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close this bookThe Courier N 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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View the document'We make films... but we do not exist!' - interview with Souleymane Cisse

African reflections

by Seydou Sarr

The third Festival of African Cinema was held in Brussels on 15-22 June. For one week, film-goers in the Belgian capital filled the auditoria of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, where they discovered new images of an alternative Africa. And as always, when the time came to assess how the Festival had gone, professionals and organisers alike were left pondering the problems facing the African film industry.

Organised for the first time in 1994, on the initiative of Diaspora Productions, the Festival had a number of objectives, including that of bringing Africa's finest films to wider public notice. The initiative stemmed from two observations. In the first place, the European public's opinion of Africa is based on what it sees on television - and that image is of a continent so ravaged by famine, misery and strife that it is incapable of progress. Second, from a professional standpoint, there is no effective distribution network in Belgium for African films. Samba Traore by Burkina Faso's Idrissa Ouedraogo and Hyenes by the Senegalese Djibril Diop Mambety were two rare exceptions in succeeding in getting on to the circuit.

A forum for reflection

In setting up film-industry meetings, the organisers of the Brussels Festival wanted the event to be a forum for reflection on the problems facing African cinema. In the 40 years it has existed, there has undoubtedly been some progress. It is even possible to speak of genuine mastery of images and cinematographic language. But there are also many problems - involving production and distribution, a lack of official support, a shortage of private capital and limited access to international markets. At home, meanwhile, African firms face fierce competition from multi-million dollar productions coming out of the USA, Europe and Asia.

Europe has traditionally offered the only feasible route for those seeking technical and financial resources. The principal donors are the European Union, the ACCT (Cultural and Technical Corporation Agency) and the French Ministry of Cooperation. There are, of course, many instances of African directors producing films without taking this route, but these ventures usually have smaller budgets, and insufficient funds to devote to promotion (press releases, trailers etc). As regards distribution in Belgium, directors face an additional difficulty - they have to take the language issue into account (particularly when films are shown in Flanders).

African professionals are looking at various ways of solving these problems, including the possibility of coproduction with European operators. For some years now, public and private bodies have also been considering the idea of establishing combined co-production teams in a form of partnership, as a way of supporting African cinema. This topic has been on the agenda of other African film festivals (notably in Amiens) and it came up for discussion in Brussels as well.

A colloquium on the subject of ACP/Europe co-production was staged on the fringe of the Brussels event. This served to highlight a number of successful experiments in North/South collaboration. One example was the Cape Verdian film Ilheu de Contenda, by Leao Lopes which was made with support from a Belgian production company, Saga Films. This film was screened at the Festival. It also gave an opportunity to discuss a range of other topics. African journalists accredited to the Festival were given the task of drafting a resolution whose conclusions will be submitted to various contributors including FEPACI (the Pan-African Federation of Film-Makers), the European Union, producers and other donors.

There was general agreement that a coherent legal framework for organising relationships between directors and producers, on the basis of mutual trust, was badly needed.

Positive results

It is worth making a brief assessment of the efforts made by the organisers of the Brussels Festival to offer an improved programme. The showing of shorts at the beginning of a performance is undoubtedly a formula they should employ again. These works are a specialised genre which give young directors the chance to present their first work. The bulk of the shorts that were screened this year were in the form of 'documentaries' based on fiction - but with one foot in the real world. They dealt with people's lives, their daily concerns, and a variety of social phenomena. Thus, we were presented with films dealing with Aids, urban delinquency, the role of women in society and so on.

Another positive point the organisers should concentrate on is the space resewed for English and Portuguese-language films. There were eight performances in this category including four feature films in English and two in Portuguese. A further worthwhile element was the space allocated to African women (from Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso) who have chosen to use the cinema as a means of expression.

Diaspora Productions' managers are said to be reasonably satisfied with the way the Festival went. They hope it can continue to be held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, since they see this as one way of liberating African cultural events from the Afro-Brussels 'ghetto' where they have often been held. They are also keen, in future years, for African films to be shown in Brussels cinemas while the Festival is under way. If this happens, film-goers in Brussels will have the pleasure, from next year, of seeing quality works in their usual cinemas. The timing is appropriate since the 1997 Brussels event will follow the Ouagadougou Festival (Fespaco) which traditionally sees the launch of a number of new films.

Family meeting

The organisers chose to close the 1996 Festival with a fashion parade which gave Pathe 'O, the designer from Cot'Ivoire, the chance to present his collection to the Brussels audience.

On the fringes of the Festival, there was also a musical offering in the shape of the Toure Kunda brothers who came to lend their support to filmmakers and other African artistes.

There are those who would argue that the Brussels Festival has now entered the category of a 'not-to-bemissed' event. Every year, it attracts significant numbers of film-makers from Africa and the diaspora, even when they have no current projects or films to present. There was a real family atmosphere in the corridors of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, due in no doubt to the absence of competition. From the outset, the Diaspora Productions team chose to stage an event at which prizes were not awarded, thereby promoting reflection and contact with the public. It is generally agreed that the Brussels Festival offers a rare opportunity for film-makers to meet and discuss their productions and projects in a relaxed atmosphere.

The credit for this, in the view of many of the participants, lies with Pape Mbaye Sene, one of the guiding lights of the event, who has also been dubbed the 'high priest' of African cinema. It has, in fact, been suggested tongue-in-cheek that 'in Brussels, they award a Pape, not an Oscar'.

'We make films... but we do not exist!' - interview with Souleymane Cisse

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 LomV, 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.