Long considered THE woman in African film, Senegalese director Safi Faye, talks about her first feature film, Mossane. Made in 1990, it was nominated in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996 and for Cannes Junior in 1997. It finally came out in France in 1998!!
In the past, your approach was more ethnological. Mossane, on the other hand, is a work of fiction.
I find it hard to distinguish between fiction and documentaries. Fiction us acted is born as much of everyday life as the imagination. In film, the scenes are written to respect cinema time. For example, in Mossane the wedding scene lasts eight minutes! When I film a sequence shot for a documentary, I try to tell a story so that there’s a beginning and an end. My style comes across in each of my films, to the extent that the same words and gests sometimes reappear. For example, in Fad’jal the griot (a travelling poet and musician in Africa) steps with his right foot first because the left foot brings bad luck. Exactly the same act can be found in Mossane.
In Fad’jal, you ask people to replay their lives, like Kiarostami who shot And Life Goes On six months after the earthquake and got people to relive the situation?
A quote from Hampâté Bâ sums up Fad’jal, « When an old-timer dies, it’s like a library that burns ». I couldn’t rely on oral tradition, which is passed from generation to generation, becoming the heritage of the men making history today. It’s remembered History (with some embellishments no doubt) that the inhabitants of modern Fadial are acting out.
Are you afraid that the oral word is dying?
Having frozen it in the images will preserve it. Ever since the Festival des Arts Nègres in 1966, the importance of saving History has been emphasised. I come from rural Africa and I want to preserve this Africa on film.
Why do you not like talking about your films?
As far as I’m concerned, once the film is finished it belongs to the spectators and critics. That’s why I don’t like interviews. You defend a film when it’s bad. When it’s good, you don’t say anything. I’ve done my best. I don’t need to convince the public.
Mossane contains several mythical references
I show the Pangools (Serere name for ancestral spirits) because I don’t really believe in monotheistic religions and therefore defend African religions based around spirits. Mossane is too beautiful to be of this world so must belong to the spirit world, the ancestor’s world. The problem was how to represent the ancestors. I couldn’t show them as human so I made them up – with their heads upside down and down below.
What does Mossane’s character represent for you?
A beautiful, inaccessible creature. She’s fourteen and the spirits, humans both young and old, and even nature itself, fall in love with her. In my story, Mossane is passing through. On the other hand, Magou Seck, the actress, is very real. She’s 21 years old and I have been looking after her since her father died. She hadn’t been to school very much before the film. She’s now attending the Alliance Française school in Dakar.
Knowing another language as well as your own is an asset. Knowing about your own culture and feeling comfortable speaking in Wolof, French and English is admirable. Learning about French, English or any other culture is a lasting achievement. Cultural integration makes you grow. Even though I consider my illiterate mother intelligent, I am convinced that I have something more than her because I was able to go to school and learn and understand. I also have something more than you because you can’t interview me in Wolof.
At 14, the Mossane in the film obeys her parents but also feels adolescent urges. Being obsessed with the issues of tradition and modernity simply because Mossane is African is unnecessary, Mossane is just another adolescent. Branding her as an African teenager would be absurd. She’s at an age where her body, face and being are constantly changing. I wanted to capture those images in the film. At that age, all adolescents are alike. Samba the actor describes it well, « It doesn’t matter, (Mossane) she’s growing up. It’s the start of adolescence, the birth of her personality »
The sensuality of the image is very striking in Mossane.
When something’s beautiful, I show it. Yes, in Senegal, someone asked me to cut the « ride » before screening the film for the authorities. What he called the « ride », I called a siesta – Dibor and her husband Daouda’s afternoon nap. What harm is there in showing a good siesta? Maybe I dared to show what goes on at night and that people never talk about by day. « Riding » isn’t a problem.
Mossane means pure
Moss means beautiful, pure, innocence, virtue, etc.
You’re not concerned that the film will appear to be idealising mythical Africa?
No, not at all. I wanted Mossane to be the most beautiful adolescent in the world. Everything is a figment of imagination – my imagination. Why should all films contain a message, be instructive or educate? Creativity is not an analytical activity. To my mind, films are born of imagination. In Mossane, I created the ceremonies and they are a far cry from my studies in ethnology.
Six years from shooting to post-production and a legal battle with the producer. Could you tell us about it?
As my mother says, it’s fate. It was written that I had to go through this trial, even after 20 years in the business.
There was a mystery surrounding the film. I had given right of authority to the designated French producer who had acquired – without our knowledge – the rights to the film, as well as all the funding that I had obtained from Italy and Switzerland. It all disappeared into thin air. For six years; I had to fight on my own until the end of the court case. In any case, my film was entirely filmed during 1990, when Mossane was 14. What would happen if there were some scenes missing, now that Mossane is 21? I want to forget the past six years. Mossane is finished and I’m glad I finally got there. I like this film a lot.
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