Marrying futility and utility

Interview with Dani Kouyaté, by Olivier Barlet

Namur, octobre 1999
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Burkinabè Dani Kouyaté’s first feature film, Keïta, l’héritage du griot, which revisits the legend of Sunjata Keïta through the imagination of a young boy, has been a big hit with young audiences. He nonetheless denies having made a film for children. In any case, would that be wise?

Have you managed to show you film to young audiences in Africa, as has been the case in Europe?
Unfortunately not: there’s always the same problem with infrastructures and distribution. If the film has managed to do the rounds of schools here, it is because there are networks. In Africa, no specific investments are made for young people – nor any kind of investment at all! But deep down, the question of productions for young Africans is a complex, philosophical one, in my view, which goes back to the very notion of entertainment in Africa. Traditionally, there aren’t productions for young people, nor for the elderly: there are productions, and these cater for everyone. The griot, for example, has to satisfy everyone at once: he doesn’t address children on the one hand, and adults on the other. As Amadou Hampâté Bâ put it, « the tale must be futile and useful », and the two are absolutely not contradictory! By subtly mixing futility and utility, you systematically address everyone. What matters, when you produce an art work, is knowing whether everyone is concerned, which means that young people are too. You thus find the form to suit everybody.
It isn’t a matter of proposing artistic forms specifically designed for children, then?
Today, in the concert of nations, we tend to behave the same as elsewhere, without thinking about ourselves much, and about how things were done before, about how the elders were able to address everyone without distinguishing between children, old people, youths, women or men… That was the spirit I envisaged Keïta in: as a futile and useful tale. In a production, words are like a seed in a shell: to eat it, you have to crack it open and pick out what is essential. The shell may well be the futile, but it is useful, because without the shell, there is no seed! We should perhaps go back to the spirit of entertainment in Africa to understand that an art work can address everybody.
Have you draw this conclusion from you experience as a griot, from touring as a family of storytellers?
It’s a conclusion I have drawn from my experience in general. I am a storyteller by descent, I told tales at a very early ages, I have followed my father (1), I will continue to follow him, and as long as he is alive, I will be a pupil of his school. My first school is my father, and I think it will be my last. I have always learnt to address everybody at once through tales. We don’t think of there being stories for children; conceiving a story for a child boils down to belittling children, to taking them as incapable of understanding what adults can understand, which stunts their maturity! For us, a story for children is pejorative: a story for the inane, for babies, as clowning around to amuse children… A storyteller who is unable to address a child and an adult at the same time has a problem as a storyteller!
That’s what you try to do in film.
My understanding of film is rooted directly in this concept. In the West, things are systematized, catalogued… The national school board determines whether a film is for children for them. I see it in the theatre, as I work with troupes in Europe who put on productions for young audiences: problems arise because they produce very mature works which are censored on the pretext that they are too harsh or too violent. Can a theatre production be more violent than the violence of a horror film, or a war film, or even the evening television news? We are caught up in a wave of hypocrisy which benefits nobody: neither the State, nor the children, nor the art, nor anybody!
That brings us back to the idea of considering children as adults with appropriate forms.
I come back to Amadou Hampâté Bâ, as he is the one who has left us the most in his books: he said that children are adults without beards, and that adults are bearded children. That sums it up! There are no boundaries, there is nothing to catalogue, we cannot systematize man!
What is inane about the artistic forms for children you were referring to earlier?
The huge pretension of claiming to be able to speak a child’s language. If everyone can rediscover the child he/she is, that’s not a bad start, but not everyone is capable! Putting children in a mould and making products targeting their level is a huge pretension, which leads to inaneness. I’m not afraid of the word. There are productions for children which can be strictly condemned, which are so facile, so stupid that they are an insult to children, to young people, moronic! Let’s not forget that the human being is fragile. We already force adults into moulds so much! A child is plasticine! We make them more stupid by drumming things into them that are supposedly at their level! And of we admit that we are not very intelligent ourselves, this is a real problem!
Do young audiences react differently to adults when they see your film?
The reactions are vary enormously. It is difficult to pick out tendencies. The force of a film lies in what it gives you in the long term… I see my film as a tale which can change your life: you see this film, and a month later something reminds you of the tale, which makes you think. My role is to encourage reflection. Ultimately, I’m not interested in knowing what people think of the film. It was born out of my own thoughts, and I feel very close to the child Mabo, I feel that I am Mabo in my film, I am the father a bit too, as I have a daughter.
Young people are the champions of judgement, because when they don’t want something, they spit it out, they are not at all diplomatic! I wonder why we don’t set up young people’s public committees to test productions to see if they like them or not, before deciding whether they are for children or not.
You have chosen to tell a founding legend through the character of a child.
Yes, I think it’s our childhood which allows us to hang on to life until we die. I am convinced that it’s not easy to be a child. It is a performance linked to experience, wisdom, humility, spontaneity, to all that is noble in man. We have to be careful not to speak in place of children!
That’s not very easy when you write a script featuring a child…
I didn’t try to cheat: Mabo is nine years old, but I didn’t try to force him into the shoes of a nine year old child. That would be pretentious. I have just said that Mabo is me, so I didn’t have to look far to pose Mabo’s problems, I found them within me. Mabo is ageless in a way. If he’s nine in the film, it was for poetic reasons: it was interesting to contrast an old man and a child. It was also about passing on knowledge, the passage of time, but, beyond the poetic aspect, a child is the whole future, he/she is already the old person of the future.
How can we pass on knowledge without this pedagogy which characterizes products for children?
I think it is a deviation of things back home. This is true in art in general, and in film in particular: we sacrifice futility for utility. However, film functions thanks to the futile. It is the old debate about content and the form, which has a historic root. The modern system of education is too straight, too serious, too repetitive – it is totally lacking in futility! Anyone who has the pretension to teach should know that you educate more easily and more intelligently through play.
How can this tendency to give lessons be made to evolve?
We need to take up the relay and push the debate further, without forgetting the fact that the future is rooted in the past. We need, without being being backward-looking, to know how to abandon what is adult, and hang on to which is childlike. That is the fundamental exercise, at all levels!

The joy of reading
interview with Véronique Tadjo
Véronique Tadjo draws on myths and tales to tell highly colourful stories. This Franco-Ivoirian, who came to children’s literature « by chance », has developed her own particular style.
How long have you been working on children’s books?
For about eight years. I have written six books in total, five of which are illustrated books, and one a collection of tales and short stories with black and white illustrations.
How did you come to write books for children?
Completely by chance. I spoke to a publisher at a book fair who complained about the lack of literature for African children. That triggered something in me. First of all, I wrote a collection of tales and short stories, La Chanson de la vie. My first book, Le Seigneur de la danse, was written in England. I was feeling terribly homesick. I had just spent two years in Senoufo country, in the north of Côte d’Ivoire, so I made my first book a homage to masks.
You are greatly inspired by tales.
I draw from our cultural heritage: mythical characters, such as Mamy Wata, or the mask, or traditional tales which I rewrite and adapt for children today. Grand-mère Nanan is a homage to grandmothers, who are also the bearers of our traditions.
You also do the illustrations.
Yes, and it’s a great pleasure, a complete freedom to conceive of the book from beginning to end. It also happened by chance. I am not an example of a good artist. I don’t draw classically. I began drawing just like that, and as people liked it, I carried on. But, I must add that my mother was a painter and sculptor.
Each book has a completely distinct identity.
I find it terrible for artists to repeat themselves. It also depends on the subject. Grand-mère Nanan, was about my own grandmother. I couldn’t see myself drawing her. I did have some photos, however, that I wanted to use. So, I had to think how to work these photos into the imaginary realm and drawings? It was, in a way, the subject which imposed my method. For Le Seigneur de la danse, I took all my inspiration from Senoufo culture, adding colour and the scenes.
How have your books been received in Africa?
Quite well in general. Côte d’Ivoire has distinguished itself with its advances: a reading habit is beginning to emerge. In the supermarkets in Abidjan, you can find children’s books, which are no longer confined to a few bookshops. People are beginning to get into the habit of buying a book for their children. There are also more and more titles, more and more authors and illustrators who export their works outside Côte d’Ivoire.
Are there more and more authors who are interested in young people, more young authors?
I think people are beginning to understand the importance of children’s books. People always say that Africans don’t read, but if you don’t teach children to like reading, to like books, to have a pleasurable relation with books right from their most tender age, they associate books with school. It will never be a pleasure for them. In that case, why would they buy books once they are older? Books are also very important for a child’s emotional, intellectual and cultural development. There are generations who had only imported books. What do those children think? That their culture is worthless!
What feedback have you had from children?
Children love being told stories, and they love making them up themselves. They are highly sensitive to poetry. Writing for children is sometimes far more pleasurable than writing for adults. It involves another approach, another way of saying things.
It is easy to think that children’s literature is a less important literary genre than « serious » adult literature.
Absolutely. What is more, when you are a woman and you decide to write for children, people think that it’s natural, normal. A lot of people see children’s literature as a sub-literature. They think that it is easy to write for children. But you very quickly realize that good children’s literature is very demanding. It’s the same with literature in general: there is good and bad fiction. A good children’s book is one which lasts.
You also run workshops.
Yes, workshops on writing and illustrating children’s books. The objective is to go to places interested in this kind of workshop, where this literature is almost nonexistent. The idea is to get young illustrators and writers working, 12 to 15 of them in general. There are sometimes more confirmed writers, but who have never written books for young people. There are also sometimes young writers. They sometimes discover a whole aspect of their culture, because we have to sift majorly through cultural heritage and the problems of children today to find the themes which might interest them. Workshops have thus been held in Haiti, Rwanda, Benin, Mauritius, Chad, Mali, etc.
Even though there are few children’s books in Africa, in the West there are a whole range of books on Africa written by Westerners.
Yes, they can also be found in Africa. But they convey another vision of Africa. Some are very good, but they are full of good intentions. They give themselves away through details, which are not authentic. The stories often revolve around animals, or nature. The real problems are not tackled, those of contemporary Africa.
What projects do you have for your next books?
I have two. In the first, I am going to try to tackle a more urban, contemporary theme. The other is an anthology of poems for young people, an advance in African poetry, the history of Africa told through poems.
Interview by Taina Tervonen
Paris, March 1999.

(1) the actor Sotigui Kouyaté.///Article N° : 5414

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