Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

Still from A Daughter’s Tribute to Her Father (Hommage d’une fille à son père) © 2022.

Fatou Cissé titles her debut feature film A Daughter’s Tribute to Her Father (Hommage d’une fille à son père). Her documentary-style film centers unsurprisingly on her eponymous father, the Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé, guiding the viewer through Cissé’s cinematic oeuvre which spans some 50 years. The “homage” is a patchwork of interviews with friends and family. It weaves together clips from media appearances, past interviews with Cissé himself, and excerpts from his films.

Cissé began making films after Mali’s independence in 1960, upon obtaining a scholarship to study at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow around the same time that the Senegalese director Sembene Ousmane also studied in Moscow at the Gorky Film Studio from 1962 to 1963. Cissé’s debut film Den Muso (1975) garnered international attention and acclaim but it also led to his several years imprisonment in Mali. Upon his release between 1975-1978,  his next four feature films Baara, (1978), Finye (1982), Yeelen (1987), and Waati (1995) were all similarly well received. Cannes Film Festival screened these feature films, at which Yeelen also won the Jury Prize in 1987.

What is particularly striking about Cissé’s films is that they are produced in Bambara and they treat issues and phenomena specific to the Malian context. But, this treatment seems precisely to be what draws international critical attention. Fatou Cissé makes a nod towards the potentially “exoticized” reception of her father’s films on the world stage by including occasional close-ups of African masks. The film even opens with a shot of Cissé studying these masks in a museum. However, Cissé’s collaborator, Martin Scorsese, who we see in interviews throughout this tributary film, proclaims Cissé’s cinematic universality, praising his ability to explore fundamental human questions from the vantage point of a specific culture in a way that speaks to international audiences. A friend of Cissé similarly commends the theme uniting his separate films: all are thorough meditations upon and critiques of power, be it political, economic, or familial, public or private.

The documentary begins in a slightly truncated manner. The camera darts back and forth between clips of Cissé attending international film festivals and living his family life. It feels as though the director is attempting to convince the viewer of her father’s “celebrity status” or international renown. After a slow start, the film’s pace quickens and despite what the title may imply, A Daughter’s Tribute is not panegyrical praise of Souleymane Cissé.

The portrait of this patriarch twice-over; at once the father of African cinema and the director’s own father, is both nuanced and kaleidoscopic. His childhood friends describe him as a self-starter who made money from an early age to support his family. His sisters describe him as an autodidact and a visionary who was already making “moving pictures” from the age of five by playing with figurines behind a sheet at night. But the film intermingles praise of this self-made genius with supplementary narratives that enlarge our perspective. Alongside descriptions of Cissé’s natural gift, Cissé readily admits that his studies in the Soviet Union were instrumental for his debut in filmmaking. He explains that a “developed country’s” infrastructure is necessary to acquire this skill. He also honors his international collaborators, from French film editor Andrée Davanture to Scorsese himself, both of whom were instrumental in his long career. He even thanks Moussa Traoré, the statesman who led a coup d’état against the first president of Mali (Modibo Keïta) and who released Cissé from jail.

Similarly, A Daughter’s Tribute presents multiple optics on Cissé-as-father. His children praise his open, jovial, and forgiving character but also mention a distinctly “lacking paternal presence” in their upbringing, an absence borne out of Cissé “giving himself to his work to the point of forgetting himself.” This is a quality that Cissé himself laments. By contrast, the film draws attention to his wife’s self-sacrificing and enduring nature within their marriage, and makes allusion to instances of marital infidelity. The documentary intersperses such character sketches with shots of Cissé playing with his grandchildren. The camera shows him answering their questions, and recalling the coldness and distance he felt from his own father with whom “he never had a conversation.” A Daughter’s Tribute holds these multiple facets of both the professional and the family man in tension without resolving them. Such multi-dimensionality is perhaps the film’s greatest merit. The resultant impression of Cissé is positive and ambivalent, a portrait that does justice to the complexity of human beings.

Finally, much like the decisive yet liminal place a director occupies in relation to his own film, the second half of A Daughter’s Tribute vehiculates Cissé’s life and oeuvre, as to ask broader questions about the role of cinema and culture in public life. At its midpoint, the film widens its scope to inquire of the African film industry’s role in development. It highlights the industry’s capacity to inspire the youth, and to improve Mali’s geopolitical position on the African continent and internationally. Fatou Cissé “zooms out” to document initiatives such as l’Union des Créateurs et Entrepreneurs du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (UCECAO) and to lament the paucity of audio-visual production facilities and courses in African universities. She also positions Bamako as a potential continental hotspot for fruitful artistic exchanges and encounters. The only query I had at this moment concerned the “high culture/popular culture” divide. In other words, I wondered whether A Daughter’s Tribute intentionally ignores television in order to attribute cinema this pivotal role.

A nod from the film towards the African TV industry was conspicuously absent, yet soap operas and series are key elements of audio-visual culture produced for African viewerships in African languages. Television attracts significantly more viewers than cinema in countries like Senegal and Nigeria. Nevertheless, Fatou Cissé’s concluding meditation on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema resonates with the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world. Here, much like in her approach to her father’s life, Fatou Cissé once again straddles the particular and the universal, resisting oversimplifications and optimistic solutions regarding the state of cinema in the 21st century.

Further Reading