Interview with Abderrahmane Sissako
Director of Bamako
In looking at your film Bamako and in considering all the themes which are broached –i.e. the refunding of the African debt, education, health and social services, justice and the economy, culture, colonialism, illness and death– we have the impression that you declare with this film a kind of proclamation of the current state of Africa. Is this the case?
I think it’s a bit so. Moreover when one is brought to speak about the crisis of a continent in the form of a trial, it means quite simply that the word of the other is not heard. A true trial against institutions is improbable, not for saying that they are wrong, since a trial basically seeks the truth, but because nothing was set up to say that the policy imposed by these institutions for 25 years have failed. They agree themselves to say that they are a failure because Africa is increasingly poor and more and more ill. The fact that one cannot dispute these policies, shows already a certain form of injustice and that an artist must invent this trial.
Do you think you have proposed a process of healing, a way for Africa to bandage its wounds?
No, no. I believe that I have just initially made visible what is not. It is the role of an artist anyway. An artist, whoever and whatever the form of art, must make his reality visible and comprehensible in the eyes of others and it is this part which I try to play. But it is a role that imposes itself on me as an African filmmaker, because first we make very few films and I come from a continent in crisis and things are imposed on me, even if it is not what I would like to do in life. Therefore, it imposes itself as a political act. It’s about adding some comprehension to things that the masses do not understand because we speak a lot about Africa and it speaks very little about itself. When we speak a lot about a continent, unfortunately one gathers two or three things. We don’t serve this continent. Thus the role of an artist is also to try to change this vision of a continent. To show a different Africa. And in my case, it is also why I did it in the form of a trial where I managed to give a voice to the people. I want to say that there are not only wars and famine in Africa, but also an Africa which is conscious of what is happening to it.
Is the film, in this sense, addressing an international public or the people of Africa?
I would say that initially the film is addressing Westerners because the West has a stereotyped view of the continent. So it says….. “Here! Know that we know!” And this is, by the way, advice told to me by an old judge that I went to see as a consultant. He said, “You must not think that your film will change things but at least they will know that we know”. And in this sense, I would say that he understood that this film addressed outsiders first of all. But it is inevitably addressing Africa as well. That is to say it must speak, have a voice.
Do you consider yourself more of an activist, a filmmaker, or a writer?
(laughs) By nature I am not activist. Some things transpire through my cinema, a vision of the world which I want to be universal. If I speak about Africa it is because there is so much suffering, so I am an activist in this sense.
In your film Life on Earth you quote the very strong and politically charged remarks of Aimé Césaire and this, in a very soft voice; so it appears to me that you are still politicized.
Yes, yes. Perhaps the term activist does not so much disturb me but baffles me. I do not have the feeling that I make a true work in that sense. I greatly appreciate that you mention Life on Earth because Life on Earth and Bamako are similar films. Even in the cinematographic form, if one looks carefully, they look a lot alike. And in the content also, they resemble each other very much.
In regards to the mise-en-scene of your film, why did you decide to hold the trial in a courtyard?
I think that in the beginning of my project I played with the word court (in French, “cour” being the same word for backyard or court of justice). The court of justice and the backyard (or courtyard) of a house. After the camp of Joule , which is called Bamako, I knew that I would change my opinion in this sense. What I wanted from the beginning was that life can take over from the intellectual form of a trial. A trial has something intellectual in it, something thought of, and I did not want a film that was too intellectualized. I did not want a film that felt too written. I do not like that. Thus the courtyard of the house allowed me to immediately create a balance. And to allow life to always take over through little things and also because I knew that a courtyard could function as a miniature society. There are men, women, children, some who work, some who do not. Therefore, I had the capacity to show Africa through this courtyard, to not be speaking of an imaginary world and people that we do not see. Therefore, by the fact of integrating it in the courtyard, we see life. In fact, this is why I do not show any specific city. The city does not exist. It does not matter that it is in Bamako, it could be in Dakar, or Kinshasa, etc. The city is not present.
You said that the more intellectual discourse that you hold in the film –the speeches and the dialogues of magistrates who are introduced and even the characters of the film– comes from true lawyers. Where does that information come from and how was the research carried out to obtain this information?
From the moment that I wanted to bring these institutions to trial, it was clear that I had to do my research. Initially, I started to read documents, books written by economists who are against it, and the economists who are for it, some of them Westerners and some Africans; the documents of the World Bank and the Monetary Fund. After this, the production hired a researcher to go seek out specific things, which I wanted about the question of debt, privatization, the example of a country like China, etc. And always taking the information of independent sources and sources of the World Bank. These are the documents that I read and also gave to the lawyers and the judges.
If these people here are really lawyers and true judges, it gives a documentary aspect to your film, a bit like Life on Earth?
Yes, yes absolutely. There is a documentary side and I cheat with that, to go into fiction but to always reveal, in a true documentary forgery. I never asked myself the question of what form it is.
A scene I liked a lot and found intriguing, is the one featuring Danny Glover and Robert Downey Jr. as cowboys. It appears to me to be synonymous with the indifference towards the African people who are killed, accidentally or not. The relation between the cowboys seems to be also a disillusion, a mirrored reflection of American civilization, inclined towards disenchantment or self-destruction. I had the impression that you were using this genre (the western) to perhaps show what occurs inside Africa itself and at the same time, the relation between the West and Africa?
I believe that there is a little of all that. But what is of more importance to me, nevertheless, is that it serves as a form to make the film breathe. An audience can become bored watching the courtyard setting for thirty or forty minutes. The question was to go to something which could make the film breathe, and at the same time have content which would show a metaphor of what I tell in the film. Which is, in general: the domination of a group, of a vision of the world, more than of an identity. And this is why the cowboys are white and black. Through that, I also show, in a perhaps clear way if it had not been understood, that there is a joint responsibility in Africa. When a white man says that there are two teachers too many, it is the African who shoots. Thus Africa is responsible. i.e. a policy is imposed only when you accept it. You can refuse it.
In considering the presence of the West on the economic scene and the state of corruption in the governments, I have difficulty in understanding what Africa will do to alleviate it’s sufferings or to rise from the ashes, or what has to be done in order to form a better life? How can a good government be born and be elected with the support of the people without their being assassinations?
I think that it is perhaps the democratic experience that will impose that gradually. When power is established through democracy, through the vote, there will be an opposition force, and things will be different.
Do you believe that the economy must initially be stabilized so that people reach democracy?
I absolutely believe that it goes together. It is necessary that development bring the bare minimum to people, i.e. it is necessary for people to live and have enough to eat; they must be able to send their children to school, to buy books, to have transportation. The minimum is needed. When one does not have the minimum it is difficult to mobilize civil society, to fight for things. It is not possible.
Do you believe that the West can be a model for democracy?
I do not think that it is a model of democracy (laughs)…but it would be too complicated to explain at this moment. I think that nevertheless, the West of course brought several positive things. I do not think that we must reject the development in the West entirely. I believe that if anything there are good things and bad things. One must see and take. But there are many positive things in the West. In the end I look at how human beings are doing where ever they are. A wealthy society in some ways does not create happy people. I managed to see this paradox through my own personal experience, in certain societies where the people wake up in the morning with a heavy sense of responsibility over having done this and not having done that, being up to date on this and that. Thus I do not think that this is democratic. I do not think that it is an objective. The rich countries have to make it possible for people to be well in their heads.
A lot of silence impregnates Bamako. The silences are often as revealing as the speeches. What significance does silence play in a continent where speech and the oral tradition prevail?
First I think that it is a false vision to consider that it is a society dominated by speech. I think that it is a society also carried by silence. But you must read into it. In what I live, what I see and of what I try to understand, I see a lot of silence, in interrogations, in a particular glance, or in what is not said. For example, when you say something and someone doesn’t agree with you, he will say to you: “oh really? “ and he will not comment further. Thus silence is often there. I would say that the description of this continent is often… Africa is perhaps particularized, it is seen as being so different. Of course it is different in certain things. But I have the feeling that wherever you are, one is a little unhappy and a little happy….
At the end of film, an old griot sings his testimony with all of his soul. It is also the only scene of the film which is not subtitled. Why didn’t you add subtitles to this scene?
Quite simply because at the beginning, it is somebody who comes to the court to speak and isn’t given a voice. He wants to speak and the judge doesn’t allow him to speak. He sits down and says that his voice will not live on. He returns toward the end of film. Between the beginning and the end many things were said or contradicted. Therefore, when he rises at this time to speak, for me his song becomes like a scream. In this sense, a scream does not need to be translated.
I had in fact an ulterior motive for asking you this question. It is that initiation is very important in Africa and I have the impression that sometimes, there are certain things which do not want to be revealed about Africa.
I believe that in the West you want to know everything. All must be given. I do not think that life is like that. We cannot hold back on translation. But it is necessary to deprive you of something. I do believe in that. I would also say that if I had translated this song, I would not be faithful because, normally, it is somebody who sings for an hour at a time. But for the needs of the shooting of the film, seventeen minutes were sung. And then for my edit I provided three minutes, thus it would not be coherent.
Some traditional practices such as excision (female genital cutting), force-feeding, etc, are still present in Africa. Do you believe that conditions for women are in a process of evolution?
I believe that it is obviously and clearly evolving. If only for the reduction of female genital cutting. Fifteen years ago it was more important than today. It is almost in the process of disappearing in certain countries. This is why I say that one should never see things in a global way, because it is not fair. Women and men fight against these kinds of things. Thus the evolution is inherent in any society. Obscurantism is a reality of the world and even in the world known as civilized, comes a moment in its evolution where it becomes obscurantist as well. As an example today, take the movement denying the holocaust, where people want to refuse that the holocaust existed… all of that is so recent. Therefore, yes a society is always in danger, but a society always evolves as well. I see myself more and more even in the role that women have, as a political role as well. For me the voice in Bamako is ours and it is also the voice of women. It is not because I gave them that voice. They asserted it themselves in the film as they did to the governments. There is a female president in Liberia, these are not small things, and it is reality. Thus Africa changes and evolves everyday.
i>This text was translated from its original French by Nancy Baric.
Filmography of Abderrahmane Sissako
1. Bamako (2006)
2. Heremakono (2002) (En attendant le bonheur/??Waiting for Happiness??)
3. Vie sur terre, La (1998) (Life on Earth)
4. Rostov-Luanda (1998)
5. Africa Dreaming (1997) (mini) TV Series (episode “Sabriya”)
6. Sabriya (1997)
7. Oktyabr (1993) (October)
1 For more details