Universal Refugees: Interview with Cheick Fantamady Camara

Shot in video, in the style of a news report, the film Be Kunko (the original working title was Little John) begins with the arrival of refugees in a UN camp. But very quickly, the camera becomes more fictional as it focuses on the life of a small clan, a brotherhood. The fact is that if Be Kunko has this news report value, its intentions go beyond a specific situation. No time or place is mentioned by the way: the real story is the violence individuals internalize in times of war. The type of violence that messes up, haunts, obsesses and erases all structure and culture. The type of violence that brings more violence, crime, and the rejection of self. Girls are becoming prostitutes, boys are pointing guns at people.

Nevertheless, all of them still respect their grandmother with whom they engage in a hide and seek game imbued with humor. Her authority is safe even if everything is happening behind her back. The seedy character of Uncle Youl (who, on screen, disappears in clouds of smoke) – honest during the day, deceitful at night – is here to remind us that adults are the ones making war and using children for their own ends.

What is the point of bringing back such obvious questions? Because it is still very current in this day and age to deconstruct conflicts. Because it is important in a world that has lost its marks, to look with humanism at the humanisation resulting in the violence which has stained for more than ten years the area from where Cheick Fantamady Camara is and other regions in Africa and in the world.

No need to thrust forward great arguments, rather have a few individuals stand out in the midst of the televised images of refugee camps, eager to live their youth but bearing on their shoulders the weight of their displacement, of the world drifting, of the loss of their close relations. And let them live, laugh, speak, dare, search and lose themselves. It’s like a Nicolas Ray short, or like Rebel Without A Cause, with, as a new addition, the lust for quick money, all in all, a very current issue.

If Cheick Fantamady Camara’s second short film makes you really feel that the world is weighing you down, it’s because it bears the great mark of a film director, a mark already perceptible in his first short, Konorofili. He masters everything: the narrative benefits from the choice of cameras, sends a thrill of multiple shots, resonates with the gun shots as much as with the characters’ jokes and most of all, like in Konorofili, takes shape through the subtle way in which Camara catches and directs motion, the expressive movements of his actors or of the camera that he uses exempting his shot from lingering. For here nothing stays still. Everything follows the tragic rhythm of these young people made in the image of the Conakry gangs (cf. Mathias, Le procës des gangs by Gahitè Fofana and Kiti, Justice en Guinée by David Achkar) adamant in their teenage recklessness and a miniature version of the world, blowing up because they cannot live and killing themselves softly.

Barlet: The film is insisting on the fact that the UN-managed refugee camp remains a no-go area, inaccessible to the police where juvenile delinquents cannot be caught.

Camara: These teenagers find themselves in this no-go area because war has turned them into bad adults, into delinquents: without references and a future, their life is hanging on a thread. They don’t believe in anything anymore, not even in God. Knowing that they are protected within the camp, they do anything when they are in town. The United Nations cannot have a police officer follow each youth: war is at the root of their turmoil. They were robbed of their childhood and this has turned them into criminals and prostitutes.

This movie, however, is imbued with that ambiguity and raises the question of right in relation to the transgression of these young people as they face their grandmother’s values.

This Grandma represents African morals, but she happens to be in the same situation as the children: as a grandmother, she can only rely on her own laws, and she tries to protect her children. But when she sleeps, only God knows what they are doing. In spite of all her energy, she is unable to restrain them, no more than the UN can!

Barlet: But they deeply respect her.

Camara: Yes they do, because they have a culture. They are refugees, but they have been brought up. They want to have a decent living: own a motorcycle, pairs of jeans, commodities hard to come by in the camp. One has to steal or sell oneself in order to get these. Lacking structure, they can no longer be merciful. Real life is actually much worse than what the film is depicting. I am barely touching the surface.

Barlet: Boys have access to weapons easily. Are they so easy to get?

Camara: The Uncle Youl’s character is very ambiguous. He is two-faced; during the day, he’s a man in his 50′s whom everyone respects but at night, he’s a dangerous guy. He also uses the no-go UN zone as a cover to engage in arm trafficking. He’s a refugee who’s getting all these weapons from war-torn countries and has the young refugees sell them. Tom, who is selling for him, is not afraid of him and knows how to get through to him. Their relationship, their behaviour is really “African” – going from war to reconciliation – and the young refugees are very sensitive to that. Between Grandma and the children, each conflict is immediately followed by a reconciliation.

Barlet: From Kourouma to Adama Rouamba’s recent movie, the issue of children-soldiers is a popular topic. Why is it imperative to raise this matter in a confrontational way nowadays?

Camara: This topic still isn’t discussed enough. Back home, we have a saying: if you want to kill the tree, you must cut its roots or we say if you hang a snake by the head, the rope remains. In the film, we can see the huge and impressive infrastructures allocated to these refugee camps: why not, from the get go, invest all this money in the prevention of conflicts? Isn’t there some unseen dirty business going to prevent hotbeds from exploding into war-torn zones?

Barlet: One has to cut evil at its root.

Camara: Yes, that’s the meaning of my film.

Barlet: The film opens with a TV news report-sequence that presents the camp and then cuts to the fiction of the story. Were you tempted to shoot a documentary and in this case, what is the advantage of making a fictional film?

Camara: If this works effectively then there is a good thing for every bad thing that happens: initially, I did not want to make a documentary. It became obvious with the first cut that we didn’t have enough images. What we had edited was turning out to be the type of movie about delinquents one can see all over the world. I wanted to tie this with the U.N. camp. So we went back to shoot more footage and fill in the gaps without worrying so much about the script. The lack of funding forced us to shoot in video rather than in super 16 like for the rest of the movie. A new arrival of refugees allowed us to videotape the first scenes and the UN Refugee Agency, even allowed our actors to be in their trucks with the refugees.

Barlet: When you shoot in video, do you feel that you are compromising or on the contrary that you are using a tool?

Camara: It’s true that video is much cheaper and much less cumbersome, but shooting in video remains a choice: I would like to still have this option and to be able to use video or film. As for the image quality, it really depends a lot on the director of photography. Jean-Philippe Polo did such a good job that the difference between video and film is not so obvious.

Barlet: Young people show a great deal of both tenderness and violence towards one another.

Camara: Violence and tenderness are also very African. Granny is authoritarian and at the same time comforting, [she sends out] a kind positive violence and she receives love within that violence. However, in their situation, you have to add the legacy of the war they’ve experienced and that has pushed them to the extremes. So much that one of the boys, Tom, has lost all senses and kills without hesitation and for nothing. When one of the cousins, John (they all have the same grandmother) has difficulties overcoming a nightmare where he kills his own parents, Tom tells him he’s lucky to only experience this as a dream – because he committed this crime in real life. That’s a violent conversation.

Barlet: An African audience should feel very concerned.

Camara: Especially in our region: between the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Guinea is surrounded with wars. Violence is everywhere. People are deeply wounded, dead in their soul. Everyday, you live side by side with the murderer of your relatives: healing will not be easy.

Barlet: You did not want to give a specific location to this story.

Camara: It’s happening everywhere in Africa or elsewhere in the world. Refugees are the same everywhere. Grandma and the language are only manifestations of local colour, but this could also take place in Bosnia!

Barlet: Your movie was first called ” Little John”, as it revolved around a specific character. What made you go instead for a group portrait?

Camara: Although the four youngsters were in the original script, I still wanted the protagonist of the story to be John who despite all the violence he experienced, is still looking for a way out. Although he went through a lot, he still wants to see the end of it. He represses memories from his past but he broods things over and they surface in his nightmares. If we had followed the script, John would have been a character who managed to pull through. But because we were unable to shoot eight of the sequences, I had to rethink the story accordingly.

Barlet: Did you encounter any problems while you were in production?

Camara: As beginners, we have had tremendous production problems! I would be a coward if I did not talk about them since they have given me a great deal of grief. We are constantly facing people who are not real professionals, not even good salespersons. If the funds allocated to make the movie are used as an income, it’s going to show in the way the movie looks! My film has attracted a substantial budget for a short film (86,000 euros) including discounts from all the companies providing services but the total amount allocated was not used in the making of the film. In fact, I am still looking for more funding to finish my film. What will be the result of all that? Directors-producers, unfortunately.

Barlet: A part of the budget is kept for structural expenses.

Camara: Yes, but that’s included in the estimate. The movie was financed with 110% of the projected budget. Money did not go where it was supposed to go at 100%. Once funding was allocated, this funding for which we had fought without any producer escaped from our hands in the end once we signed contracts. We no longer had control. We were told that there was no money left, a lack of transparency as to where this money went, same old song. During the shoot, I held back, tried to limit arguments so that the images that we’ve shot exist. After we shot some scenes over with the video camera (without following the original script), I wanted to work with a particular editor… I asked to see the accounting to check that it was not possible, ready to look for the additional funds to hire her. Eventually, after a six-month jam, I found a new production company. It was the best solution.