« This is the last Fespaco I’ll be coming to »

Interview with Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, by Olivier Barlet

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Fespaco 2011 is drawing to a close. Your declarations during the course of the week have provoked a lot of reactions. How would you judge this edition?
Yet again, the amateurism of the organization is deplorable, with the same, recurrent hotel room problems. The organizers told us we were booked into the Hotel Indépendance, but that wasn’t the case. They weren’t expecting us. So we were sent to another hotel, but there too, in my case, my name wasn’t on the list. The team in charge of accommodation promised to sort my situation out right away. They promised to phone me to tell me which hotel I would be staying in. I am still waiting for the call… I was left to sort the situation out myself. Added to this lack of respect for cinema and for the filmmakers is the mediocrity of the selection, with films that have no place here, nor in any other festival, films that take us right back to the Seventies, as Souleymane Cisse put it. We are yet again witnessing a negligence that has lead to invited filmmakers not receiving their plane tickets. That was the case with John Akomfrah, who was meant to be President of the Paul Robeson Diaspora Film jury, and the Fipresci jury who got forgotten too… We backed the African Federation of Critics’ long fight for this prize to exist; at first the Fespaco wouldn’t accept it because it didn’t come with a cash prize. And when a jury was finally created, the jury members didn’t receive their plane tickets and couldn’t come to Ouaga. And nobody has said a thing, nor has anybody apologized… The third problem: certain films selected in the competition and screened before the jury were later withdrawn from the competition on the pretext that they were in digital. We are trapped in a repetition of things, like an incurable illness, as if nothing can change in the 41 years of the festival’s existence. A lot of filmmakers say it from year to year, but don’t dare say so publicly. I did on Tuesday night: it’s the last Fespaco I’ll be coming to. From now on, my films will no longer be in competition. If you don’t say things publicly, there is no debate. If I am speaking out, it’s to try to improve things. I know that no human work is perfect, but there is still a limit to what’s tolerable… We are confronted with an inert body, the Fespaco, which needs an electric shock treatment to bring it back to life.
A lot of the awards at the Fespaco don’t represent us. A lot of the films that have won awards here have had no international recognition. The European Union has understood that: up until now, its prize was designated by the official jury. For this edition, they preferred to create their own jury. Indeed, two years ago, its prize was awarded to a film whose qualities were more than dubious. In 2009, the Fespaco thought it was innovating by creating a Best Poster award. It has to be the only film festival in the world to give a prize to the best poster. A festival like the Fespaco is meant to enlighten the rest of the world to the quality things going on in our cinema, to help us exist at an international level. If it becomes a sort of Titanic where we all pat ourselves on the back in our mediocrity, then it no longer meets up to my expectations. I have been coming for sixteen years, but this is where I get off.
If its filmic dimension was managed better, wouldn’t the question of things like hotels be more relative?
Of course. In September 1997, we set up the Guild because we faced the same problems. We had no rooms and spent the night around the Hotel Indépendance poolside talking till six in the morning. Today, the same things are happening again!
These small, incidental hiccoughs taken on huge proportions when the problems cumulate. In his opening speech at the stadium, the Minister of Culture didn’t seem to think fit to talk about film; he spoke about Burkina’s culinary specialities, such as « bicycle » and rabilé chicken. I know the Minister of Culture is also the Minister of Tourism, but the Fespaco is first and foremost a film event. Does this festival truly respect cinema, or is it simply a popular festivity people come to for the sun and millions distributed in special awards? Must we continue to accept this due to an essentialism that is specific to us? It’s a typically African social comedy, rooted in our traditions, in which there is no solidarity between the filmmakers. And we sustain this farce by our presence. I get the impression that there is no longer any reflection on film here, and if we don’t reflect on film, it’s difficult to take it elsewhere and to escape the ghetto we are shut in. We become just image-makers. In Burkina, since Idrissa Ouedraogo stopped shooting, there’s no cinema anymore.
Wasn’t the Guild’s response to develop solidarity?
Yes, but solidarity stops where egos come into play. It has to be said that in a film scene that’s not funded, you can only stand out individually by developing your singularity. You are up against funders who see you as all the same, as poor filmmakers who need to be assisted. Yet if there’s something worth defending, it’s not « African cinema », which doesn’t actually exist, but visions of Africa by different African auteurs. If there’s no vision, our horizon will remain only the Fespaco, and we won’t escape this situation. Our cinema will become increasingly marginalized as, after here, it will just do the rounds of the « ethnic » festival circuit, the « African cinema festivals ». We are born marginal and we will end marginal. That’s not what any self-respecting filmmaker dreams of.
A festival like Cannes combines the media razzle-dazzle that maintains the myth of cinema on the one hand, and a defence of the quality of its selection on the other. These two dimensions are essential to help mainstream audiences embrace a conscious cinema and the Fespaco also plays on these two aspects. There has been a notable evolution, however, clear this year with the market being the theme of this 22nd edition, whose selection is increasingly open to so-called « popular » films; popular in the sense that there are thought to appeal to a wide audience.
Yes, but the problem remains one of reflection. There are films in this selection whose actors are poorly directed and everything is caricatured. Are they trying to tell us that African audiences are so dumb that we have to descend to the degree zero of cinema to make popular films? In the history of cinema, popular cinema is not synonymous with mediocrity. I consider my films to be popular insofar as art is intended to elevate, not to dumb down. We can encourage spectators to question, and the aim isn’t to bring them down to the lowest possible level.
The theme this year was « African cinema and the market ». Does a market really exist? The answer is no. So what are we talking about? It’s that too, this hypocrisy, that has made me say that I am no longer going to participate in what is more and more of a farce. This social comedy is sadly the reality of Africa. Public discourse in Africa is essentially dishonest nowadays. It’s no longer questions the real. Officials make promises they don’t even believe in (that they’ll be back, that they’ll ring, etc). The aim is to placate, to calm. It’s about preserving social harmony, not about credibility. When you depict this artificial discourse, you end up with this caricature that the public laughs at, as if you had to reduce yourself to its supposedly low level. And if you make a different kind of cinema, people accuse you of addressing others. As Sartre wrote in What is Literature?, one makes works for a potential family that shares the same sensibility. You don’t make a film for black people, or for Mossis, but because you are unique in your story, memory, sensibility, and personal traumas. You can only convey your own vision, which can address people from anywhere whom you don’t know. That raises the question of the freedom of the artist: to have your own voice in a continent that claims to be centred on the community.
After what I said on RFI radio, I received congratulations from all quarters: free speech marks. My freedom no doubt comes from the fact that I have always done things for myself; I left my country without saying anything to my parents, I fought to make my way, worked at night to pay for my studies to be able to determine my own future without any adult or big brother deciding for me. If you are not like the rest of the community, like everyone else, people say you are white. The community sees the world as an opposition between black and white people, which reveals an ignorance of other civilizations. If people were familiar with other universes, other philosophies, they wouldn’t spend their time calling any individual who tries to be different white. All the discussion around African cinema is inscribed in this duality, a wall that we constantly come up against without being able or wanting to go beyond it.
That duality was initially imposed by the North, though.
Yes, but you can break out of it by knowing your own culture properly and by wanting to broaden your horizons. When people become aware of this trap, they should fight to break out of it and refuse to be shut in. The problem is if they wallow in it.
That brings to mind Paulin Soumanou Vieyra’s « Afrique sur Seine », considered to be the first sub-Saharan African film, and which defends a possible equality between black and white people. This demand to have one’s place in the world, on an equal footing with the Other, is highly present in these early films. Isn’t the will to revalorize oneself through acts that might often seem derisory part of this desire to reach this equality?
Yes, absolutely, but the point is precisely to move beyond this desire to be equal to the Other, because it is symptomatic of a complex. You take the Other’s point of view and try to show him/her that you are his/her equal. This complex has given rise to a certain kind of cinema that loses itself in its intentions, rather than narrating the world from an original viewpoint that touches and moves.
Personally, I refuse to enter into this dialectic. I want to be myself and assume my history, as a descendant of a colonized people. This history should not be a bind; it should be a richness, a force.
That’s indeed rare, particularly in the 2011 Fespaco selection.
Yes, it’s rare and it’s a real shame. Those who hurry to shoot on digital six months before the Fespaco so they can be present reveal no desire for cinema. That’s bread-and-butter filmmaking… While there are major Asian and Latin American festivals in France, there has never been an African cinema festival worthy of the name. Yet it’s France that largely funds this cinema. How come? Dominique Wallon has had to devote his retirement to creating the biggest African film festival in Apt, with a voluntarily subjective vision, and that’s only been in the last eight years. It’s incredible that, in the country that has financed African cinema, there is no event where film-enthusiasts can see its major works. That’s a fact. This cinema is becoming structurally marginalized. That’s not the case with African music, which has defended itself better, no doubt because it’s not artificially propped up.
The example of music is interesting. World music has blended and managed to cross boarders, whereas traditional music only crosses them for rare initiates. With regard to cinema, can we talk of a withdrawal into a geographic zone or an identity?
Yes, we are shutting ourselves in because we feel misunderstood, because we are not in step with what’s going on. If we went to the cinema to see works from other parts of the world, if we opened up to the rest of the world without being afraid or having a complex, we would no doubt move beyond this mediocrity. We withdraw to the teat suckled on since birth thinking it’s always everyone else’s fault. We drag up slavery and colonization thinking that everyone hates us; all such discourses achieve is that they rally the community, but in reality mask major failings. Our cinema is not fond of singular auteurs. Those who have lifted their head above water are accused of conniving with the West, of being traitors to their cause and of no longer being real Africans.

Official discourse often resorts to these ideas to assert itself; this poses the question in terms of the Fespaco, which is directly run by the Ministry of Culture and the Burkinabè State.
It is indeed the problem with the Fespaco. We need to move onto something else. This State festival is an ocean liner that won’t budge because cinema is not the bureaucrats’ immediate concern. The rupture I would like to see can no longer be instigated by the Guild, which has imploded, so much so that I doubt that there are twenty or so committed filmmakers who will make a stand in 2013, refusing to participate in this masquerade and denouncing the negligence with which this festival has functioned for many years now. Twenty or so prominent filmmakers would suffice to stop the festival taking place, but for that, twenty consciences are needed. I’m not convinced that there are twenty consciences ready to renounce the prizes awarded. This State festival plays with the filmmakers’ fragility. When you peddle your own fragility, you lose your dignity. Yet dignity is the source of my work as a filmmaker. It is dignity that I film in all my works. If you lose it, you can no longer fight the battles that are looming. Otherwise, you can spend your life sitting on a bench drinking tea, shifting round to stay in the shade, like Abderrahmane Sissako showed in Life on Earth. The Fespaco is becoming more and more depressing. There’s no hope that things will change because the major works are all discovered elsewhere. It’s no longer a place where you get a cinematic shock. I go to festivals to get a slap in the face, but there’s no chance of that here anymore. Why strut about so vainly? What I’m saying comes from a deep sense of humility and a desire to discover and learn.
This, what can only be described as radical rupture; wasn’t that what the Guild tried to instigate, more positively, by setting up its own screening venue and by developing debates during the Fespaco? Was that in consultation with the festival?
Yes, we were in contact, and we injected a little fresh air. It was a place where we programmed major films – not just African films – which posed the question of cinema. The Fespaco was supportive of our initiative. Our proposal was well-received because it added something new, but we didn’t all share the same vision of the Guild. Some members’ frustrations, others’ intrigues finally got the better of our desire to do something. We had even found a site and were considering building a cinema like the Directors’ Fortnight’s at Cannes, to have a cinema worthy of the name that could have functioned all year round. But we would have needed to share firm convictions to bring such a project to fruition, and we were all very different. The members of the Guild were all very different in both their filmmaking and their discourses and it wasn’t conducive to formulating a common objective. Having said that, any new project is limited by the very structure of the Fespaco. Its bureaucratic side means more effort goes into managing it than into going to look for films. They go to the major festivals, but don’t ask the filmmakers for their films; they wait for them to come and subscribe them themselves. They lack the desire to show good, demanding works. How, otherwise, do you explain the absence this year of a film such as Viva Riva by Congolese director Djo Munga?
My interview with Michel Ouedraogo, delegate general of the Fespaco, in 2009 focused notably on his wish to develop the festival’s autonomy vis-à-vis the State. It seemed clear at the time that the various criticisms of the festival went in the same direction as this demand, but things don’t appear to have evolved significantly.
No, not at all. As the head of such an organization, as a former journalist, he could elaborate a promotions campaign to give the Fespaco a new lease of life. The risk is that alternative festivals emerge, that are more convincing because they put cinema at their centre, and not tourism or political interests, because at the end of the day, the Fespaco is a first and foremost a celebration of the host State.
Doesn’t the English-speaking sphere, from Nigeria to South Africa, dream of such alternatives?
Indeed. For a long time now, we have been asking for electronic subtitling to enable English-speakers to follow the Francophone films. No one is interested. They invest in the Fespaco headquarters, but don’t bother to renovate the cinemas. This policy’s like the Congolese sapeurs [dandies]: fancy suits and ties, or boubou for show, when in fact what’s urgently needed is to train the projectionists and to fight against what can only be described at the end of the day as all-round incompetence.
Aren’t there things that could be developed, areas of action that could capitalize on what the Fespaco has to offer with its past? It is, after all, a historically important event.
Yes, that can’t be denied. But people wallow in a vision that never questions the work of the pioneers. Sembene is placed at the summit of our cinematography in a kind of tradition by which no one can question this elder, as if he were a perfect filmmaker… This past needs to be revisited and questioned, with all the necessary subjectivity, in order to be able to advance. There is no major art without pretension. There is no greatness imaginable without ambition.

Translated by Melissa Thackway

Ouagadougou, 5 March 2011///Article N° : 10048


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