INTERVIEW WITH MOUSSA SENE ABSA

Director of Madame Brouette

How did the story originate?

I was inspired by the life of one of my childhood friends. When I was young, I was teased for supposedly having a crush on her. I used to find wood for her and I was the embarrassment of my family! She was the darling of the entire neighborhood. She was the prettiest girl, the kindest, the gentlest…. She got married at sixteen, in a big ceremony, with a customs officer who covered her in gold. Two years and two children later, she was divorced and remarried to an insurance agent. Five years later, another divorce. Each new marital experience was with the "man of her life." The next one was with a businessman who was supposed to be different than the others....Two more chidren and… divorce! As for the latest guy, a rich businessman, he disappeared after the baby was born…I asked her what she would do if she ever met him, and she told me, "I’ll kill him." Her story really moved me. She had everything. She could have created a fine home. I began to write with her story in mind, and she had told me anecdotes about this man who was often drunk and very violent…

I wanted to explore the nature of love, discover why some people remain together for thirty years, and others just two months. Why certain women decide at 35 that they don’t want anything more to do with men! I wanted to paint a portrait of these women…

The African woman is at the heart of your films…

In my society, women do not enjoy much respect. They don’t really have a place and their role is often limited to that of producing babies. They endure abuse and humiliation. Often they cannot divorce because they are financially dependent. When they grow older and their bodies sag, when the man thinks they’ve made enough babies, he finds a second wife, younger, a virgin, and he begins another family with this newcomer! Many of my friends complain and refuse to accept this any longer. At thirty or thirty-five, they begin to become anxious. But they’re trapped. They’re caught in a sort of fish net. And if by some miracle they manage to get out, they are physically wrecked by multiple childbirths and cannot find a husband of their own age because he’s looking for someone younger without children…. Meanwhile, at age 30 or 35, they already have five or six! Their role is very limited by time. One cannot imagine them at seventy, and it has a devastating effect on the image of women and on all of society. Something must be said about this!

For me the woman is sacred. I compare her to a partridge. In the days of royal courts, the partridge was a sacred animal, used in mystical practices because it brought luck and happiness. This bird could not be eaten by just anyone. You had to deserve it. Like a woman. You must deserve her!

How do you see the role of a creator?

Personally, I make films as a matter of urgency. It is vital to be dealing with the real problems of our society. The cinema is a very important medium that can help us understand and solve the problems of our continent. "Development" is tied to the evolution of our mentality and everyone should have his or her place. But in a society like mine where women are so lowly regarded, I must bear witness. I must show the world this terrible, hidden face! I don’t like cinema of pure escapism. I think that before trying simply to please, the cinema should be a mirror in which my compatriots can see themselves and hopefully be moved to change! I am not trying to amuse people; I am trying to transform them by appealing to their collective unconscious. I would like for the men who see my film to leave deeply moved and when they return home tell their wives that they love them! The role of the artist in society is to provoke, to denounce. Take, for example, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, or Voltaire. Each in their own way brought forward certain values, which the French people could rely on to progress. That is the role of the creator. When you see children dying of malaria, a man beat his wife, or a corrupt politician, you must protest! The creator must be universal. He must reach what Senghor has called "l’enracinement et l’ouverture" (simultaneously setting down roots and opening up). It’s a bit like the baobab, this magnificent tree which lives off the sap provided by its roots. It’s all very well to use the leaves and the branches, but one must never forget the roots.

Why did you decide to film in French?

In the beginning I intended to shoot half in French and half in Wolof. I gave the cast the script in French and during rehearsals, little N’Dèye read her lines in French. I was surprised and when I asked her if she wanted to say them in Wolof, she answered: "I learned them in French; I can’t say them in Wolof. Why do I need to say them in Wolof?" And suddenly it clicked. I found that wonderful. This little girl of ten opened my eyes and showed me my cultural duality. African intellectuals live a duality that they often repress. They speak French among themselves, they dine in French, and they often live in France; but when they film, they shoot in their own language! As long as I write in French, I’ll shoot in French. I’m proud to be Francophone. That doesn’t mean that I can have a culture imposed on me…

What are your choices in direction?

For me, directing begins with the writing. If someone else films what I’ve written, and he’s faithful to the script, he’ll have made the same film as me 70% of the time. I love directing! Unfortunately, television has made us used to wide angles and reverse angle shots that destroy the cinematic writing. Personally, I use shots in sequence. I make a master in which I use one or two cuts. I prefer that the people move in the frame rather than have the camera move. Or, if it moves, it should take us to something pertinent. African cinema is often said to be slow, but I don’t think so. Does anyone complain that Fellini’s films are slow? No, yet he has very lengthy shots. But in his shots a thousand things are happening. Time is not the attribute of a culture. It’s a question of the look, the gaze.

Tell us about the aesthetic aspect of the film…

I see the décor as a character, and this character is just as important as an actor. The sets speak to us. I like cinema vérité, and I am inspired by reality. Even if the set is constructed, it isn’t just done for what the camera frames. When we constructed the sets on the Corniche road in Dakar, one of the government ministers complained in council that people were building a slum! But the sets must also carry the symbolism of the film, like, for example, this woman who pushes her wheelbarrow. This ties in with the visual element of women’s liberation. It’s a way of making the viewer aware of the subject.

For me, every film has a color. Madame Brouette is pink. Right from the start, we worked on this idea with the art director and the director of photography. I wanted to have the colors as faded as possible, while using the background as a sort of painting. In the end, creating a shot is like painting. I wanted to work with stains, yellow for the women, pink, khaki, brown, reddish earth colors, very faded, the colors of scrap metal, or bright blue in the snack bar, because we wanted to see the two women putting it on. The only color I never use is green.

Music is very prominent in your films…

When I tell a story, I like telling it with many different means: words, music, and a melody. But the music is not limited to instruments, it’s also voice. In Africa, the oral tradition is based on the sung word. So I use all these means and as in a Greek tragedy there is a chorus which represents at once a witness and the spectator. Here the chorus is played by the griots, those who in Africa transmit the tradition because it is the most efficient medium.

What are the benefits of co-production?

There is strength in union, as they say, and I believe a co-production should benefit everyone. And that’s the hardest thing. Djibril Diop Mambéty insists on the notion of territory. With the Canadian co-production I had access to the best professionals and to state-of-the-art equipment. First, I reworked the structure of the screenplay with the Canadian scriptwriter Gilles Desjardins. He contributed a lot. On the set I had the sound engineer, Philippe Scultety,--and I think I have the best sound that’s ever been done in Senegal—a script supervisor with an unerring memory, and Pierre Magny, an extraordinary assistant director, the Rolls Royce of his profession! The super professionalism of the crew allowed me to concentrate on the actors and on the directing. I must also add that Jean-Jacques Bouhon, the French Director of Photography, who joined the production on very short notice and for whom things weren’t always easy, gave us superb images, classics.

Can you tell us about the person to whom the film is dedicated?

The film is dedicated to Bertrand Chatry. He was the cinematographer who had shot my previous film. Unfortunately, he died three weeks before the filming was scheduled to start. He had become a friend. We were close. He had followed all the versions of the film. We scouted all the locations and did all the casting together. We could look at each and know exactly what needed to be done. No discussion was required. Losing him was very hard on me. Sometimes, I turned around and I could sense his presence nearby—we had thoroughly discussed all the scenes. His disappearance affected me greatly, and that’s why I dedicated this film to his memory.

Source: La Fête Films, 2002

Translated by Michael Dembrow

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