Universal as a tale

Interview with Dani Kouyaté, by Olivier Barlet

Cannes, May 2001
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Myths can deceive men when they are used to serve power. Dani Kouyaté’s new film, « Sia, le rêve du python » tells the tale of how a madman confronts the ruling powers.

Can you explain your interest in the madman character?
The madman quite simply represents the truth, as it is truth itself that is crazy. Truth has to be robed in madness to prevail; it has to be within madness. As madness is internal, mad people are not ostracised. Truth is balanced in madness to stop it being ostracised. That is why mad people are interesting, because they have illuminative moments. They say things that normal people cannot say. That being so, our society totally integrates mad people. There are no asylums in our traditional societies. Mad people are an integral feature of society. They have their role to play, which they may or may not assume. We consider mad people to be very important in any case.
People often say in Africa that a mad person is someone who adventures naked in the bush. In the film, the madman goes to confront the rulers, and the rulers would like to be able to tap the power of his wisdom. If the ruler could attain madness, he would have the key to power!
Exactly. What the ruler lacks is madness, which he can never obtain. As soon as he attains madness, he no longer represents power. He loses his references in a way. I think that power’s constant frustration lies in its lack of lunacy. The majority of people who obtain power thanks to their lunacy later lose it or are overthrown because these are two things that cannot cohabit. They have to complement one another, they ought to be complementary.
The woman goes mad at the end of the film, freeing herself of the reasonable obligations that might be made of her.
Exactly. She takes up the flame, takes over in order to perpetuate this word of truth. That is why my film is optimistic. Some people have said that the film is pessimistic because she goes mad, but I don’t see madness as negative. Madness allows the truth to survive. She decides to trade in her empress’ crown for the madwoman’s « boubou ».
You have a madman who speaks and a madwoman who remains silent. She walls herself up in complete silence.
In the end, she has an outburst on the streets, violently spewing forth the word of the mad. She yells at the passer-bys and cars that they have to wake up, that they have to stop sleeping, that sleep doesn’t govern, that when people sow the seeds of suffering, they of course harvest poverty. Her silence was a preparation for this outburst. She has been raped after all, and before he dies, the madman sows the seed of madness in her, which takes time to flourish.
The madwoman speaks in the present. Does this conflating of time suggest that memory is akin to this deviation from the norm?
Your way of shooting is very close to a tradition found in African film which renders the word sacred, to the point of alternating chunks of music and speech. Is this to respect a certain orality?
Absolutely. On the one hand, the film is an adaptation of a tragedy, a play based on the text and on the word, and, on the other hand, this refined speech is a part of orality, which has its own specific mise-en-scene. Word is already mise-en-scene in itself in orature. You don’t just speak any old how, in any old order, saying any old thing, to any old rhythm. It’s a style of mise-en-scene within my own mise-en-scene. You have to find a balance. When I show people my screenplays, the producers run a mile saying they are too wordy! It just so happens that speech can be lively; it’s a question of approach. My work consists in bringing this living word to life. That is what I consider the entire exercise for me to be in relation to the camera and film.
So you are still a griot?
More than ever. But there is the label « griot » and the role. I bear the label griot, whether I like it or not. It’s a question of birth, not merit. However, accepting and taking on the griot’s role is quite different! There are griots who refuse to. And there are people who aren’t griots but who fulfil the role. The griot question is simply a matter of role and whether or not you accept it. In film, I fulfil the role of the griot, which is about communication, more than ever before because film is absolutely compatible with this role. Griots have always adapted to new mediums of communication. Before loudspeakers and tape-recorders came along, griots used to sing live. Now they use microphones to make themselves heard, even in the villages. The question is whether or not you alienate yourself by using a given tool. I try to make use of a tool intelligently, to achieve what I want to achieve. That’s what matters – using it without selling one’s soul, by making unavoidable concessions, by adapting. Our ancestors used to say, « When the rhythm of the music changes, the dance must change too « . It just so happens that the music has changed today.
Will this type of African filmmaking find its audience both here and in the West by affirming its specificity?
Definitely. I think that we have sold our souls. We’re nothing anymore. Take the film debate. Nothing has ever been more misguided. We imitate, we alienate ourselves, we aren’t trying to invent from within. We try to copy what we see elsewhere instead of thinking from within to see what we can contribute to the world’s artistic film discourse. We have no reason to have an artistic complex! Our griots, musicians, and storytellers are great artists. We have a complex because we fail to draw the things that could influence our cinematic styles from our own values. So people speak about bush films! Film cannot be described in geographic terms, only in terms of one’s gaze, one’s viewpoint.
Did your filmic relationship develop in this second collaboration with your father, Sotigui Kouyaté?
Yes, especially for me. It was my second feature film; I was a little more experienced. I think that I used my father in a slightly more interesting, directive way. He’s a great actor and you have to know how to get what you really want from him. You have to know what you want first! But I did leave him a lot of leeway. In « Keïta », for that matter, he very subtly transformed my character without me realising it! I had written a dying old man character who absolutely wants to tell a child a story before he dies, whereas the character he played is still full of life. And it was just because a dying old man would have been too pathetic. It would have weakened the message. He constructed his character all on his own. This time, I gave him a role that was quite unlike what he normally does because here he plays the bad guy.
He’s a baddie, but he’s also the one who defends a certain understanding of power that is based on the myth. How did audiences in Ouagadougou react to this demystification?
Demystifying power is something that works very well. In any case, power has been demystified in Ouaga for a long time! What I expect people still to react to is to the demystification of the myth, the demythologisation, if I can put it like that, when the film comes out in Mali and in Senegal, in places where this myth is still very much alive and where people might be shocked that we say in the film that the snake god does not exist when this has been a reference for centuries. But I get the impression that people have understood that this is more a political metaphor than a refuting of the myth. We use the myth, we play on it, but we don’t judge it. In Burkina, nobody criticised the fact that we contradict a founding myth. Everybody had the Norbert Zongo affair in mind, a topical political affair in Burkina. I think that we have thus fulfilled our aim. I didn’t specifically make the film for Norbert Zongo, but I was happy that it was topical in this way.
What made you decide to work on a myth in this way?
I think that our myths and mysteries sometimes make us fatalistic. I think that you go backwards if you don’t actually advance. I think that the world is developing in a direction today where many things need clarifying, particularly the role of the griot. The griot’s role is more important than his statute. History is obstinate and many griots have compromised themselves and worked against their people. It is a known fact that dictators have used griots to manipulate their people. Film is inscribed in a process of change. I was determined to make « Keïta, l’héritage du griot » to remind people that the griot used to be someone in our societies. But, beware, all that glitters is not gold. It takes dignity to be a griot. That’s what I wanted to remind people of in this second film. It is the nobility of the role that is the pride of the griot. Very few have that today.
In « Sia », the madman seems to be more of a griot than the griot!
I think that the madman fulfils the role of the griot today. He is the one who positions himself clearly vis-à-vis the ruling powers and who represents the interests of the majority far more than he does his own interests.
The film has been very well received both here and in Ouaga.
It really makes me very happy that a wide audience appreciates the film both in Africa and in Europe because I always situate my work in a universal context, like the tales. In « Keïta », which is a lot less metaphoric, the little boy belongs to the whole world and the story of Sundjata Keïta is simply a pretext to ask the universal question of knowing who we are, where we come from, where we are going. « Sia » too is a metaphor that goes beyond time and space. The costumes are not typical so that we don’t identify a given region. A Swiss costume designer who had never been to Burkina, or to Africa for that matter, made the costumes using African materials.

///Article N° : 5589


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