Through African Eyes: Dialogues with the Directors – Abderrahmane Sissako

If I try to explain the decision I made one day to become a filmmaker, I must go back to that period in my life where I felt at a loss, having gone to Nouakchott to be with my mother. I had lost my bearings. Bambara — my language gone; no more Malian childhood friends. So, I became more observant, more aware of what surrounded me, I developed a keener sense of the importance of gestures and body language. And I wanted to tell that story.

But I realize as I go on making films that the triggers for my career go back further in my life, that they are buried deep in me. And the real reason is no doubt my mother’s eldest son who was forcibly taken away from her by his Algerian father. My mother suffered from the separation and talked a lot about him. They only met twice after that. Once he came, I must have been seven, and he stayed for four or five days. He was on his way to Russia where he was going to learn how to make movies. Being her youngest son, I wanted to be loved as much as the eldest. I was loved, but she talked about him with such fondness, maybe because he was not there. So, I idealized him, he was a hero, and I decided to become a filmmaker because of that. I was not moved by films before then. I vaguely remember two or three Chaplin movies. But what really stirred our imagination and made us dream at the time were the “Spaghetti Westerns.” Sergio Leone, for instance.

Yes, They Call Me Trinity and all that sort of thing?
Yes. With Terence Hill and someone else… Bud Spencer. I also saw gladiator movies. But none of it made a movie buff out of me.

How was it that cinema brought you to Moscow?
Well it did, and it didn’t. In Nouakchott, I was going to the Russian Cultural Center. I was more interested in playing table-tennis, “ping-pong.” The director of the Center though, introduced me to Russian literature. He introduced me to the worlds of Tourgueniev, of Gorki, Dostoeïvsky, which felt close to me, close to Africa somehow. It is possible to draw parallels between that literature and Africa. The director gave me an opportunity to go on a scholarship.

To study Russian?
Yes, for one year.

How was that experience?
Difficult? No, not really. Russians had a very affectionate way to supervise students. Maybe it was my age, too. One is much more open-minded at that age to discovery and exploration.

There you met with people form the whole world…
Yes, real encounters. Moscow was a meeting place for a great number of nationalities. They came from many different African countries and also from Latin America, the Middle East, from Asia too, from Vietnam, Cambodia. And now and then, from the European Eastern countries as well. So, we were gathered there, the whole world on an equal footing. Living in Russia that way was very exciting. The contact with Russia was made very easy.

Did you visit other parts of the country?
Yes a lot. I did not have the kind of scholarship that allowed me to travel to Europe or Africa in the summer, so I went with the Cubans to the Black Sea in summer. In winter I went to ski resorts in the Baltic countries or to Georgia, or to Armenia.

And then you enrolled in the Institute for cinema (VGIK). It was in 1982.
Yes.

You have said that it was a surprise for you that they let you join the school.
Well, deep inside of me I wasn’t very surprised. I had constant doubts about that profession together with an unshakeable conviction that this is what I wanted to do. And it is that conviction which explains that I found it normal for them to accept me, that my ignorance of the cinema was not a defect.

They probably understood that you had a very personal contribution to make to the field of cinema. You have lived the kind of life few filmmakers experience.
Well, I do not really feel that I have things to say. I do not think such or such movie absolutely needs to be made. A film has no necessity. As long as it does not exist, it does not need to be made. Art is not the truth. I do not think creation has a mission to tell the truth. I am very aware that we live in an unjust world not engaged in finding the truth. I am aware that one can be totally destitute, and yet it is in that state of destitution that one finds human dignity, fundamental values. Today, something else is being imposed. So, I portray people nobody else would portray, but my intention is not to give them a voice, not to speak up for them, but to convince myself of the necessary frailty of human life. And also because I know that the fact that I left home did not save me or exempt me from anything. That the self-imposed exile is part of a family sacrifice. Someone leaves because someone else has to stay. The one who leaves is not better or worse than those he leaves behind. So that the one who leaves comes back to share what he has found.

I come back and help my younger brothers and sisters, as my elder brothers have helped me. And that always brings me back to my roots and basic education. I think of my father who was the first African to pilot a plane. He studied in the Military Academy in France. And what is extraordinary is that when he came back to be a pilot, my mother forbade him to fly. So, he became an engineer in meteorology. He held a position with great responsibilities in aviation. He is the only one in the family who had studied. His family made great sacrifices for his sake. Knowing that French schools offer more opportunities, he took his brother’s children to live with us. My family was never less than thirty-five people. Lots of sharing. So, you want attention, you ask for a bike. You will not get the bike but you will get a pat on your head. All these situations of sharing were part of my life.

When I go to Europe, I learn things that are enriching, that add to my life, but I never forget where I come from. I must not sever those links because I only exist through them. I must stay close to what I am and what I know best. So, that is why I seek to do a cinema where narration is not placid. Cinema for me is not a show, but a quest. I look for what I have in me. Something hidden that gets uncovered with my characters. Whether it is a quality or a defect, I will find it in me, I will find myself.

You have talked about the influence your family had on your filmmaking. What about other films or filmmakers?
I have liked some films. I am less attached to filmmakers. But I would say off the top of my head maybe… Antonioni, Visconti, Fassbinder, a film of Bergman, another of Cassavettes.

What about Russian cinema?
Yes, also I would say Tarkovski and especially my mentor in the Institute. He decided for me before I even became aware of my potential, he had immense trust in me, especially at the beginning.

Your first short film was Le Jeu. How did you come about to make that film?
It is a long story.

We have time.
The Institute of Cinema (VGIK) is based on a course of studies which involves the making of two films: the second and third year and then a final film in the fifth year which earns you a degree. So, I tried to make a film at the end of the second year. I wasn’t happy with my footage, so I did not edit it. My mentor asked me to but I said I did not like it. We had a long discussion and he gave me just an average grade which allowed me to go on to the next year.

The next year I reflected and started a second film. In both my films the central theme was the theme of “foreignness.” The rushes were even more disappointing to me. My mentor found it to be all right. But his way of saying it was not sufficiently convincing. So, I did not finish. But then I wanted to write the screenplay of my final film, the one which would earn me a degree, and I thought it had to be done in my country. It was Le Jeu; it had a vague screenplay in the same way the film was vague. No classic dramatic arc. The jury who was to decide found the screenplay unconvincing, and had no faith in someone who had not finished his first two films. It was my greatest disappointment in the Soviet Union. I had loved that country, I had known my first love affairs there, I had had joys and pains, I was part of that life. I thought that during those five years, I had given enough indication and proof that I loved my profession, that I was reliable and could be trusted to finish my final film. They wanted a guarantee that I would finish my film. My mentor tried to defend me but with less conviction than I expected. I was very hurt and ready to go back home with no degree. My family would feel that I had wasted my time although I personally did not think so. I told the jury that a screenplay is a screenplay, not a “guarantee.” And if that was the only guarantee they could accept, then I couldn’t possibly comply. I was almost expelled. Although it was a great sadness, about sixty people came to say good bye. But they finally let me go to Turkmenistan where I found a location similar to the landscape of my country and people close to my people to tell the story I wanted to tell. I came back, showed the film which was not well received.

You mean in Moscow, they did not like it?
No, apart from my advisor who defended the film. He saw something that so far I had not openly expressed, the desire to be a choreographer. Analyzing my film, he concluded that I could be a choreographer. Although the film had no choreography whatsoever. I took it as a great compliment. Even though the others did not like it, even though I did not get a good grade, I will remember this kindly.

But that film was well received in Cannes wasn’t it?
True.

And that was your first visit there?
When one does a film which earns you poor grades, the first reflex is to hide it. After Moscow, I never wanted to see it again. A friend from Burkina told me about the festival in Ouagadougou and encouraged me to show my film there. But I was reluctant to show a film I was ashamed of. I would rather wait until I was able to present a better film. My wife who liked the film also encouraged me. She said that my film was not understood in Russia, but that maybe it would be in FESPACO. So, I sent a telex to FESPACO —there was no fax at the time. I bought my ticket and went. FESPACO had responded but my film was not programmed. So, I just hung around. I was pleased to see so many filmmakers — African filmmakers. I wanted to see films but did not want to show mine. However, a Tunisian took my copy of the film and showed it one evening at a private gathering. And people started to talk about Le Jeu. Someone from Cannes, who was there, contacted me. And shortly after that, they asked me for a copy and then invited me to the Cannes film festival.

Was that an interesting experience?
It gave me the confidence I needed. Canal Plus bought the film, and I got a few awards. I started to write the screenplay for Octobre.

Unfortunately, I have not seen the film. It is about an African and a Russian woman.
Many people who are not filmmakers have experienced forbidden love between an African man and a Russian woman and have not told their stories. So, my story is also the story of many other people.

A feeling which is very hard to express is the sense of rejection, it is beyond racism — this disregard for other people. It’s a very strong and typical trait of Western culture. Not only Russia. But I was often asked after the screening whether Russians were really that racist. Europeans, it seems, prefer to think that it is “others” who are the racists.

But my point was not to talk about racism, it was more about rejection, about the disregard for others that paradoxically one finds in societies where you also find the most beautiful books, the most beautiful paintings, the best music, societies who have the monopoly over everything that is valued today. And yet this does not create universality. Those who are profoundly universal are from societies where knowledge is not a matter of quantifying data, where knowledge belongs with the oral tradition, with things immaterial and imperceptible. This open-mindedness was paradoxically given to me by my culture and not by those cultures which despised me precisely for my tolerance.

This is what I wanted to express and I believe that if one wants to denounce something it is preferable not to hit people with it, not to beat them up. One reaches people through a narrative form that is poetic or by creating an atmosphere. That is why in both those films Le Jeu and Octobre, although the themes in both films are different, I sought to create an atmosphere in order to denounce what seemed important to me.

I was the only one who believed in this film that I also produced. People rallied later. And it was only when the film was finished, when it was shown in Paris, that I understood that although I still lived in Moscow, my relationship with Russia was over. It was the end. I did not even go back to collect my shirts and pants. I sent a friend to recover my degree.

I organized a screening at home, in the courtyard. It started to rain. We went under the verandah. It was quite extraordinary. Everybody was there, my older brothers, my young brothers, neighbors. There they were, watching a film of atmosphere, in Russian, with sub-titles not everyone could read. But there was a great calmness, as if time had stopped and they were looking at ten years of my life unfolding under their eyes. My sister cried, seeing that I had been so unhappy. These are things which make you become aware of the importance of what you do, that people can be moved.

My French exile started on that day….