on Le Fleuve

Interview with Mama Keïta, by Olivier Barlet

Tunis, October 2002
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Is the reference to Renoir’s Fleuve deliberate?
No, but I knew I was appropriating a small part of his heritage! I went to the CNC [French film council] to check that I could use the title. But it’s more an affective reference than anything else.
Is the reference to Sembène’s Borom Sarret in the scene where Mary goes to get help to move a log also affective?
The reference to the Old Man is delicate. We can be in conflict with the father but we cannot deny his existence. I remember in an interview I found very moving after Djibril Diop Mambety’s death he said, « he had pure talent, was the most talented of us all ». Djibril would have liked to hear that. My friend Ben Ndogaye Mbaye told me how he’d been flattered and very proud when he came onto his set in Dakar.
We could continue the list of references with Désiré Ecaré’s Visages de femmes with the lake scene.
It’s a direct reference. The film raised questions about pornography in film. You’re never born without parents! I’m part of that school, even if I’m not a total mimic. My cinema is necessarily in tune with that cinema and I belong to that school and others will come after me and criticise me as well!
Last reference: I thought of Barbet Schroeder’s La Vallée where there’s also a quest for an imaginary place that is finally simply a search for oneself and a confrontation with oneself.
I didn’t see that film but in my film the river is a perfect metaphor. Alfa’s brother talks to him about the river mythically, inciting him to return to the source. Guinea is West Africa’s water tower. Here the great rivers have their source. This is where life starts and this is where life has a new beginning. We could only find ourselves and recognise ourselves from that point.
What strikes me is that this return to the source is never presented as a moral. The confrontation with the self does not presuppose any given ethical position.
To find oneself, you have to have been to hell and back and that’s what happens to the character. He commits the forbidden sin and transgresses the commandment that « You shall commit no murder ». He loses his best friend, his brother. He loses his love and himself. He has to rebuild everything. The girl – Marie – struggles to bring him back to life after he arrives in Africa pretty much a dead man. He even sees himself as a dead man in the scene by the sea. Africa is metaphorically the place of rebirth and of a new beginning – a man’s life is never over. Even when he has committed the most horrendous atrocities, he’s still a man. If he kills another, it’s because something has pushed him beyond the limit.
Marie’s character is fairly surprising in that she sticks with a guy who’s so renfrogné that he’s unbearable.
That’s the alienation of women! They’re willing and loving, generous and protective but they won’t look out at a man who doesn’t care for them.
She’s got a Mother Teresa streak.
Marie loves him!
Her father says that « you’re my tigress, I love you », which makes return possible.
The father opens the door to her and she needs to feel his love. The father understands that she’s no longer his little girl and that she no longer belongs to him. She’s grown into a woman and another force is pulling her. Throughout the film she’s terrified by the idea of talking to her father but she tells him that if he says anything to hurt her he won’t ever see her again. He is in love with two men – she has to give a token of faith to the one she’s going to leave (her father) but she already belongs to the other man. She finally leaves to complete unfinished business before returning.
A leper woman tells her, « you’re beautiful but you’re no more beautiful than I ».
This statement is an improvisation by the leper woman. It wasn’t planned! She was only supposed to say, « You’re so beautiful, my child ». She plays on the rivalry between young and old, as we often do.
Alfa is not there because of his fascination for Africa – his character demystifies the relationship with Africa.
He is unprepared for Africa – like « back to the roots » Americans who continue behaving like Americans when they arrive in Africa, eating ketchup with everything! He returns to Africa for opportunist reasons because he thinks that he will not be pursued there. His reasoning is formulated in haste, rather than with intelligence. The problem is that if you expect to trace your ancestors like that you are setting yourself up for a fall. His friends aren’t there and he doesn’t speak the langue. The heat, the cons, everything annoys him. His first reaction is to reject it all. But how do you reject something that you are a formed by and that you have to build on. The concept of Africa is stronger than himself. Marie accompanies him – delivers him. He finds himself but not without violence and inner struggle.
The ending is left open.
As the film closes, he is only at the beginning of his journey. She leaves when she can’t do any more, knowing that he’s back on the rails. She doesn’t understand his turmoil but she feels a duty to be protective. It’s when he rises from the water, at the end of the football game, that he starts to change. Meeting the ghostly hitchhiker they pick up is a metaphor for Africa that helps him to understand. He gets there by instinct rather than intellect. He understands the emotional burden and she’s his guide. The meeting with the guide on the bridge also contributes. In his gut and in his heart he understands. His head just has to follow and that’s when he’ll be saved. His brother then says that he can come back whenever he wants. Only his brother could reconcile him with himself, since he’s the source of his anger, having given him up to social welfare. This other part of him is in Africa.
Is this division inherent to all cultural blending?
Lots of people of mixed race are in the same situation – they hurt but don’t know where the pain is. The only remedy is to return to their roots. The neglected part of you nags at you and if you don’t get there on your own, others will make you do something about it. Until you bring your two parts together, until you restore some kind of dialogue between them – a kind of fusion – you’re split. We’re racially blended but also culturally blended – for me a Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda is also a métis [person of mixed race]! Ours is a split generation. Alfa is handicapped by something and doesn’t know it because he doesn’t have the intellectual process to help him. His no-good side took the easy option, but he’s going to become a new person.
That brings us back to your approach. I expect that you took over the elements of David Achkar’s project that most spoke to you.
I couldn’t do the film unless it spoke about me. That was already the aim of David’s film and it wasn’t too hard for me to appropriate that. Except that the story that David told was so autobiographical that I wouldn’t have known how to do it – it would have been a mere shadow of the original. David didn’t leave me any choice. He asked me to finish the film for him if he died. I asked his mother for permission to rewrite his film. I travelled the road from Dakar to Conakry a number of times, in the company of Valérie Osouf, who was a wonderful assistant. She was integral to the project. It was the first time that I’d plunged into the heart of Africa. It was very much a rite of initiation for me, and for Aurélie Coulibaly, whose father is Malian and mother French. She was born in Toulon and grew up in Grasse. The same goes for Stomy Bugsy. It was one of the fundamental reasons that he accepted to work for no pay, in the worst of conditions, on a project that wasn’t sure of being completed, despite being so successful.
Was it hard convincing him?
He had agreed and then a couple of days before the shoot his agents told me that he couldn’t do it. From all evidence, they were blocking it. I flew to Paris to meet up with him and talked to him about the film for over an hour. After listening to me, he re-agreed and we shook hands, which is worth more than a written contract. Then he said it would be a powerful experience for him. He’s a Cap-Verdian of Senegalese origin. He was born in Sarcelles and had only been to Senegal once, when he was five. He obviously knew nothing about Africa. During those two months, he gave up everything – he’s a wonderful, extremely generous person and I couldn’t have made the film without him. Of the team of 27 people, he was the one who not once created a single problem for me. I could have asked to eat stones and he would have! He never complained, despite the uncomfortable conditions we were living in. He was like a sponge, absorbing everything he could. He said it would have an influence on his music. As an artist he was curious about everything. He got as many tapes as he could find and would write songs for his new album during his time off. He was in a constant state of reception but what most stunned him was that he was recognised everywhere we went. He hadn’t realised his message had had such an impact. In Conakry, young girls from a school near the shoot skipped class to wait for Stomy outside the hotel! This experience was obviously more stimulating for him than films with mega-budgets like Le Boulet or Trois Zéros.
Is Doc Gynéco’s involvement because of Stomy Bugsy?
Yes, the actor who was supposed to play the part couldn’t and Valérie Ousouf suggested him. I called Stomy, who immediately talked to Doc about it.
How did you meet Aurélie Coulibaly?
At Cannes! In 2001. I was looking for a Marie. For David Achkar, the character was his cousin that he was in love with. She had to be the chosen one. I couldn’t bring myself to run an audition – grace must bring the chosen one. Three months out from the shoot, I still hadn’t found my Marie. It was getting risky. I walked past a stand at the Cannes film market and saw an apparition – a hostess giving information to a customer. « That’s her », I said to myself. But how do you go up to a beautiful young woman at Cannes and say, « I’m going to make a film, would you act in it? » It would have been extremely vulgar of me. So, I kept walking, but I did turn around and get up the courage to say it! She was flabbergasted but she listened. We had a drink and she did the film. All the same, a short time before the shoot, her father read the script and refused to let her take part because of the nude scene at the lake. I talked to Aurélie for two hours on the phone. I know it’s not easy – the mania for showing naked women on screen is a problem for me too, given my cultural background. However, for David Achkar, it was in that lake, in that place of replenishment, a metaphor for a new beginning for the world with Adam and Eve. I couldn’t sacrifice that scene. Their love is materialised in that river. But I assured Aurélie that I would shoot the scene with all my own reserve. However, when we hung up, we were under the belief that she couldn’t do the film. The next morning her father rang me and asked, « Your name is Keïta. Do you speak Malinké? » I explained that unfortunately my father hadn’t given me that cultural heritage. He said it was a pity because his words would have held so much more meaning in [Wolof]. He explained the reasons why, as a father and as an African, having his daughter exposed on screen was hurtful for him. He refused to read the script. I accepted his opinion and thanked his for agreeing to discuss it with me. He replied that he was also very pedagogical and that his daughter sometimes needed to go against his choices. Aurélie called me back half an hour later to tell me that she would do the film.
How did it go shooting with her?
We left for Dakar together. The only criteria I made was that she have a driver’s licence, which she got 15 days before we left. I still had to test her and she also had to learn the several phrases in Wolof that she would use in the film. We rehearsed in my apartment, in the centre of Dakar. The first rehearsal was a disaster. She burst into tears after two minutes, saying she’d never make it. Tests over the next few days didn’t produce anything more. I gave up on the rehearsals and left her to find her own path to being Marie. The actor Vincent Byrd Lesage took charge of her and the results are there for everyone to see on-screen! Her first scene was made all the more difficult by requiring her to drive, speak in Wolof and act at the same time, and she managed extremely well!
And the shoot in general?
We were short of money the whole way through. Even though I had done the journey several times, everything changed during shooting. People who we had arranged to meet weren’t there, the countryside was different, and we had to constantly keep rewriting the script. The one-legged man wasn’t planned. I took on locals, like the guide on the bridge who came up to me, just like in the film (and I replied the same way too with, « Stop, I’m not a tourist! »). I had picked up the leper woman who was hitchhiking with her daughter, and I found her in her village two months later. She instantly understood the rules of film.
The film flows without giving the impression that it’s a series of juxtaposed scenes, even though there are many.
That’s thanks to a talented young editor called Suzy Adnin, who worked day and night and made lots of concessions – both with respect to her family and payment. The film was built on generously made contributions. The Senegalese technicians worked six days a week in the middle of Ramadan, in intense heat, without a complaint. When the money had dried up, they kept on working. I ended up cutting 25 scenes due to lack of funds, but the film was a miracle! We were constantly improvising. One evening it cost us a huge amount for a missing actress because we hired a prostitute who made us pay for every client she missed!

///Article N° : 5646


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