Ezra was crowned with the « Étalon d’or de Yennenga » at the Fespaco 2007 film festival with general approval. Meeting with Newton Aduaka a few days before the ceremony in Ouagadougou.
How did you come to make this film which is close to your personal history ?
The subject matter did not come from me. It was actually a subject that Arte, within Arte fiction, had been thinking about. I was called and asked if I wanted to make a film about child-soldiers. Of course I said yes. After that, it was through the process of research and writing that everything that had been subconsciously suppressed in my mind about the war in Biafra came out. In a very strong way.
How did you succeed in gathering the different experiences of the child-soldiers, as the contexts are different according to the war zones ? How did you manage to create characters typical of child-soldiers ?
From the inception, it was clear to me that in the background, for all of these wars, there was a constant. It’s the exploitation of natural resources. That’s why conflicts are created. Something has been taken out. Things have been removed. For example, I didn’t realise that all through the war in Angola, everything was being extracted offshore. We think that nothing was happening in Angola but oil was going out. And during how many years did that happen? With these kinds of discoveries, we were very shocked. So it was that line, the line of the exploitation of war, and sometimes even the creation of war, its engineering, for the purpose of exploitation. Why do people fight and kill each other over things that they think they understand? Later, you realize that it’s nothing essentially to do with that. You’re just caught up in a political game. And it’s another struggle that has crumbled for Africa. The usual thing that is wanted from Africa is energy. Before, it was slave energy, that was used for working on the plantations. Now, it happens to be for diamonds. But it’s still energy. Africa has been exploited for over 400 years for energy.
Let’s talk about the character: Ezra has some kind of humanity within him. He has love, he becomes aware of things. You wanted to play with the ambiguity and the complexity of such a character
It was very clear to me. I remember when Arte first saw the script. There was a comment from someone: « Oh, but this child is a bit too complex in his mind. A child like him does not speak this way ». And I said: « A child like him might not speak this way in English, but he can speak that way in his language ». I’m not interested in creating a character like the one in Blood Diamond who’s almost like an animal because of the barrier of communication. In his language, he can think and speak in that kind of way. I was working from the mind, as opposed to how in reality Ezra would express himself. I wanted a complex character like the ones that I met, the children that I met, when I went to Seragon to do my research. They were very complex people. They had so much love in them; so much had been broken inside of them, in their psyche. You can look at ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ hearings on tapes and hear some say: « I’m an ex-child-soldier who’s written a book, which the United Nations and everybody are championing ». All you see is that they look sad and broken but when you take them to a small space and you talk to them, they’re angry.
How did you manage to make a film on such a difficult and painful subject?
With great difficulty. I had to do my own coming-to-terms myself with Africa, the problem in Africa, and the fact that we have to take our responsibilities and face our criticisms as well. We know what’s happening. In Europe- I’m talking about France and England- it’s 500-year-old institutions and its one line, one single line. Ok, it’s been changed. But in the core of it, there is racism. I don’t know of any time when these institutions have been reformed in a profound way but it needs a profound reform, if it’s to think about the African constant in an honest and true way. So all these kinds of debates were going on in my head and these were things that I had to deal with but I didn’t want to make us pass as victims. We’re not victims. We’re led by very powerful people who are supported. The institutions are founded by people who have their own interests. It’s just an unfortune that we have stupid leaders that do not have concerns about our continent. A deep, true and honest fundamental concern about our continent. By the leaders that we have, things would change.
You prefer giving humanity to Ezra and not to the chiefs of the war? For Terminator, for example…
Yes. He’s like a trained killing machine. But then he is controlled by Rufus who has his own interests, who has true concerns. He talks to the children. And you can see in his eyes that he’s not lying when he says he wants to change our country. But the irony is, you look and he’s talking to children. And then you see him in the film gradually become nothing and in the end, he has to hold his children back literally with his gun in their back. People like him get away everyday. It’s people like Ezra that have to pay for the kind of things that Rufus does. They’re the ones put in public display and called to judgment, through emotional blackmail.
How did you get the actors to play in this way so that we have the feeling that they are in a real war? Are they also children of the war?
Well, some things are confidential. I promised them. There’s probably one or two. It’s the same thing as for a psychoanalyst and his patient – there are some confidentialities. And I have respect for them. I know what they had to go through to even get involved. But that’s the only way I could find a genuine honesty in the emotion. I didn’t want an actor from, say, Paris, to pretend to be a Hollywoodian caricature. Beyond that, we spent three weeks doing intense rehearsals, eight hours a day. Then they had three hours a day of military training. We set up the whole thing, all the camps, because we had the training and we had a coach. They had to feel physically like soldiers, they had to behave like soldiers, have the same body language. It’s not just saying: « the body has this posture ». Everything adds, although in a very subtle way, to the realism of everything.
Did the children all see the film?
Not yet. We finished the film four weeks ago and we went straight to the Sundance film festival. Then we did some more work as we had to do a new copy because it was copy zero that we took there. So they didn’t really have the chance but in the next two months, I want to organize a proper screening. Maybe in a stadium in Freetown. Eventually, my goal is to have this film shown to everyone in Panafrica.
In the character of Black Diamond, there is a contrast between her reputation and her femininity
I wanted to create a young woman who was intelligent. Who, if she died, you wouldn’t care who she is, you would miss her. Because that’s what’s happening to Africa today. We’re losing our great mines. Either through emigration or through situations like this. I wanted the audience to see what we’re really missing. She’s a very complex character, she believes completely in what she’s doing but she’s not blind. Unlike Ezra, who believes. But then he was engineered. He comes from a whole different background. She comes from a more engaged and activist background. Ezra was engineered to be a soldier. And so he does what he’s told, like every soldier. He’s lost his own mind, he’s now thinking through the cause, whatever that causes is.
You play a lot on contrast between light and darkness, especially on darkness. There’s also a cocktail of very strong colours, where red is dominant. Why did you make those choices?
I think it’s very basic. It’s just that red is blood; it’s spilling-out blood. It’s also a lot to do with crosses. We all, and the Chinese are trying to get out of it now, live in a 2000 year old civilisation. It all started from Rome. We all have the same single influence. It borrows ideas, thoughts, from ancient Greece. But thoughts are dangerous: whose thoughts are they? What are the intentions of the people who have those thoughts? No, thoughts are not dangerous. What is dangerous is how they are applied, used and manipulated.
And for the light and darkness?
It’s about playing with light and shadow. It’s about what is seen and what is not seen and about what is known and what is not known. Ezra seems comfortable in this place but he’s the most ignorant of all this, it’s all hidden in shadows. You expect that he should know these things but he doesn’t. Then Black Diamond comes in and she sees these things, it’s very clear. It’s about that. There’s always something in the darkness.
What kind of relationship does Ezra have with his sister? Is it very corporal, physical? Do they become closer because of the situation?
I think it’s very interesting relationship because there’s deep love between them but there’s also a secret. And secrets have a way of putting you aside on a deeper level, even if you’re close to someone. But despite this secret, they are very close. They’re the only ones who survive. That’s why when he beats her, he tells her she has to go home. He does that because he knows that even if he dies, his sister will survive. And his family will survive through the sister. It’s also a genuine love and only just holding back the secret shows the love she has for her brother. She knows him, he is erratic. She’s waiting for the right time. So this secret creates a gap in their relationship and that’s what explodes in the « Truth and Reconciliation ». But when you lose family at war, the more you lose, the more the ones that are left are closer.
What was your main aim in doing this film?
It’s really just to show people what I saw. I went through a process. I entered the place, thinking I was going to make a film, and actually rediscovered myself in the process. And came to terms with my sense of a child being born in war. And what it means. And after this film, I realized it means a lot. If a child like Ezra, in an occidental country, went through any kind of trauma like he did, he would be in therapy for the rest of his life. These kinds of things concern me, that these children are going to get three months of some psycho-social talk and be taught how to make soaps. Of course, the United Nations will found that and think they’ve done a good job; they’ll set up an education centre But where were they when the problem was happening, why didn’t they stop it? Enough of the reacting-after. Try and act like America. They attack on the presumption that you’re going to do something. That’s how America works. Why doesn’t the United Nations, as a body, pre-empt these things? Why do they always come at the end with their flags? I’m tired of it. Either it exists or it doesn’t. But it’s creating too much confusion and a lot of illusion.
You give two possible solutions for the post-war situation: the Truth and Reconciliation committee or total amnesia. What would be the right one?
Both, I think. My answer is based on research and on the meetings with the psychiatrists that spent time with these children. For a young child, there’s going to be some amnesia because that’s just how the mind works. For Ezra, using the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was just an artistic choice. It doesn’t happen like this. I wanted to show that this is a cover. I thought: « Let’s put it where it should be » and « Let’s put the skids on a nice trial, where we don’t push the children ». There are children like Ezra that don’t remember and, while it’s true that the Reconciliation is a good idea, we should not stay at that once it’s done. Some people think it’s over and done with once they’ve gone through the Reconciliation. Then they pat themselves on the back and then off they go. But it’s not that easy. If a child doesn’t remember, it’s stuck in his head and one day it will explode. What I mean is that it doesn’t end with the Truth and Reconciliation. And only when Ezra says: « I beg for forgiveness » with honesty, not from pressure (because it takes time to come to the understanding of the gravity of what you have done), then he will be redeemed, in a true and honest way.
So it is only when he is seen as a human being and not just as a guy who has done what he has done that the possibility of reconciliation is open?
Yes, on every side. For him, because he has to do it. Whether you push the children or not. I saw the children. I saw them leaving and they had it on the tip of their tongues but to say it is a big thing. The silliest questions are asked to the ex-child-soldiers: « How many people have you killed? ». It’s even more torture.
Your film comes in the middle of a debate about the contents of African films. There are lots of films about the question raised about violence in this festival, so what do you think should be the contents in African films today?
It would be stupid of me to make any prescription. The first time I encountered this debate, for me, it was in 1995. I was in London at the time. It’s a question that was asked before, and that is asked today. But it’s pointless. I think critics should let film makers know what they are saying. The critic’s job for me is to put a mirror to the film and say: « this is what we read ». I work very intuitively. I don’t do paperwork and a big draft. I do my research and the script is written. But after, the making of the film is a total intuitive process. When a critic writes about your work, of course you know what you’ve done, but it helps to put it in another perspective that isn’t your own, and that should be serious. It is a mirror for us, film-makers. This is how African film will shape itself, through this dialogue between the film-makers and the critics. Of course then you have to consider that there’s the audience.
And there’s the issue of explaining the films for academics. I could write a big issue on Ezra but I’m not a writer or an academician. The only way I know for telling a story is to take a big book and compress it into a small story with characters that will appeal to an audience who will understand the profundity of what is going on.
My goal is to find a balance. It’s the key to everything for me. To have substance but also to have an audience, people who it can appeal to. Otherwise, it’s just for your friends and it doesn’t change anything much except for your own growth and your ego, which is quite easy to fall into.
I was very impressed with your cutting. Not only with the flashbacks but with the opening scene, for example. With the school and the men coming to take away the children. You tried to make a film that was for a broad public but on the other hand you bring this public in a kind of subtlety that he’s not used to. As if you wanted to bring him alive
I could have left London, not gone to Paris but to Los Angeles. I could have made a lot of money and not have had to deal with all of this. I could have done as if it didn’t exist. But at this stage in your career, you learn how to tell a story cinematically. We’re fighting a big machine. Everybody is fighting Hollywood. Here, we don’t have screens to show our films. People who are here are here to watch Hollywood films. So I thought: « How can I use certain codes that they understand (from always watching Hollywoodian films) but at some point move them into something else where I want to take them? ». And where, suddenly, they would find themselves in the middle of something new and still stay. How do you get them to stay, without deceiving them? It’s a psychological process. Why do people see Hollywood films and not African films? That’s the substance I’m talking about. We have to be very tricky. But cinema is a trick, it’s a magician. We take the written words and turn it into a moving image. It’s a kind of alchemy. So we can do more, be even more subtle. Just as long as the aim is clear in my head before talking to somebody else. That’s what’s important.
Do you think that your film will bring something new to the Nigerian cinema, which was absent from the big festivals up until now?
I don’t know. I think young film-makers can see now that they have to work harder, be more rigorous in their study, in their writing and in the quality of work. I’m not a teacher and I’m not good at teaching but the only way I know that one can teach is to do. Then the people can see and ask questions. I have no prescribed way.
Four years ago, I was invited to do a workshop with Nollywood practitioners. I spent six days with thirty of those film-makers. I was asked how long it takes to make a film and I answered two to five years. They said that was impossible, that I must be poor and that it must be difficult. I said I was and that yes, it was difficult. The mindset of a lot of them is towards the commercial aspect of it. That’s a choice. I know that from Nollywood will come a lot of great film makers. I met this young film-maker in Berlin two years ago, he’s very energetic, his ambition is huge, he has that. Some, like him, are using Nollywood to practice their craft and that’s fine. The only way I can continue to have influence is to keep going where I’m going. To keep perfecting my own craft because I’m learning. I have a lot to learn from them. It’s an exchange.
If you get the « étalon de Yennenga » here, what will you think?
I don’t know about the prize. It’s the opinion of five or six people. That’s not why I made the film. I already achieved my purpose, which was to show the film here. And the reaction for it has fulfilled me. Maybe I’m on the right path to keep going and that’s all I need for a support. I’m not very sociable, I don’t go out much so I spend all my time in my own mind so to make a film is for me a vulnerable thing because I’m exposing my mind, my heart. That’s what my cinema is. This is more for me, it’s a prayer. From this point of view, I accept, it’s a blessing and it’s an esteem that you extend to me, to us.
It would be a sign for Nigerian cinema, in a kind of possible alternative to the home video
What would be interesting if this happens, this prayer from you to me, is that it would change something for Nigeria. All of the things that I am praying and wishing will come from Nollywood would happen, I think.
How was your collaboration with the Senegalese team in a short that was not easy?
They were my backbone. The screen that we had here was a motorized screen but before we started to shoot, it broke down. So we improvised every shot. Sometimes we had to make adjustments. But it’s the ingenuity of people like Ron, or of sound, that’s important. The men on the crew can work with me for the rest of their life, as long as they want to work with me. They take their work seriously. They were my support when things were difficult. We’d sit down and talk and that means a lot. It makes you feel confident. As a film maker, you do love security. There is a lot of questioning, you’re supposed to know everything but I’m discovering. So my crew is part of that. They know me and how I work. A lot of things happened on set, the script changed a lot, and that needed a crew that was efficient. They never said something was impossible. We don’t use that word on my set.
How was it with the music, which plays a huge role? You have two kinds of music: classic music which supports the action, and another very subtle music which penetrates the reader
That was also thanks to my composer and friend, Nicolas Baby. We worked on Aisha together. I didn’t just want a composed piece of music; I wanted to create a mood. If you follow the music, you will follow my emotional line. So you have violence and then sadness, the music is like a heartbeat, like tension. It’s my commentary on what is happening. It is used to explain what I’m saying. For me, violence is sadness; it always comes as a counterpoint. With Nicolas, we worked a lot of this. In Ezra, we went for heartbeat and time, it was our guiding.
When Ezra learns that his girlfriend is pregnant, we hear reggae in the background…
Yes, it was used a lot by rebel fighters. It comes from a very politically engaged album. It talks about living in the positive. It says: « Children, don’t let your heart be troubled », even though they are being sent to war. It’s an emotional, not intellectual, counterpoint. It’s always about emotions. Reggae music was also used as a tool of manipulation.
Going back to Aisha: there is a continuity in the question of death. Would you say there’s a kind of sequel in the thematic of Ezra?
I think there are just some themes that I subconsciously always think about, like death, Christianity and its effects on Africa, justice and betrayal. They’re just sitting there on top of other things in my head. And they are fed by a lot of things. For example, betrayal can be fed by what happened in Biafra. When you fight civil war with your brother and he hates you so much to kill you, it’s a difficult thing. Death is always there. Aisha is a strange film. Aesthetically, I wanted to create a mood without dialogue. To go back to my first principle, to tell a story with no dialogue. But it’s fantasy, in reality. You might find certain themes in common but the films’ purposes were different.
Last of all, you wrote a script for Cinéfondation in Cannes
Yes, it was never made. It was set in London. But I learned very quickly that if you try a project and it’s not working, you should just let it go and move on to something else. I’m talking from experience. Otherwise, you stand there and you suffer. It’s there, but I’m just going to keep on moving.
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