For a thought-out cinema

Interview of Mahamat Saleh Haroun by Olivier Barlet

Translated by Céline Dewaele
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You like calling African cinema the « cinema of schizophrenia ». Why is that?
I’m referring to an article I wrote, entitled From militant cinema to schizophrenic cinema: it’s a cinema which, without saying it, leaves the scope of reality for entertainment under the cover of art house films. I’m not trying to be harsh but what is important is that they assume it: there is no bad cinema, all of us do what we can, but this kind of cinema is trying to get itself a public by referring to Hollywood cinema, without holding it up as an example. Besides that, there’s a cinema that is no longer artistic cinema in the instinctive sense, like Moustapha Alassane’s films were for example. They gave a representation of their country, their traditions and their culture. Now there’s a cinema made by people who are very aware of where they come from and of what they must fight for. This inevitably leads to a new aesthetic. There are a lot of frustrations, quarrels and jealousies but the problem is to get across the fact that we are not in a sub-category of cinema. We are from an under-represented part of the world but we want to place it in the middle and assert that there is room for us. The novelty is that we claim (this is not ambition anymore) to represent Africa with the idea that it is in the middle and not on the fringe.
The risk for artists is of adopting a speech about our marginality to the world, after having heard it all the time. Our problem is to offer a new point of view. All African films do it but some are very structured in this approach. The measures taken to make globalization work imply that we can no longer just be artists but we have to have a lot of stamina. The film must go with a structured approach.
Intuition is no longer sufficient?
That’s right. We are losing people, great film-makers, who work with intuition. Structuring the flow of thoughts and locating Africa, saying where we stand, is very important: this is what the film history is waiting for. Today, we need awareness and thinking. We cannot produce in order to awaken consciousness anymore. It is no longer sufficient. We need to have the humility to take the debate to the ground of cinema, as an artistic creation in itself and not only as a way of making progress as regards to the causes. If you fix some aims for a film, you need to do a balance sheet: this means accounting. We are not in this logic anymore. This explains the assertion of the work on the ‘intimate’, but also on the documentaries in which one thinks about his own proximity, which raises the question of who is the onlooker. If there is an aesthetic, it has to come from documentaries, on the condition that we handle digital technology and create our own economy. Once you are sincere in your approach, you are not questioning an African man in a given space but a man in his reality, which means that every man can identify with him. We had better decompartmentalize this, with the question of the means of production that is forcing us to use digital technology. And this technology imposes the use of a cinematographic device which fatally faces us with the relation to the subject and raises the question of cinema’s outlook, the distance and the choice of point of view.
The aesthetics in Abouna is very different from the one in Bye Bye Africa. How do you explain this evolution?
Abouna is quite classical. I tried to remember the lights, colors and emotions of my youth. In Bye Bye Africa, I had to do more research and I put everything in categorically, but I finally understood that people were not interested in debate. This film is a tribute to the entire African cinema that I know, in order to then start afresh, but it didn’t open the debate with film-makers. I was disappointed but I told myself it just wasn’t time and that I needed to go back to simple things. You can only make progress if you have new things to offer. We are lacking a discussion on the form: it is not surprising that many film-makers are stuck and that only a few are evolving thanks to the universe they have created and to their singularity.
We only ever talk about cinema’s economy and never about its aesthetic.
That’s right.
Let’s go back to the marginality you were talking about, which seems to be the Gordian knot. You insist upon the need to relocate Africa in the world and on its ability to take part in the great dialogue of contemporary expressions, by asserting its contemporaneousness that it is very often refused. It’s a self-assertion that is, in principle, not marginal. But at the same time, being marginal could be a way of locating yourself. It is so constituent of Africa’s reality in the world that positive marginality could become a role or even an identity. Isn’t the search for new writings in cinema a way of leaving the old evil spirits behind, but still in the grip of Africa? Are this consciousness and this evolution not, in the end, part of a self-definition which is not negative but is a positioning in the world as a marginal? This positively-asserted marginality would then be a common element to an artistic approach.
That’s right. It’s the same thing as for the history of the word « Negro », which has been re-used and made more positive. We made marginality positive so as to proclaim ourselves film-makers to get rid of the weights that we had been carrying too long. The more you go out into the world, the more a messenger you are of Africa. The further you go from home, you closer you feel to it! So we come across people who think that geographical proximity is a messenger of truth. Exile has always been, in art history, a wound that carried novelty. This new identity is always about questioning and that is its strength.
This reminds me of what Sylvie Kandé said: « Uprooting is at the origin of poetic action ».
Yes. We should all move from on own little world in order to feel what brings us alive. For artists, uprooting is highly stimulating. You can be uprooted in your own home too. We try to be the sum of all that we receive.
Putting a distance with territoriality goes against a big artistic movement that has marked Africa since decolonization.
Yes, but issues were raised in a problematic way. It’s not because one moves away that one has it all wrong: there are movements which bring people together because the scope is greater, which allows us to see things differently and question ourselves. When you are looking at the details, in close-up, you cannot see the whole picture.
Bill Kouléany’s work, exposed here in Apt, goes very far into the representation of individuals dislocated by war. Visual arts and theatre are often ahead of cinema: why is the cinema so behind? Is it the weight of financing or the difficulty of total art?
The problem with cinema is that it implies team work and each person has a different point of view. Painters’ and writers’ freedom is huge compared to that. A script has to be judged by several people. It is considered as a product destined to an audience, so the film must seduce that audience. An aesthetic and formal approach requires a lot of courage. Cinema is a place for clichés, which corresponds well to what Africa, a place of forecasts and fantasies, is subject to. The issue of africanity is only submitted to Africans: one does think it normal for them to come out of their forest.
In that case, one never escapes from the Other’s forecasts.
Yes, it’s tiring. The challenge is managing to free yourself from what other people think and to assert yourself as a singular artist who is not a sum of those who are in Africa. The point of view of others shapes the artistic work of all- it is the structuring of thoughts that allows you to escape it. Contrary to what Ahmadou Hampâté Bâ said (« You have to know where you come from to know where you are going »), we are many to think that: « The most important is to know where you stand to know where you are going ». It is this way of thinking that allows the generation of an aesthetic quest. More and more people are in the film business by choice when lots of other before had stumbled into it by accident.
It reminds me of something that was said in Alain Gomis’ film Afrance: « My country is where I set foot ». Is an African artist today able to free himself from the collar that was put on him?
The tragic thing about colonialism is that it is passed on from generation to generation. The individuals amongst the artists are those who succeed in freeing themselves. A film like Le jardin de papa deals with this issue, but it is rare. Kourouma was a very liberated storyteller; he did not have any complex about the language. I don’t know of many people who are able to be so detached. His self-awareness was his strength and was what allowed people to say, like Abdourahman Waberi, that « he is the best amongst them ». It is only possible to achieve that by using film language as a tool to express one’s own world and imagination. It’s self-work, it implies a reflection on what one wants to say and where one wants to go.
Freeing yourself from a language or a prevailing aesthetic is not new. Tutuola used to do it a long time ago. Is it not less about freeing yourself from something than about integrating something? For example, how Koffi Kwahulé integrated jazz into the music of his writing or Kossi Efoui or Alan Mabanckou’s literary ruptures.
Unfortunately, cinema does not go that far on the formal level. We are well-educated pupils. We are less into integration than into nomadism. We recreate our encounters and show our influences without asking ourselves too many questions. It is quite sound, it’s an African perspective on things because in Africa, the Other is always visible, he is not dangerous, so we accept him. It is part of our memory: we integrate things that we are confronted with, not necessarily things that are on the outside. It is accessory, not essential nor a rupture.
Each creation is like a vampire and we are never indifferent to what surrounds us. Surrealists have taken things from Negro art for their own rupture without trying to find out what they meant. This is the misunderstanding that keeps repeating itself. We take and we throw away at the same time. I have a feeling that what you are defining is a whole different movement: a synchronism and an ability to understand the Other. So I am curious about a movement which would go further than the simple acceptance of influences. Cinema is transformed by very innovative trends, especially from Asia. Abderrahmane Sissako has developed an identifiable style based on a manifesto including doubt and uncertainty, the welcoming of the risks in the construction of a film. We find that style in Abouna with the curtains, the lights, the door which closes on the mother whose voice we hear behind it etc.
With Afrance, Alain Gomis has also created a manifesto. Aesthetic quests are part of film history. Ruptures were the work of groups. Godard and Truffaut alone would probably not have had the same impact. Synergy is necessary and that’s what we are lacking. With Abderrahmane, we got closer with Bye Bye Africa and we support each other. This collaboration has a future. We are trying to make a family but the group is lacking something.
We are back to talking about the need for a critical outlook on a team work.
Yes. Great names are a real obstacle. Those people are asked for more than just the instinct to do beautiful things. Abderrahmane defines his approach very well: yet, his architecture is built on the unpredictable. Those are the paths that matter. Asia opens a new path to cinema which dares to explore the radical and pushes everyone to evolve.
So we are back to digital technology! The emergence of video directors a little all over Africa, who are trying out the media, could be linked with Abderrahmane’s project to open a house of ‘images’ which would document all of the spontaneous productions. Here, there is a concern for capturing proximity in all its forms, to leave expression behind and give all its strength to the medium.
And maybe teach people to give meaning to what they do. An artist is fascinating when he has something to say about his own work, which enables us to come into his world. There is less and less space for our cinema. Clear views are important in order to defend it.
I’m lapping it up: the fact that African critics are gathering together in federations of common work goes with a new outlook on cinema, which could have a real impact.
Yes, it is not by chance that this gathering up is happening now. We don’t have this confrontation with African critics because they do not think of the esthetics of a film as meaningful. In the absence of commercial circulation, what is left is a thought-out cinema, where only authors to whom this schizophrenic cinema has grafted itself meet up. A cinema which chases its own tail and, when it doesn’t work, brings things big steps backwards.
Even popular products such as Le Pari de l’Amour don’t find an audience because of the lack of a real broadcasting network.
Yes, that’s what I call being out of step with something: a positive schizophrenia which goes too far in the radical by thinking that we are in Hollywood and that we would have 100 cinemas over the country or that televisions would buy. These films cannot exist because they are elsewhere, in our dreams!

///Article N° : 5923


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