Interview with François Woukoache, by Olivier Barlet

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Why did you make Asientos, a film about the slave trade?
It is a film about memory, a quest for traces, a reaction to what is happening today, an exploration of the question of who we are in today’s world. Africans don’t seem to control their destiny, nor do they have the capacity to react to what happens to them, and to redefine who they are. The trauma of the slave trade has made Africa what it is today, and will continue to define Africa in the year 2000 if the Africans don’t look into their history. I wondered why Césaire started by writing Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, in which this is the main subject…
Why choose film?
It struck me that the cinema was the perfect means of addressing the question, as we have no images of it! There are only a few drawings, which were often done for propaganda purposes. Nothing on the African side. Accounts are extremely rare. Images are the obligatory path into the subject. The wave of filmmakers in the Eighties tried to change the image of Africa without asking the question at what time the image they rejected emerged. It was at the time of the slave trade, when the Black man was defined by the Other as an object. The film Asientos is based on this postulate. The desire was to express something different, which had no connection with what I had already seen, particularly in African film. People had to feel that this film was necessary both in terms of subject and form, otherwise it would have been pointless.
What does the slave trade represent to you?
It marks the beginning of globalization. People came up with, and implemented, this trade on a planetary level, and it functioned for several centuries. But the subject of the film is not the slave trade in itself, it is memory: how does one speak about something which no one is interested in today? That’s what people retorted, but I think that it is at the very heart of Africa today. I am convinced that will be unable to find new points of reference as long as we refuse to enter into a process of grieving, which is a fundamental collective moment in any society, which enables it to redefine its relation to death, and the relation of the living among themselves. Intellectuals did not react to the deaths in Rwanda! Some people discovered the images when they saw my film!
Do you feel isolated in your approach?
I consider myself to be at odds with most of the films made by Africans today, as I don’t see anything which enables us to redefine the Africa of tomorrow. You get the impression that people create things out of nowhere. I am not nostalgic for the past, but no people has projected itself in the future without taking what it was before into account. I discovered that Mali used to have a constitution written in Bambara, which abolished slavery. The constitution has been re-written today without taking what came before it into account, which confuses the people who had internalized the first one. Were Were Liking and the Ki-Yi M’Bock’s research into rituals and initiation rites seems extremely important to me in this respect: not what films show only superficially, but the essence of things. You don’t suddenly decide that female circumcision is bad, for example, without considering what the meaning of this ritual is. It’s once you’ve understood this meaning that you can question it. I get the impression that everything works a bit like that…
Does your film contribute to this questioning?
This film is an object, which sets out to disturb. It is surprising to note that the people who follow African film here to a large extent cultivate doubt. When you try to head off the beaten track, people reproach you for not being « African », or for not targeting people there, whereas, the discussions I managed to have in Cameroon, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso were fascinating: we weren’t speaking about politics, or ethnology, we were speaking cinema, about shots, film language, images, framing…
Isn’t it the question of slavery, rather than the slave trade, that is evoked when one delves into the imagination?
I see slavery and the slave trade as fundamentally different…
The slave trade was operated by people from overseas…
Not only! The king of Benin principally became a slave-trading king! That is not what I wanted to speak about. When we were looking for funding, a lot people wanted us to deliver a history lesson. I am not a historian, nor an ethnographer, and that didn’t interest me. I was thirty years old when I wrote this film, and I situate myself today: how would I approach this history if I were telling it to a child? I had to invent everything as there are no traces left. It’s a fiction, it’s film. It is not a reconstitution, it’s imaginary reality. Am I capable of remembering the slave trade? And of moving away from a discourse of guilt. The slave trade is now part of humanity’s heritage. Which does not mean that Africans do not a specific task to do, one which is different from that of the descendants of African slaves in America. The film stops at the sea. Are we capable of stopping and thinking about these things around us?
What do people need to get over today?
Notably this history, to get over the guilt. A process of reflection is needed so that we understand why the slave trade, or Rwanda, are possible. Without this reflection, the thing happens again. What share of responsibility do we have in what happens? What is the part of the Other in us? We will not be something else tomorrow without this process of reflection. The dead-end dialogue we have with Black Americans is also rooted in this lack of self-examination: they are trying to find out who they are, and turn to an original Africa, which they think has done this work when it’s not the case! This process requires a re-writing of a scale of values. The cinema can play an essential role, as it transforms people’s imaginations. Were Were Liking is right when she writes that African cinema is not African as it doesn’t know its own culture.
You seem to be very negative about films from Africa…
A lot of films are made in Africa, but not much cinema! Why are there six African films at Cannes when one would suffice? Bodies such as the French Cooperation or the ACCT, or even the European Community, boast that they have financed 300 African films, but are there ten African films which can be considered important in the history of world cinema? We need to stop this policy of statistics because Africa needs, and deserves, high-quality art works.
Your formal choices mark a rupture…
I am a filmmaker: I dream in images and sounds, in relation to the world today. And I work in the context of African cinema because I define myself, contrary to other « filmmakers, period », and even though I don’t like labels, as an African filmmaker. This film ought to be a shock. It takes time to be able to absorb something. It was only after an afternoon on Gorée that I began to shudder and to go back a century earlier… This house on Gorée is a kind of human body. I don’t think it suffices to make an image to show something. It takes preparation for the spectator to be able to see what you want to show, to get him/her ready to look. You have to work at the gaze. Lighting, the frame, the sound, and time all play their role. If no one can tell you what the film was about on their way out, what was the point of spending five years of your life making it? Repetition changes the first reading, and the magic of the cinema enables you to take the spectator into an emotion, an abnormal state!

///Article N° : 5303

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