Gahité Fonfana (Guinea/France) made three documentaries Tanun, about his Guinean grandfather, Temedy about a young woman with Aids, and Mathias on Conakry’s gang trials before presenting his first feature film, Immatriculation temporaire, at the Fespaco in 2001.
What was the initial impetus behind the film?
The Franco-German channel ARTE. I met Pierre Cheval, head of fiction at ARTE France, two years ago here at the Fespaco. He saw Mathias, le procès des gangs and asked me if I was planning to make a fiction. I started out from the title I had had in mind for a long time and a few notes. The rest went very fast.
What made you decide to play the main character yourself?
I spent a long time looking for an actor to play Mathias. I met mixed-race young men in France who weren’t familiar with Africa, which suited my character, but they tended to appropriate the story in relation to their own experiences. It was better that I play the role myself to find the tone I wanted to give the film, to render the sort of music I had in mind. The other actors in the film aren’t professionals either. They are friends I have known for a long time and it worked a lot better with me than with someone else. It was more natural.
It’s no accident that the character is called Mathias! What parallel is there with your film Mathias on the gang trials in Conakry?
It’s a reference to something Mathias’s lawyer, Maître Sow, said during the court case in 1995: « We all have something of Mathias Léno in us ». I.T. is set in the same social milieu and at the end of the film, Mathias takes part in an armed robbery, which is not like him In the gang trial, Mathias Léno’s real name was Tamba Toundoufendouno. He adopted this French, Christian-sounding pseudonym because he like the ring of it. When I was writing the film, I found it amusing not only to call the French character Mathias Léno, but to have him introduce himself as Camara Laye, his father’s name, too because he thinks that this will help him identify more quickly with the Guineans.
Was your decision to call the father Camara Laye also part of this representational deconstruction?
I’m amazed that you have asked me about that! It was a very personal reference above all. My character is quite literally the « dark child » in his white family. The parallels between my film and the book are too complicated for me to explain clearly, but I am convinced that they exist.
Why did you opt for an ambiance that foregrounds the clash with violence?
It’s a frame of mind that I see in Guinea. The film is set in a milieu inhabited by young people who have no jobs, who have no real futures, but who, on the other hand, all have pretty heavy pasts. I’m not saying that all young people in Guinea and in Africa are like this, but it is one kind that I know, mix with, and am interested in too. For me, trying to depict and explain this milieu is a way of expressing the fact that there is so much distress, injustice, and so many irregularities in Africa that this chaotic situation is going to explode one day or another, and « badly » so.
After initially keeping his distance, the main character gradually gets involved in what goes on around him, to the extreme in the end.
He initially comes to Guinea to look for his family and an image he has of Africa. As he meets more and more people, he is disappointed, especially when he finds his father again. He then realises that family ties are less important than the complicity he shares with Rama, John Tra, and Sylla, who make him feel welcome. He comes to be adopted, to find the identity he had invented for himself, but is abandoned a second time by his father. But Guinea and his new friends take him as he is and make him exist, open-mindedly, without any preconceptions. He realises that that is more important than what he was looking for.
The images and the way of constructing the images convey a lot more than the words. How did you go about filming?
I tried to know exactly what I wanted to get over before making the film. I then associated a series of portraits, moments, attitudes, and situations I like circling around things like this to describe them, to express a feeling. I find it more precise than being direct and reductive with words, especially as the facile use of dialogue in film often makes you miss the essential.
The night atmosphere and this kind of cinema that requires an effort on the part of the spectator is very similar to Temedy.
As a lot of things are evoked or touched on rather than said, the spectator has to be receptive, to participate in order to avoid remaining indifferent. The story is very simple, but it is more in what is not said.
Encounters with the environment, with life in this city, are as important as the encounters between people.
The environment they live in conditions the characters, which is why their clothes, the settings, their attitudes in day-to-day situations say the most about them. For example, Mathias’ father is the factory, the result of French presence in Africa, hence the extreme sequence set in the factory at night.
Does the predominant nightclub ambiance reflect a desire to give a certain vision of Africa?
It above all reflects the fact that I depict young Africans with no perspectives. In the daytime, these youths try to make some cash. At night, they enjoy ephemeral pleasures, going out, drinking, and forgetting their worries They also prepare the next day’s business together at night in these clubs. They are the only offices they have. Filming the night also reflects a desire to try to show what is hidden.
You work with the cameraman Peter Chappell, who is also a filmmaker (Nos amis de la banque). How do you work together?
I have made all my films in Guinea with him. We are very close. We have the same approach, the same codes in our encounters. I trust him completely. We film a lot, instinctively, without really making it obvious so that people don’t really notice us, so that we can get as much footage as possible. We then work with the editor to try to put the original version back together like an imaginary puzzle.
Why did you choose to end on the villa attack scene?
That’s my moral side, I suppose. I like the John Tra character a lot, but what he does is not « good ». I had to condemn his lack of conscience in his acts and lifestyle, even if he doesn’t choose to be like that. It was also important to me that the film end on a serious note. It’s a way of not condoning. John Tra dies as he lives « stupidly ». The majority of young Africans suffer day in, day out, but they don’t all turn to crime.
Is his request for chloroform an abdication?
As soon as he arrives in Guinea at the beginning of the film, Mathias, who is naïve, gets drugged with chloroform and robbed. This episode helps him experience his trip differently and to see a different Guinea to the one he had imagined. At the end of the film, John Tra asks for the same chloroform so that he can die without suffering. It’s a way of handing over to the person he has initiated whilst recognising the naivety of his own lifestyle.
The Rama character is very strong too. She is permanently waiting but speaks to Mathias in a language he doesn’t understand.
She is the most mature of the lot, she’s a woman She’s very quick to understand things. She doesn’t want to teach him too abruptly, she needs to tell him, honestly, but she doesn’t want him to hear when she speaks in a language he does not understand. She is reserved, she loves him, but she waits for him to be ready.
Why do Mathias’ friends make him wait when they know where to find his father?
It is acceptable to entrust your children to others in Africa, so they are all a little surprised by his quest, as if not knowing your father doesn’t matter. At the same time, they accept that it is important for him and they try to protect him. They have adopted him like a brother and they know the deception that lies in store. The father is just an excuse. This wait is also linked to the difficulty of discovering Africa.
Many of the films presented at the Fespaco are more cheerful. Your film is somewhat out of step. It is very intimate, desperate, a testimony to a powerful violence.
I don’t see any reason to be cheerful when you know what is going on in Africa. I think that it is time to stop peddling the notion that « black people are fun-loving, they know how to dance ». You can’t just do any old thing if you make films, especially not in Africa. We have responsibilities, it’s serious. Without being political, there are too few of us who have access to sound and image to express ourselves on this continent, so we can’t afford to clown around. There are already very few people who take us seriously in the West. What’s more, I don’t have the imagination necessary to make people laugh with what I see around me. I don’t find it funny.
You appear to be wrapped up in what’s going on in Africa even though you live in France.
I have been between the two continents for more than ten years now. I think that that makes me more lucid, it gives me more distance, which is often vital. I like to say that I am based in Paris to find funding, but that I live in Conakry.
People can now see the films we make. The situation in Guinea is really tragic and the Guineans are happy that we say so and show their reality.
Have people seen the film in Conakry?
The audience gave the film a very warm reception. Guineans are interested when they get a chance to see a Guinean film. Moreover, it’s a film set in a young milieu, which means the youth can let off some steam. It’s a fine revenge for them.
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