Interview with Abderrahmane Sissako, by Olivier Barlet

Cannes, May 2002
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The film opens in the middle of a sand storm. One senses an opposition between the film’s very clear style and the importance placed on the wind, on uncertainty, on questions that have no easy answers.
If this interpretation is clear from the outset, then I have achieved my goal. You sense things, but you never know if they come over as you want them to. I try to find myself through film. I am a little bit all of my characters who ask questions, who don’t have the answers, who drift, but with a deep conviction – the certainty of being content deep down inside. My message isn’t one of despair and it isn’t even a quest for happiness. The title cheats and is misleading in this respect, in the hope that people don’t take it at face value. The quest for happiness is something that is never resolved in any civilisation. It cannot be to go to Paris or anywhere else. That would be too easy. We build happiness in different ways, and we manage when we have hope.
The film also seems to tell us that happiness comes from being able to learn. Learning is omnipresent.
Absolutely. The transmission of knowledge is a part of life. As soon as we enter the world and our senses develop, we depend on this transmission. This takes on a much stronger dimension, however, when the child is considered an adult in his or her own right, when he or she is no longer so vulnerable. The old man isn’t worried about what the child will become and the child doesn’t ask himself this question. He is so strong that he can ask questions about life and death. The adult is lost before such questions, and his only answer is to die in front of him. It is a sublime death, however, that doesn’t destroy the child or leave him with no resources. He has learnt life with him, and he believes in life and thus continues on this basis, unshaken. I don’t try to portray a desperate universe. Desperateness is part of all people’s day-to-day existences, in the North and the South. It exists in love, work, and life. Africa may have more crucial problems, but not a specific desperateness!
When you are a filmmaker, an artist, whose role it is to speak about yourself and your universe, you can’t not speak about life, but you can do so in a way that avoids killing hope.
There is no transmission without cultural references. Through the completely out-of-place French television sequence, your film clearly highlights the invasion of foreign images.
These are passing references that are meant to mark. Film has to get a sense of distance from what it is trying to say. That’s why I like this kind of humorous approach. The danger is very real and present, but it will be even worse and more damaging in years to come. There will be a terrible degree of acculturation over the next twenty to fifty years unless people suddenly wake up. The media and television are responsible, but the phenomenon is just as present in Europe as it is in Africa. We really have to be aware of this.
A black woman recounts her journey to Paris. One detects a desire to express a different vision to the usual one.
Yes, I wanted to say that travelling to Europe can be a journey of love too, not just an economic one. It can be about sharing. It is really time to start considering immigration as enriching and as a fundamental freedom that is inscribed in all the constitutions of the world. This Paris isn’t the Seine or the Champs-Elysées; it’s a forbidden garden. I shot in super-8 to get over what is said better.
There is a story of abandon in this part too.
Yes. The aim was to inscribe our histories in the universal subject of life. Being abandoned isn’t specific to Europe. Our cinema is about life, a life that can’t be so very different in Africa to elsewhere.
Light is paramount both as a theme and in the film’s images. Maata asks a very difficult question – « I’m putting in a light, but do they really need it? »
It’s a way of saying that our towns systematically imitate Europe as they evolve. We have to have light, then TV and video… Is that what we really need? But the metaphor has another meaning too. Maata wants to bring people light. He is generous enough to want to give, to share. This reflects a society’s dignity, its still existent humanism.
Is the time Abdallah is seen dressed in the same cloth that has been used to upholster the room a reference to standardisation?
Yes, but also to a society in which the upper-classes who have everything they want only give their left-overs, their curtains for others to dress in…
Death is very present, but in a dual discourse – distance and respect. It’s a death people accept, a death that is seen as a natural part of life…
Absolutely, and that’s why I wanted the question to come from the child and for the answer to be just as natural. Death is a natural part of life, spiritually speaking. Western society constructs, says everything, and does everything, including the most terrible wars. It tells people that they are fine in terms of what they are. It tells them that they must love, or that they must live a long time. Everything is said. Everything is done. The only meaning life has is the one this society lays down for us. But when you accept death, you accept life in all its simplicity, a life without all the trappings, life with its ups and downs, a happiness that comes and goes.
Your character is seen in front of a low window, a kind of cinematic window onto the world, a second frame, through which he mainly sees people’s feet passing by. Why did you choose this shot?
It’s a part of the body that carries us, the encounters that never happen. The low window is the fact of seeing the encounter that couldn’t happen, the spectator’s position. It could have been hands, like when he lights a cigarette. You can take just a part of a human to imagine the rest.
The film often made me think of Yeelen (The Light) and especially Cissé’s image of the child who takes the egg of knowledge to mankind…
Yes, that’s quite right. It’s the same intent. I didn’t think of it consciously, but I think that the child character in Souleymane Cissé’s film is very powerful because he embodies continuity, hope, the universe. Khatra is highly determined too. He has a clear path before him, in the image of a sand dune and a path. It’s a good comparison.
Khatra is tempted to leave too.
Yes, he is tempted, but he stays. We are free to be tempted, but this is where he goes to work, lives, and makes the light bulb work. This is where he can find happiness. I would like people to read the film in this way. Of course, you invite the spectator to watch something and he/she is free, but I insist on the process of looking. If you make things too easy for the spectator, you don’t help him/her advance.
You pay a lot of attention to objects and you let the spectator settle into the image. The spectator doesn’t get bored because the length is just right. That reminds me of something Ferid Boughedir said about Gaston Kaboré’s Wend Kuuni. He noticed that the shots did not end where you learn to end them in film school, and that that is precisely what give the film its grace.
Despite the rarity of African film, one finds this kind of constant. It’s not a cinema that comes out of a film school, but this aspect can be found in certain films. My concern is to be harmonious. I have to encourage the spectator to stay in the movie theatre! But unlike efficient American film, we help the spectator enter the frame, to see someone’s face without necessarily filming it in close-up. This kind of framing does not lengthen the film, but the wider the frame, the longer time seems. But I try to leave a scene quickly to go somewhere that has nothing to do with what’s been going on. This elliptical form of leaving and going elsewhere, but coming back later is a way of asking the spectator to remain available. There is a doorway, but there is another one too and the spectator will have to come back later. The editing is fundamental for me to try to find a form that is just, harmonious, that doesn’t make a style out of the slow rhythm.
The music also plays a very strong role in your film.
Absolutely. Even though I usually find the music later, I think a lot about the music when I shoot a scene. I know when the music will start, and think about which music later. That gives the spectator the energy to accompany you.
Was the film hard to produce?
Not to produce, but to make. I prefer not to speak too much about it in the press because, given that the problem is now resolved, it weakens us. But it was very hard to be in my country with 30 to 40 people who had to sit around for 5 days because the State stopped the shoot. Then we never knew if it would start all over again the next day! The fact that the main actor had tuberculosis and was coughing up blood was very hard too. I had to keep the crew’s confidence up. I knew that we had to keep him. I wouldn’t have been able to respect what I do and love if I’d thrown him out. I would have been capable, if it had have been necessary, to materialise it by something in the film, but I didn’t want someone else to replace him. Another difficulty – perhaps the worst of all – was having to work with French technicians who are incredibly contemptuous. It’s just too low. You can’t pretend to a Tarzan who knows Africa in Paris and practically beg to go on an African shoot, then take people hostage when you’re there. Our saving grace was the fact that we had an African crew too! I’m not against French technicians, but when you’re up against such difficulties and people demand ground coffee because they refuse to drink instant coffee, you realise that we still have a long way to go.

///Article N° : 5602


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