Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda’s acerbic fable on dictatorial power, Le Damier (DCR), was a triumph at the 1997 Fespaco. He also directed the documentaries Dix mille ans de cinéma (1991) and Thomas Sankara (1991), and the short films Article 15bis and Watt (1999).
You once told me that your film style is inspired by the kasala, the language of the Kasaï griots. Is this conscious or spontaneous, a kind of subconscious reference?
The kasala are very moving to listen to, especially when you understand how they function not through emotions, but through images that the narrator conjures in you, the images of a brave past, of the present and future. Unlike the Malian griots, kasala performers do not glorify a person. They position him in a lineage, or a territory in a lineage. I thus wrote my texts starting out from a sculpture that is very close to the intertwined structures of the kasala. I applied this to my film Dix mille ans de cinéma. I first of all wrote it as you would a kasala, by trying, on a visual level, to weave what is said into what is filmed. Within the narrative sphere, I constantly tried to create this weave, which appears unstructured, but which becomes structured because that is how it’s meant to be. John Akomfrah from Ghana manages to create this same weave.
Is it right to say that such a reference helps you to inject emotion into the film language?
Yes, I think that you can take any subject to convey a serious issue, whether consciously or not. Film is manipulative! So, in order to tell a story, you first of all have to win the spectator’s confidence. He or she has to let go. I don’t mean emotion in the Senghorian sense of the word, which I find pejorative as it is couched in prejudice and the context of that time. For me, emotion is about winning someone’s confidence. Once you’ve installed that emotion, which might be laughter, fear, or simply attentiveness, you can say a lot of things. I’ll never forget the words of Xavier Ravira, a Peruvian poet I like a lot, which go: « I don’t know who to sing for, I don’t know why to sing, but what are we poets to do when we feel our throats burning? I don’t know the purpose of my song, but I cannot quell it. » Later he adds, « a population of illiterates need an aural pamphlet; people who know how to read need refinement ». So, if you have a serious story to tell, you have to start by treating it lightly in order to get some distance from it. Afterwards, anything is possible. Where I come from, in the Kasaï, the griot always starts by calling out to people. The most intense part of the kasala, for example, is a burial. Everybody comes and the griot has to help them to accept the loss. He always starts by calling out. He calls once, twice, three times. He says, for example, « I don’t believe it. I’ve called you three times and you haven’t answered ». He shows that you aren’t there, that you refuse to speak. He poetically makes the living understand that it’s death he’s speaking about, and that he is going to restore the history of the deceased, which is the history of the living the elders, the family, the ancestors, right up until the present. He situates each person in the funeral wake circle in his or her place by taking, for example, a misdeed of the past. By constantly evoking this leitmotif, you form the links of the same chain.
Does the restoration of memory reinforce the established order?
The speaker is always subversive. He isn’t part of the court, as in West Africa. He is considered a chief in his own right. The person who recounts memory interprets the world and always creates a rupture with himself by saying: « I’m telling you this, but when I die, who will speak about me? » And that is the most emotive moment. He distinguishes himself from the others and puts himself before the assembly, continuing to refer to this often. But he is subversive because he isn’t dependant on what people give him. This was how the texture was created in Dix Mille Ans. The voice-over was intended to set up a poetic malaise, to be tired, as if having come from afar, having walked. I myself have to be in conflict to achieve this. I either get drunk on whisky, which is what I did in Dix Mille Ans, but in the edit suite with a walkman so that the sound wouldn’t have the powerful professional texture of a DAT or a Nagra. In Sankara, I kept the same atmosphere but by trying to get the voice to capture the griot’s crescendos. The voice-over doesn’t really narrate the film; it narrates what I felt inside about this story, but with moments close to a griot from the West.
Can it be said that you and the other filmmakers of your generation are looking for a new film language that works on two fronts, rehabilitating certain film techniques that up until now have been too quickly forgotten, and reintegrating contemporary Africa’s deep realities in a way that is different to the « words for the world » narratives?
Absolutely. What is new in African cinema is that it is mainly made by people who live outside Africa in Western Europe, who are also profoundly European. They aren’t African anymore, they aren’t European; they are profoundly African, they are profoundly European. Because they live here, completely integrated into the environment, they understand the world in the same way that the French generation understands it, with the luck of having Africa, of being able to fall back on Africa. At the same time, living in Europe, seeing how Africa is depicted in documentaries or reports arouses the desire to say, « we are going to show you something different ». This presupposes experimenting how to say that, especially as we are confronted by French documentaries about Africa! Raymond Depardon’s film, Afriques, comment ça va avec la douleur? was as shock because we thought that its ethnographic approach had died with the end of exoticism. The films we want to make are Tarentino-type films, not Sembenian films. Sembene is a wonderful storyteller and director, but he isn’t a reference in terms of mise en scène or directing the actors. We learnt sensitivity, the harshness of colours, and emotion from Mambety, and a certain beauty of things and perfect intelligence from Haïle Gerima. In what respect does Mama Keïta represent a rupture? First of all because he is French, has access to French funding, shoots with small budgets, and shoots films like a guerrilla!
You are all concentrating on the creativity rather than on the internationalisation of film and banking on the strength of the image to attract the audience.
Quite honestly, I have never thought about the audience because I orally construct the stories I tell with my children, my partner, my friends, till the moment when the story has matured in the telling. I then write it down and the problem with the screenplay is that it becomes a universal object that other people will choose. You have to ask other people for funding, so you have to respect a narrative structure.
Do you use improvisation?
No. When I work with the actors, I smooth off all the rough edges. I start by putting them into a theatre situation, because they come from the theatre. I always work using a process of subtraction. We read the text and I realise, ah, he can’t pronounce that. I take the word out, only keeping the meaning. When someone keeps stumbling over a word, I don’t waste time on it. I replace it. If you want someone to appropriate both your words and your meaning, you have to give him rhythm. So I work a great deal. You have to be very careful when you have limited means, and I don’t believe in the wonders of improvisation! I intervene very little in the mise en scène on the shoot because the work has already been done beforehand. I simply try to restore the memory of what has already been achieved beforehand with the actors. I don’t direct anymore, I am already at their service, and it is they who carry the narrative.
///Article N° : 5555