Interview with Baba Diop, by Olivier Barlet

Ouagadougou, February 1997
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How would you describe the state of film criticism in Africa today?
There are tree types of critical article: the daily critical articles, academic criticism, and the specialized journals. The daily critical articles are written by cultural journalists who work for the dailies and who, without being specialists, report on events (film shoots, gala events, or press screenings). The film is only seen once, therefore, at times unaccompanied by documentation, and after the screening, a paper has to be written for the next day’s or the day after that’s edition.
In the Sixties and the best part of the Seventies, films were classed, without analysis, according to Western criteria (social films, engaged films, social satires, action films, etc.). And today, the young journalists’ judgement is often hasty and complacent, the film rarely being analyzed according to cinematographic rules, but according to values: the respect due to elders, women’s place in society, the village haven of peace, the ferocious and perverse town… Society is seen as suffering from a cleavage opposing tradition and modernity. It is a vision which used, and continues, to make many film critic journalists happy. This daily criticism is often a laudatory, eulogistic criticism in which the filmmaker interviewed speaks more about his original intentions than about the film as it is when the public sees it.
And the others?
Academics who take an interest in cinema study the films more than the journalistic critics. They take the analytical models in vigour in their discipline (literature, semiology, psychoanalysis, etc.) and apply them to film. They are often concerned with thematics.
The specialist journals try, on the other hand, to trace a director’s evolution, to see how the script is handled, how the actors are directed, the conditions of production and shooting… In certain countries, such as Senegal, associations of critics are emerging who organize events alongside the journals or festivals.
Which analytical criteria do you use?
The question is knowing whether or not the director has mastered the story he or she wanted to tell. How did he go about it and what did he do to capture the spectator’s attention? What perception does the director have of his society or of the relations people have to one another within society?
My first criteria is the pertinence or the originality of the idea on which the story of the film is based. How does the director use the technical means the cinema puts at his disposal to defend his idea? A narrative which straightforwardly produces an emotion is a second criteria. Does the choice of the music, the setting, the costumes help to reinforce the narrative? And finally, whether the way in which the actors are directed, which requires work from within, gives a clear idea of what the character represents in the film.
Is film still a poor parent in the press?
Despite the lack of national production, young journalists are interested in film and film criticism. Having taught journalism for over thirteen years at the Cesti (Centre of Studies in Information Science and Techniques), I tried to encourage my students to choose cultural rather than political or economic journalism. I sincerely believe that a good critic is a journalist who has done a bit of everything! They are the people who, in the cultural field, are equally capable of writing about music, literature, fashion, the visual arts, theatre arts. Film, as it is often said, is a synthesis art.
What are relations between the public and the filmmakers like?
Filmmakers’ failing is that they take the audience to be more stupid than it really is. And, with a condescending air, propose a disconcertingly simplistic scenario in which what is said is more important than the image. The public has acquired experience in reading films since they first started being screened in Africa. Viewers are not fools upon whom we must impose simple stories and stereotypical characters.
And between the filmmakers and the critics?
Relations between the journalistic critics and the filmmakers are often conflictual. Although they deny it, filmmakers only consider the person who praises them, in short the bootlicker, to be a good critic… An unfavourable paper about their work is interpreted as being full of bad intentions. When a paper is published, some filmmakers stop speaking or saying hello to you, whereas before you were on good terms and you often used to discuss film together! Most directors are film technicians who have gone over to directing. That is not at all derogatory in itself, but the intellectual dimension of their creation doesn’t come over in their films. Yet creation is an intellectual activity: a director is a person of culture who is interested in everything that might trouble his or her epoch. In both their interviews and their films, they often stop at making statements. How many of them never read a magazine or a novel and never go to a fashion show or a play? How many never go to see the films at the FESPACO [Ouagadougou Pan-African Film Festival], a place where you can gain from others’ experience if ever there were? So, how can you claim to « educate the people » when you yourself are no more advanced than them?
How do you feel at the FESPACO this year?
The FESPACO needs to conserve its unique character. That is, to remain a festival which favours impromptu encounters and which includes the whole town in this film event. Unfortunately, little by little, the FESPACO is becoming a victim of its own success: a lot of people come here to pose. Showing off, a value! Perhaps it is because there are more and more festival-goers, but it is becoming harder and harder to sit down with interesting people to have a deep discussion about film. As for the selection of films, we have to admit that the days of the first tentative steps are over, that we must no longer close our eyes to the clumsiness, nor justify it by I don’t know what lack of means! The selection owes it to itself to be rigorous.
The 1997 FESPACO is of a high quality. The films are made by a generation who want to be described as filmmakers and not just « African filmmakers ». Interesting glimmers are coming from Zimbabwe. The Malian school succeeds in capturing the fantastic element with an 80 even 100% Malian crew. With the exception of a few leading figures, Burkinabè cinema remains trapped in the style of development film for a different purpose based on the town/country dichotomy.
A final word?
I feel that the image of film and of the artist has profoundly changed in Africa today. Directors such as Ousmane Sembene have shown that you can live from your art, be respected and listened to. The industrial dimension appears more clearly from now on, with a concern for profitability. I think that we can reasonably be optimistic about the future of film on the continent.

///Article N° : 5275

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