Saturday, June 18, 2011

Souleymane Cissé morning discussion hosted by Peter von Bagh

The School (Kitisenrannan koulu), Sodankylä, Midnight Sun Film Festival, 18 June 2011. In French, translated into Finnish by Katja Kukkola.

Q: THE FIRST FILM YOU SAW? It was a Western.

Q: YOUR CHILDHOOD, THE COUNTRY YOU LIVED IN THEN? It was French Sudan, and my family were poor workers, not political.

Q: EDUCATION? My family was very religious, profondement musulmane depuis des générations, but my father didn't forbid my going to school.

Q: DID YOU HAVE FAVOURITE READING? Mamadu and Bineta, lecture pour les primaires scolaires.

Q: YOUR WIDE AWARENESS OF THE CINEMA AND THE WORLD? We'll come to that later. But I had a very active childhood. When I was 12 we lived dans un quartier populaire. I am a person formed by work. I was active and mobile, and during a football game a fellow player jumped on my leg breaking my shinbone. I was three months in a hospital. In 1952 basic medical care was inferior, primitive. There was a plaster, a metal cage, and a draw bandage. When I was released it was the greatest relief in my life. Ça m'a beaucoup affecté, reconstitué ma vie. My mother was exhausted, she fainted and was paralyzed. It was a strange time of hiding things. I had to build my life anew. I could not make it to the exam, I had to quit school, I became a porter, and I studied at night school. I was a good trader.

Q: WHAT FILMS DID YOU SEE WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG? I saw American films, Arab films, Egyptian films, Hindi films, some rare French films, since 1945. Q: ANY FINNISH ONES? [Apparently none. But we heard how Aki had thrown himself in the feet of Souleymane Cissé in the forest and how Souleymane tried to outdo him in return.] Q: DID YOU HAVE A SPECIAL CALLING OR ILLUMINATION? No, and my education was not of literary culture. My passion: traverser des siècles. Every night I went to the cinema. J'ai resté cinéphile. I am a practical person. I do not have a wide literary background. Encounters and life have formed me. In the cinema I travelled through centuries, seeing two films a night for 25 years. The city has formed me. All this information you can find in the internet, too. Indian films made me cry, as did sentimental Arab films - and as did Mika's Mama Africa. We need to speak up. We cannot stay silent anymore.

Q: AFRICAN CINEMA: IT HARDLY EXISTED. I never felt like I'd become a cineaste, myself. Cinema was a source of happiness and discovery. I became politically active. I did not have much knowledge about the cinema but a desire and a passion to change things.

Q: THE TURNING POINT: MOSCOW. The process of independence in 1959-1960 was fantastic and also a little delicate as we were searching for the impossible. We only had a few engineers and teachers. I was very engaged and acted as a presenter and projectionist of newsreels. There were always lively discussions. The country was going forward to a new era. The young people started to organize. The most awesome experience was when I screened a newsreel about Patrice Lumumba being bullied. Personne ne respirait. C'était un moment très fort. That was the moment when I realized that cinema might be a medium even for myself. I have always fought against unfairness. Mali was struggling and was supported by Socialist countries. The Soviet Union granted 300 stipendia for students, and I received one of them.

Q: THE TEACHERS IN MOSCOW. I had a six months' grant to study cinéméchanique, to educate myself as a projectionist, then another six months to continue my studies, a year for cinematography and still five years to study film direction and cinematography. Altogether I studied nine years in Moscow. There was always a teacher to support me around the clock. I did not have time to pay attention to the drawbacks of the society because I was focusing so much on my studies. So I was formed. I received un permis de conduire dans le cinéma mondiale. We saw all the great films, the diversity, and we learned comprendre le monde. Tarkovsky finished his studies two years after I had started. Every night there was a cinematic event. There were also films that were "not necessary to see" but that were screened anyway. I learned to understand the social dimension of the Italian cinema.

Q: THE RUSSIAN FILM PEOPLE. I was absolutely dedicated in my own bullpen. We had different teachers, and Mikhail Romm was not officially my teacher, but when he taught, we hid in the lecture hall to listen to him. I had no academic background. I was filling my intellectual suitcase.

Q: YOUR FIRST FILM. My life is not interesting, but my films are worth talking about. In 1969 I was lost, nothing was available in Mali, there was hardly any equipment, only a couple of 35 mm cameras, and I had to run around for four years doing actualities and official work. Cinq jours d'une vie was a short film that won an award in Carthage, Tunis, but there was a sanction. C'était un crime de présenter un film dans un festival. I was reproached by the administration. "Where do you imagine you are, in Hollywood, in Mosfilm?" I needed an authorization. Den muso / The Girl was my first feature film. I wanted to do a feature fiction film, and for a year I tried to acquire a permission to shoot. I established an association and invited officials as members. In the airport, gendarmes were waiting for me. I was summoned in front of a tribunal and put for two weeks in prison after being kept three days in jail for interrogation. They accused me of an intention to sell the movie to Italians. African film people were activated, and all accusations were dropped. It was a social movie about a 15 year old girl who gets pregnant and commits suicide. All Mali saw the film. I still don't understand the commotion and the vortex of censorship, control and surveillance.

Q: YOUR CONTACTS WITH THE REST OF AFRICA. I had met Sembène Ousmane in Moscow and in Tashkent. There was a strong connection, and then FEPACI (Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes) was founded to bring together the whole African cinema industry. Then also the FESPACO (Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la Télévision de Ouagadougou) was founded. The demand for them was great. Then there was a great crisis in the 1990s. We really have fought, but the unwillingness to promote African cinema lives in ourselves.


Q: THE INTERNATIONAL DISTRIBUTION. Finyé / Le Vent / The Wind was my first film with a broader distribution, and the echo was positive.

Q: THE TOUCHY SUBJECTS, THE SUBJECTION OF WOMEN. With Den muso I wanted to study the subjection of women, and then I was left alone, I got more leeway. In The Wind I got to deal with things relevant to the military administration. I felt free to go all out against the military administration. I started to realize that my persona was the reason for the trouble. I had not asked for permissions. We are led by mediocrities. They come to step on our fingers and toes.

Q: HOW ABOUT ATTEMPTS TO COMMERCIALIZE, DO FORMULAIC WORK? That has not been my dream. That would be trop facile.

Q: HOW ABOUT THE CIRCUMSTANCES IN THE 1980S? With Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Abdoulaye Ascofaré, and Adama Drabo, we all had studied in Moscow. Others worked for the television.

Q: WAS THE AUDIENCE PROGRAMMED BY AMERICANS? There was only one cinema in Mali. It was for the privileged. You really had to be well off to visit it. On television there was Indian entertainment, Brazilian glamour, a rare American film, not many European films. Europeans distribute American films into Africa.

Q: THE AFRICAN QUALITY IS THE SENSUALITY OF THE IMAGERY. THE PURELY AFRICAN FILMS HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH THE NATURE, WITHOUT IMITATION, WITHOUT AMERICAN MODELS OF NARRATION. Many of our films are co-productions. There are so few films produced, yet I don't see all. There are a few films like that. But we deal with modern life, things have developed. Now there is no magic but accounts of everyday life in Mali. Je suis dans un étérnel conflit avec moi-même. I want to make un cinéma qui parle de la réalité de notre vie - pas si differénte de votre vie. In my early films I dealt with social questions, but I wanted to change and imagine a story (Yeelen). In the magical approach I wanted to transcend material details. Magic was a means to approach humanity. Yeelen is about the eternal conflict between father and son, the chain of problems that continues through generations. It is also linked with nuclear energy. When I met Martin Scorsese in a conference he told that for him it was a shattering film, un film de découvert, un film plus profonde que de la magie. We discussed it for two hours. We now have a sacred mission to rewrite Africa, but we are incapable to convey even a little bit to the world. There are trop des tabous.

Q: HOW ABOUT YOUR TEAM? I meet my team in Bamako every year. The administrative machinery is like concrete. 

[EXCERPT: FINYE / THE WIND] My cinematographer is Étienne Carton de Grammont. He was very young and sensitive and spent months with me. My films are very delicate. I cannot function on the run. My team has to understand first what we are doing.

WHICH FILM WOULD YOU TAKE TO THE DESERT ISLAND? Angel [Andrei Smirnov, SU 1967. Souleymane Cissé told he had seen the day before the end of the screening of the two-episode Nachalo nevedomogo veka. The last episode is actually Larisa Shepitko's Rodina elektrichestva. But Angel was the title that Cissé mentioned, and I think he must have seen it in Moscow at the time. The film was shelved and released first during glasnost, but as a VGIK student Cissé would have had access to screenings of unreleased films, as well.]

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