Les États généraux du film documentaire 2008 Africa


Africa and Documentary Explicitness

As an introduction, a few simple questions to establish some shared references. What differentiates the work of an African documentary filmmaker from that of a European? I would say essentially, the same as all continents, all civilisations, three elements: the visible reality which surrounds the author; their singular personality and culture; and finally as we are speaking of an art which is also an industry, the difference in production conditions. What brings them together, what do they share? Once again, three crucial points: obviously belonging to the same world: the planet cinema as well as the major aesthetic trends which have crossed it for more than a century; then the use of the same artistic and industrial tools which today are digital; finally, thanks to globalization, the feeling of belonging to an emerging independent and global artistic movement, bearing references and conscious ways of looking at the transformations of human societies.
Let’s go a little further and ask whether there exist national differences within Africa itself, for example between Senegalese and Congolese documentary. Continuing the previous response, it seems clear that the visible reality these societies produce is already a difference. Take for example the sound-scape of a street in Brazzaville where church bells can be heard ringing, and that of Dakar where the call of the muezzin to prayer marks time and occupies space. As for film authors, from Brazzaville we have a protestant raised woman who grew up in a single parent family after the assassination of her father during the 2002 civil war. She certainly does not have the same culture or history as the woman cineast from Saint-Louis in Senegal, a member of the mouride sect and who secretly prays to the genie of the water; and even more so should this person come from a polygamous family with a dozen sisters and brothers and a strong likelihood that one of them will embark on a pirogue attempting to reach the Spanish coast. But even taking into account these differences, can we claim that there is a Senegalese documentary or a Congolese documentary cinema? To speak of a national cinema or even of a sub-Saharan African documentary cinema, we would have to first speak of a history of documentary film in Africa, and then perhaps of national documentary histories. There have been certainly pioneers whose work has left essential marks, like foundation stones, but perhaps it is premature to speak of a fully blown history.
However thanks to the digital revolution, the arrival of new funding possibilities, training sessions that have been established and continue to multiply, a movement has emerged over the past few years that has as its goal the creation of a sufficiently large and durable current (both artistic and industrial) to allow the construction of an African documentary history. This Africadoc selection at Lussas is, among others, one of the events where this movement is visible.
This year, our selection is organized around two groups of films. One group consists of the first films to emerge from the writing residences organized by Africadoc and the Master 2 creative documentary direction programme at Saint-Louis, Senegal (created in 2007-2008). In Yandé Codou, la griotte de Senghor, Angèle Diabang Brener films Senghor's star poetess and singer. The film avoids the pitfalls of hagiography and draws a masterly portrait of the capricious moods of Queen Yandé. With La Robe du temps, Malam Saguirou films, through the enterprising career plan of his friend, the transition from the traditional meat trade to a capitalist butchery in Niger. After Une fenêtre ouverte, Khady Sylla and Charlie Van Damme met again in Dakar this time to stage and contextualise the daily humiliation and exploitation of maids, filming their silences and theatrically dramatising their revolt. Among the films directed by the Master's students at Saint-Louis in Senegal, Delphe Kifouani, in a melancholy letter read to his absent friend, questions his Africanness and the differences between himself, a Congolese from Brazzaville, and his Wolof friends in Senegal. Marie-Louise Sarr, using sound construction and repetitive montage, sketches a portrait of the “factory work” in the university canteen of Gaston Berger. Sani Magori documents the chain of poverty and hunger around our daily bread. Mamounata Nikiéma instructs us on the importance of rice and Senegal’s dependence on food imports. The question of food and the sense of belonging to a culture and a territory are undisputedly present in the mindsets of these first works which show clearly promising signs of a maturing viewpoint and a variety in the styles of filmmaking.
The second group of films selected from the submissions received this year is composed of four films made by coloured men and women directors all caught in a movement of return to Africa without wanting to live there. All these filmmakers work with African voices in a complicity that expresses desire as it tells tales of behaviour, positioning or even of commitment. Alice Diop with Les Sénégalaises et la Sénégauloise, and Katy Lena Ndiaye, with En attendant les hommes, are both seeking to express how women think and dream through minimalist approaches to filmmaking and narrative. Thanks to an intimate exploration of the daily mental universe of their characters, they magnificently document, at the same time as they suggest as an unresolved issue, the violence that these films can represent for the people and societies being filmed. With Philippe Lacôte, Chroniques de guerre en Côte-d’Ivoire, and Anne-Laure de Franssu, Yere Sorôkô, we are in Ivory Coast in the wake of the personal trajectories of authors who, while following the thread of an investigation, try to extract a little humanity from the chaos of recent History. They inform us through the movement of enquiry which constitute their films. Between the discourse of their protagonists and their own words on the state of the country, it is clearly an echo of their own existences which we hear.
This programme of films has an important quality, it makes explicit issues at stake that are often implicit or silenced. The debates may well be vigorous, here and elsewhere. The dimension of secret, of lying by omission does not have the same value in sub-Saharan Africa as in Europe. The implicit can solve many conflicts and calm the way to a reconciled community. In extremely constraining societies (families, the religious, communities are ubiquitous…), it is a way —often— of safeguarding the individual freedom of beings and allow personal construction in spite of social determination. Documentary, through its work in illuminating the secret, communicates issues that are known but unspoken by all, moving from the implicit to the explicit. Film documents the state of the Real, the daily life of people. Thus it inevitably provokes vigorous reaction from the sectors of society which are its subjects. It marks also no doubt an important cultural break that young African documentary filmmakers will have to measure and manage in the years to come. Documentary is taking its place as the new memory of the peoples of oral history and can give them new power. Perhaps it is the new genie of African souls? We will discuss these questions over these two days.

Jean-Marie Barbe