Picking Safi Faye’s Thoughts: An Interview
Described by Françoise Pfaff as a “strong-minded and outspoken yet amiable woman possessing a keen sense of humor,” Safi Faye believes that a structure must bear the signature of the film. Although she is careful not to criticize her counterparts in other African film practice, she does allude to the differences separating her from them in matters of technique and ideology.This interview was conducted in French and translated by Kathryn Lauten. It has been extracted from the book: Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers by Frank Nwachukwu Ukadike and Teshome H.Gabriel. Also SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen the films and don’t wish to know major details.
You are the first black woman to make a commercially distributed feature film?
Yes, Kaddu Beykat was made in 1975 and it is my first feature-length film. The film is one hour and forty-five minutes long. I experimented with both content and narrative style, and you can find in it a mixture of fiction and documentary styles.
You have made history, then, in being the first black woman to make a feature-length film.
Actually, I am the first black woman to make any films-I did a short film in 1972.The title of the film is La Passante, and it is only ten minutes long. Am I the only woman, the only active black woman in feature film making in Africa today? Surely I am not! A lot has changed.
How many feature films have you made to date?
My real feature is Mossane, which was completed recently; and it is also a fiction film. Before that, I made two other features, both mixtures of film and documentary. They are Kaddu beykat [Letter from the village, 1975] and Fad’jal [Come and work, 1979], which was one of the films selected for the 1979. I have made many short films and several feature-length films that juxtapose with documentary, as I stated before, but Mossane is completely fiction.
Kaddu beykat is a very powerful film that deals with economic, historical, social, and political situations. It is also an ethnographic film and makes a powerful critique of the Senegalese system. What inspired you to make this film?
As a young woman I was very enthusiastic about documenting the lives of the peasant community, the farmers, where I come from. I wanted to film their preoccupations, to tell their stories. They live in this world like any other people; they are happy, maybe, but not often. In their society, they can live only if they can cultivate their lands. But they face two handicaps— the problem of inadequate rainfall, which causes drought, and that of government exploitation. I felt I must tell their stories my own way— through film. When I was doing my fieldwork and examinations in ethnology for my second degree at the university, I gathered a lot of research materials and resources in the community.
When I began to work on my findings, I found that, following all discussions of political problems, people were also very interested in talking about ethnology. When I completed that study, I put aside the information on economic problems and used only my ethnologic themes, for example, the “primitive” (read: traditional) religions before Catholicism and Islam. That was the theme of my thesis. One day I realized that I could use all the sociological and economical information I had gathered to make a film. So I created a little fictional love story between a man and a woman who could not be married and happy because of the worsening economic situation in their country. That was the beginning of Kaddu beykat, which does not quite mean “Letter from the village,” as has been translated in some sources, but rather paroles, or “words of the farmers.” I did, however, introduce a letter into this to show the world and to emphasize what their lives are really like.
You just mentioned your training as an ethnologist and anthropologist. That shows in all of your films through your careful observation and how you apply your research. Your films are different from Western ethnographic films about Africa. In making your films, how do you stay back to let the action happen uninterrupted and to let the camera capture that action? That is one of the greatest attributes that makes your films so powerful.
Actually, it is difficult to say. Maybe it is my kind of writing, or my sensibility. Each filmmaker has his own sensibility. For me a film has to have a particular structure or distinctive hallmark. Sometimes it is hard to explain how that structure was realized or how the entire film was made. Ideas come in a flash and so does the creative impulse that drives the whole initiative. It also depends on the circumstances surrounding the making of the film. I may be reacting this way because I had to fight a lot to save my last film, Mossane, and now I have no more ideas. I am afraid to make films again. Before I had a lot of ideas. I am sure, though, that all the films I made happened because I admired and liked the people and like to show that via the film medium.
You are a member of the village so you are looking from inside as opposed to other people who look from the outside, at what they call “exotic cultures.” That is the difference that separates your films from, for example, the films of Jean Rouch.
Yes, but also other African filmmakers could make films like me, but they are preoccupied more with cities and towns than the places of their origins. I don’t like the city.
Your film Kaddu beykat concerns society. You made an honest assessment of the society, but the film was banned in Senegal. Why?
It is because of how the farmers told their stories. They said it was true that governments cheat on them when they come to buy their produce. The government was embarrassed and did not like being exposed. So the criticism made the government censors intimidate me by ordering me to cut two segments of the film. One segment is the sequence where the children played. In one scene the children narrate how they saw the government officials arrive to collect money from their parents. For some parents, this is a humiliating experience, and when the government officials arrive to harass them they would ask the children to leave home and go elsewhere to play.
Another part they asked me to cut concerns what happens when the government buys the goods from the peasants. They pay a certain compensation for the cash crops bought, but it is only when the farmer returns home that he finds out from others that the government took advantage of his lack of education and gave him less than the agreed-upon amount. The censors insisted that I eliminate these two sequences but I refused to comply. I make my films alone without government money, and I find it unacceptable to comply with government censors who want to cut my film so as to cover the atrocities they have committed against their own people. I believe in the stories my people told me and for me, that is the main issue. But this is all in the past, because for my last film never before has the government of Senegal put up so much money to support an independent production. It shows how people and governments can change.
When I met with you at the 1995 Pan-African Festival of Film and Television of Ouagadougou, your first time at the festival, you said you stopped in Senegal on your way to Ouagadougou to receive an award. So the government finally recognized you after so many years?
Yes, the award coincided with the preparations for the Women’s Meeting in China, which started in Senegal. They had to congratulate one woman, and it was I. The year 1995 marked the first time that I attended FESPACO. I had not participated since its inception because of the choices I had to make— to be a filmmaker yes; to be a mother, yes; to pursue my work on anthropological studies, yes. And if I want to support my daughter who is now studying at a university in England, I have to be careful regarding how I manage my affairs. All these things control my life. I want to succeed at the choices I make. If I do these three things at the same time, I must eliminate certain things such as festivals and many other activities, which is why for twenty years I never attended any festivals. It was my choice not to attend FESPACO. But in 1995 I received a special invitation to attend FESPACO and to receive a meritorious award given to me by the Organization of African Filmmakers, which I was mandated to accept. It was a great honor.
How do you do everything you do— so well? To combine motherhood with your other jobs? The problem of shooting films and doing postproduction work must be very difficult for you.
Yes, it is. If I cannot do all the things that I plan to do, I am never satisfied. And I want to be satisfied. I try to be satisfied. For me there is no confusion making movies and all the rest. I am not lost inside. I always manage to a way out. When my daughter was three years old, she could read because I devoted a lot of time to teaching her. I was a trained teacher in Senegal before I left my country for a temporary absence. It also worked to my daughter’s advantage because she was always taking place in her classes. Similarly, when I make films I also try my best to accomplish certain goals. I must state that choosing to make films before any other black woman was easy for me. First I studied at a very prestigious film school, Louis Lumière, in Paris. After I received my diploma I realized that I had some expectations and I said to myself, “I’ll try.” Suddenly a black woman is making films. At that time it was less difficult because there were a lot of possibilities. I got a lot of attention and admiration because I was the first woman of my time to use the camera. The only film where I had problems is Mossane. But before that I always got an immediate yes to my requests for funding.
What is the problem you had with Mossane? I know it took a long time to make this film, and you were very angry about your working relationships when I asked you about it at the 1995 FESPACO.
I don’t know if it is necessary to give the whole story. Anything can happen at any point during one’s lifetime. When I decided to make the film, which I conceived as my biggest film, it was because I was convinced I could do it competently. But something happened and the film did not materialize according to plan. I got enough money— about seven million French francs— to make the film; however, the total amount was eight million. I raised almost all of this money single-handedly. The financiers liked the project and provided the funds. They were also confident that I could handle the project well. However, it is not always possible to make and also do all of the accounting. So I entrusted that aspect of the production to a Frenchman who was not honest. He took my money, my rights, and the rights of everyone who funded the production. What saved the film— and I will never forget it— is that I shot every part of the film in record time in 1990. For that I am happy because if I worked like other African filmmakers who would shoot some sequences today, then wait six months to shoot more, and then another six months to shoot the rest, I would not have been able to complete the film. How could I have completed the film with the actress? She was fourteen years old when we shot the and by the time everything was done, because of the delay caused by the litigation, she was twenty when the film was released. I finally got my rights back in I don’t want to dwell on what happened. I am happy that the film turned out to be good. I am satisfied with it. But it was a lot of work, not an easy task working day and night on one project in the middle of other life problems. When so much work goes into a it shows in the product.
Your films pay meticulous attention to womanhood; how you foreground women’s lives and how, through the characters, the viewer experiences vignettes of culture attests to women’s contributions to society.I know you have said that your films are not only about women but about all of society.
No, no! Because women alone cannot live in Africa. Women live in a community, and I cannot eliminate the community. This is a reflection on me: I cannot live without my people. I cannot separate out an individual. But this is typical of African cultures. You cannot live alone; you can’t do it because a big family, a big community, is all around you.
In Ferid Boughedir’s Camera d’Afrique: Twenty Years of African Cinema, you talked about your filmmaking experience while holding a Muslim prayer bead.
I don’t remember that, but I am a Muslim; my father is a Muslim, his brother is a Catholic, and his uncle is an animist. All of the religions can live together— the most important thing is belief in one’s faith.
I think you are a bridge uniting all these differences. As a woman, carrying a camera, going to a village to film, how do you coordinate all of the things you do?
Because I know what I am doing. When you cannot get what you want, it is because you do not know where you are going. Before I say, “Shoot,” I know where I am going, and I do it very quickly. It is just the way I approach my work.
What inspired Mossane? And what were you trying to achieve?
“Love” is what I say to everyone who asks me this question. I wanted the most beautiful woman to be an African girl. In this case the girl is fourteen years old; she is pure, she is innocent, and she looks as if she does not belong to this world— because she is too beautiful. The entire world loves her, including her brother. She is so pure and beautiful, but she cannot stay in this world because the spirits who died or departed long ago will come back to take her. The beginning point was a legend affirming that every two centuries a young girl is born whose beauty is such that she can only know fatal destiny. Mossane belongs to this group of people.
Is this taken from a real story?
No, I created everything. It is a fictional story.
The way you treated her brother’s sexual advances toward her was not exoticized. That was cleverly integrated into the narrative.
It is because I like punctuation in my films. The film is about Mossane, which means “beauty.” All of those things happening in the plot are punctuation, nothing else. And when you have those points of punctuation, you don’t have to make the story about those points. My story follows Mossane’s development as an individual who is lovable. I love her. I created this character.Her brother could also be in love with her, like I can be in love with her, because she is supernatural, ethereal. The point I make is that anybody, woman or man, can love her. I wanted to get that point across.
Her death was tragic, and if she is so much loved, do you think it is justified that she died a violent death?
Yes, like I said before, she is supernatural. She does not belong on this earth. Nobody knows why she is so supernatural. She has parents all right but she is still unique in this world. Nobody can touch her. Somehow she is inaccessible, and I like inaccessible beings. That comes also from my experience as an ethnologist.
She dies when she is kept from marrying the person she loves. Is this a criticism of society? Are you suggesting that the practice of arranged marriages is outdated in Africa?
Everybody is free to make his own interpretation of the film. For me, I say that she doesn’t belong to this world, and nobody can touch her. She has her destiny. I remember that in my script, I wrote that she is going to follow Fara the student, and when the university reopens she attempts to meet him. The obstacle separating them is the river. She has to cross the river alone, but spirits live in the water, it is believed in my country, and a spirit took her to another destination. My sense of creativity, though, is to let the audience imagine what the images signify. It is not necessary to make everything explicit for the audience. They have to think. Creativity invites such thinking; that is why I create.
Is that why you didn’t quite show clearly how she died? We are left to assume many things, such as whether she drowned on her own or whether someone murdered her.
Traveling alone, she heard some voices— voices of the spirits, which frightened her. She drifted into the woods and began to cry. In my conception it is the spirit that took her, because this girl didn’t belong in this world. She had to go back with the spirit to become a member of the spirit world. And maybe she will come back one day looking for the most beautiful man on earth.
Another interesting way you present culture is in your depiction of black sexuality. You depicted the lovemaking sequence in a way unusual for African films. I liked how it was shot, but it may be too controversial for some Africans, including your colleagues.
Some people may see the lovemaking scene as too explicit. I do not think there is anything unusual. Every married man and woman makes love at home. When things are beautiful, when the body is beautiful— and, yes, Mossane is beautiful— I show them as beautiful. As if it is expected to happen, and the audience knows it will happen, why can’t the couple be shown having intercourse? When I chose to present such a scene I aspired to present it as beautiful and as pleasing as possible. The president of my country saw the premiere of the in Dakar and he told me that people make love and that there is nothing wrong in depicting lovemaking in especially regarding how I constructed the scene.
The scene was well shot. The lighting and the serene atmosphere contributed to its splendor. What kind of a crew do you use? Do you use African technicians?
The technical crew is all German. I made my name in Germany before France. I lived for a long time in Germany, teaching at the university and so forth. When I wrote my script and sent it to my financiers in Germany, they immediately suggested that Jürgen Jürges [Fassbinder’s acclaimed cameraman, considered one of the best of his generation] should film Mossane. After he became interested in the story, Jürges pointed out to me that both of our daughters were thirteen years old, and we could put all of our affection for our children on Mossane. That comment contributed greatly to the harmony of our working relationship. We filmed the little girl like a genie to inject into the character all of the mysterious aspects you can only see in a child at this age. A child changes a lot between thirteen and years old. You can experience those characteristics in Mossane throughout the fifteen film.
Do you think African cinema is in a crisis?
I think it is difficult to make now. I am no longer ready to make a like Mossane. It is my last big because I do not want to be destroyed anymore. If something bad should happen to me, my child will lose everything. I was very depressed over this film because of a number of bad experiences culminating in a series of financial and legal disagreements. It was like a dream for seven years as I waited and waited for the justice system to rescue me. If I didn’t have my whole family, my community with me during this painful period, I would have perished. They were the ones who knew how sad I was during those years and they were the ones who gave me the encouragement to keep going. I am sure I could not have taken all of those pains alone. They too shared a little part of that sadness. They saved me.
Have you shown Mossane in a public theater?
No. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival for two consecutive years, but I still have a lot of production costs left to pay. I need money to pay for postproduction, including the costs of making internegative and interpositive prints, as well as some other expenses. At this time, we have only two prints made. Mossane has not made me financially solvent as yet, as there is also a lot of lab work to pay for. I am expecting to settle all the bills and to be able to make more copies for distribution. However, Trigon-Film in Switzerland, who contributed to the production fund, organized a commercial screening of in November 1996 that is still going on to this present day [September I was there to present it.To make it worthwhile commercializing the Trigon paid to make three copies. My distributor in Africa is Ousmane Sembene, who is really great. He promised to begin the distribution and exhibition in October The German exhibition will also begin in October.
Would you consider putting Mossane on video to sell it to universities in the United States?
I don’t know. I won’t rush into anything, because this has made me afraid. I had planned for the shooting of this film to be completed in and it wasn’t until the film was ready for screening. Destiny is at work, maybe. Perhaps it is better for me to wait. People can inquire about the film or offer proposals for acquisition, but I will exercise some degree of restraint. Remember that I created the story and invented the spirits; nobody can see spirits or represent spirits, so when you show them in a film, maybe the spirit will find a way to bring something good for the future. For me, spirits do not belong to this world, and if they come, heads must bow.
Yes, but a spirit can also make us ascend to a level we didn’t think possible before.
Yes, I agree! I think that the spirit that I venerated in my film gave me back my rights.
Because of the energy and time of putting this film together, there must be a way to find a channel of distribution for it. You know Haile Gerima. His film Sankofa made a lot of money because he organized its distribution through the help of many people. The film showed in major cities, and after that, he put it on video. I bought a copy myself. I think that strategy could also work in your case.
I am optimistic that Mossane could make money because it is a nice Haile Gerima. His distribution company, Mypheduh Films, distributes my beykat in the United States.
I tried to rent Kaddu beykat some time ago but I was told that the print is in bad shape. That is one of the reasons I suggested having Mossane and the other films you made on video.
You are making a good proposal but I have to clear impending debts. I was glad that after the rough cut was shown to some guests last December  it was predicted that this film would go to Cannes, and it did. For that and other reasons, I think I should wait for the right distributor to handle the film. I will not give the to any distributor without getting a twenty-thousand-dollar deposit up front. I need this money to pay the bills. I am only asking for a fair amount. All of my are still out there in distribution— some of them twenty years after they have been made, and I am sure Mossane will be universal and eternal. For that, I can wait.
How was it received at the Cannes Film Festival?
Mossane was received as the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival and for its world premiere. I was elated. I went to the Cannes Film Festival with my daughter, and she witnessed the whole thing. She saw her mother destroy what I would call the myth of the stupidity of filmmaking. For me it was a special occasion and a special occasion for the government of Senegal, who sent high-level government officials to witness this event. The government was glad that my film made it as Senegal’s official entry to the festival. The president gave me his full support. Ousmane Sembene threw in his weight, too.
What is your source of influence?
I don’t have a specific influence. I work from my own sensation. I like to be alone. I like silence. It is only my child who cannot disturb me, but other people can disturb me.
What do you think about African cinema?
I cannot talk about that. Sometimes when there is an African showing, I pay my way to experience the film. If I happen to meet the I don’t admit I saw the film because I don’t want him to ask me what I think about it. I think there are some differences demarcating my work from theirs. It could be that I have great self-confidence.
What do think about FESPACO?
I do not normally go to FESPACO. The time I participated was in and the second time was this year, and only because Sembene told me, “You must show your film, you must put your film in competition.” As you know, I prefer to be alone; I don’t belong to any group. For me, three days here at FESPACO is enough. If I could have changed my ticket today I would have left, but I was told it was not possible to change it. I like the generosity of the organizers. I appreciate that, but I don’t like festivals. I do not envy the structure of the organization of FESPACO. In short, I don’t like festivals except in some exceptional circumstances.
You display a lot of rituals— matrimonial rituals, dances, ghosts, and sensuous feasts of young women— in the film that people who do not know much about Senegalese culture may not understand.
It is interesting how people marvel about all the things happening in this film. When I showed it in Paris and invited my former professors of anthropology and ethnology to see the film, they admired the creative imagination involved in the realization of those images. Of course, they understood them to be images which I invented, but some people think the story was real. One of the professors said to me,
“Ms. Safi, you know this is the origin of myths. In twenty years, people will still say this is the myth of Safi Faye.” All the same, the images are not realistic.
This is again what is unique about your film structure. You have a unique way of juxtaposing fiction with documentary to create the kind of myth you are talking about.
Yes, you are correct. But if you make making films and you cannot create, then you must stop making films.
Doesn’t that describe some of the problems we are seeing in African films?
I am not competent to comment generally on the issue because I don’t see a lot of African films, but I think that in any one film a new image must be created. As they said in Cannes in reference to my spirits, never before has a person created on this kind of vision of humans. Critics also admired the music, the warm and lively colors, and the sensuous nature of the For me, the head must think and create. If not, you are like any other filmmaker.
I saw that a number of agencies, including television, were involved in funding the project. Doesn’t it bother you that when the film is shown on television that you may not be able to control piracy, especially since it has not been widely distributed commercially?
The will be shown on Channel in England, Arte in France, ZDF TV in Germany— all of whom financed the along with some other television networks. On the question of piracy and illegal duplication, I have a lawyer and a contract, but it is true that no television station can control satellite broadcasts. Regarding my earlier problems, the mistake I made was that I did not have a lawyer when I started the production. At the time I was advised that it was not necessary to hire a lawyer because it would be too costly. Actually that would have meant hiring three lawyers, each of them taking charge of the legal questions that might have arisen in France, Germany, and Senegal, respectively. I learned my lesson. If I had lawyers from the beginning, I would not have had the problems I had for these past or six years. But I learned a lot from these mistakes and from this film. When there is so much money involved, as with this project, there is a tendency that your trusted associate will try to steal from you. I will never make that kind of mistake again.
This kind of affirmation is frequently heard among African filmmakers. Often they say they will never make films again because of bad experiences they had and the problem of working as an independent. But because of their reputation, they are forced to make more films. So I am hoping that pressure will come one day to say that the woman who made this beautiful film, Mossane, cannot stop making films. She must be given full support.
I will tell such a person to bring the money, take control of the legal aspects, give me my rights, and I will prepare the film’s scenario and shoot it. All the people who gave me money to make Mossane know me, and they know my work. I am grateful to them all. I am not planning to start looking for money for a new because money is dangerous. The more you find the money, the more a lot of people will come behind you and, believe it, you may not know who the unscrupulous individuals are.
I talked to you before about Selbé, which is doing very well in the United States.
The film was commissioned. It was coproduced by UNICEF and Faust Films Production [Munich]. I directed it and it does not belong to me. People tell me I did a good job on that do get payment from it. Everybody likes Selbé. It won a special prize at the Leipzig Festival in Germany. The people who commissioned it wanted a woman to make the film, and I 1983 filmmaker film.
I still think you must try to explore distribution possibilities in North America.
I say, let Mossane have its own way. I can’t say I want this or want that, but I can’t continue to suffer. I believe that after six years of uncertainty the time has now come for me to reap the fruits of my labor. For me, in my head, Mossane is done, and you don’t know how happy I am.
La Passante (The passerby) 1972
Kaddu beykat/Lettre paysanne (Letter from the village) 1975
Fad’jal/Arrive, travaille (Come and work) 1979
Goob na nu (The harvest is in) 1979
Trois ans et cinq mois (Three years months) 1979
Man sa ya/Moi, ta mere (I, your mother)1980
Les âmes au soleil (Souls under the sun) 1981
Selbé et tant d’autres (Selbe: One among many) 1982
Ambassades nourricières (Food missions), Elsie Haas
femme peintre et cineaste d’Haïti (Elsie Haas: Haitian painter and maker) 1985
Racines noires (Black roots) 1985
Tesito, Mossane 1996
Safi Faye certainly has strong opinions and as you realize from this interview an integral part of African cinema. Any thoughts on her opinions and films she has mentioned?