The Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis won the Golden Stallion of Yennenga at the FESPACO. The highest honour for this young filmmaker who toiled to realise his film “Tey”, a “metaphysical” tale of life and death. Alain Gomis, born in Paris, paid tribute to the great filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, whom he says he owes a lot. Alain Gomis, is certainly very generous, but the truth, the reality is that there are no more “cinemas houses” in Senegal. This award is the tree that hides the forest.
The Senegal is paradoxical to be the country of Ousmane Sembene, the largest African filmmaker South of the Sahara, Djibril Diop Mambéty, an underground filmmaker whose genius is known to all movie-buffs, but also the country where all the cinema halls have been closed for more than a decade. A deep crisis whose diagnosis may reveal multiple causes: the Great Depression, the greatest crisis of the Senegalese cinema is the crisis of vocation that is not specific to the movies. This is a cross crisis in Senegalese society. It also hit the the press and education world. It is a crisis linked to the lack of education, the phenomenon of levelling down, but also to the crisis in the employment sector.
The cinema is primarily a folk art, but still, an art that requires great imaginative resource mobilisation capacity. It takes a wide track, a great vocation and even obsessions to be a great filmmaker. But the vocation lack much in the surrounding culture. More than the how, vocation rather answers the question of the why? Why I chose cinema as art? Why am I drawn into this universe? Why the singing voice in my head and I want to make everybody hear? Vocation is this little music, this low voice that leads to the great way the paths of creation.
A lack of vocation, there is no style. “The first rule of a good style, which is almost enough in itself: it is that we have something to say. With that one goes,” wrote Arthur Schopenhauer. It’s this big “something” that is missing, the Senegalese cinema in recent years and literature. And that “something” is fundamentally linked to the vocation. When young people are encouraged not to repeat that film processes, they will be reduced to create deja-vu movies that lack meaning. Today in the world there is more “makers of films”, than of “filmaker” that filmmakers who have a singular language. A filmmaker is above all a poet, and poets do not run about the streets.
Then comes the serious problem of training for careers in cinema. The cinema is something you learn, it’s a job. There are no major film schools in Africa, schools with all the resources it takes. Senegalese trained at the INA or at the Femis and with years of experience, are currently training young people. But they lack of state support. But these efforts will be mainly oriented towards film culture. Where are the film libraries? The interest of film archives is to preserve the memory of cinema. Film libraries, it is the thread that allows the young filmmaker to know where to start. There is no great filmmaker who has not been influenced by another. Training is not just about the technique. It is also, and above all, the aesthetic; it is about getting learners to gradually master the cinematic language, semiotics of film. Otherwise, they will acquire the techniques, processes, without being able to create an original work. The ability to identify in the street a scene that has a narrative force, or a dramatic charge, cannot be learned in school. It is a matter of intuition.
Now comes the serious problem of production. There is hard to imagine Senegal the election ground of the African cinema without a big production house. Cinema is after all about production. In a country like the United States, the producer is so influential that the “final cut”, the last word, the final assembly belongs to him. In Africa, as our leaders are not accustomed to the idea of valuing intangible assets, nothing will. Film is especially a major cultural challenge. All countries who want to be reckoned with have understood it: Iran, Mexico, South Korea, Brazil. The African cinema is a victim of “the cultural drying out” of our leaders. Africa should build at least five major production houses, Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa, North Africa, in Kenya, to cover the entire continent. Future battles will certainly have a linguistic and semiotic connotations. It will be a war of representation, interpretation and hermeneutics; film and literature will be the focus of this great deal. The largest US propaganda machine is Hollywood. The cinema is not mere entertainment, far from it.
The question of how often comes up in debates on African cinema in general. When one speaks of means, one often refers to financial resources. The country is poor and it is difficult to produce cultural goods in an “underdeveloped” countries. A film is very expensive of course, but the lack of resources cannot be an excuse. The great masterpieces of film history was made “without great means.” The value of a film lies more in the high poetic imagination that the author gives to his work. Another serious matter as the crisis of vocation is the problem of distribution and receipt of films. There is almost no functional cinema houses in Senegal. The Senegal is paradoxical to be a country of great filmmakers without cinema houses. A crisis not related to the disenchantment of the public for the cinema but the cinema shedding. The reasons given for this situation are “superficial”. Decommissioning of cinemas is not necessarily linked to new technologies and the primacy of television, but to a lack of cultural policy, lack of vigilance and especially the refusal of cultural “protectionism”. Even the most open countries practise some protectionism defending their national product. In India, for example, the American cinema does not work as easily elsewhere, because Indians prefer their own films. It is often forgotten that the public must be protected, educated to “read” the image, accustomed to watching masterpieces to distinguish right from wrong. The public eye somehow influences the work of the filmmaker. That is why we speak of aesthetics of reception. By dint of watching soap operas that insult the intelligence and mind-numbing movies, people have come to believe that cinema is simply entertainment. That’s a big problem! The good news is the arrival in recent times of some films: “Si loin du Vietnam” by Laurence Gavron and “En attendant un 3ème prophète” a hot documentary by Moustapha Seck, “Sembene” by Samba Gadjigo and “Kemtiyu Seex Anta”. Two films to be discussed later.
At the rate things are going, the cinema as an expression can even disappear and presently, only the techniques, means, form without content will remain. Today, there are more good films than beautiful films.
By Khalifa TOURÉ