Masterclass with Gaston Kaboré

Cannes Film Festival 2007

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Hosted by Jean-Pierre Garcia, Director of the Amiens International Film Festival, Gaston Kaboré’s Cinema Lesson was organized at the’Cinemas of the South’ pavilion by the French Foreign Ministry. You will find its exact transcription down bellow. Gaston Kaboré is at the head of Imagine in Burkina-Faso, a regional production and professional training structure.

Gaston Kaboré, hello. Could you tell us about the long path that brought you to fiction filmmaking? How did this passion express itself? How did your film studies go?
Hello and thank you all for coming. The path towards filmmaking was long because it was a childhood passion. Looking back, I realize that many foundation stones were already lain, that progressively led me to this profession that I love and am passionate about. It took several years for this passion to be revealed. Like most children, I was immersed in the world of stories; the first form of narrative I was faced with was the African tale. This atmosphere was the breeding ground for my imagination. I learnt to listen to stories, to penetrate them and travel within. These tales were not only told by adults but by children hardly older than me, from my father’s village. They were my teachers. When I learnt to read, I loved literature. The radio show L’anthologie du mystère presented by Pierre Billard played a big role: I listened to his radio dramas and was truly down when I missed an episode.
After the Baccalauréat [Editor’s note: French high school diploma], I decided to study history. It was another form of storytelling with different rules. During my master’s degree in history, I noticed that Africa’s story was always told by almost exclusively non-African anthropologists, ethnologists or sociologists. Where was Africa’s part of research into itself? I decided to analyze the way Africa was depicted beyond words, in images. I wanted to study it through the French illustrated press, and particularly Le petit journal illustré. I chose to study the 1885-1990 period, starting from the Berlin conference that divided Africa between the colonial powers. Colonalization was justified by the need to « civilize the savages ». The drawings were not caricatures; they were very funny and always captioned. Africans, and I as a historian, had to change this vision of Africa because it created misunderstandings and confrontations. It was a unilateral point of view. When I told my history lecturer that I wanted to research into iconography, he was surprised but I managed to awaken his curiosity. So I entered a new representation of narration through images. Of course, they weren’t animated pictures yet but by the time I had finished my thesis, I’d understood that all those clichés and prejudices that had arisen after the first encounters continued to endure. To continue studying in that field, I had to learn the language of images and filmmaking. Therefore, I went to a film school at the same time as I was studying history.
You were also Burkinabe from Ouagadougou, where the Panafrican Film Festival was had been held since 1969.
That’s right. I had already seen films and met the pioneers: Sembène Ousmane, Moustapha Alassane, Oumar Ouganda…I had seen all their films and they had given me the opportunity to grow aware of the need for Africa to speak up for itself again. Their films showed that the reality of Africans was worthy of being filmed and could contribute to the making of extremely interesting works.
At the end of my first year in film school, I understood that I wanted to use cinema in the field of History and tell stories. I got my degree in film direction at the ESSEC [Editor’s note: French grande école] in Paris and went back to Ouagadougou in 1976. I had to fight: I was meant to teach history at the university of Ouagadougou but had to convince that I could do so without coming under the authority of the Ministry of Higher Education. I wanted to be free to make films and I preferred to answer to the Ministry of Information, that was in charge of cinema. Without realizing it, many steps paved my way to this profession. I never regretted studying history: it was the foundation from which I was able to observe the role cinema could play in my life.
In your approach as a filmmaker, the relation to time is central. You call it « the sociological value of time ». You have talked about favoring social time over film time in your movies. This position you hold has a decisive aesthetic meaning for the reality of your entire film work. In what way is this relation to time essential to you?
Cinema is the site of handling time. Telling the story of a millenium in a 90-minute narrative supposes an inevitable stylization of time. This can be done by shortening or stretching this real time: you can tell the story of a one-minute event in a couple of hours. I was aware of the importance of time: I knew I could use ellipses, etc. However, I also knew I had to take my people’s relation to time into account. It is often said that Africans talk a lot. In spite of appearances, when we talk, it is to say something important. Filming real time continually is impossible. However, I wanted to do it for some of my films’ sequences, when it was part of the story. In one of my films, a woman is in labour but it takes a long time; everyone starts to worry. The midwives decide to go and see the men and explain that the woman and her husband might be having a relationship problem. There is a triangular communication which I reproduced in its exact time. This film is made of ruptures because time is either stretched or shortened.
There is also time in life and time in the story. My films must go through the three time periods: past, present and (why not) future. In Africa, people must understand that our past is as rich as others’. A big number of films have been made in Europe and the USA about past periods: Africa has to do it too, to face the present.
You talk about the social value of time. In your films, you use ellipses, devices used in traditional narrative. In traditional narrative, there is also a clarity of time that comes from using proverbs. You said that « A proverb is an exploding atom of wisdom ». What can you tell us about this narrative aspect in the tales? How do you adapt it to film narrative?
Of course, talking only in proverbs would be impossible. Proverbs are full of poetry and twists. They are made up of words that have been molded for centuries, if not milleniums, until a minimum of words carry an extraordinary potential for meaning. You said that they can be used as ellipses: it is no longer a temporal ellipsis but one in communication. A proverb can draw conclusions from a situations in ten seconds. For example, during a conflict. When you have a deeper experiences of life, you can find the ‘antidote’ to the proverb. It allows us to minimize their power. In my films, I think of proverbs in my language, Mooré. Unfortunately, I don’t always find their French equivalent. So I put the proverb in parentheses, like a stage direction: « As the proverbs says… ». Rabi (1992) is about a boy’s friendship with an old man. The latter was in love in his youth and was never able to live his love to the full. The little boy convinces him to go in search of his love who is now over sixty years old. When he shows up at her door, she looks at him and recites a proverb: « Does the dog who has eaten the skin of the tomtom dare show up at the party the day after? ». (Laughs) When you have offended someone, you should refrain from coming back and rubbing it in. The old man thinks for a while and answers: « If a man comes homes from the market and sets fire to his corn loft, it is probably because he has heard that he can make more profit from ashes than from grains ». You can thus swallow your pride to take seemingly-suicidal action is possible if you think that the gain will be worth it. Subtitles are never satisfactory when it comes to translating proverbs and preserving the spice of the original language.
All your films are based on original narratives; they are not adaptations. How do you manage to work traditional tale codes into your screenplays, in terms of form and structure?
The tale was the most familiar narrative form to me and the only one until I learnt to read and write. There is no antagonism or antinomy between both narrative forms because all cultures of the world started with orality to pass things on, which a form and a structure then shaped. Of course, there are narrative techniques specific to filmmaking. How to marry them and have them enrich each other? You can never foretell a film’s success but my films were warmly welcomed in my country by the general public. I don’t mind if people wonder: « Did he invent this tale or did it already exist? ». I am only a tool that offers them a new narrative, like storytellers did in Africa. The best present a public can give you is to identify with the film and to instantaneously appropriate a story that you have spent years writing. A film must be able to open new horizons to its public and carry it even further.
Here is an anecdote: The first day of the film’s screening in Ouagadougou, the first indoor cinema; 570 seats; Monday 10th September 1982. I was very anxious. It was the first time I was to present a film to the public of my country, to whom my film was first and foremost addressed. At the time the film was supposed to start, I was outside; I went up to the clerk who asked for my invitation. I told him I didn’t have one and, out of shyness, didn’t dare tell him I had made the film. Fifteen minutes later, a manager came out: he had been looking for me to present the film but, having had no luck, had been obliged to start the screening. I had avoided that confrontation with the public which, deep down, probably suited me! People reacted like I hoped. At the end of the film, I heard a man say: « What was that film? ». Another man asked him: « Why? Didn’t you like it? » and he answered: « I loved it! But why is it so short? ». It was 75 minutes long. The man told him: « It’s only a first part. In the second one, the children get married ». I was already dispossessed of my film! I was only the storyteller. Once a film is made, it belongs to the spectators as much as to the storyteller. Films have a life after the screening and they travel on their own. Fifteen years later, I actually made a sequel!
In an interview, you said that: « Cinema is not a pure and simple adaptation of a genre; of oral narrative transposed into visual narrative. A sort of fertilization happens, on the contrary. This gives a new language in which the spectator recognizes what is drawn from tradition (the tale) but also understands the fantastic contribution of the image. Poetry and the epic aspect remain: the spectator is free to travel inside his/her memory while discovering other emotions ».
It does not mean that I will only make films inscribed in this world of tales. Zan Boco is my second 1988 feature that tells the story of a small village’s disappearance due to the expansion of the neighboring city. The latter engulfs the village by destroying all the very strong links this rural community has with its land. In rural culture, land owns us more than we own it. I tried to find out if it was possible to develop, to keep on aiming at modernization (which is not negative) while contributing a certain intelligence in the relation to the land and the people. How to develop without losing your identity, while reinventing yourself each day? Making films on tradition is not a way of freezing yourself in time- quite the reverse. What is modern today will become tradition in a hundred years. There is a very deep dialectic relation between all that we invent today and what it will become tomorrow. We use yesterday’s energy and fuel to invent what is modern. When I make my films, I try to find what will reflect my present approach as a filmmaker, my involvement in contemporary life. Those moments that we seized, that will take on the value of eternity tomorrow provided we preserve our films, stay eternal. This fear of losing ourselves is perhaps what gives us this touch of genius that makes us want to create each day.
You said: « Filming is seizing the moment and rendering it eternal ». You believe then that these films will last.
Yes. In any case, they allow millions of spectator to share the fruit of someone’s imagination. Sometimes, people even question themselves because of a film. We’ve all listened to a certain kind of music at a given age because it reminded us of a period in our lives. Films also mark the lives of many individuals and sometimes help them structure their thoughts and learn to ask themselves questions.
You work with professional actors, non-professionals and children. How do you organize your work with them?
It is true that in Africa, we mostly work with non-professional actors: it is not their living. However, some have gained a lot of experience with the years. They are perfectly able to compete with trained actors who earn their living acting. The castings are difficult as we don’t know how these people are going to react during the shooting: will they be able to stand the burden of playing a character up to the end? So strong links are forged well before the beginning of the shooting. I tell them the story to see their reactions and answer their questions. We meet up regularly to talk things through. Often, these films don’t have much action: interiorizing the characters is even more necessary. We have to set up a complicity. For my very first film Wend Kuuni (1982), I worked with radio actors more than theatre actors. It was a coincidence. However, I didn’t have to correct what theatre had taught them too much. It is said that theatre is the art of exaggeration.
As for the children, it is often down to luck. We have to make them understand very quickly that it is not about clowning around. A child does not play his/her own role as a child but a character. I really like watching the reactions of the people from the villages I filmed: they can’t be fooled. I like it when someone from the village asks me: « From which region is the farrmer in your film? ». They are so convinced by the actor’s performance that they don’t understand he is acting. It’s fantastic. I have always been very grateful to the actors who played for me because they have always done their very best. They have instinct, intuition. I am always asked if they are professionals.
How do these films fit into the village life? Can the intrusion of a shoot have serious consequences?
I always try to have personal relations with the real ihabitants of the village. I tell them the film’s story: for them, it is like a tale. After my first film, they asked me: « Why did you choose this village to stage this story? »; I answered: « Because it isn’t far from Ouagadougou and there are nice hills, etc. » They thought I had come for another reason: a child had really been found in the bush; he had been adopted and had lived in this village. They were afraid I had heard the story and wanted to tell it because it would have hurt the child’s family. I try never to intrude in a village because the inhabitants have their lives and the film tells a piece of their story. Of course, it is fiction but I don’t want to come across as a voyeur.
People need to appropriate our films, especially people from our country, our village. The important thing is for us to succeed in making their story, their music (which we used in one of my films), their language, their surroundings and their lifestyles worthy of interest and able to travel the rest of the world because they represent pieces of lives, of human beings who express themselves. That is why cinema is an important medium. History made me aware of something and I don’t regret making films. I say more than I would have as a historian.
What about the editing on your film Buud Yam?
Editing is a central stage. Many things can still be changed. The film can be made even more minimalist and brought to the height of its maturity. I worked with Andrée Davanture, who edited many other African filmmakers’ films, such as Soulemane Cissé. She is a great listener. She is also extremely generous and curious and tries to enter the narrative from the author’s point of view because it is part of his/her culture, his/her heritage, etc. I would like to pay tribute to her. In the future, I hope that time will still be left for reflection during the editing because that’s what allows it to breathe even more life into and give more depth to a film. A lot of time must be spent on it. Unfortunately, time is short once a film is finished. In the framework of the institute I set up in Ouagadougou, it is one of the aspects we stress. Today, you can film anything with a camera. But what is the message? Editing is not just dexterity or purely technical skills.
You are into transmission of knowledge, of a human experience. You have decided to set up an audiovisual training centre. Tell us about Imagine.
When you are lucky enough to teach, you are also the one to learn the most. In the process of transmission of knowledge, you are forced to question yourself, to ask yourself questions that would never have come to your mind if you had been alone. I started to teach very naturally and I no longer know the difference between my work as an individual filmmaker and my duty to share the little I know. I love to keep on learning. I loved Newton Aduaka’s Cinema Lesson because he made me want to continue my profession. I set up Imagine to be, with other partners, a link that allows younger people (technicians, filmmakers…) to learn the craft, to dare to open new doors and aim higher. It is not initial training but consolidation. It also meets the Panafrican Federation of Film Makers’ goals: to ensure that there are highly competent professionals in Africa. There is ambition and talent but people need to learn a profession so as to make films. Africa also needs good directors of photography who know about African sculpture and painting: it is by drawing from all of this that we can create. African music has succeeded in ceoming an inspiration beyond the frontiers of our continent. As for cinema, the day will come when we will all bring together, in diversity as well as singularity, something special to the world film heritage. I am convinced of it and it is my wish.
You want to keep on handing down this heritage for today’s young filmmakers to offer narratives based on history, on the memory of their own culture.
That’s right. It is said that cinema is the synthesis of all arts. It is at the conjunction of all other forms of creation because it draws from all fields. In Africa, our cinema has not yet started to benefit from all the richness of the forms of expression that exist in Africa. It is normal for today’s young people to have other points of view. Imagine is a place where we want to teach people to be think for themselves, to make the sort of films they want to do because no-one should be told what to think. The more open you are about your world and your culture, the more we will be able to offer works that appeal to their immediate audience but also to the rest of the world.

Translated by Céline Dewaele///Article N° : 6656

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