In 1352, the Moroccan historian Ibn Battuta spent seven months at the prosperous court of the Emperor of Mali, Mansa Souleymane. The accounts of this journey contain the first written eyewitness testimony of the court and etiquette of this powerful state. Repeatedly, Ibn Battuta singles out one important individual at the court, one he describes as an interpreter who on special occasions appears in front of the Emperor. On such a day, surrounded by a group of women singers, he is seated and "plays an instrument that is made of reed with little gourds under it, and sings poetry in which he praises the leader and commemorates his expeditions and exploits." This detail-filled testimony confirms in writing what oral historians have always known and shared through songs: that the spoken word of epic poetry has been at the heart of Sahelian etiquette for centuries.
Mande griots, or jeliw, are the traditional keepers of this artform, responsible for recounting notable Sahelian events and collective memories during ceremonial or festive occasions, from weddings to child-naming ceremonies, national holidays to political rallies. Since the 1980s, their audiences have expanded globally to include international concert circuits. Jeliw in the diaspora continue to perform for their communities in New York, Paris, and elsewhere.
The exhibition Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara pays tribute to orality in Sahelian tradition, as well as its importance as a key source of information for historians today. Months ago, while thinking about the riches of the Sahel's visual narrative traditions, I became curious whether certain filmmakers in the region were positioning themselves as extensions of the griot's spoken-word tradition. I quickly found out that much has been written on the topic. Scholars such as Manthia Diawara and Mbye Cham, since the late 1980s and more recently, have considered these questions theoretically, addressing the possible parallels between cinema and orality as tools to transmit knowledge, as well as the respective roles of filmmakers and griots in the rewriting of history. They have also considered these questions through cinematographic forms of narrative and storytelling.
On February 20, 2020, The Met hosted a panel including two established women filmmakers from the Sahel: Rahmatou Keïta, from Niger, and Fanta Nacro, from Burkina Faso. The conversation was moderated by Mahen Bonetti, who is the founder and executive director of the African Film Festival, and me. Bonetti has been working tirelessly and passionately with her small but mighty team on the promotion of African cinema for thirty years. This article is produced in conjunction with that conversation.
Storytelling traditions in the Sahel
Griots, or jeliw, are bards who serve as narrators of oral traditions, history, and poetry. Their performances remain an important part of Sahelian culture. How present was this tradition in your lives and how did it impact your activities as filmmakers?
Fanta Régina Nacro:
For me, studying filmmaking was tied to how I used to tell and listen to stories as a child. Filmmakers certainly continue this tradition. It's an organic continuation, combining the African imagination with cinematography, and making it into a universal story.
Of course, I use the griot's methodology in my filmmaking. But there are various forms of storytelling in our cultures and I try to use all of them. I'm introducing the world to the Sahel—its wealth, its rich culture, its narrative forms, its imaginations unknown to the whole world, and the way we told stories in the form of tales.
I went to school for cinema in Burkina Faso, where Sahelian filmmakers and technicians were being formed and trained. Through the cine club, I started watching films from everywhere—you know, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and a lot of Westerns. And we had classes on cinema very broadly, from Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles to all the classic African filmmakers, such as Souleymane Cissé's early classic films, Ousmane Sembène, and Safi Faye. As an intern, I toured the country with filmmakers, and we always found that people were surprised at how we set up scenes with sadness and other emotions. They were shocked when we put lemon in an actor's eyes to make them cry!
Onions are better! [laughter]
We really saw the impact of modern techniques in a traditional society, and of bringing Western ideas to the village. The way we transmit stories to our children has changed with the advent of new technologies. Nowadays, people don't have that time for evening storytelling.
I don't use the word "tradition." In my films, I'm using modern methods, today's methods! But we still use our inherited methods, so they are not limited to the past. You know, "modern" does not mean a Western way of life. Modern means the contemporary world, and we are contemporary. In Western minds, the word "tradition" denotes the past, and they call the cultures of their past "folklore." But without our past, we can't exist! In the Sahel, we've managed to resist this trend, but I don't know how long that will last.
In my film Zin'naariyâ! (The Wedding Ring, 2016), there's a scene where everyone is searching for the new moon. A human eye can't spot a new moon on its very first day in the sky, because the moon is too small and the sky too bright; the way to find it is to look for its reflection in rivers or puddles. This is a privileged moment, when parents teach children about the stars and the constellations. It's a blessed moment full of love, tenderness, and intimacy.
As I filmed the sequences, I realized that the children who played the parts had never participated in this activity with their parents! All this beautiful poetry is disappearing.
Of course, we are not a stagnant or static culture. We use all these new methods and technologies to continue transmitting stories to our children. Cinema is really the right mode since it is said a single image is worth ten thousand words.
Transmitting Cultural History
Griots transmit knowledge from generation to generation. Every time a story is transmitted, it takes on new shape, and as such can be related to cinema and a director's interpretation of a story. The notion of transmission is central to your own professional path, your cinematic practice, and how you address your audience.
I was born and raised in Burkina. My imagination is based in Burkina and my audience is the Burkina Faso population. Those are the landscapes that I want to transmit. But I want all my films to have a universal dimension. Suffering is the same everywhere and a smile is the same everywhere. It is important for me that everybody can find themselves in my films.
What inspires me is the Sahel. I like the everyday of the Sahel—the rhythm of it, the lights of the day and the night. It's all very poetic and inspiring.
I am heir to the kingdoms and empires of the Sahel, heir of Sundiata Keïta (Mandigo Empire) and Askia Mohammed (Songhoy Empire) and the Fulaani's kingdoms of Macina. I am a direct descendant of these cultures and these aristocracies. Everything that has been transmitted through that lineage has constructed me as an individual. That's also what I transmit in my films: the aristocratic side of the Sahelian story.
I don’t want my films to have a firm ending—there has to be a reflection after it. That's why I really enjoy jokes. I use humor to talk about difficult, sad subjects. I did a film that addressed the AIDS epidemics called Le truc de Konaté (Konaté's Gift, 2001). That film has many humorous aspects, such as a man who dreams about a condom tree. I'm trying to disturb the traditions in some ways and to bring something a little bit out of place into the village. Humor helps you continue to think about a difficult topic without shutting it out.
I worked as a journalist in radio and TV, but quite quickly I wanted to tell stories that were close to my heart. The image of Africa in the West was wrong. When the colonizers came, they described us like barbarians with no culture, and for a long time we had no language other than despair. How could that be, while for me, the image of the Sahel is grandiose? I want people from Africa to have a place to tell our own stories. We did not have the opportunities to tell who we are, and it was tragic.
That is how history is destroyed. I decided to challenge this narrative through reality, beauty, and love.
The Beginnings of African Cinema
The history of African cinema is central to both your work. Rahmatou Keïta's Al'lèèssi … An African Actress (2004) is a documentary that focuses on the early days of cinema in Niger and presents a portrait of post-colonial African cinema. Fanta Nacro studied Film in Burkina Faso, a leading country early on in Africa's film industry. Your experiences with cinema in Niger and Burkina deeply shaped your work.
I remember as a child at the cine club knowing that people were making films very early in Niger. And then it kind of disappeared. I wanted to go back and look at that early history, which is how I came to make my first documentary feature, Al'lèèssi … . That was how I discovered that Niger was the first to have a cinema industry in Africa after Egypt, though it was not the first country to make films. I discovered that a director from Congo made a film in 1953, and another from Madagascar in '47. The Madagascar film disappeared during colonization. This film was probably about the tragic massacre of Malagasy, an episode of France's colonial actions in Madagascar, and we think the colonial government destroyed his film.
After the official end of colonization in the sixties, cinema students went from Africa to train in England and France. Russia also played quite a role in training African filmmakers—all students, actually. Some countries sent their students to Russia to study, and cinema was one of the popular subjects. Their biggest university, which is in Moscow, used to be called Patrice Lumumba University. Lumumba was a politician and an independence leader from Congo who was assassinated in 1961. He is a great hero.
Later, in the eighties and nineties, some young Africans had the opportunity to study cinema in the United States. We have our own cinema schools too: in Nigeria, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso …
Politicians in Burkina Faso had a desire to build something with cinema. They started a financial organization that showed international films in Burkina to fund film production within the country. With that money, they were able to train technicians and develop the industry. They also created the Institut d'Education Cinématographique de Ouagadougou (INAFEC), where I went to school. It was originally meant to be for all of West Africa, hosting students from Togo, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, and Niger, but progressively it became more focused on Burkina.
Burkina really took leadership with the film industry in West Africa through the schools. They also have the biggest film festival in Africa, FESPACO, every two years since 1969.
At first, it was a meeting of filmmakers.
Last year was the fiftieth anniversary. I was very proud to have been invited to be a member of the jury.
Women in West African Cinema
The Sahel is a matriarchal society. Many griots are women, and women traditionally have economic, political, and cultural power. Women have played key roles in the development of West African cinema. As women filmmakers, did you find you encountered particular challenges?
I've never felt segregated as a woman filmmaker in Africa. Never. I'm not sure that there is a specific hardship for women; it's just very hard for everybody. Most of the elders, who are men, have pushed me and encouraged me.
I also receive a lot of support. I started making films during the time of Thomas Sankara, who was a key political figure and President of Burkina until he was assassinated in 1987, and he really wanted to give economic power to women. He really encouraged women to take the lead in the country.
Cinema, as it is known today, comes from the West and came to us as male labor. When Western filmmakers started coming to work in Africa, they worked with men. One of the African directors I interviewed in Al'lèèssi … said that when they first started out they gave women bad roles—they were always traitorous, adulterous, manipulative, and evil women. In their desire to copy Western cinema, they took female roles directly from Western patriarchal representations within their cinema and culture.
In the Sahel, we are largely matriarchal societies. Therefore, very naturally, once this period of fascination for Western cinema has passed—for some—the women in a large majority of our films are presented as subjects and not as objects. These characters are at the heart of our stories as heroines.
Of course, my own personality plays a role in how I see things and how I address things. Ironically, my films have been described as having a "masculine" look. I mean, there are associations I work with as an activist to defend women's status, but that's not part of my identity as a filmmaker. I think of myself as an author, as a creator, who wants to tell universal stories.