What are your feelings about being back here in Africa ? You’ve had previous experiences of working and making films here, for instance Battu with Cheikh Oumar Sissoko.
That film was actually shot entirely in Dakar, Senegal. It was there that I met and spoke with Ousmane Sembene about the importance of understanding the Bambara and Wolof cultures, which was essential in the making of the film. I’ve shot other films in Africa: one in South Africa, two others in Zimbabwe, Boesman and Lena for one. I’m planning to do another film in South Africa in which I’ll be acting, Master Harold and the Boys and I’m going to direct a film on the Haitian revolution, filming in Mozambique and South Africa. So you can see that I’ve done a lot since I first came in 1972, when I was just fresh out of University and my experience here in Africa has been extremely enriching for me. There was a gap of thirteen years due to a lack of resources, but over the last twenty years I’ve been able to come at least twice a year on average and I’ve visited all over.
I must ask the perennial question of what it feels like to be an African-American in Africa. After all the cultures are so completely different even though it is here that you have your roots.
My involvement with Africa and Africans has been going on for a long time. It began with the music nearly forty years ago. As a student I made relationships with Nigerians, others from what was then Rhodesia, students from Sierra Leone, and I was also involved in the African Liberation Support Committee in the seventies, so I met men and women from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa. People like Chris Hani. My involvement naturally continued into the Anti-Apartheid movement. Also I’ve read a lot about Africa and works by Africans including those from the Caribbean and South America. I’ve read Mandela and Senghor, Fanon, Nkrumah, Nyerere etc. Through my total immersion in African literature it ‘s clear that the destinies of the people of Africa and those of African descent are incredibly connected. This is what I take as my starting point in my life and, I hope, in my work.
You mentioned various authors. For you Athol Fugard’s work was very important from very beginning of your career and still is.
The connection with Athol Fugard began some thirty years ago with Blood Knot. I’d go so far as to say that Athol Fugard’s work is my path on which I learned the craft of acting. From the beginning acting small scenes and going on to performing whole plays, his work provided me with a voice in developing a relationship with the people I thought to be the most important in the world. The brilliance and lyricism of his writing gave me another entrée into what I do as an actor. I recently revised a play of his, which I first performed 21 years ago on Broadway. This fundamental relationship and my one with South Africa, which dates back to the late sixties, are probably the strongest influences on my life as an artist and as a human being.
You also had a strong relationship with Nelson Mandela on his release from prison and you were involved politically in supporting the election. How is your relationship with him today?
I saw him twice last year in South Africa and I’m due to see him again when I next travel to South Africa, which will be soon. It’s a relationship that started in 1990, 15 years ago. Part of my theatrical relationship with South Africa comes from my meeting Zakes Mokae, a great South African actor. We’ve known each other for over 30 years. Previously my involvement in South Africa was of a political nature and I had political relationships with work we were doing around Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique Angola and Guinea Bissau.
What’s your feeling about the situation in South Africa today? The future still seems unsure.
Is there anywhere where the future is sure? South Africa has a great number of challenges. It has a role to play as the most powerful economic force on the continent even though with a population of 45 million, it is a quarter of the size of Nigeria. It has an extraordinary role because of it’s industrial capacity, but it has to be careful how it wealds that power especially in relation to other less developed countries on the continent. Within the country itself it has to respect it’s mandate to bring development to those who, for even before the 50 years of apartheid, have been left out of the process. I think that the government is keenly aware of the work that has to be done, but being keenly aware and finding the political will to act are two different things. When you have an engine that is powerful, it’s easy to disguise it’s flaws. Just take the United States as an example, which is the most powerful country in the world. There are flaws internally everywhere, but the media and propaganda machines can disguise the flaws and contradictions that exist. I’m sure that in South Africa there are many contradictions that have to be dealt with. What is important is that in a democracy there needs to be a vibrant discourse about these issues between the different classes and generations for there to be progress in the future. One hopes that there can exist a caring society where the less well off are equally considered and cared for. It will take a long time; solutions won’t come within a decade. There is an extraordinary pressure, as in most developing countries to respect the expectations of those people who are liberated, because if you don’t you create more instability.
As you say these problems don’t only concern South Africa. Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world. Here the situation is so difficult it’s hard to think of a future.
Let’s talk about the concept of surplus. There are those who have resources those who don’t. Those who have accumulated surplus and power and those who don’t. There’s also the growth in world technology where man is more and more expendable. A country like Burkina Faso has to find a way to manage with very few natural resources, but even countries with large natural resources, like the Congo, have difficulties, as the wealth isn’t shared, but in the hands of a small élite. There they’ve had to deal with enormous de-stabilising of the country and the death of 2 to 3 million people in the last decade. There is still a major question on how these resources should be managed, even in the countries that have them. The companies that operate and depend on the profits generated from these resources, turn a blind eye and don’t want to get involved in generating a system where they may be called to answer.
The hope is in the African Union and it’s governors: That the demands coming from young people for accountability and more responsibility will be met. The demands coming from other parts of the civil society will not be met by the butt of a gun. There will be discussion to aim for the common goal. From my vantage point of having watched what has happened on the continent over the last 30 years, that’s what I would hope for, but I’m an eternal optimist!
That brings me to talk about your filmography, which is very impressive. You seem to be able, even in the Hollywood system, to play engaging roles as in Beloved for example, where you are able to show the whole story. Is that difficult for you?
Whether I did Beloved or not, it was going to be done. It’s a testament to the power that Oprah Winfrey represents in the mass media in the United States, that Disney was willing to come up with the money at a certain cost to themselves in order to make the movie. There have been other choices that I’ve made that I’ve been able to negotiate around larger films. The Saint of Fort Washington is one. There have been other choices I’ve made where I’ve created roles because the filmmaker decided to make a film. Grand Canyon‘s one, Places in the Heart is one. We have to differentiate between what I’m capable of generating and other films that I’ve made which have become part of my filmography, which I may have made just because I was available at that time. What is inseparable is that there’s work that comes to us and work that we want to do and what I’ve been trying to establish over the years is finding out what work I want to do? What kind of stories do I want to tell? I try to see myself as not just a part of the American Film Industry, but a part of World Cinema.
What are your main influences?
Chinese films, Japanese films, South American films, African films. Films from everywhere influence me and have some sort of place in my whole idea of how I see, as a part of the human experience. My reference in terms of my work comes from that whole experience of being a human being on the planet. Specifically because I’m of African descent those films resonate with me in a different way and have done for a long time. I first saw African films more than 30 years ago. So the question for me was how to develop what I want to do, to find the links with others who are moving in the same area. I regard people in the industry with whom we are less familiar now: Ossie Davis for example and Ruby Dee who long ago made an attempt to do what I want to do. Harry Belafonte and Sydney Poitier who long ago walked a walk and talked a talk that I’m trying to do right now. They’ve already done it! As I see more, and analyse more, I’m searching for the resources that can accompany my ideas and thoughts and take me on to develop what I want to do in the future.
Yes it seems that an important development, which is happening now, is that you are beginning to have your say directly in the cinema.
Yes, a part of watching films is seeing yourself through those films. Of seeing the possibilities through those films. Every time I see a film, I see new possibilities, whether it’s a Vietnamese film, Garden of the Buffalo, one of the most wonderful films I ever saw, or the Inuit film The Fast Runner. These are the sort of films that over a period of time have become a kind of template of reference for my understanding of film. The same thing with newer filmmakers, take Abderrahmane Cissako’s Waiting for Happiness. He has another kind of vision of film. It’s a challenge, because sometimes you feel like a dinosaur talking to people who believe that the 21st century matters differently in terms of human development than the 19th or 20th century. At the same time you also see the light which comes when people want to see and understand themselves and the next step has always been how we cultivate our own humanity. Film has to play a major part in the progression of human development.
I believe that you are taking an active part in helping young African filmmakers. How is that going?
I think it’s important to be able to help other filmmakers to get the resources so that they can find their just expression. I’ve just formed a company and I’m very fortunate to have a producing partner, who in spite of being an American, has an extraordinary breadth of knowledge in literature and films and happens to be a writer herself, so this is a great advantage . I’ve had the advantage, by being an African-American, of meeting all the well established older African filmmakers, so now I’m using any influences I may have in helping the younger filmmakers. Watching others grow and being a part of others’visions is the most exciting thing for me. I’m 58. I’ve lived two thirds of my life. The first third of my life I was doing something else. The last third I’ve spent doing films and theatre, now let me see what I can do with the other third!
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