Interview with Jean-Servais Bakyono, by Olivier Barlet

Cannes, May 1997
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Which analytical criteria do you use as an African critic?
I don’t differentiate between an African film or otherwise: I see only a work. I do not have predefined criteria to read a film. I let myself be guided as a normal viewer, but with some distance. It is afterwards that I try to see what critical tools I can apply to analyze the work better in relation to the symbolic language used by the filmmaker. I make use of everything.
I am struck by the degree to which you use the music, the acting style, etc. in your writing rather than just the themes.
And even the ambiences: the cawing of a crow will prefigure an ill-fated event or will underline a character’s state of distress. The colours also have their importance in the understanding of a film. I pay great attention to the allusions and references which explain the kinships and the desire to take the aesthetic further. A filmmaker’s basic culture determines his or her works.
What is your first step?
I begin by grasping the coherence of the story, its credibility, and the appropriateness of the acting. No work is a flop at first glance: the critic has to be a fair audience because he or she is a mediator. Otherwise, he/she risks leaving the average spectator behind. The critic has to take all the dimensions of the film into account. In Youssef Chahine’s Le Destin, it is important, for example, to understand the meaning of the reference to Aristotle and his influence on human thought today. Even if the article doesn’t mention it, it will be more precise.
What do you think is most important today?
The quality of the images: it is they that enable you to understand the dialogue and to decrypt the silences, the emotions. But everything needs to function according to appropriateness. I don’t write for the readers of my paper, but for the average spectator: I don’t categorize the spectators as intellectuals or otherwise. That would be a trap: someone who is illiterate can read a film more deeply, with his virgin gaze, than an intellectual who approaches it with his or her prejudices and cinematic or literary culture. All criticism is subjective, but I attach particular importance to the spectator’s virgin gaze. And to the aesthetic emotion.
Is that how you define the African spectator today?
It is difficult to generalize. The Africans have been fed on the Bollywood films screened in all the popular movie theatres: they immediately adhere to these films’ music of romance. American and Italian Westerns and karate films have also made their mark. The filmmakers, for their part, often learnt by going to film societies.
What do African spectators make of the telescoping of the rhythm of African and Western films?
They have been modeled, but they are open to all cinematographic trends. I often do on-the-spot polls on the way out of the cinema. The main criticism levelled at African films is that they reproduce the day-to-day image too much: it is more a criticism of the paucity of creation than an aesthetic problem.
Isn’t it a question of the image the public has of a film?
There is indeed a problem in media coverage: a film does not exist without radio or newspaper coverage. There are no posters in town. Which encourages the cinema owners to organize press screenings before the film is released. The filmmakers don’t concentrate enough on promoting their films. They content themselves with a few interviews. When the cinema-owner sees that the film isn’t filling the cinema, he removes it, without noticing that he has scheduled an African film at the same time as the sex-bomb Sharon Stone… But a good African film can impose itself: people even sometimes fight to get in!
Is an African critic in a better position to judge African films?
A critic is a critic, whether he or she be Chinese, Russian or African. The critical tools are similar. It is dangerous to suggest that one critic is better equipped than another to analyze a film. A French person can produce an excellent critique of an African film.
But would not necessarily perceive the meaning of the Mamy Wata in Buud Yam, for example…
That’s a good example: the Mamy Wata myth has been used in a lot of African films. Its representation has rarely been successful. By using double exposure, Gaston Kaboré manages to produce a simple but poignant image. A Chinese person would also understand that this is a reference to the queen of waters: he or she would be sensitive to the universality of the myth.
But you call upon your culture to analyze works…
An example: in Dakan, Mohamed Camara uses two historically marked musical themes. The first was composed at the time of Almamy Samory Touré’s fall to rehabilitate him. The second is inspired by the first with modern instruments and re-using Sory Kandia’s kora. Such a theme isn’t used to illustrate the narrative, but attempts to give it a substance, which seems to me to be at odds in the case of this film. The music is very important in a film: the filmmaker uses it as an artifice, just like a colour or a character. That would escape a foreign critic who might give a different reading of it, and that nuances what I said earlier!
There are very few outstanding African critics. Why?
It is due to the journalism schools: the cultural journalism option is rarely chosen. Culture is often marginalized in African newspapers. In the last few years, some journalists have inverted this trend. Some have gone on advanced training courses. For the MASA [Abidjan Performing Arts Market], the Cooperation participated in training cultural journalists to cover the event. Furthermore, writing about culture is complex: it necessitates more rigour, and the journalists often prefer to cover society events. Finally, the newspapers call upon university critics, who write high-brow articles. And cultural events often take place in the evening: a lot of investment is required in return for little moral or intellectual satisfaction because there isn’t much feedback. Journals have often already discussed the films before they reach the African market and before you can write your criticism. Is this early coverage a problem? I thought so for a long time, but I noticed that these journals are read by a small elite which doesn’t necessarily wait to read the critics before going to see a film. The television and the radio have more influence than the papers: if they cover the African films at the FESPACO or Cannes, the public will look out for them. My articles are read by tiny groups!
What do you think of Western criticism?
It is often a resume of the synopsis followed by a peremptory judgement: either they shower praise, or write a film off. You don’t find that demand for analysis and rigour that a critic ought to have before a work. Western criticism often opts for facility. It is easily ideological rather than aesthetic. I do not have any a priori when I tackle a work: I let myself be guided and progress via a succession of questions. A critical article is the product of a long work process. Every time I see a film, I learn. Rather than saying that I am a film critic, I prefer to say that I write about film.
Are the filmmakers ever resentful towards you?
I often get called dishonest and all the names under the sun, but I accept that as it strikes me as normal. I try to favour dialogue and reciprocal enriching. Some filmmakers are open to criticism and others resistant…
Do some films strike you as not being polished enough?
Yes, the scripts have often not been worked on enough. That comes from the fact that the filmmaker carries his or her film alone. He needs to accept other point of view on his work: this distance would enable him to open up his work. He doesn’t draw on his civilization enough, doesn’t read enough. Filmmakers don’t discuss the image and techniques much together. Working together on certain films would give them more professionalism.
Your judgement on the African films at Cannes today?
Each time I am overjoyed: the films are technically accomplished and the diversification of styles is a delight. We are looking at experiments, new paths, a new crop which gives a lot of hope. I have difficulty in understanding the « bush cinema » concept which Western criticism has invented to categorize films from Africa: does it mean a folkloric cinema or an original cinema impregnated with the values of African civilizations?
The Cannes critics seem to dismiss references to the myths to a static attachment to the past.
Souleymane Cissé entered the myth and exploded it, opening it up to all, such as Cheikh Oumar Sissoko or Adama Drabo. The creation is audacious: these films participate in the questioning of the contemporary period. Different points of view can converge.
What can African films bring the world today?
I am not a prophet. I think that they bring their difference, and aesthetic, a deepening through these founding myths. The African filmmakers have just started telling their culture, with their sensibility, without censoring themselves in relation to Western film.

///Article N° : 5274


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