On the shoot of La Genèse

Interview with Cheikh Oumar Sissoko, by Olivier Barlet

Hombori, February 1997
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In what way is this film relevant today?
In the Bible, there is a fraternity which does not stop conflict: we love one another and we fight. This is more and more apparent in the world today, in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and in northern Mali. The same enmities existed amongst the patriarchs of the three great monotheistic religions. Abraham is Ibrahima, Joseph is Youssouf, Jacob is Yacouba… In our farming and herding societies, people reinforce the rivalry between the nomads and farmers: the situation is analogous with that at the beginning of time…
Is it necessary to return to the source to evoke these conflicts?
Returning to the source enables us to show that family ties do not stop conflicts, and that this has always been so. The problems which arise between the men are surpassed thanks to the intervention of God: getting on, understanding, loving one another allows for development. The African continent is at risk of an increase in conflicts, given the multiplication of parties, and battles of economic interest. These concerns led me to make this film, in the hope that this universal message of harmony between men will be heard, and knowing that this harmony is possible in divine intervention. The mysterious, night-long struggle between Jacob and God precedes the agreement between the three clans to resolve the drought problem.
Will we always have to keep driving home this message of tolerance?
Both La Genèse and Guimba demonstrate the wealth of the cultural and human heritage that Africa needs to delve into in order to assure civil peace and harmony between mankind. The question of the relations between people is determinant for the construction of a country, and this ethnic richness is often overlooked. I fear that in the future, this respect for the other may get lost in violent ethnic conflicts. Mali was a stranger to this kind of problem for a very long time. The will to address urgent issues makes you look for a text everybody can identify with. What text could be better for that than Genesis, which is part of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions? Clan warfare, conflicts between settled populations and nomads, between farmers and herders, happen daily. The ancient text shows us the way to resolve these conflicts.
Where does La Genèse fit into the continuity of your work?
I have always striven to reflect upon what constitutes an obstacle to development: Sécheresse et exode rural in 1985 at the time of the great drought, Nyamanton in 1986 on the problems of children’s education and health, Finzan in 1989 on the emancipation of women, Guimba in 1995 on the question of power, which is fundamental to all these questions, and which was necessary after the fall of the dictator Moussa Traoré. The development of ethnic conflicts, of intolerance, and fundamentalism led me to deal with the question in La Genèse. The Bible is a historic document which belongs to mankind, and is thus not the reserve of Westerners alone.
Why did you decide to focus on the patriarchs?
It is important to become attached to the characters, as it is they who resolve the major problems: in this sense, a film is necessarily fantastical. If you want to highlight the human responsibilities that lead to ethnic conflicts, you need to look closely at Jacob. Chauvinism and false information lead people down such paths: the patriarchs become all-important. Which, like Jacob and Hamor, does not stop them from calling their people together to discuss the major problems. This happens in the Toguna, the place of wisdom where the Dogons meet to sort out their disputes. The people also have their say!
How did you construct the narrative?
The Frenchman Jean-Luc Sagot Duvaurous, who studied theology, suggested the idea to me, and entirely wrote the script. The characters are introduced in the same way that they are in oral tales before the action begins with the rape and killings. Bible experts studied the script in Europe and Africa to confirm the veracity of the contents. Only the Muslims didn’t answer our request.
What was the budget of the film?
We shot without knowing whether we would be able to assemble all of the 9.8 million budget! We are not far off, but the dossiers take ages in coming through. (1)
Are you targeting an international audience?
We have to show our films in the international festivals in order to impose ourselves on the world market. The films that win prizes in Ouagadougou, Carthage, or Harare will only be bought up by the international distributors when they are truly major works. But my real desire is to set up a proper film structure in my own country, and an inter-African axe of solidarity. Things are moving forwards: Pierre Yameogo, for example, has produced films using the technical possibilities that exist in Burkina, Mali, and Côte d’Ivoire. I am convinced that Cinafric can start up again on a new healthy basis. A study has already been carried out in India to prepare its relaunch with the help of the Burkinabè government. Burkina is not far away: technicians will be able to be present at the editing, the mix… which will allow for a better training.
How do you envisage the future?
Funding from the North is likely to become increasingly rare in the short or medium term: our cinema’s autonomy on an African scale is primordial if it is to survive. The technical means exist. Distribution needs to follow suit so that Africans can see their own images. The continent has the necessary technical and human force, all that is lacking is practical organization!
You are in the process of rebuilding the sets even though the shoot is nearly over… Each time we make a film, it is important to leave something behind for the region. This shooting site has so much cultural, sports, and tourist potential that we are taking the time to reconstruct the sets destroyed by the fire during the shoot so that we leave something that can be used by the villagers. Hombori has the potential to become a stop-off point on the 600 kilometres between Mopti and Gao. People only ever talk about the Dogon country, but this road to Timbuktu is superb too and culturally fascinating.
The film has a strong spiritual element.
In my opinion, spirituality represents the unity of hearts in a place created by a unique God. Peace in the world lies in the places from which emanates that mysticism which man cannot master, but which he can use for his own happiness. This mountain is omnipresent, like the symbol of a place for coming together where people, whatever their differences, their origins, their religions, their colour, can get on.

(1) Although shot in February 97, the film was not completed until 1999, blocked by an administrative delay in the payment of the European Union fund, the film’s principal partner.///Article N° : 5379

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