Senegal: putting their faith in digital

From Olivier Barlet in Dakar

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In a country where the film industry is in dire straights, people are making the most of the digital revolution and are fighting to make sure there are alternatives to the constant invasion of foreign images. Olivier Barlet meets some remarkable men and women.

Inside comments on a contentious subject
Dakar, Thursday 4 December 2003, 10am, near point E at the Artefat gallery-café. This is an attractive venue for contemporary art exhibitions and for a press conference on Cheick Tidiane Ndiaye’s latest production, « Raconte un peu ». It is a pity that so few people have made the effort to come. This episode of the television production (documentary + debate), which lets people who have something to say about a subject that has an impact on everyone’s lives, features four Aids sufferers – two men and two women. Two asked that their faces be blurred but the other two talk quite openly into the camera. It is very emotional – their stories are very moving and is revealing of those rejected by a society that is extremely harsh on Aids sufferers because it associates them with a degeneration of values.
On screen: human beings – victims – who stand up and speak out
These kinds of images have the undeniable power to educate. Among other things, they open the way for tolerance. They raise distressing issues. There is no lack of subjects that the public is passionate about – employment, women, street kids, problems within couples, new religions, albinos, etc. The programme provides an alternative to the foreign gaze. « All the documentaries [shown on TV]are by Europeans who tell us to ‘look at who you are », exclaims Cheick Tidiane, « The issue is whether to put money only into cinema, with films that take 10 years like Karmen, or whether we should create an audiovisual documentary memory bank. »
Producing large quantities of images in Africa so that Africans have their own images instead of always receiving imported images – it is only on this condition that local voices will be able to play a role in « inventing Africa », as described by Vumbi Yoka Mudimbe, from Zaire. It is only then that the obsessive suffocating smell of the West can be shaken off in order to risk what he calls « Tirésias’s folly » – that is, the power to produce a discourse that strays from the beaten track and discards accepted truths. Senegalese director Moussa Touré’s documentaries on street kids (Poussière de villes) and rape victims (Nous sommes nombreuses) in Brazzaville have met with success in international festivals. A new kind of quality documentary is emerging that addresses head on the issues that people get angry about. These documentaries reach spectators move effectively than the soporific films on heritage (living conditions, dances, traditional dishes, etc.) produces by the CIRTEF for national television. When the channels screen programmes featuring problems affecting women they are bombarded with calls demanding re-runs!
Television’s Gordian knot
The problem is that television is Senegal’s knot! The RTS (Senegal radio and television) has a comfortable monopoly and has just launched a second channel, RTS2. Originally branded as the company’s « cultural channel » it only runs music videos (often produced locally). This is why satellite TV is so popular. For example, 7,000 CFA per month (10.67 euros) gives you access to a dozen channels including TV5, CNN, Euronews and RTL9. CFI is also available but it will stop broadcasting to private homes in 2004 when it will become a source of aid for local channels that will continue to pick up programmes for free, a practice that is killing off local productions before they even get going (why bother paying when you can get it for free?). The only prospect for CFI capable of motivating producers is to request that they make products that would then be offered to national television rather than letting them buy random programmes at reduced rates.
« The rise of private television channels will be a spur! » adds Cheick Tidiane Ndiaye, « But if there aren’t any programmes to back it up, they’ll become TV ghettos! » Documentaries are not very expensive to produce – a 52-minute documentary on unemployment amongst young graduates costs 15,000 euros. And sub-contractor production companies have sprung up. « The RTS has a post-production department but it isn’t very reliable! I have all my post-production done by my own company. »
Khalil Gueye is extremely well known in Senegal because he hosted « Boulevard des stars », featuring the music of the 1960s and 1970s, and « Au fond des choses » about a star with an interesting background. His experience in America and France make him comfortable dealing with television companies from the North. On the other hand, he is in a situation of total confrontation in Senegal. « We are at the mercy of the state-run AV industry, which in fact started when there was talk of lifting restrictions on subsidiaries like RTS2. With Cheick Tidiane Ndiaye we created our own structure and the association now has around 10 independent producers. We actively lobby in the press and on radio, and our arguments are well-prepared. » An audiovisual law is their first objective and the State eventually took action because of their pushing. It had already been announced that television would be opened up to private channels in 2000 when the Minister for communications called for applications for licenses for private television channels. Like others, Khalil Gueye went and got the necessary documents to prepare his application but just before the parliamentary elections the authorities put a stop to the process. In a recent interview, President Wade stated, « Television is dangerous. We can’t just give it to anyone! »
Khalil Gueye’s answer is that, « People are ready for a change and they’re ready for private TV. » In fact, it feels like liberalisation is close. RTS is buying programmes and everyone is struggling to have a share in the market for TV dramas, video clips, news and variety shows. In the meantime, in order to survive, they are making institutional films – in English, in French, on CD and VHS – and industrial films. There is the whole range right down to advertisements.
Competency required
Digital TV? « We’re hybrids, » says Khalil, « There’s still a lack of material – we often shoot some stuff in beta and then digitalise it to get it all digital. » Generation TV occupies six rooms in his apartment on the 4th floor of a building in Rue Carnot in the Plateau district, hosting everything from offices to editing rooms. Digital offers economies of scale. It takes up less space and requires less handling. When the contracts eventually come through, the material will follow.
According to Khalil, the challenge is for production companies to provide quality training for their teams, otherwise, « We will end up with barbaric unprofessional companies resulting in barbaric unprofessional distribution! It’s dangerous to rely on resourcefulness to get by! » The risks are obvious – mass production of mediocre videos will result in doors being shut in the West « despite the fact that audiovisual can maintain a dialogue between young Africans and the French », adds Khalil.
This is probably somewhat idealist given the current state of affairs but what is there to stop good Senegalese products from attracting international channels? And – when they open up to African productions – national channels in other countries?
What about training? The fact is that since 1997 Dakar has proudly run its own audiovisual school – the Media Centre – which provides free training twelve apprentice filmmakers each year, with the help of the Norwegian NGO Forut (see www.forut.sn). Six men and six women are chosen each year. One criticism of the centre could be that the selection process is not tough enough and the students are rushed through. They graduate in a year, having touched on everything but not studied anything in depth. However, it is getting results that are visible in the young technicians and directors working in Senegalese television. These results are also starting to flow on to audiovisual production. Workshops enable the young professionals to bring themselves up to scratch and they subsequently develop their experience in the field.
A global school
Let us take a closer look at the Media Centre that is the object of so much praise and criticism. It was initially created to deal with a given context. Because Senegal did not have a film policy, Senegal had not pursued inroads made by Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, Ousmane Sembène, and Djibril Diop Mambety. The Forut was supposed to offer young people access to video so they could assess the realities of Senegalese society. Using technology, the Media Centre enrolled them to not only perform sociological studies in individual neighbourhoods but also to express and develop their own creativity. Seven years after the Centre was established, a production unit was created in January 2003. Entitled Les Productions Du Quartier, it has already enabled El Hadj Samba Sarr to produce Les Soldats des planches [Soldiers of the boards], a documentary about the difficulties acting students have in establishing themselves professionally. Joe Ousmane Fall has made a documentary about a musician who lost 13 members of his group in the sinking of the Djola and who tries to start a new group, and Joseph Ubaka, a young Nigerian filmmaker, explored the problems the Nigerian community (often accused of drug trafficking) has in integrating in Senegal.
Fictional works dealing with love stories gone wrong, or communication problems within couples, are also being produced. The company also has ambitions to go further. Short films should open the way for feature films (both art-house and commercial) using such genres as detective movies to reach mass audiences.
The Nigerian model of mass-produced videos for local audiences – the « African India » – is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. In a context where movie theatres are shutting, and in order to create the conditions necessary for a video industry to emerge, « It’s a matter of making films that match the economy that we work in », explains Hamet Fall Diagne, head of the new production department. What about distribution? A documentary by Ivoirian director Chantal Djédjé was sold to CFI. Locally, the Media Centre has co-produced the Sénérap TV programme broadcast on RTS. The programme is hosted by African rapper Didier Awadi of Positive Black Soul. The operator and distributor, Khalilo Ndiaye is planning to install video projectors in movie theatres so that feature-length films can be screened. However, the neighbourhood film festival is already running screenings of the Media Centre’s films for the general public. The festival has made a big name for itself. Its fifth anniversary was held on the 20th of December 2003 at the Dakar town hall during the Nuit des Ebènes where the prizes were awarded.
« We have to make the economic and political context evolve, » explains Moussa Gueye, director of the festival, « The decision makers have to understand that we have to reach a minimum professional standard for the tree to bear fruit ». A partnership between Bordeaux III University and the University of Dakar will contribute to improving film training from 2004 in order to respond to writing concerns, in particular with respect to the issue of literary adaptation. As much in conception as in distribution, « We have to teach people to read films, educate them in the consumption of images. »
For Modibo Diawara, head of training, the objective is to « integrate fundamental concerns in Senegal with regards to technical training and audiovisual and video production ». A documentary workshop is currently being held for former students, with external speakers. During the festival, workshops focus on production and the role of women in audiovisual media.
In addition to a computer room with Internet access, the Forut Media Centre already has five Sony PD150 and PDX10 digital video cameras and five Avid Xpress digital editing units. This means the students can work on their films from start to finish. Professional filmmakers can also use it to finish editing as Moussa Touré did with Poussières de villes, Nous sommes nombreuses and the video clip he directed for Senegalese Coumba Gawlo Seck. The Media Centre has armed itself with technology, a mission and a philosophy to support its ambitious goals. In addition to training courses for the 12 young people funded by Forut, the Centre is experimenting with an integrated approach by independently developing a training centre for audiovisual professions, a production unit, a strategy for distributing the films in less advantaged neighbourhoods and even a project to build an air-conditioned theatre.
What of the Forut’s students? They are all film fanatics. This year, their films have focused on the Media neighbourhood. Fatou Jupiter Touré saw an ad for the entry competition in Le Soleil. She is working on a documentary about problems caused by Chinese competition in the shoe-making industry. She went to a dozen shops on location. Aïcha Thiam went to law school before the Media Centre. Her film focuses on the talibe beggar children that she is writing a book about « to change the attitude of parents and raise their awareness of the dangers ». Aliou N’Diaye is conjointly doing an English course at university. He is politically committed and, to quote Césaire, he would like to be « a conscience for his society ». His film looks at problems relating to urban development, transport and pollution.
Meeting former students was also very interesting. Before attending the Forut Media Centre, Omar Ndiaye had studied script writing and film criticism at the St Louis audiovisual training centre. His first film examined urban pastoralism and his second film, Saint-Louis, les caprices du temps, focused on changes in St Louis and its renaissance. He is currently responsible for managing the festival at the Media Centre. El Hadj Mamadou Niang had never previously been involved in film. The Forut training course meant he could specialise in sound and his first film is about the working class neighbourhood of Grand Dakar, where he lives. Ousseïnou Ndiaye was studying philosophy at university when he saw the competition advertised in the newspaper. His film Cocktail de vies was screened in the fourth festival and examines mixed white-black couples. He works as a sound and camera technician at the Forut. Lamana Seck had previously attended the Daniel Brottier film resource centre in St Louis. He heard about the Forut Centre after studying sociology and philosophy. Three years after finishing the course, he is working as a freelancer on television programmes and gives other students a hand to finish their films.
Public success
They all say, « We have to tame the tool. We are learning every day », since expertise is the key to success in this industry. « The course made me realise that I will never cease to learn », adds Aïcha Thiam. The concept of an on-going training process triggered by a year’s introductory course and additional workshops is both demanding and exciting. They are all expecting the market to burgeon when television is liberalized. « Video lets us be free, lets us be creative, lets us do what we want – lets us learn. We don’t have to wait for a reply from the backers! » Ten years ago, it was a major event whenever a film was shot in Senegal. « Now, someone is shooting something somewhere every day. Video is becoming less elite ». What kind of subjects do they choose? The realities of everyday life and « an Africa that dreams and laughs ». They are resolute in their refusal to dwell on the negative aspects of their lives, filming whatever takes their fancy for practice with the aim that « another kind of production that is neither American nor French » might be born. Their films are intended for the Senegalese, in the hope that it will help with education. « The future of film is in TV! » they say unanimously, but they also want to entertain their audiences. Goorgoorlu (which translates as « the resourceful guy », in the sense of wanting to become a man at all costs, of making a constant effort), a series of short sketches for television directed by Moussa Sene Absa and produced by RTS has been resoundingly successful. It is based on comic strips by TT Fons, a charicature artist for the satirical newspaper, Le Cafard libéré (the freed cockroach) [a play on Le Canard enchainé (the enchained duck), its French forerunner]and features titles such as « Un chômeur qui se débrouille » (An unemployed guy who gets by), « Tous les métiers sont bons » (Any job is good) and « La solution n’est pas que l’homme reste à la maison » (The answer is not for the man to stay at home). The main actor is known by everyone. Abib Diof is a great actor from the Sorano theatre who is part of the Daraay Kocc theatre troupe.
On Tuesday night everyone stays at home to watch « the Tuesday dramas » featuring a Senegalese theatre that everyone can relate to. Videos of the theatre sell well and the DVD is also making a place for itself. On the other hand, cassettes (10,000CFA a piece) of feature-length videos by Mamdou Thior (Almodou) and Assane Ndiaye (Nef, Coumba, Kiné) – available throughout the diaspora on www.africaproductions.com – have less of a following than television repeats run by the channel that co-produced them.
Originally screened in July 2002, Almodou, which looks at beggar children from the Koranic schools, caused considerable debate and was criticised for being part of « a plot against Islam » (cf. detailed dispatch on www.africultures.com).
New rigour
DVs are lightweight, flexible, easy to use and cheap. They are profoundly changing the conditions in which images are produced, creating a multitude of possibilities. This is the supreme choice for documentaries but it is also opening the way for new, less usual, innovative forms of writing. However, it also capable of some incredible rubbish – immediacy and solitude are not the mother of quality. Film projects mature through comparison and over time. DV offers greater freedom and autonomy, which however requires a new rigour to meet the audacity of this tool. Paradoxically, the biggest issue with DV is the question of its aesthetic. Admittedly, it has limitations with respect to depth of field, producing a flat image and colours different to those produced on celluloid, and sound and lighting also need work. DV nevertheless opens the way for a more intimist, more personal aesthetic. During an industry meeting at the Songes d’une nuit DV festival held in Saint denis in October 2003, Moussa Touré said, « I apply the same rules in DV as when I do a 35-mm film. That’s what true freedom is about. I’m even ashamed to say that my films are edited in record time. Everthing’s more than ready when I shoot! Freedom is having the pleasure of thinking that you’re going to make a film without the usual worries you have when shooting a feature on 35 mm film. Then you really have time. For me, the most important thing is that I’m making film. »

///Article N° : 5713

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