The cemetery of cinema
Thierno Souleymane Diallo’s latest film traces his search for what is likely the first film made by a Guinean, in the process asking: how is a film culture possible when the infrastructure and institutions are lacking?
Thierno Souleymane Diallo (b. 1983, Pita, Guinea) just premiered his first feature film at Berlinale 2023. Au cimetière de la pellicule (The Cemetery of Cinema) traces the director’s journey through the defunct cinemas and archives of Guinea to France in search of the 1953 lost film Mouramani (dir. Mamadou Touré), likely the first film made by a Guinean and one of the first films from sub-Saharan Africa. Its plot can only be ascertained from conflicting contemporary reviews: though it is about the legendary founder of the Baté Empire known as Mouramani, some refer to the film as a story about a man’s relationship with his dog whereas others claim it is about the Islamization of the Malinka people.
Educated at the Institut Supérieur des Arts Mory Kanté, the Institut de Formation aux Techniques de l’Information et de la Communication, and the Université Gaston Berger, Diallo made several short- and medium-length documentaries from 2013 to 2018, with topics ranging from unaccompanied minor migrants in France to the construction of hope in post-independence Guinea. Au cimetière de la pellicule—a co-production between France, Senegal, Guinea, and Saudi Arabia with a budget of €415,015—was written in 2016 and filmed from 2020 to 2022, though Diallo remarked that he got the idea after first hearing about Mouramani during his master’s studies in Niamey (2011–2012).
The Laval Decree effectively prevented filmmaking in French colonial Africa, so Mouramani and other pre-independence films were shot in France. Upon Guinean independence in 1958, president Ahmed Sékou Touré, a self-styled socialist and winner of the 1961 Lenin Peace Prize, championed film as a means of education and propaganda, and film distribution and production were nationalized with the creation of Syli-Cinéma-Photo in 1967. (“Syli” means “elephant”—the symbol of the Parti démocratique de Guinée—in Susu.) Nevertheless, ideological control was tight, and purges of intellectuals were regularly carried out. Filmmakers Costa Diagne, Louis Akin, Moussa Kémoko Diakité, and others were arrested and jailed in the 1970s under suspicion of foreign influence or coup plotting, and film censors regularly cut politically sensitive content out of films. The sharp political changes following the death of Sekou Touré and the subsequent 1984 coup d’état that ousted the Parti démocratique de Guinée from power further complicated the fractured state of Guinean cinema: many archives were ransacked, Syli-Cinéma was razed to the ground and replaced by the Centre Culturel Franco-Guinéen, and deteriorating film reels were left to rot, buried, or even burned. It is in the aftermath of this tumultuous history that Diallo’s film takes place.
Canadian film historian Robert Daudelin wrote in 2008: “Apart from the very recent productions on video and some projection copies preserved by the ONACIG [Office National de la Cinématographie et de la Photographie de Guinée] and whose technical quality is very doubtful, all Guinean cinema is outside the country.” Indeed, as Diallo travels from Kankan to Diankana to Conakry, his interviewees—all of whom he asks about Mouramani and its possible whereabouts—reiterate that there is no hope that the film exists in Guinea, but perhaps it can be found in France.
The film administrator, Mahmoud Alama Konaté, recounts to Diallo the systematic auto-da-fé of deteriorated film reels behind the Centre Culturel Franco-Guinéen, recoiling when Diallo asks “When film burns, what does it smell like?” Alseny Tounkara, a filmmaker and former film censor, says flatly “We have no culture of archives,” insisting that Diallo is wasting his time searching for Mouramani in Guinea. Mariam Camara, the former director of the ONACIG, laments how cameras were sold as scrap metal to kitchenware makers. In the wake of such destruction and neglect, Diallo’s explanation for making this film barefoot as an act of protest makes sense: he explains to students at the Institut Supérieur des Arts Mory Kanté: “I live in a country where there’s no money to make film. How am I supposed to get money to buy shoes?”
In the absence of cinemas and cinematheques, how do Guineans watch films now? Moumini Bah, a bricklayer and cinephile who used to frequent Guinea’s now-defunct cinemas in years past, says to Diallo: “I watch movies on satellite TV or DVDs.” In Conakry, Diallo finds pirate DVDs of Bollywood and Hollywood films dubbed in Pulaar, Susu, and Malinke. In Diankana, Diallo projects a film of daily life from his laptop onto a makeshift screen. Film watching continues to thrive, supported by informal networks of distribution in the absence of formal ones. When Diallo reaches Paris and speaks with Thibault Jacquin of La Clef Cinema—a fiercely independent yet clearly well-equipped venue—Jacquin’s remark “showing revolutionary films on a MacBook is absurd” (implying that such films need to be shown with analog film screening equipment) highlights the gulf separating film watching cultures across the two continents.
After a fruitless final search for Mouramani at the Archives françaises du film in Bois d’Arcy, Diallo recreates Mouramani (starring Aboubacar Condé and Penda Lam, and narrated by Moussa Doumbouya) in a four-and-a-half minute short about a man’s faithful dog protecting him from his malicious stepmother. The film leaves the audience with the important question (among others) of how one is meant to see and experience cinema—indeed, how one is to have a film culture at all—when the infrastructure and institutions are lacking.
In spite of the ONACIG’s proclamations against piracy, pirates have often proven to be more adept and industrious than distributors themselves in the archiving, preservation, and dissemination of film. In many parts of the world (Guinea included), informal (read: illegal) distribution is the only viable way to access films beyond a very small selection. Such methods of informal distribution circumvent the convoluted set of international licensing restrictions (which are typically out of the control and often even against the wishes of the filmmaker) and engender the possibility of grassroots film screenings and festivals, an increasingly common phenomenon outside the imperial core and one that has had positive political effects.
In places where there exists a cemetery of cinema—that is, a dearth of adequate resources for its preservation, diffusion, and thriving—Diallo has provided us with an important reminder that it is ordinary people who build a culture of film as much as the institutions that undergird it. As he remarked in 2017 and 2023:
I am making this film to try to fix the cinematographic memory of my Guinea. I am making this film so that it can also serve as an educational tool on the history of cinema in my country and share it with the rest of the world…A system needs to be created so that the new generation can access its cultural heritage and be inspired to make their own films.