How to reconnect with the young people?

Interview with François Woukoache, by Olivier Barlet

July/August 2000
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Africultures readers already know François Woukoache after having read the interview with him about his film Asientos in the « Slavery – has it been abolished? » dossier in issue nº 6. When he left on a long trip to Kigali, I still hadn’t had a chance to see Nous ne sommes plus morts, shot in Rwanda and screened at the Rwanda 2000 symposium. We nevertheless thought it important to include him in this dossier, so I asked him some general questions. The answers to the questions I also emailed him once I had seen his film are found at the end of the interview. O.B.

What was the starting point for Nous ne sommes plus morts?
It wasn’t a film project at first, but more the desire to go out there, to spend some time with the Rwandans, to see how life has started out again, how they think, what is happening to them now, the traces that have been left by what happened… and possibly to do something in terms of a film. It took four years to get off the ground, so the project changed quite a lot. Some people joined us, others left… At the end of it all, the writers came, which wasn’t at all envisaged at the outset. I thought it was interesting because it enabled me to tackle one of the aspects that interests me the most and which constitutes one of the main axes of the film: the role of the African intellectual in relation to History and to what has been going on in Africa over the last fifteen years – an explanation of their absence, their silence. How are we to project ourselves in the future after what took place in Rwanda? The writers’ decision to go there in 1998 really interested me, so much so that we included it into the project and filmed the event.
The film was screened during the symposium?
Yes, a first 2h10 version. I have now made some cuts to sort out the problems in length.
Did you come up against the same problem as when you were working on Asientos, your film on the slave trade: a lack of documents, a history marked by a void…
The question didn’t arise as I wasn’t making a film about the genocide. Moreover, that destabilizes some people. I only really focus on what has happened since. That is why we mainly filmed young people who didn’t necessarily experience what happened. We speak about it, of course, but the question is how to live with it, the memory it has left, what they think about it, how they speak about it, with their own words… Which necessarily involves the question of knowing how to reconnect with young people after the genocide. What language do you speak to them in?
Projecting oneself in the future involves examining oneself: you don’t come out of this kind of experience unscathed!
That’s right. Moreover, the film is not over for me. We have thirty hours of rushes, more even. It is a life-long experience in the sense that it is on-going through the work. I have been back there since the shoot. I am going to go back again with my students. There is to be a training project next year, in order to work with them full-time in two-month stretches. It really does involve a self-examination.
In Rwanda, people commented that there you were now, but that before, there was no one to be seen…
Yes, the question people asked us on arrival has been completely integrated into the film. And I think it provides the basis from which to start out again. The film is entirely built around this question.
You filmed the sites…
Yes, it is really horrible. There you are, and you find yourself confronted with that. You can never be prepared for it… You find yourself four hours down a country road, you can barely stay there an hour, and you have to ask yourself some questions, how you’re going to frame the shots… I think we filmed in a state of shock. Fortunately for me, we didn’t have enough money, which stopped us from getting straight on with the editing, and gave us some distance. We were able to digest and to manage to edit that. It really was traumatic.
Can you show that to a viewer who hasn’t been there? Can you convey the emotion? Eliciting a gut-wrenching reaction from a viewer ends up being manipulative…
Yes, but that is precisely what is interesting in film work. If each time this is elicited by the Rwandans, who are speaking about their history, you enter into it and the question arises naturally. There are three sequences about it and each time it is tied to what people are saying to us and to how they are still experiencing it at the time of the shoot. But it isn’t easy… We spoke about it a lot with Samba Félix Ndiaye who was shooting and who was faced with the same problem.
We spoke about it together recently: he tends to think that it is impossible to show anything, for fear of slipping from reflection into an attack on the spectator.
Yes, and at the same time it is necessary! It’s a dilemma. I think that you have to show it nonetheless. It is something which is so incredible that it is hard to believe it possible even after having seen it yourself. It is the first time in my life that I was party to the burial of five thousand bodies… All the difficulty of film lies there with, what is more, the huge pressure of the people the film bothers because it doesn’t only show that… who find it hard to accept that you focus on something else, on life! People were frustrated not to stop at the pain of the genocide, whereas we speak about this and that with the young women in the film. We speak about love, and there’s a lot of laughter, it’s quite a joyful film… That bothers some people.
Aren’t you shocked by the fact that the bodies have been so ostentatiously left in place?
It is necessary, even though I don’t deny that it is ambiguous. Imagine a Rwanda in which all the traces have gone: the door would be open to all forms of revisionism. Where does the limit lie? Traces need to be left. In what proportions, I don’t know. The revisionist discourses are virulent and awareness is difficult. That’s what someone says in the film: if you haven’t experienced it, you don’t know! To hear five thousand dead on the television remains something abstract, but when you go to a house where there are still mountains of bones… all of a sudden, History is there! It shocks, of course, but even certain Rwandans who don’t want to see it are forced to live with it.
Did you come up against a lot of taboos?
Yes, sometimes… But I got married over there. My wife is Rwandan. She lost her mother in the genocide: it is something we never speak about at home… We have an adopted daughter who is amnesic, who can’t remember anything, but I am convinced that it will come back one day or another. It has to be said that Rwanda is a very poor country, with practically no economic or intellectual resources. This makes the difficulty of rebuilding even harder. People have to put their History to one side in order to move on. So they have gone to war in the Congo… I have a brother-in-law I have never seen, who must be about twenty-five now, but who has been away fighting for three or four years. His family have no news of him… Whether you like it or not, this scars people’s minds: tens of thousands of families with children in the forest, without knowing whether they are dead or alive…
Is there a risk of the same thing happening again?
No, but one day or another people are going to have to confront the taboos, are going to have to mourn properly. That happens through words. There are so many latent conflicts between those who have lost their families and those who have come back, and who have lost them too, but who haven’t experienced it in the same way… They are the people pushing for things to move on, but the people on the ground take this a despoilment. As the country is very poor, there are no reparations. This is why things will end up reaching a blocking point: they are going to have to talk about it together!
Is it still possible to use the words Hutu or Tutsi?
Yes, of course, but it is also there that the taboos arise. There is a real political desire for reconciliation amongst those who were not involved in the genocide, but people realize that the trauma is too great for the general population. People pretend.
What did you think of the intellectuals work in Kigali?
I was enthusiastic at first, but was then disappointed. You’re living in the poorest district of Kigali alongside the people, and all of a sudden you go to a very academic conference at the Meridian hotel… It was very odd. I had rented a house to be with my wife, and the Meridian was practically like leaving Rwanda. It was closed, there was no contact with the population, apart from when the play was performed and the film screened because that took place in the district we were living in, and people came to see. I don’t think that was what was needed. It was too cut off from reality. I would have liked to have gone back with the writers to see those young people who wondered why we had come four years later! Books were written and I think what was needed was to go back to meet these people.
Wasn’t there even contact at the university?
No, people didn’t really feel involved. It was really an intellectuals’ private debate, with no connection to people’s lives. Or, the Rwandans organized evening events and people came to see what was going on, so there wasn’t really any debate. And that was a shame. There were quite a lot of academic people, after all, but there no stance was taken in the communiqués put out, even though the country is at war, even though all is not well in Nigeria, in Côte d’Ivoire…
An attempt not to upset the government?
But we are neutral! We are quibbling!
Perhaps this dossier is like a fly in the soup, denoting with the articles in Le Monde or Télérama? But it is not about pointing the finger, but about delving deeper, accompanying…
Yes, I feel that we missed an opportunity: that of meeting in Kigali to take a stance against the war, of saying we disagree. What point is there in going to cry for the dead in Rwanda if we are not even capable of saying that the war has to stop? There are still hundreds of deaths every day! It is not a question of saying whether so and so is right, but of taking an independent stance. That is where we would have a chance of being heard. We are not credible now. When, in answer to a question about the Minister for Foreign Affairs who was in Congo at the time and who, at the beginning of the war, called for a massacre, you heard Elikia Mbokolo take the mike to say that you have to put these words back in their context, I found it completely stupefying to be there in Rwanda and to see no one react to someone who incited murder by calling the Tutsi vermin to be eliminated. I think that it’s very serious.
You would have preferred a symposium that was more in touch with the population.
Yes, it is true that the writers went to speak in the high-schools, but I would have preferred the debates to be more open to the general public, to have taken place some where other than the Meridien. There was a simultaneous translation, but the event was out of touch with the country’s reality.
After having seen Nous ne sommes plus morts:
I was deeply moved by Tharcisse Kalissa Rugano’s reading of his poem. This poet and playwright is one of the Rwandan voices to have survived. One gets the impression that you try to bring this voice to the fore, to let it resonate from within.
That’s right. But it is also a positive echo of our desire to become involved in this process. Listening had to be at the heart of our undertaking. It is both a moment of intense sharing and a very powerful poetic expression. The voice thus had to resonate beyond the spaces.
You readily film faces, hands, arms, gestures in close-up. Why?
In aesthetic terms, it is about reconstructing a gaze which, although maybe not new, is in any case different from mine before the genocide. It is impossible to carry on seeing bodies as in the past. Another gaze imposes itself. Genocide is also an attempt to destroy bodies, and the survivors have to rebuild their physical integrity too. Furthermore, this was also an attempt to capture snippets, fragments of truths which can only be rendered by a very real proximity.
The Chadian writer Koulsy Lamko’s long visit to the N’djamena district of Kigali seems to offer a different manner of meeting people to a feeling of awkwardness: to walk, chat, have a drink, make friends, to see one another again…
The N’djamena visit is an important moment because it sums up the spirit of the film perfectly. It is a journey which is meant to take us to the very heart of life, and which is at walking pace. Time is at the heart of this project. It takes time to meet one another, to talk together, and you need to come back again because a return visit allows another gaze to emerge for both parties. You have to take the time to reconstruct other, deeper ties, that are less episodic than those before. It is fundamental to be at the rhythm of the people you want to get to know better. It facilitates the meeting.
Tharcisse poses the question of knowing how a writer can invite those who survived the tortures to dream of a new Rwanda. Your films seems to say: let’s quite simply concentrate on daily life’s survival instinct, on the young people’s desire to live.
Dreaming of a new world is only possible if you still have the strength and the desire to live in our own. Young people’s desire to survive, their will to live needs not to oppose, but to confront the adults’ understandable bitterness and resentment. Furthermore, their demandingness and moral rigor are, to my mind, the best wager for the future.
Your film demonstrates that the sites have to be guarded by volunteers. One site has already been destroyed. Are the revisionist forces so strong?
People feel them very strongly here in any case. The revisionist discourse seems to be very strongly supported, particularly by catholic networks in the West.
One can also detect a pedagogical bent in your film: the doctor Butare’s affirmation that genocides are possible anywhere as long as three conditions converge: bad leadership, poverty, ignorance. Is this a call for vigilance?
Yes. When you analyze what is happening in Côte d’Ivoire, what happened in Cameroon between 91 and 93 (and it’s not over, there are quite a lot of examples), I believe that vigilance is essential, especially as we weren’t vigilant enough in relation to what happened here and what is happening in Burundi or even in DRC.
You pose the question of a loss of innocence. Is there a before and after Rwanda for Africa?
For me in any case, it’s obvious. When you are aware of what happened here, and when you have seen what we have seen, nothing can ever be the same again. That is why the relaying of information is vital so that a maximum number of people become aware of this.

Nous ne sommes plus mort
by François Woukoache (Cameroon)
126 mn, prod. : Issa Serge Coelo, camera: Bonaventure Tatoukam, sound: Issa Traoré Sr, editing: Hervé Brindel.
///Article N° : 5461


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