Interview with Ramadan Suleman, by Olivier Barlet

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I am struck by the extent to which your film represents an expurgation of a violent society’s integration of violence…
I have been living in France for ten years, but if I want to look at its history, I do not have access to the kind of overt criticism that I can find in the United States over the Vietnam war, for example. French filmmakers have never made a film about the Paris Commune! When Rohmer shot in Barbès, he didn’t include a single immigrant in his images… South Africa is dominated by hatred. In Fools, I wanted to say that we can exteriorize this hatred, that we can restore tolerance by working on ourselves. That seems to me to be the duty of the filmmaker, and of artists in general.
By adapting a Njabulo Ndebele novel, you have chosen an author who focuses on the destiny of ordinary folk. Why?
In France, you see so-called ordinary people who support the extreme right-wing. In South Africa too, Black people caught in a poverty trap, who suffer the sequels of apartheid, could rapidly become intolerant. You have to start with simple people in order to change the country. But it concerns the Whites who used to claim « we didn’t know » too: Fools will help them rectify their vision!
Are White South Africans also going about this task?
Not yet unfortunately, but the changes are still recent. The Mandela government has set up the first Ministry of Culture in the history of South Africa: this signifies a new recognition. We need to work on stereotypes, without the paternalism found in the literature that is very popular here: the kinds of novels which do not provoke any debate. No more than than the Hollywood films about South Africa do.
You have added the madman character to the book: was this for cinematographic purposes?
Indeed. Njabulo Ndebele’s book includes a letter to the young Zani written by his girlfriend in which she likens the teacher Zamani to a madman. I wanted Zamani’s degeneracy to be reflected in reality. This madman haunts the place and lives opposite Zamani… He joins him at the end of the film, as I do not believe in the Redemption: Zamani’s suffering must continue until he is judged. He will be by the community, but he is already condemned by his wife: she steps over his body, whereas, in African symbolism, you only do that to a dead body! Likewise, the mother of the raped girl tells her daughter that she needn’t attack him because he is already dead!
Does the South African people still have to suffer?
Yes, but they must also go beyond that, otherwise the hatred will carry on, and will risk leading to fascism.
The women remain dignified and silent vis-à-vis the men: is that typical of South African women?
It reflects a political situation and a backward custom. Under apartheid, women were not able to choose their destiny, and found themselves imprisoned in their own homes. When they pack their bags to leave, I see it as a hopeful act. Free of apartheid, women today have the choice to say: « enough’s enough! »
We find the same refusal of Redemption in Souleymane Cissé’s Waati which you worked on as an assistant director.
It is not just a matter of keeping the memory of the past alive. That is just hot air. The complexity of Black-White relations emerges when the White whips the Black Zamani: Zamani humiliates the White by laughing, and the White ends up striking the South African land he can no longer control. But Fools is more complex than just the confrontation between Blacks and Whites: the main subject of the film is the psychological sequels of a system inscribed in a History that began long before apartheid.
You directed a Black theatre troupe before leaving South Africa. Did this experience rub off on the film?
Above all in giving us the force to do it ourselves! It wasn’t because we wanted to exclude Whites, but it was difficult to work with Liberals who always ended up acting as unofficial spokespeople. The theatre was shut for political reasons, but it remains one of the most important periods of my life: it is thanks to that that I have managed to make a film!
The film is an adaptation of a novel, which is still quite rare in Black African film.
Literature can inject dynamism into the cinema. I think that it can play a major role, but 75% of South Africans are illiterate, so the cinema can also help literature. People who have seen Fools may be tempted to read the novel…
Has Najabulo Ndebele seen the film?
No, not yet. But he will have a chance to at the Book Fair he is invited to in Aix-en-Provence in October. I don’t know what his reaction will be, but I’m going to sit near the way out…!

///Article N° : 5279


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