|The Courier - N°160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga |
source ref: ec160e.htm
|Culture and society|
The future of African cinema seen through the eyes of the Malian film maker,
In April, The Courier had the opportunity of meeting Souleymane Cisse, one of Africa's most celebrated film-makers, who has won several awards at major international film festivals. His films, such as Yeelen, which was awarded the Prix du Jury in Cannes in 1987 (the first African film to receive such a prestigious accolade), Waati, which was entered at the same festival, and Finye, have already become classics. Cisse is not just a director, he also produces his own films. In 1972, he impressed international critics by single-handedly producing a short film of exceptionally high quality Cinq jours d'une vie - which won an award at the Carthage Film Festival. By relying, above all, on his own limited resources, combined with a powerful determination to develop and promote Africa's film industry, Souleymane Cisse has an implied but powerful message for the entire African continent. When he went on stage at the Palais des Festivals in 1987 to receive his award for Yeelen, he said that he was accepting it on behalf of all those who did not have the opportunity to speak for themselves. In particular, he dedicated the film to all the South African technicians who had worked together with him on the project. His has made spirited efforts to boost the African film industry and it was in this context that he helped set up the 'Union of African cinema and audiovisual producers and entrepreneurs' last March. This organisation aims to encourage African countries (especially in West Africa), to take the necessary political decisions to ensure the survival and grouwth of African cinema. When we spoke to Souleymane Cisse, our discussion ranged far and wide. We began by asking the film director whether African art gets the recognition it deserves in Europe? He seemed surprised at the question but then, without hesitation, proceeded to explain his own approach - with the emphasis on the political rather than the aesthetic.
- The recognition that African art gets in the West has more to do with politics than aesthetic discernment. Such recognition evolves from the spirit of Africa's relations with the other continents, a spirit which is often devoid of all honesty. We stand at the threshold of the 21st century. We should be looking to develop ways of communicating with each other and finding common ground. We should be able to look each other in the eye. When, for example, people in France debate whether or not the Louvre should have a gallery of African art, it begs the question, 'who is asking for what ?'. When some people wonder whether or not African art really is art, they are asking themselves a pointless question. African art is. Nothing more, nothing less. In any case, the West has some highly contradictory views as far as the whole idea of art in Africa is concerned. On the one hand they dispute the fact that the culture of the Ancient Egyptians was, in essence, an African one, and yet on the other hand the characters of Ancient Egypt - in films for example - are always portrayed as dark-skinned. African art is the 'in' thing at the moment, despite the current tendency to belittle Africa. They think that today's Black Americans and Afro-Caribbeans can be made to forget their African roots, but that just will not happen.
· Generally speaking, do you think that African politicians should devote time and energy to this battle to defend African culture when their countries face such insurmountable material problems ?
- Once they have gained power, the obsessive preoccupation of our politicians has been to concentrate on economic policies, neglecting their countries' cultural needs. But without a deeply-rooted culture, you cannot discuss matters on equal terms with representatives of other nations. In their heart of hearts, they will not respect you fully. There have been two or three countries which have tried to combine economic development with cultural development - I'm thinking of Guinea under Sekou Toure, Mali under Modibo Keita and Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, but in one way or another, all three have been thwarted, for their perceptiveness. I am not now commenting on, or necessarily agreeing with, their domestic policies, but rather with the broad vision they shared for Africa as a whole. The fact that Europe is currently in the process of forging the European Union will be an instrumental force in the opening up of other regions of the globe. It was Europe, after all, which divided much of the world into English speakers, French speakers, Portuguese speakers, Spanish speakers and so on. Now that Europeans are themselves seeking to unite their countries, how could they possibly object to a similar union in Africa - for the sake of its cultural identity. This idea of a United Europe is, therefore, a welcome one. What is more, I believe that the issue has already been tackled within relations between the European Union and ACP countries. Not only is Africa the continent closest to Europe; it is in helping to develop the African continent that Europe has most to gain.
· The cultural aspect has already been incorporated into Lomé IV, but it seems that ACP countries do not attach as much importance as they should to such matters when drawing up their lists of priorities.
- Many of the politicians in charge of these countries themselves lack any sort of culture. Alternatively, stripped of their own culture, they flaunt that of a foreign land. They say that health care is a priority, that food is a priority, but cultural needs do not figure on their list. Yet culture forms part of an urgent need. You'll see - as soon as any sort of cultural development takes place in a country, or wherever a country already has a viable, thriving culture, its economy will also flourish; of that there is no doubt. A nation which has a highly developed culture will always be able to stand on its own two feet economically. Take, for example, the nations of the former Soviet Union - their economies may be unstable at the moment. It's only natural that they have to start from scratch, but as long as they manage to hold on to their cultures, they will pull through. These countries will not lag behind as Africa has done.
· It costs money to operate a film industry. Have you found that your reputation as a director has made the financial side of things any easier for you ?
- I don't honestly think much has changed in the way we finance our films. Perhaps I should only speak for myself, but I do not believe it is any easier for me than it is for young filmmakers. Mali has no film production facilities, so we are all in the same boat. That is why we organised a colloquium in March this year, aimed at getting a picture of the exact state of West Africa's film industry. What we learned was that it is in pretty bad state. We make films but, in a certain sense, we don't really exist as a film industry. I would dearly like my works to be screened, for example, in Mali, Guinea and Senegal, but that is not possible because the distribution and screening networks are no longer there. Even the most liberal Western countries have passed laws to promote and protect their local film industries, so why don't we do the same ? I cannot make films in the United States without first going through various unions and other professional associations. In France, I cannot distribute my films the way I want, and if I want to make a film, I have to make it through French producers. If people come to work here, they should have to use national producers. The relevant laws were drawn up three or four years ago, but they still haven't been passed. We want all those involved in the film industry to have the opportunity to be true professionals. There should be assistance available to modernise projection rooms and theatres. We are currently in the process of setting up the 'Union of African cinema and audiovisual producers and entrepreneurs' which should help to persuade governments to take our requests into account.
· Isn't African cinema also a victim of television ?
- The problem in Mali is a very simple one. We live in a country where people like to get out and about. The cinema is somewhere they can do that quite easily. So people use it as a place where they can meet up in the evening, just as they like to congregate around the fire to sing and dance. So why are our cinemas empty ? Because when people do go to the cinema, they cannot see the screen properly or they cannot hear the soundtrack, or they are uncomfortable sitting on broken and rickety chairs. If you can provide a suitable and comfortable environment for them, people will start going to the cinema again. That doesn't mean that television doesn't have its place, but people like to go out. This is especially the case with our open air cinemas, which are the perfect places for people to come together, have a chat, enjoy each other's company and relax. A nice auditorium, a good film, and you'll see how the queues will form. All we need to do is upgrade the auditoria, re-equip the projection rooms, overhaul the sound systems, put new chairs in - just a few basic comforts. When people go out to the cinema, it's because they want to escape from their humdrum routine for a while, to dream and unwind.
African governments should do what they can to enable people to relax and enjoy themselves like this. Going to the cinema is like going to school. People go there to learn something - whether consciously or subconsciously - and to see something different. We really must get rid of this purely commercial vision of the cinema, especially in Africa. It should, first and foremost, be a cultural experience, and only subsequently a commercial exercise. But we also need to be realistic. When helping those involved in promoting the film industry, the government should lay down a precise set of conditions, specifying how and when the loans should be repaid and requiring something in return for their subsidies.
· So you think that if the Ministries of Culture in African countries were given greater powers, they would be in a position to carry out this task ?
- It is not something solely for the Ministry of Culture. This is the type of approach which should be adopted by the state as a whole, in each country. For example, the government should provide a support fund for the film industry and certain other branches of the arts. Even if they were increased substantially, the meagre budgets allocated to the Ministry of Culture in our countries would still represent paltry sums. In Africa, the department of culture is at the bottom of everybody's list.
· But if you look at the number of African films that have been shown in recent years at Cannes and other international festivals, surely one can afford to be a little more optimistic than you are ? More and more young African filmmakers are releasing films.
- True, but as I said earlier, no progress has been made as far as film production is concerned. In that respect, contrary to what people may think, we are still at square one. Young filmmakers are put off and, as more and more avenues are closed to them, they gradually lose their fighting spirit. A film director has no choice but to be his own producer, his own manager - to do everything himself in fact. The result is that he becomes a jack of all trades and a master of none. During our recent colloquium, we decided to set up smallscale facilities which will deal solely with film production and where young people can go and use their services, thus leaving them free to channel their energies into actually directing their films. In the same way, we intend to set up other structures which will deal exclusively with other aspects of the cinema industry. The goal we have set ourselves is that of fostering professionalism in the West African film industry. Maybe then our governments will listen to us.
· Do you think there is any difference between African countries as far as opportunities are concerned ? For example, Burkina Faso would appear to be the cinema capital of Africa.
- Yes, and no. More often than not, it is African film-makers who have chosen Burkina Faso to stage events connected with the cinema industry because it is a landlocked country. This is what has made it the film capital of Africa, not any deliberate move on the part of the politicians. Having said this, the government in Burkina Faso is also making great efforts, despite its limited resources. But each country has its own potential. We must stop trying to tear this continent apart.
· You mentioned the former President of your own country, Modibo Keita, as one of those far-sighted enough to appreciate the importance of nurturing African culture. Where does Mali stand at the moment in terms of strengthening its own cultural heritage identity ?
- After independence, in the years from 1960 to 1968, there was a time when young people would get together and become involved in various biennial art festivals. We had a series of events which encouraged a kind of a 'cultural vision' nationwide. They were so successful that other countries were soon following our example. After the coup in 1968, however, everything fell apart. In the following 23 years there was a total cultural vacuum, in which young people felt completely disorientated, despite superficial attempts to relaunch the festivals. We are now only just trying to rediscover our cultural roots after a long period of upheaval. What we in Mali do have working in our favour, is the fact that our country is a harmonious patchwork of different peoples, all living together without the slightest trace of bitterness or hatred. We are lucky here because our rulers rarely tried to manipulate our ethnic loyalties to set one group against another. A Malian, irrespective of his roots, will always rejoice in the success of his fellow countrymen, whatever tribe they happen to belong to. We owe our good fortune to a heritage in which our peoples have always respected one another - even when they have faced each other as enemies. It is only as a result of this historic mutual respect that we can now speak of a Malian culture where each individual group of people has its own idiosyncrasies, its own customs, is sensitive towards other cultures and actually rejoices in their differences.