Interview with Samba Félix N’Diaye, by Olivier Barlet

Paris, June 2000
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Is it possible to show horror? From your point of view as a filmmaker, is it possible to impose a vision of horror on an audience without taking it hostage?
Part of the answer lies in the question! And the problem facing us over there was to decide whether you can film mass-graves, human beings who deserve to be respected, especially when they are dead. What is more, African tradition does not have a museology of death: for people of non-rationalistic animist tendencies, living humans will not rest in peace as long as the dead do not rest in peace. They will be haunted. And then finally, there’s the question of your approach: I saw delegations arrive in coaches, with cameras, with digital camcorders, who filmed the corpses in close-up. Maybe they were protecting themselves? I really don’t know, but alongside there were nuns, young people, old men who were crying out of frustration, out of horror. We returned two or three times to each site, and could not find the right tone. At one point, we took a mirror and filmed ourselves, in the mass-grave, because we felt that you couldn’t show that from the outside without manipulating, without taking people hostage. And, aside from the fact that I am African, and that I demand sepultures worthy of these dead, I think that, in the current economic, political and social situation, if Rwanda continues to expose its dead in the churches, it is that, somewhere along the line, even if trying to solve the revisionist question and the necessity for testimonies, I think that there are other ways of doing so, and that at present, the Rwandan State has taken its dead hostage in an effort to take advantage of the feeling of guilt.
Godard says in his Histoires de cinéma: « pain is not a star, no close-ups! »
Absolutely. The first thing that we did was not to put the camera in the room, because we considered them to be funeral chambers. Even if there are only bones and you can see just a tuft of hair, they are human beings, you can see the sex, everything is seen, then, nonetheless, a little bit of distance, from outside, behind the window, so as only to see the pain of the passersby. A boy who lives in Murambi, alongside the dead, by that school where a terrible massacre took place and where everything has been left intact, comes everyday to watch over what goes on. The soldiers are there, but he comes because his family is there. He doesn’t know where they are anymore, but he was able to recognize the body of his brother who is in a coffin, wrapped in a wool cover, which he showed to us. When he opened the coffin, a mouse ran out. A Rwandan was with us who wanted to remove the cover. We all cried out that it wasn’t possible! That boy had already put his brother in a coffin: not able to take him out of there, he had already given him a semblance of a grave!
You don’t come back from such a visit unscathed.
The skeletons are exhibited willy-nilly: you can see skulls, tibias, there you can see a whole body still with its skin, treated with lime, because the people in charge of these sites do not have the means to conserve these corpses. They do so with alcohol, with very rudimentary things. There is a smell which sticks in your throat and to your clothes, which gets into your stomach and stays in your mind. Boubacar Boris Diop said something extremely important: « before Rwanda, and after Rwanda ». I didn’t understand when he said it in Paris, but when I saw that, no man, no woman can witness that in their lives and go home and sleep and eat in peace. I never thought, at a stage of humanity, that that would happen. We know since the beginning, with Genesis, with the herders against the farmers, that odious crimes are possible, but there, a million people in the space of two or three months, with machetes, with grenades, in churches. It overstepped transgression: this genocide took everything to the extreme, the non-respect of sacred things in Africa, the non-respect of the Church, of the human, of family ties, of all that there was that was sacred and which bound them! An extraordinary fear remains today, which can be seen in each Rwandan you meet today, and I weigh my words carefully. In the eye, in the movements. I would like to be optimistic, but I can’t be, given the current context, given what I have seen. What Fest’Africa has done is very good: it was our duty, for writers, to get together there, in 98, and to decide to use this reality as a starting-point for fiction, each according to his/her sensibility, limits, etc. They did their duty. You cannot hold conferences to explain the inexplicable. And in the more than fifty years that we have been embarrassed of mentioning pan-Africanism, Nocky Djedanoum’s idea was very powerful: that intellectuals – artists, writers and filmmakers – mobilize to carry out this grieving process! Because we are in the front-line: we speak about the international community, but we are part of it, aren’t we?
This gathering was what was needed then?
Nocky is irreproachable, because he gave artists a chance to speak. For me, what really hurt was all those congress participants who stayed in their hotels and conference rooms, who didn’t have the generosity to go out into the street, to meet the Rwandans! There were Rwandans present, but it was once again that strange phenomenon of intellectuals in the wake of a discourse. The discourse is clear: the number of prisoners in the Rwandan prisons, how traumatized people are, beset intellectuals who no longer know which way to turn, who no longer recognize their country. Grandfathers raped their granddaughters, young children killed other children because they saw their father kill: that is what needs to be spoken about, that is what we need to tackle, but how? I haven’t got any answers. On a political level, it is up to the Rwandan politicians to settle their affairs, but artists – from Rwanda first of all, I admit, but also from Africa – need to mobilize. Let every one make his or her contribution.
How did the Rwandan artists react?
It was very difficult to manage, but there was a total confidence. In fact, the two key characters in the Rwandan event were Chadian: Koulsy Lamko and Nocky Djedanoum. Koulsy works on the ground in theatre, literature, and trains young people in audiovisual skills. Nocky tried to coordinate all these elements and to make something of them. It is true that certain Rwandans were skeptical, because it was not out in the streets, and the church and the NGOs who messed up this country musn’t be given a free reign! In Butare, which is a university town, a lot of students came to the plays, the debates, and the majority were highly critical: what were all these journalists doing here who didn’t even speak to us? And the journalists were in their corner, under their sunshades, in the air-conditioned auditorium… We tried to listen to the man in the street, to listen to the traumatized intellectuals, whom you no longer ever dare to ask whether they are Tutsi or Hutu.
Do you think it is a question to ask today?
As you would say which district you are from! To find the connections. People can no longer say it, because massacres have taken place, but it wasn’t only the Hutu who killed the Tutsi, but also Hutu who killed moderate Hutu, and so the question is: what is this machine which causes men and even women to do that – for there were women carrying babies on their backs who chased other women with babies on their backs to massacre them! How is it that a radio, a whole policy, enables or gives normally constituted human beings the means to become this foul beast?
This foul beast is a twentieth-century phenomenon, in Yugoslavia, in Sierre Leone, and elsewhere. This bestiality comes out even more strongly in these civil wars. What profound work needs to be done to avoid it?
I cannot answer, but I note that in South Africa, Israel backed apartheid and that Zionism was close to the Nazism which nonetheless sought to exterminate the Jews! That’s where the question lies: one must respect individualities, and no longer trust the dominant and clear-cut ideologies, which take precedent over everything. We have been through it: confrontations are needed, that people look one another in the eye, agree to sit down at the table to say who they are, how they are, and to accept each other as they are! Africa and the West have over four centuries of history to sort out, Africa and the Arab countries even more. Misquoting Césaire a little, I would say that there would have been no Rwandan genocide if slavery had not taken place.
Do you mean that there has been an education in genocide?
Absolutely! Everybody speaks about the global village, but they mean it economically, and so rarely in terms of civilizations which have enriched one anther! We don’t speak about culture, about the role of artists. I heard young high-school kids here in Paris on the radio the other day saying that they worshipped the Devil and didn’t believe in Father Christmas. They had been told that they musn’t believe in Father Christmas. Well, I prefer to make them believe in Father Christmas!
How do you transcribe that into film?
Just as always: do not be right about anything, simply ask questions, be in harmony. The problem is that it is not possible to be in harmony in the face of this. You are torn, called into question, your whole shell crumbles around you. The whole crew, me included, cried or underwent moments of truly indescribable anguish, a fear. So, you have to delve into it, until you are exhausted, and to try clearly to see if there is a tiny light on the horizon, to say ok, this is simply the history of humanity: a part of humanity has made it so that that is where we are at. I do not claim to have any solutions, because it is all beyond me, but the foolhardy part is to say that we are witnesses: we are no longer what we were. And that this has taken place in Africa. Seventeenth-century Europe, before the humanists, set up the slave trade. People give figures, 50 million Africans, but the figures are not important. The most vigorous and most intelligent were chained in the holds of ships. We used to think that Europe was barbaric. In 39-45, Europe had reached an extremely advanced state of barbarity. We accepted our savage side, but we were not barbarians, and today, we have attained the supreme stage of Europe’s barbaric acts in the last century. And so, there is a sense of shame, of guilt and the fact that we have to hold our heads high nonetheless, even if we submit, because it is too hard to admit that!
The existing documentaries are basically reports, but how can film intervene when people are looking for something so that they can try to go on living?
You cannot show horror. There may well be skulls in this film, but that is not what is most important: we tried to inject life into everything we filmed! What interests me as an individual, more than as a filmmaker, is to confront that head-on: it was women, men and children who were murdered, they were not pigs! When we agreed that we could not show this, I asked whether there was a slaughter house in the country. I was told yes, but that 70% of the population does not eat meat (a country where the main culture is herding). I explained to the head of the slaughter house that I wanted to film in order to say that there are people capable of doing this to animals, that this is still acceptable, but if they are capable of doing it to one another, there is no possible explanation. And he was the one who threw me a line: he said, there, the slaughter house is there, we’ve pulled it all down, we’re making new machines so that it can be done cleanly and so that we can do more, but where you’re going to film, it’s a carnage!
It, of course, brings to mind Touki Bouki, the film by another Senegalese filmmaker, Djibril Diop Mambety.
Yes, everybody has said so, but, well, we are brothers, we influence one another, and we have the same childhood background of the medina, of the slaughter house behind the beach. When I took the crew to the slaughter house, they cursed that I was a criminal, but I saw that as a child, I even went to watch the blood trickle from the slaughter house into the sea. That didn’t even traumatize me, and I prefer 80 million cows to be slain than one man killed!
This insistence on the signs of life reminds me of « La Vie continue » by Abas Kiarostami, filmed after 50 000 people died in an earthquake in Iran.
He is a friend, we have a lot in common. He is an extremely reserved, shy man, and one of the most modern filmmakers of our time. But what saved me in Rwanda was the fact that my daughter was born just five days before I went! It was that which made me feel that life is stronger than death. Sincerely, after everything that has happened, that people still manage to live.
How do you tap into this life?
What immediately interested me when I arrived, right from the airport, was the way in which people move, letting or not letting people pass, the physical contact, what is said but not verbally, through glances, faces, what remains, the way in which people walk. There are crowds of people everywhere, in lines, who walk without saying a word, the way in which they observed us. We had to realize that we were being looked at, because it would be pretentious to think that we could testify without these people observing us. We didn’t steal anything: we put the camera down, we waited for things to happen. If they didn’t happen, too bad. We never hid our camera at any time. What is more, it was heavy, super 16 mm, that was the challenge, to avoid voyeurism. Naturally, you need a point of view, and you have to commit yourself, but at no time did we forget that we have a culture which puts decorum first. I once had a terrible argument with Depardon. I attacked him, saying that I never say « her » when I speak about my mother – I used to address my mother as « vous », and I do not think that immodesty is a quality in a documentary filmmaker – and he told me that we Africans are too decorous. What does that mean, being too decorous?
Do you question yourself about the Western gaze vis-à-vis what you are doing?
I don’t ask myself the question. I went to university, I studied semiology, but my main tutor, the one who helped me to see, is my grandmother, who knew nothing about film. All that I know, ultimately, about film, my reflection in relation to images, comes from her. When I speak about the non-verbal, she was the one who explained that to me: look at your interlocutor when he speaks to you. If he fidgets about on his seat, it’s because what you are saying doesn’t interest him. The chairs which squeak when you see a film. When you go to someone’s house and he gives you the highest chair, sit as low as possible, because he is the one who is going to teach you something. And that is what I film in fact: I film people from a low angle, I don’t like staring straight at them (except when someone attacks me, then it is the only way of answering), I prefer looking from low down upwards. To film is to learn things about ourselves, starting with a film on Rwanda.
I suppose that things are so turbulent inside that it is ultimately only possible to speak about oneself.
That’s right, we speak about ourselves: I would not like my brother or my mother, or whoever, to be exhibited on a table, like a drying out corpse.

///Article N° : 5460


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