undergo it everyday, the issue for artists is to adopt a discourse on world marginality. Our problem is to offer another vision. All the films that come from Africa do it but some are very articulate in their approach. The means developed to make globalization triumph force us to be more than just artists; we have to resist too: film has to be an act that accompanies a structured approach.
Isn’t intuition enough anymore?
Exactly. We are losing great filmmakers who function on intuition. Structuring our thoughts and positioning Africa by saying where we are is very important: that’s what cinema history is waiting for. This period requires a consciousness supported by reflection. We cannot just produce to raise awareness etc. It’s not enough anymore. Humility is required to carry this discussion into the cinematic field, as an artistic creation in itself, and not only to make causes progress. If you set a film objectives, you have to take stock of its achievements, to give accounts. We’re not in that logic anymore. That explains the focus on the intimate which is asserting itself but also on documentary, which examines our own proximity, which raises the question of the observer, of what is before us. If there is an aesthetic, it will come from the documentary provided we appropriate digital technology and that we create our own economy. Everytime one gives a sincere point of view, we’re not interviewing an African in a given space but a man in his reality, therefore anyone can relate to him. That’s what we’d better decompartmentalize from the issue of production means, which is pushing us to shoot on digital, which again requires a cinematic approach that inevitably leads us to the relationship to the subject and even more urgently poses the question of film’s point of view, distance and the position to adopt.
The aesthetic chosen in Abouna is vey different from the one in Bye Bye Africa. Why this evolution?
Abouna is rather traditional. I tried to remember the light and colors of my childhood, emotions. Bye Bye Africa was more experimental, I focused everything on the formal, but I ended up concluding that nobody was interested in the debate. What’s vain derives from vanity, it’s better to avoid it. This film is a tribute to all the African films I’ve known in an attempt to do something new, but it didn’t trigger a debate with the filmmakers. I was disappointed and I thought that it wasn’t the right time and that I needed to come back to simple things. We can only move on if we propose new leads. This discussion about form is lacking: it’s no wonder some are stuck and that only some are advancing thanks to their universe and singularity.
The economy of the film industry is always mentioned, not its aesthetic.
Let’s come back to the marginality you were talking about, which seems to me to be the Gordian knot. You insist on the necessity of restoring Africa in the world, on its ability to play a role in the great dialogue of contemporary expressions by asserting that the contemporaneity which Africa is so often denied, a self-assertiveness that isn’t a priori marginal. But at the same time, being marginal could be a way of situating itself: it is such a part of African reality in the world that a positive marginality could become a stand, if not an identity. Isn’t the quest for new styles in cinema a way of being done with the old demons of victimization while still remaining inhabited by Africa? Aren’t this awareness and this future part of a definition of the self that is not negative, but rather a stand in the world as marginal? This positively assumed marginality could then be seen as the common characteristic of an aesthetical approach.
Exactly, it’s the same with the history of the word nigger that was turned into a positive word. Marginality has been turned into something positive in the effort to proclaim oneself a filmmaker while shaking off the ball and chains that we’ve been dragging for so long. The more you go forth into the world, the more you carry Africa. The further you go from home, the more you’re linked to it! We are then hindered by those who believe that geographical proximity bears the truth. In art history, exile has always been a wound that stimulates novelty. This new identity is always about interrogation and it is its strength.
That comes back to what Sylvie Kandé said: « uprooting is the basis of the poetic act. »
Yes. We all ought to leave our little corner of the world to realize what animates us. As far as artists are concerned, uprooting is highly stimulating. You can be uprooted at home too. We try to be the sum of everything we receive.
Moving away from territoriality goes against a whole artistic movement that has marked Africa since decolonization.
Yes, but things were presented in a problematical way. It’s not because one moves away that one is in the wrong. Some movements bring you closer because the field is wider. It enables to see things differently and to question oneself. When you are in close-up or focus on detail you can’t see the whole picture.
Bill Kouléany’s paintings presented here in Apt, go really far in the representation of the individual broken by war. Visual arts and theater are often ahead of film. How come? Its heavy cost or the difficulty of total art?
The trouble with film is that it’s a team effort in which each person gives his/her point of view. Painters’ and writers’ freedom is huge in comparison. A screenplay is submitted to many opinions. Regarded as a product meant for an audience, films must captivate that audience. An aesthetical and formal approach requires a lot of courage. Films are full of clichés, which corresponds pretty well to what Africa is subjected to: a place of projections and fantasies. The question of Africanness is only asked to African people: our leaving the jungle is not perceived as normal.
One never escapes the projection of the Other.
No, it’s exhausting. The problem is to free ourselves from the others’ visions and assert ourselves as an individual artist who’s not the sum of all those back home. Others’ visions shape the artistic work of everybody: it’s the structuring of thought that enables to break free. Contrary to what Ahmadou Hampâté Bâ used to say (you must know where you’re from to know where you’re going), many of us are saying: « the most important is to know where you are to know where you’re going. » You can know where you are from without knowing where you are. It’s that awareness that enables the emergence of aesthetical experimentation. You see more and more people are making films because they want to, whereas many before kind of fell into it. It wasn’t a personal choice.
That reminds me of a sentence in Alain Gomis’ L’Afrance; « My country is where my feet are ». Are African creators now managing to break out the mould they have been imprisoned in?
The tragedy with colonialism is that it is transmitted from generation to generation. It’s the individuals among the creative artists who get enough freedom to break out of it. A film like The Garden (« Le Jardin de Papa ») addressed it in 2004, but it is an exception. Kourouma was very free as a story teller, with no more complexes regarding language. I don’t know a lot of people who manage to achieve this degree of detachment. His self-awareness was all his strength, which enables us, like Abdourahman Walberi, to say « he was the best of them ». We can only achieve this by taking cinematic language as a means to express our own world and imagination. It’s a huge work on the self, a reflection on what you want to say and where you want to go.
Freeing oneself from language or from a dominating aesthetic isn’t new at all. Tutuola did it a long time ago. Aren’t people less trying to free themselves from something than integrating it, like Koffi Kwahulé integrates jazz in the music of his writing, or the literary rupture of a Kossi Efoui or an Alain Mabanckou?
Unfortunately, film doesn’t go that far formally speaking. We are polite and we have learnt our lessons well. We are less in integration than nomadism: we reproduce our encounters and influences without asking ourselves too many questions about very concrete desire to integrate things. It’s more a sort of openness, an African way of seeing things because in Africa the Other is always visible, he/she is not a danger, we integrate it. It is part of our memory: we don’t necessarily integrate the outside but what comes through us. It’s of the realm of the accessory, not of the essential or rupture.
All creation is vampiric and one is never indifferent to one’s surroundings. The surrealists took what inspired them from black art for their own rupture without worrying about its meaning. It’s the basis of this endless misunderstanding. We take and we reject at the same time. I sense that you’re talking about a completely different movement: a syncretism mixed with the ability to understand the Other. I thus wonder about the existence of a movement that would go beyond the simple acceptance of influences. Film is transformed by highly innovating trends, in Asia especially. Abderrahmane Sissako has developed an identifiable style, based on a manifesto including incertitude and doubt, the welcoming of randomness in a film’s construction. We find this style in Abouna: the curtains, the lights, the door closing on the mother whom we hear through it….
Alain Gomis also made a manifesto with L’Afrance. An aesthetic quest is inscribed in film history. Ruptures were the work of groups. Godard or Truffaut alone would not have had the same impact. A synergy is necessary and it’s what we’re lacking. Abderrahmane and I became closer on Bye Bye Africa and we support one another. This collaboration is a way forward. We’re trying to build up a family but the group is lacking.
It comes back to the necessity for a critical thought that carries a collective work.
Exactly. Big names are terribly crippling. Something other is asked of them than just having the instinct to produce beautiful things. Abderrahmane defines his approach very well, even if his architecture is built on the unpredictable. It’s these paths that matter. Asia opens up a different relationship to the medium itself that isn’t afraid of radicalism and forces everyone to evolve.
This brings us back to digital! The emergence of videographers almost everywhere in Africa who are trying this media are parallel to Abderrahmane’s project for an image center that would document all the spontaneous productions. What emerges is the desire to capture proximity in all its forms to release expression, to give this media all its force.
And maybe educate people so they can give a meaning to what they do. An artist is exciting when he/she can talk about his/her own work, which enables us to penetrate his/her universe. The space dedicated to our films is getting smaller: a clear discourse is important to defend them.
It’s music to my ear. The regrouping of African critics in a working federation goes in the direction of a reflection on film which could have a real impact.
It’s indeed not an accident if this federation is emerging now. We don’t have this confrontation with African critics because they do not perceive a film’s aesthetic as conveying meaning. As commercial channels for African film are lacking, the space that remains for us is that of a reflective film that only appeals to auteurs; added to which is schizophrenic film that goes round in circles, and which, when it flops sets us back badly.
Even popular products like Betting on Love don’t find an audience in the absence of a real distribution network.
Yes, that’s what I call being in a real dilemma: an absolute schizophrenia that pushes radicalization to the extreme thinking that we’re in Hollywood, that we’ll be distributed in 100 theaters in the country or that television channels will buy it. These films cannot exist because they’re elsewhere: in our dreams!

Translated by Sutarni Riesenmey///Article N° : 6932


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