Interview with Andrée Davanture, by Olivier Barlet

Paris, May 1999
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It is difficult to understand why Atria is closing down…
I don’t understand either. I have been battling against the institutions’ disinterest to get our subsidies renewed for so long now. Since 1980, we have had to fight to get 300 000 FF from the Ministry of Cooperation every year. And that sum has never increased, apart from once, by 50 %. Worse still, on two occasions it was actually not granted, and two years without a subsidy is very hard.
I have repeatedly asked that the work carried out by Atria be analyzed. I have called for meetings, hoping that a real reflection be undertaken with our partners… They preferred to stop at an analysis of the accounts, which, whilst undoubtedly accurate, was reductive with regard to the reality of our work.
Up until 1987 nonetheless, there was a real dialogue with the institutions about each of the projects we backed. Since, they have just tolerated, rather than supported us.
We have never been appreciated for what we are, namely a complementary tool that is indispensable, coherent and capable of creating a dynamic around a film or a director, thereby, in a word, valorizing the financial aids and the actions of the Ministry (c.f. Le Film Africain which has never mentioned Atria).
The films we were executive producer on did not have a French producer, and were unable to find one for complex reasons which are difficult to explain in a word. Many films would not have seen the light of day without the reception and support provided by the Association Atria, and without the executive production activities of the Coopérative Atria.
What is more, one may also argue that it is normal for a certain number of films to be entirely produced by African producers. But in that case, there is a vital need for an accessible and inexpensive Paris base which can liaise with the technical industries that do not exist in their countries. That was also Atria’s role…
The development and accompaniment of projects enabled many films to get the Fonds Sud funding and to seal co-production agreements with European television stations.
In 1991, three first films were presented in the Un Certain Regard section of the official competition at Cannes: Adama Drabo’s Ta Donna (Mali),Bassek Ba Kobhio’s Sango Malo (Cameroon), and Drissa Touré’s Laada (Burkina Faso). These three directors have since gone on to make second films.
Another example is Abdoulaye Ascofaré’s Faraw! Une mère des sables, a film which had to be assisted for four years, as it encountered a whole range of problems at several stages of its making. If we had not been there to co-ordinate the setting-up of the technical means, the organization of the shoot with the French technicians, the relations with the laboratories, the sorting of the rushes, and the transfer of the negatives to Morocco, who co-produced the film, not to mention the follow-up of the whole financial dossier in France, I don’t see how the director could have managed alone from Bamako.
This film, which few partners believed in, exists today and is making its way… It was selected at the Semaine de la Critique at Cannes, and has been screened in numerous festivals around the world. It has won 19 awards, including the Ministry of Cooperation prize! This story is exemplary, and well reflects the complementarity between the Ministry and a structure such as Atria.
It is easy to cite just the films from Atria’s past selected in the major festivals, such as those by Souleymane Cissé or Gaston Kaboré. But many short and feature film directors have also benefitted from our support, including, amongst others, Mamo Cissé, Salif Traoré and Léopold Togo from Mali, Djingareye Maïga from Niger, Abalou Kilizou from Togo, Flora Gomes from Guinea Bissau, Gahité Fofana from Guinea, Amadou Thior from Senegal, Kita Touré and Fadika Kramo Lanciné from Côte d’Ivoire, Mustapha Dao, Maurice Kaboré and Fanta Regina Nacro from Burkina Faso, and many others from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Cameroon, as well as Abderrahmane Sissako and his film Octobre.
It is as if subsidies are only granted to the films likely to appeal to the Western market.
No one will admit it, but that’s the reality. In the rare meetings we had with the representatives of the Ministry of Cooperation in the Nineties, it transpired that the only films which appealed were those likely to « meet the French public », to be selected in the European festivals, « above all at Cannes ». It is a defendable attitude , but it does not suffice alone.
African filmmakers are responsible for their works and, first and foremost, want to reach out to the African public, even if the success of their films in France and elsewhere is appreciable. I think we can safely say that this perspective has never been taken into account, and this is definitely detrimental to the development of African cinema… but that’s a whole debate in itself… In fact, the Ministry’s policy on this has never been clearly defined. There is still a financial backing, an attentiveness towards the filmmakers, an accompaniment of the films presented at Cannes, the publication of African Screen… but the « political » choices, the strategies, are determined by the Bureau de Cinéma alone, and thus vary according to the personality of the person in charge.
Has there never been a discussion of the very root of the issue?
I tried – unsuccessfully – to get a discussion going many times, and one day, I was even told that it wasn’t necessary. Then once, behind closed doors, someone pointed out that the politicians come and go, but the civil servants remain… which is a whole issue unto itself.
At the beginning of the Eighties, as we had taken over from the technical department of the Ministry, and were used to working together, a dialogue was possible, and often fruitful. The people we were dealing with were more open-minded. They were less conformist and – generally – were not the sort to hold things back. Only it just so happens with these posts that the people in charge often change, and by the time they have had the chance to understand the set-up, they get transferred… which didn’t make our job any easier. Not to mention the problems involved with handling financial relations between a ministry and an association within the framework of administrative regulations, which I still haven’t fully grasped, in spite of all these years.
It is a great pity that an association such as Ecrans du Sud came to an end. It will be a crying shame if all of Atria’s experience goes to waste, as it looks set to. Annabel Thomas’ six years of work, for example, the quality of her relations with the different partners, the wealth of documentation compiled for each film, the circulation of information about the films (all the films, both Atria’s and others), all that enabled a great many films to participate in festivals all over the world. This work contributed to the notoriety of the films and directors, and created real professional networks.
The concern is that the diversity of African creation not be recognized.
It is not a new concern! It has been an on-going debate for the last twenty years.
1) firstly, because our clichés have continued to hold sway: Westerners have a conventional view of Africa, and still do not always realize that this continent is made up of many countries.
2) because we have an unbearable failing: we are convinced that we hold the absolute Truth, Knowledge. We often give directives, albeit with the best intentions in the world, which is terrible. It goes as far as thinking in place of the other. This tendency often transpires in the comments made about the film scripts…
3) because there are officially accepted « specialists » or « experts » on Africa, to whom you always have to refer in addition to the Ministry of Cooperation. Africa is their department, and woe betide anyone who tries to show a different point of view or interest. Every time we asked the public institutions for subsidies or aids, they inevitably referred us back to the Ministry of Cooperation.
Our association’s policy has quite unambiguously always been to be there for the directors without trying to influence the choice of subjects. We tried to meet the filmmakers’ needs, to give them the means to develop their projects in the best conditions. That was a great undertaking for us all and for every film, from the very first stage of writing, to the shooting of the film, including the financing and distribution around the world in the festivals. And always with the same rigor and quest for professionalism which enabled films with less than modest budgets to see the light of day. We tried to define our responsibility, a kind of « guarantee of a successful outcome », without confusing it with that of the directors.
There recently seemed to be a solution on the horizon recently, but it didn’t come to anything.
I think it was vital to merge the Ministry of Cooperation and the Foreign Office: the Ministry of Cooperation was an anachronism. It was a source of adversity in our relations with Africa, which had a knock-on effect on our relations with the filmmakers and the institutions. It was a justified political decision, but the way it was hurriedly implemented has deprived us of a chance to reflect on the specific problem of African cinema. By brutally brushing aside the past, albeit advisedly, errors were committed, and the lack of discernment for the associations which were precisely trying to fight against that adversity is one of them. You can give yourself a good conscience by financially supporting a film… But if it isn’t accompanied to the very end, if it isn’t completed, or if the directing is mediocre, the money will be wasted.
After all these years of working with the African filmmakers, I nonetheless got the impression that the directors were progressing with each new film, and us with them.
The future of the Ministry of Cooperation film library is uncertain…
The fact that the Audecam has been merged with an association for the propagation of French thought speaks realms. What will the festivals and researchers do without this film library? Not a single day goes by without me referring someone to them! It is totally incoherent, because the minister makes promises without carrying them out, and because you get the impression that nothing can be decided outside the bounds of the institution any more: it’s not good for democracy. Furthermore, I think that there is a desire to maintain a clear conscience, rather than a real interest in African culture. Isn’t it vastly contradictory to bring to, and award, a filmmaker at Cannes, and not to back, or even to destroy, the tool that was meant to enable him/her to make films?
The current situation is catastrophic, and the finances in the red.
For a year now, we have had no real interlocutor. By really persisting, I nonetheless managed to get myself a meeting on two occasions, several months apart, with a head of the minister’s cabinet, who I came to, once again, to plead our cause, and who made many promises, none of which have been kept. The proposed solution was an association with Afrique en création, but since November 1998, we have had no news. We are going to have to put an end to our activities in July 1999, but there is pressure from both the filmmakers and our professional to carry on: what should we do? I am trying to save the archives. Souleymane Cissé has taken back all the material concerning his films, but it is materially impossible for the others. If we find the means to draw up an inventory, the BIFI is willing to house all our written archives. But there is all the rest, such as the elements necessary for making international versions of certain films, which are vital if television sales are to be clinched, and which have not be completed due to the budgetary restrictions… Although we are very proud of the work carried out over the past 19 years, we are concerned about the new direction things are taking. I don’t know what to think today of certain technocrats who are so inattentive to, and so lacking in respect for, both the filmmakers and the people on the ground who have a real competence… It’s not « the contaminated blood » scandal of course, but it is symptomatic of the same trend.
In 1980, our idea of success was that one day, the filmmakers from Africa would no longer need a base in Paris. We were being presumptuous: it’s still not quite the case. In 1998, we would like to hand over our tool and all its potential in correct conditions. That is absolutely not the case.
Fortunately, we are confident in the determination of the filmmakers, and with them, we will continue to dream of the wonderful films to come.

///Article N° : 5573

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