« We Were Too Much in Sembène’s Wake »

An interview with Samba Félix Ndiaye, by Olivier Barlet

April 19, 2008
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Perantal (1975), Geti Tey (1978), Le Trésor des poubelles (‘The Treasure In The Trash Can’ – 1989), Dakar-Bamako (1992), Ngor, l’esprit des lieux (‘Ngor, The Spirit of the Place’ – 1995), Lettre à Senghor (‘A Letter To Senghor’ – 1998), Rwanda pour mémoire (‘Remembering Rwanda’ – 2003), Questions à la terre natale (‘Questions To The Native Land’ – 2006)… These movies are all key dates for the cinemas of the Continent. Samba Félix Ndiaye paved the way for an African documentary style. The following interview, which was carried out during the African film festival held in Apt (Vaucluse) in November 2007, was published in the program of the Africamania festival at the Cinémathèque française in Paris (Jan. 16 – March 17, 2008).

From the start, you chose documentary whereas most African filmmakers preferred fiction. Why?
I didn’t ask myself the question in the beginning: the films I have always been interested in stand between documentary and fiction, from Flaherty to Welles’ Touch of Evil, from Italian neo-realism to Satyajit Ray… It was interesting not to stage anything, I needed to be in the right place with the right viewpoint to make films that include an imaginary dimension. I felt this closeness in my desire to see the world and to talk about it. But the fact that a small team was enough to make a film was also important to me; it seemed to me to make it easier to meet the people living in a given place. I was able to communicate with that small team – the sound engineer, the cameraman and the location manager – for a journey with characters into whose intimacy we invite ourselves and who welcome us in. The films I feel close to are these, very human, that mark you deeply and create bonds.
Was it hard for you to be a pioneer?
We were in the Sixties, with the question of a newborn cinema which had to find its way without a school or examples. All along the way, I felt trapped by television; it never seemed to me to give a fair point of view, it remained either very national or regional. I feel close to other filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami. We were together in the jury at the Cinémas du réel. Close Up was an extraordinary experience, just like Kramer’s movies. My generation made feature-length films that I found very empty, because they lacked mise-en-scene. Reality seemed richer to me.
What do you feel is important in the point of view that you offer?
Two philosophers have influenced me: my maternal grandmother and my grandfather. They helped me understand the place of the storyteller and the place of the listener. My grandmother used to say an interesting word always finds ears. A word without ears is meaningless. We must find our place to listen to the characters in our films.
You quote her in Ngor, l’esprit des lieux:’what matters in what we say is how much we are able to listen to it.’
Yes. When people tell me things that touch me, I remember what she said: « You can’t sit on the head of somebody who’s talking to you. » The matter is to know how high you put yourself. People also talk a lot through their movements. A movie-camera that isn’t in the right place disturbs, but if it is in its right place, it is invisible. People tell me my frames are tight and static in Questions à la terre natale, but the characters were free to move. The slightest movement in the frame is seen. The film crew was present, as well as friends and family, which implied a certain confidence in the film’s discourse and an acceptance of the camera. It’s an encounter that requires preparation and a step toward people you love. It’s about conveying words that touch and trying to share this with others.
There is a lot of jazz music in your films. Ngor is tremendously tender toward people and places, with an ethics of the world, this spirit of the place, and it ends with this exile’s music – just like you are. How do you situate this relationship with the origin and its ties with a nomadic culture?
Jazz is my music! I don’t know if it’s American. If you mix John Surman’s pieces that you can hear in Ngor and Abby’s trance on the beach, there’s no antinomy, no distance. When I make a film, there’s often a music in my head. It’s not always the one I’ll put in the film, but I hear it. I used to work with Magette Salla, the sound engineer, who sadly passed away. In Rwanda, I had asked him to add the small sounds and cries I was hearing, these pains of the country. He recreated them. In Lettre à Senghor, I had asked him for a slight wind, words, critical but light. He put wind all the way through the film. The same goes for the images, we’re talking about life, not the frame. In spite of the cameramen and my different cultural origins, we have something in common that makes it possible for us to talk about an image and create it. This is a quest for aesthetics, for a form capable of conveying the subject. It starts long before the film itself with a friendship, a fraternity, a companionship. I often tell myself that my films don’t belong to me, that they are an exchange. They belong to all those people I made the films with, to a given moment in my trajectory, where I was and where I knew that, and nothing else.
In his recent book about you, documentary filmmaker Henri-François Imbert describes your style as’filming resistance’. Do you agree with him?
We’re living in a world where everything is levelled down, which is unacceptable. I’m in my sixties, I have abandoned all the leftist and progressive movements, but there is something left. We only make movies that resemble us, with what we want and do not want. I am witness to this world; my attitude is like that of somebody enlightened; it’s impossible to have received an education without wanting to make the best of what you are taught. We can only bring dissonant voices, with liberalism dominating the world. We can’t make movies that are different from ourselves. It is not necessary to meet the director to know what he/she is; his/her films suffice. I’m far from having achieved what I’d have liked to, as far as resistance is concerned!
Now you’re working a lot with young filmmakers in Dakar.
Yes. The fertile atmosphere I find myself in today in Senegal, surrounded by young directors who come to see me because my door is wide open, who think I will give them more than I actually have, enriches me and brings me closer to an old quest. We have a place where young people and old people can stop by, where we discuss the state of the world. A movie about Haitian exiles has thus just been completed; it is something I have never seen in African cinema before. It is important for a filmmaker to talk with other filmmakers in order to discuss our cinematography, which is still young.
All this brings us back to the documentary’s transmissive role.
You can’t do anything on your own. I’m not the only documentary filmmaker in Africa, far from it and I don’t want to go it alone. I would love there to be a real African documentary movement and a reflection on the real. We were too much in Sembène’s wake. We need to take ourselves in hand and continue to be together. When I see the young take boats, preferring to commit suicide because they don’t have the answers to their fears and their future, we must find a solution! We’re doomed if these young people leave this land knowing they’re going to die. We must find a response, we can’t be silent. Once again, Africa is being won over by a sort of fatalistic resignation.

Translation by Thibaud Faguer-Redig///Article N° : 7956

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