The balancing act of being African and an artist

In the documentary film 'Abderrahmane Sissako, un cinéaste à l’Opéra,' the director is in complete control of his artistic vision.

Still from Abderrahmane Sissako, un cinéaste à l’Opéra © 2022.

The director Abderrahmane Sissako has generally aimed to transgress the categorizations and limitations placed on cinema from the continent by the Global North—in other words, he would rather belong to a pan-global version of cinema. Yet, at the same time, he also remains an eminently African filmmaker. Sissako spells out a version of this paradox when he describes his reaction to the invitation to direct Le Vol du boli, an innovative opera staged at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, in 2021: “I don’t have the feeling that it is the African who is invited; I have the feeling that it is an artist who is solicited.” What emerges is not a repudiation of his Africanness, but rather, a foregrounding of the cultural impact and value of the artist (who just happens to hail from the continent).

The director Charles Castella has now made a documentary, Abderrahmane Sissako, un cinéaste à l’Opéra (2021), which closely follows the creative process of Le Vol du boli. Le Vol is the joint result of  Sissako’s directorial vision and Damon Albarn’s music. The latter, frontman for the bands Blur and Gorillaz, ends up being a bit of an afterthought in Castella’s production, as the film (rightfully) focuses on the former, the Mauritanian director, and one of the most well-known artistic voices in the field of (African) cinema.

It may be worth specifying that, in my opinion, Sissako comes across as a “safe” director, when compared to his contemporaries. Sissako’s representations of Africa are simultaneously local/localized—let us remember the claustrophobic city walls from Timbuktu, 2014—and global or globalized (consider Aimé Césaire’s words in Life on Earth, 1998, the trial in Bamako, 2006, or the inclusion of the Prague philharmonic in Timbuktu). Nevertheless, the focus often seems to fall on the global, which makes the films more “palatable” for audiences outside of Africa. The Cameroonian director, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, certainly cares less about translating his projects for the public outside of Cameroon. Bekolo’s penchant for experimentation and his relentless pursuit of an ever-elusive “new” cinematic language might have been great attributes, had he been solicited. Or, take Mahamat-Saleh Haroun or Alain Gomis, who prefer to represent individuals and relationships (especially parenthood) and often choose to dive deep into the micro elements of African life. To reiterate, Sissako’s focus firmly remains on the macro, on the universal, as guided by Césaire’s words which he quotes throughout his oeuvre, and also at the very beginning of Castella’s film, as well as in the process of making Le Vol: one starts with the particular and then moves toward the universal.

Still from Abderrahmane Sissako, un cinéaste à l’Opéra © 2022.

It is perhaps because of his interest in the universal that actually, Sissako is the most appropriate choice for such an intense (possibly misguided) challenge: to represent the complex history of Africa in 90 minutes. This particular story/history starts with the theft of the Boli, the fish-object turned into a metaphor for colonialism, full of violence and anger, but also of beauty, grace, and love. This is an object that connects life and death, reminiscent of Wole Soyinka’s vision of a world spread out on a continuum, an object from which one can build a visceral experience. This is an opera, yes, but it is also a letter, a thought, and a song, as Sissako explains.

I will remind the reader that the beginning of Sissako’s first feature-length film, Life on Earth, cinematically travels from France to the town of Sokolo in Mali, aided by a sonic triad: a letter read by Sissako to his father; a thought about the pains of leaving (partir) in the form of a quote from, who else, Césaire; and a haunting song by Salif Keita (Folon). Decades later, Sissako gets the chance to reapply a similar aesthetic method to this opera. The result—achieved with the help of Damon’s music, the griot Baba Sissako’s voice, and Mamela Nyamza’s beautifully fluid choreography—is that Sissako provides the audience with what one of the actors describes as a “response to present time.”

What this “present time” exactly refers to remains ambiguous. It could be about the time of COVID-19, which delayed this production. However, as one of the crew members puts it, “To create is to overcome, to overcome death.” Once again, the meaning is ambiguous, as the expression could refer to the time of the COVID pandemic and to the wider historical realities of the postcolonial era. If it seems like I’m focusing more on the opera and on Sissako, rather than on Castella and his production, point taken. However, Castella appears to take a deliberate backseat to Sissako’s process. The directorial choices are not intrusive, including Charlotte Rampling’s measured voice-over. He only really indulges himself in a few “meta” long shots of Sissako musing about life while sitting in the sand, which evokes the latter’s own visual mood from Waiting for Happiness.

In short, this is less of a documentary and more of a prolonged trailer. Ultimately, nothing about this feels safe, or misguided, but rather inspired. It is remarkable to see Sissako direct from afar, through FaceTime, literally removed from the scene, and yet ever so present, ever so authoritative, and in full control of his artistic vision. And, for what is worth, that might just be an apt metaphor for the balancing act of being African and an artist, or vice-versa, in the present time.

Further Reading