Tale of a homecoming

Interview with Sidiki Bakaba, by Olivier Barlet

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In 1972, C’est quoi même, a production based on fragments of memory, without an intrigue or suspense, shook up the sleepy foundations of Ivoirian play direction. The director was Sidiki Bakaba. Since, prizes and honorary awards have marked a career shared between the theatre and film, Africa and Europe. Today, he devotes more and more time to theatre and film directing. He made Les Guérisseurs in 1988, followed by the television drama,Tanowè des lagunes, in 1994. Since 1995, he has made over 27 short films for TV5. He has also staged and recorded numerous plays for Ivoirian television, including Emperor Jones by Eugène O’Neill in 1996, in which he also played the leading role.

The first Ivoirian films by Désiré Ecaré, Henri Duparc or Timite Bassori were urban films. They were not a return to the village, unlike later West African films. These stories brought us dreams and the fantastic, and spoke about post-Independence problems we were not always aware of. We liked the atmosphere of the films, which stayed with us, in spite of what we didn’t understand: we would laugh and were happy to identify with something different.
Our idols, Douta Seck, Bachir, Toto Bissainthe, whom we used to listen to on the radio on Sundays, completed our Theatre Arts School training. The African films gave us an opportunity to see them on the screen, and opened up another possibility for us: the cinema! I wasn’t expecting it, however, when Desiré Ecaré asked me to play in A nous deux France. During my training in France, I was involved in classical theatre, from Corneille to Shakespeare and Sophocles! When I arrived in France in 1969, the first production I saw was Orlando Furioso at the Halles theatre, which turned everything I believed and had learnt on its head. I wondered if people had gone mad! It was a rich and fascinating period. When I was asked to give a few lines in pidgin French, even though I had been working on my diction for years, I was of course frustrated: the colour of you skin determined the role…
In seventeen years of life in the theatre, I experienced a great richness, such as the Bread and Pupett, the Living Theatre, or Grotovsky’s techniques. The West had brought me a lot, and had taught me to recognize the aesthetics of my masks, in the manner of Picasso, or certain play directors. I came back after having performed in front of the people of my generation, who were calling a lot of things into question, and particularly theatrical space. That gave me great freedom. I was able to break out of the theatrical cage, and to go as far as possible into the visual. But I was only following in the footsteps of my elders: I observed the African mind-set and humour around me and the typically collective use of space. So I was mature when I really came into contact with film. I looked like a teenager in Bako, l’autre rive, but I wasn’t far from thirty! My work on the body and on corporal expression helps me to stay very young!
The exposure of an actor
Visages de femmes didn’t really have a script: we shook off the rules and aesthetics of the theatre in order to work towards a new technique enabling us to speak about Africa. I put myself in Désiré Ecaré’s hands, in the position of someone who is there to learn. I wasn’t used to working on a non-linear story, and entered into the unknown… We worked bit by bit, due to budgetary problems. I had already played naked in the theatre with a White, married Italian woman, who was also naked, in Nexus and Plexus at the Lucernaire. I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I am impossibly shy and strongly respect our traditions, but nudity was a theatrical costume for me. Nudity thus represented something very pure for me. But few people understood that. When an actor is naked, he/she has nothing to hold on to: we had to drop our ticks and our props and simply be the receptacles of a role. Visages de femmes caused a terrible scandal in Africa! The film’s banning was absurd as there had been so many X-rated films before it was released… Two White people making love wasn’t shocking, like in Hiroshima mon amour. So why Black people?
When I arrived in the village where we shot Le Médecin de Gafiré, nobody wanted to shake my hand! Children came to see me, thinking that I was going to heal their wounds… Yet I am one of the main faces that the public saw repeatedly, in photo novels, as well as at the theatre and the cinema. It was thus no doubt better for me that Visages des femmes took so long to come out and didn’t limit me to one image. And, moreover, the cinema gave an aura of seriousness that experimental theatre didn’t have. People respected me even after the release of the film. They used to say: « Your profession is hard. What violence! » Rather than rejecting me, they saw me as someone who loves his profession so much that he agrees to do risqué scenes. And that because people knew me.
Overseas’ validation
In Bako, l’autre rive, I played an African who isn’t familiar with the town, and who discovers it, when I had already taken that step, and it had marked me. I understood that technique could come before the acting. It was as if I were a musician and I had learnt classical music before coming back to the rhythm of the drum within me to perform a concert with no false notes in a village. One stage had been completed: I wasn’t just a Black actor who spoke French well, but also an African character playing in his language. I was able to prove that it wasn’t true that an actor who had trained in France was lost, that, on the contrary, it was enriching: the West gives me Africa! All that is profoundly African in me can express itself thanks to my training here.
There are still African filmmakers who complain about the lack of African actors. Yet there are great actors, such as Gérard Essomba in Côte d’Ivoire, who are not used in African film. Those filmmakers are victims of a personality cult: they do not like sharing the limelight with the stars. A non-professional cannot be good in all roles!
A personal film
The cinema, more than theatre, seemed to me capable of interesting a large number of people. African film has been marked by the desire to make films for the people, in which the star-system has been excluded. Nowadays, audience demand is proving itself to be more inclined towards entertainment. The difficulty for me was to understand the passage from theatre to film direction, a theatre direction which I continue to teach in workshops today and which I worked on so much with stage aesthetes. It was on the basis of this experience that people trusted me and I was able to get 10 million francs together for Les Guérisseurs. And the film was a hit, as much in Abidjan as in Dakar, and outdid Rambo! It is an African film, a contemporary tale based on the tale tradition. It did very well in the English-speaking countries, which saw a New Wave side in it. The Italians even dubbed it because they saw a little of Fellinian madness in it… and the French didn’t understand it. They couldn’t fit it to the image they had of me. After having backed it, the Ministry of Cooperation wouldn’t give it the subsidy for poorly distributed films, and the film wasn’t released in France.

///Article N° : 5438

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