Interview with Assane Kouyaté, by Olivier Barlet

Cannes, May 2002
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It took seven years to make this film. Why so long?
It was very hard getting the money together. In 1996, the Fonds Sud agreed to back the project. This was a time of great uncertainty at the European Union, however, and it took nearly three years before we got their backing. It was also very hard to find a reliable partner in the North. When Mandala Productions took over the project, a fruitful partnership was born.
What were you trying to achieve by taking a theme as rural as water?
The film may well have a slightly pedantic side to it because I was keen to introduce a pedagogical aspect. My film is destined for the rural masses in my country, not for festival-going audiences. It’s my dream to manage to show my film in the tiniest Malian villages. That’s why I was determined to have mainly villagers play in the film. I wanted them to be able to identify with the film so that it can help them to see their problems with more distance. I tackle the water question. I come from the Sahel where there are places where rainfall is so scarce that every litre of water counts. That’s why the well is the main character in the film.
Hamalla was rejected because of his status at birth. He comes back to the village enriched by his life experiences and technical know-how and wants to find his niche. I thereby pose the question of the role each person plays in our country’s development. Not all traditions are retrograde, but some hinder development. All the members of the village work together to rehabilitate the well. We have to stop thinking that development will come from outside. We mustn’t reject the outside, but if you ask people to come and kill the lion, you have to hold the head yourself, otherwise no one will come! Kabala can be seen to represent Africa.
Magic is quite prominent as a cultural expression, but you criticise the traditions too. The divide isn’t that clear. Where do you stand yourself?
There is no real divide between these two worlds in Africa. Bakary, the village’s only intellectual, doesn’t live in Kabala. He only comes when he is called. Even the greatest African intellectuals believe in such things. The electoral period is a highly prosperous time for all diviners! It’s hard to draw a dividing line, and that plays on Africans’ conception of things. What’s important is to show that these beliefs, which are the very foundation of our culture, exist without falling into folklore.
The Malian audience will recognise itself in your film. Being selected at the Cannes’ Critics’ Week has given you access to another, Western audience. Aren’t you worried that this public will see it as a confirmation of the clichés of an immemorial Africa that it so willingly cultivates?
I couldn’t address the question of water by shooting in a big town. Kabala was shot 40 km outside Bamako. The village was built for the film in a place where there is no running water or electricity. I wanted to be close to people’s preoccupations – water, love, the conflicts between tradition and modernity, young people’s lack of references, the way in which tradition stifles aspirations to development, etc. The next film will be shot in town, and in this film, the town is never far. Four-wheel drive vehicles reach it easily.
How do you think Western audiences will perceive this film?
Some won’t like it, but others will understand what I am saying. In the West, people expect African filmmakers to document city life. The expression « calabash film » was invented by people who don’t know Africa. As soon as you leave the town, you come across villages like Kabala. We mustn’t erase this reality with the few big towns we have. We have to stop this false debate.
You don’t address politics in the same way that Adama Drabo’s Ta Dona does, for example.
That’s right, and intentionally so. Politics is present in the sense that the film discusses acceptance and choices. But I didn’t want to address politics head-on. There is, of course, no problem that is more political in Africa than development. I didn’t want to adopt a denunciatory tone, but simply to be a narrator in a story in which people recognise themselves.
All of Mali’s major film technicians feature in the credits.
We have to stop making films with foreign crews. We have to take this risk. The quality of the sound and image may, of course, suffer at times, but there is a different richness too. Bakary Sangaré can capture the nuances of his culture. As soon as we stopped shooting, he went off to record sounds elsewhere. He went to a real maternity clinic to get real sounds for the birth scene. A European sound engineer wouldn’t have done that! Jean-Michel Humeau was director of photography to make sure the shoot went fast by using someone who was highly experienced. However, I refused to have a French assistant, so that an African could work and learn. Malian film technicians have extremely few opportunities to work. I preferred to make a film that wasn’t perfect. The quality of the film isn’t what’s most important if the message you are trying to get over has depth. Humeau didn’t hesitate to listen to me, although we occasionally had a few run-ins, of course. He’s a European with an African mind.
You also worked with Andrée Davanture.
When I went to Moscow for my studies, I got stuck in Paris for a few days and couldn’t afford a hotel. Andrée heard about it, and put us up at her place and sorted out all our ticket problems. That’s not something you forget. I was delighted that she could edit my film, also because she’s an African, in the true sense of the term. She has the same sensitivity, understanding, patience and generosity.
Through Hamalla’s depart, the film evokes the harsh reality of gold digging.
Yes, I wanted to show this because I am Manding. My father always used to tell me about it. His cousins and uncles who weren’t lucky enough to go to school had to go looking for gold in the period between the two rainy seasons. The conditions were terrible. They could work three days to find a gram of gold worth 10 euros! These people often dig ten metres down and the pits regularly collapse. They risk their lives for peanuts! I wanted to refer to this in the film, in an almost documentary style.
You posit madness as a means of achieving one’s goal. But Hamalla’s imprecations aren’t as mad as all that.
He plays at being mad, apart from when he is cursed by the sorcerer. In Africa, madmen are tolerated because madness is sacred. This protects him. But he slips in messages, speaks about rupture, curses… He knows he is alone. There are only two women who accept him, but who can’t do anything to help. He realises that the villagers are trapped by the traditions and don’t listen to him. Hamalla is like me, like those African intellectuals who wanted to show the way in the Sixties and Seventies, but who weren’t followed.
Why is madness sacred?
A madman no longer decides, no longer distinguishes between good and bad. So we can’t judge him. He is untouchable. The origin of madness is a mystery and we don’t meddle with it. I found the character interesting because when he says that he isn’t mad, you think that that is part of his madness.
The diviner Fakourou Kanté does some terrible things, but he is not castigated.
No one judges him. I wanted to take each character in his or her being. Fakourou is representative of the traditions and can’t conceive of things being any other way. It isn’t the others who have a problem with them, it’s him, hence the long mea culpa and his desire to die free of what is weighing on his conscience. I tried not to take sides. Even Sériba is told to let his own conscience guide him. He has to leave on his own initiative. The question arises of why we are here if we do nothing for Africa.
The process of getting people to assume more responsibility takes a long time. Isn’t there a danger of reinforcing the lack of constitutional state and impunity that can be seen all over the continent?
I am in favour of arousing people’s awareness. Cut-and-dried positions resolve nothing. No one holds the divine truth. I don’t judge anyone. If people have to pay for their behaviour, they will pay. I don’t try to take political or socially committed positions. I do so by telling a story, without judging the characters, but placing them in their logic. The story speaks for itself, and people will find their own solutions.
What’s your impression of Cannes?
This is the fourth time I’ve come to the festival, but the first time with a film! There’s a lot of anxiety and responsibility involved! I am very proud that there is a Malian film present. Otherwise it’s really hyper, appointments all day long, we’re not used to it, but that’s why we are here!

///Article N° : 5604


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