AfricAvenir Interview with Director Camille Mouyeke (Voyage à Ouaga), 16 May 2011, Windhoek

Camille Mouyeke & Christian Mahnke

Director Camille Mouyeke was born 1962 in Congo. He studied Cinema at the University of Paris VIII and obtained a Masters in film school in 1993. He made many short films, like “Police Violence” (1993), “The Fire Proof” (1995), and “The Mavericks” (1998), before making “Voyage a Ouaga” (2001). “Voyage a Ouaga” was his first feature film and was part of the official selection at FESPACO 2001. It received the Audience Award and Special Commendation from the European Community, at the 2001 FESPACO.

He currently is in Namibia for his next feature film, to be shot in Namibia in 2012. AfricAvenir had the chance for an interview with the Congolese filmmaker. The interview was conducted by Hans-Christian Mahnke.

AfA: Dear Camille, can you tell us a bit about your current projects? You are currently developing a cinema project called “Namib Cinema” in the city of Point Noire, Congo, in a country where all official cinemas have been closed since 1984, since 26 years! Can you give us some background on this project?
CM: The general problem of the absence of a cinema doesn’t only concern Congo, but also other African countries alike. While we had cinemas in our cities, now former cinema places are rented out and become churches, market halls etc..

The current problem in Africa is that a movie from Senegal is only seen in Senegal. A movie made in Burkina Faso only seen in Burkina Faso. A film made in Namibia is only shown in Namibia. To show an African movie only in the country of its origin is too short-sighted. The films do not travel outside the country.

It is true, filmmaking takes time and resources, and hence one needs to seek funding from external sources outside Africa. But a local industry exists. The film industry is an industry with specific chains of productions. First comes the artistic phase, then the actual creation of the production, and in the end, distribution.

For too long we have only been talking about distribution. All practical efforts have been put into production, not into distribution. So my idea to create a cinema in Pointe Noire is to answer to this call and find solutions for distribution chains, to find answers to the need of distribution, to start to develop distribution.

First I want to start with building one cinema in Pointe Noire, with a couple of auditoriums. Later on the basic idea is to create a network of distribution spaces, in the form of three to four cinemas in each sub-region of Africa, three to four in West Africa, three to four in East Africa, three to four in Southern Africa, three to four in Central Africa. By this you would create a distribution network, allowing filmmakers to distribute their movies beyond their own boarders, into these cinemas. By this way, I hope that the filmmaker will benefit financially and that he can use this money to reinvest into new productions.

AfA: How do you see in general the ability of film as tool to benefit levels of development of a country, it’s cultural reconstruction,  progress, and eventually prosperity? And how do you see this in particular in the case of Congo?
CM: I strongly believe cinema and the film industry in general can participate in building a country, and contribute towards prosperity, because it creates jobs. And while you are working on a production, you are earning money which will be injected into the national economy. Just to give the example of Nigeria. I went to Lagos recently and discovered that the Nigerian film industry is producing a benefit of 7 Billion US-Dollars per year just with national distribution within Nigeria alone.

I think if we look at the economic aspects of filmmaking, that the film industry creates jobs and brings food on the table, we have to realize the fact that people working in the industry reinvest their income in the local economy. Acknowledging this fact already creates a positive image of its own and also helps people to reconstruct their culture.

And, the fact that you create your own cultural images will help countries with such difficult histories like South Africa, Burkina Faso, Chad, Congo, Namibia etc., to heal, because culture brings people together, much more than any policies and politicians succeed to do.

But in the case of Congo I must say that we lack cultural policies to use film in such a way now. Film won’t have an immediate impact, since it was neglected for too long. Surprisingly compared to literature and theatre, cinema in Congo is dead since 30 years. The first and last feature was done in 1979, “La Chapelle”. After “La Chapelle” I myself was the last Congolese to get a scholarship from the government to be trained in cinema and to go to study film.

After I had left Congo to study film abroad in France - Congo at that time found itself in a specific historical transition period – a national film body was created. But I knew, upon my return, I would have to be not only a film director, but also a distributor, administrator etc. I had to become a jack-of-all-trades concerning every aspect of filmmaking.

So parallel to cinema, I studied business, to learn all aspects of the economics behind filmmaking.

After I had finished my studies I went back to Congo in 1993, but the old communist regime had collapsed after 1990. Ending a long history of one-party Marxist rule, a national conference in 1991 was held and laid the foundations for the introduction of a multi-party-system in Congo. The transitional process was not smooth and the country encountered several severe challenges. So I arrived back in a country which had no jobs to offer, no salaries to earn, and I went back to France. Instead of wasting my time in Congo, I decided to go back to France and build a network, which one relies on especially in the film industry, in order to make use of this network at a later stage in Congo. But then my personal life changed, I fell in love in France, and decided to stay.

AfA: Can you tell us a bit about the industry in Congo? Is is viable for someone to make films in Congo? Or to be an actor?

CM: In 2001 I went back to Congo. For two years I worked in the area which had to be the first priority: Training. I obtained a fund from the OIF (Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie) and focused on training youth in the field of filmmaking. For this group of youth there were immediate results. One started to study film in France. And out of the group, three or four have realized three to four feature films, one of them premiered in Cannes this year.
During my time back in Congo I established the production company Hortense Films, where the youth were trained on the job, in the field of directing, script-writing, technical skills, and administrative areas. Those trainees took this knowledge from this training experience and created their own companies. So in a way, they copied my model and were successful with it. The companies which followed Hortense Films still exist today and are operational. Since they didn’t have any formal training in film or scholarship opportunities, they learnt the industry hard way – learning by doing. I am quite proud of the pioneering experience and the skills Hortense Films produced.

In 2006, to give an example, all those companies who followed as off-spring of Hortense Films, raised funds amounting to 100.000 Euro which then were used and invested into the Congolese industry.
But in general, to make a living from being a film director in Congo is still not easy. The situation is better for actors and technicians, though.

AfA: What is the relationship between the film industry in Congo and the Congolese public?

CM: It is difficult to establish the relationship between the film industry and the Congolese public, because there is no specific space for cinema. When a film is shown, it is shown for specific audiences only and or on special occasions, at Foreign cultural institutions etc.. It is hence difficult to measure the real impact and the relationship. Furthermore the economic impact cannot really be established, e.g. via the entrance sales. There is no regularity, no habit of the public to see Congolese movies. A majority of Congolese never have seen a Congolese movie. There just don’t have access to it.

Parallel to the fact that there are only a few Congolese who have access to Congolese movies, there just is no screening culture in our country, like in a lot of African countries.

There exists something called “Cine Clubs” in Congo, which are illegal and informal video-renting and screening places.

Here our children in Brazzaville watch films which are not African, not educative, with pornographic or violent images, most often shown from pirated dvds.

This makes it difficult to teach the young generation of video clubs to appreciate and understand African film language and its images. It also makes it difficult for this youth to select appropriate film products.

AfA: What kind of exhibition models to you foresee for the future for your country, where there hasn’t been an established cinema for nearly 26 years?
CM: I think the first thing is we need it to adapt to technical developments. We experienced difficulties in the past, because we maintained to screen from 35mm projectors. We have to forget 35mm. Forget it. Think only about the cost implications. This is just not viable. We had and have to find new ways of exhibiting our products.

All the abandoned former screening places have to be rehabilitated and reequipped with new techniques.

And to re-establish cinema to claim its place in society, the cinema needs to go and meet its audience and not wait for the audience to come to the cinema. The cultural and entertainment offer is just to vast. Cinema has to adjust to this situation and go and meet the people. This goes hand in hand with educating the people, how to interpret cinema and read its images.

I am optimistic that African cinema will blossom. If I look at counties like China, Brazil, India, which had a growing economy, their cinemas followed suit and prospered. But in order for this to happen in Africa too, cinema needs to use the new technologies efficiently and see them as tools to reach a certain aim. We have to get rid of the outdated equipments. We should go digital and use the technologies of the future, which is going digital.   

AfA: Since you are involved in FEPACI and know the situation in other countries equally, what do you make of the screening facilities in Africa in general?
Is there something wrong with the distribution channels in Africa?

CM: One error definitely is our habit to stick to 35 mm. The other error is, and here I use the example of Congo, that film during the communist era was nationalized. But the state doesn’t understand film. And this is also the case in other countries like Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon etc. In our case, the Congolese state had a stock of film material but had no access or failed to access new material. They played the old stuff over and over, until the public turned away, turned away from cinema. But without audiences, cinema is dead. What had to happen, happened: The cinemas in Congo went bankrupt.

The control by the state hindered our cinema. The state should only be the regulatory body. But the state should not interfere in saying, what to watch, and what to produce.

AfA: Camille, you have used the term African cinema. Is there actually something like an African cinema? And if so, while Manthia Diawara’s term of a “calabash cinema” still holds validity for some, is there now something which can be labelled a new “Art wave” in African cinema, not necessary opposing American and European cinema languages, but rather using foreign influences and assimilations, leading the African filmmaker to claim his place in World Cinema?

CM: I do think, there is an African cinema. There is a German cinema, there is a British cinema, there is a French cinema, and so forth. I am Camille Mouyeke. I am an African filmmaker. Why shouldn’t I call for this identity?

When the first African movies were made and presented to European audiences in Cannes, Berlin etc., African cinema was labelled “Calabash Cinema”. But “Calabash Cinema” was not a label decide upon by the creators of these products. The artists did not decide on this label. It is not a movement nor a school, like e.g. Surrealism or New Wave. Here the artist themselves labelled themselves.

“Calabash Cinema” is a negative label Europeans gave African cinema. For this also implicates, that critics were not looking and able to accept the filmmakers individuality, culture etc.. The Europeans critics ignored the cultural diversity and generalized.

My generation started to do movies which were more universal, sometimes called “modern”, and we were accused of not representing African societies, cultures, and traditions.

Ironically African film critics then were saying, my generation wasn’t doing “Calabash Cinema” and we were then criticised because we did not stand in that continuity and were not “traditional” enough.

But in my opinion, there never actually existed a “Calabash Cinema”. The term existed and certain films were applied with this label. But the label never was chosen and accepted by the artist himself. It was always used pejoratively.

At one time, there was a change from the so called “Calabash Cinema” to something new, a new wave if you want to call it like that, because filmmakers where travelling, seeing other films from other countries and continents, getting other influences from overseas foreign films. This subconsciously and consciously changed their way of making movies. But some funding institutions want African filmmakers to be reduced to “Calabash” and if we don’t fit into this schema of “Calabash Cinema”, we get no funding. Categorisation is harmful for some of us, who do not want to depend on the terms set by the donor or funding institution. We want to experiment, but are held down by their funding conditions.   

AfA: Parallel to you plans to establish a cinema in Brazzaville, you are starting to shot a film in Namibia. I hear, it is again something like a road movie, a bit like your film “Voyage a Ouaga”. Why did you decide on a film and a story set and centred around Namibia, a story centered around the ovaHimba in particular?

CM: Movies and the desire to make movies make me travel. It blew my mind, when I first came to Southern Africa. The culture, the music, the landscape. The beauty of Namibia struck my heart. I wanted this to be much more shown to more people. The reason then, why I choose a story with ovaHimba, is because the situation of them as a minority touched me very much. The fragility of this situation is something very important. We have the duty to give testimony and record our world as we find it. A film on the ovaHimba people should not change the ovaHimba people. But our perception on them must change. I am of the belief that they are an endangered people. A lot of pressure is put on them.

AfA: “Voyage a Ouaga” was shot in various countries, like Benin and Burkina Faso. You yourself are Congolese. And now, you are shooting in Namibia. Besides, is there a trend you also see with other African filmmakers, to explore the continent, and create a pan-African film industry?

CM: I believe my current project, where I am working with a Namibian producer, Abius Akwaakwe from Optimedia, marks a political act. We have no choice as African filmmakers to not build solidarity amongst one another.

We somehow speak the same language on the continent, but still politicians don’t understand each other. But we as filmmakers speak the same film language, and I don’t see a reason then why not work together across the continent. One aspect here is also very important if not a priority: Skills and knowledge transfer. So Abius and myself will work together and learn from each other. The fact that I work with Abius and Optimedia, and will shoot a movie in Namibia, means also, that we are building a bridge between the ovaHimba and the outside world. Speaking about Namibia for me is speaking about the ovaHimba. I think with this political act we are contributing to build a pan-African film industry.

Political Cooperation between Congo Brazzaville and Namibia started already before independence. Maybe the Namibian youth does not know about it and elders have forgotten but I have to say that there are strong political links between both countries, and this relation between both countries is still very strong and is strengthened by our Ambassador in Namibia, Her Excellency Madame Marie-Therese Avemaka. She is accomplishing a great work in order to develop political, economical and cultural relationships between the two countries. Consequently, for me, to work on this feature film in Namibia participates in this effort.

This week, I will meet with the director of the Directorate of Arts from the Ministry of Youth, National Service, Sports, and Culture, and I am going to present her the cultural bridge that Optimedia (Namibia) and Horten’s Films (Brazzaville) have created by deciding to work together on a feature project.
I have already approached the Congolese authorities and they support my project. I hope that the Namibian authorities will demonstrate their full support. As you know, a feature requires a lot of funds and I expect that Namibian and Congolese authorities come together to celebrate the cultural cooperation agreements between both parties. In line with their cultural co-operation framework, Abius and I will propose to them an ambitious feature project which will contribute to the influence of cultural cooperation agreements of two countries from the Southern part of the world. We cannot do better than bring real proof of this  “South–South” cooperation. Arts and culture is an incredible tool for social cohesion, a window open to the world that can create many job opportunities and inspire creativity.

The whole budget of this movie will be reinvested into the local economy. And this is my vision of an pan-African film industry. It is only through practical actions that Africa will achieve her cultural, economical, social and political goals.
 
AfA: As a last question; what happened to the boy who played “Sekou” in “Voyage a Ouaga”? Ten years later, is he still acting?

CM: The boy who played “Sekou” is Burkinabe. I casted around 100 kids for the role. I gave each kid three dialogues to practice and remember for the rehearsal the following day and give it its own interpretation. That boy was the only one who was able to remember the dialogues and give it an interpretation through his acting. Currently, I assume, he is doing his final exams in school. As a director, if you find a kid with the personality like “Sekou” you are very happy, because the work is half done.   

AfA: Camille, thank you for your time and answers.

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