Alain Gomis: "I make film, not yoghurt" Interview with French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis at Durban International Film Festival, July 2012
(Interview with French-Senegalese filmmaer Alain Gomis at Durban International Film Festival, July 2012)
How did Tey come about?
I have always known about the concept of someone finding out when they are going to die and trying to escape without success. There is this Egyptian story about a man who, after bumping into death in the morning, runs to hide in the desert. When death catches up with him, death tells him how surprising it had been to meet him that morning, since it was then and there in the desert that they were supposed to meet.
We live in a society that does everything to forget about death, though it is part of life. I believe that knowing when your time is out is a blessing rather than a curse. Only then will you be able to use your remaining time in a meaningful way.
As for the choice to set Tey in Senegal, even if it was not a conscious one (it so happened that the story that came to me takes place there), it might be that it was time to move away from France in my films. In stories about exile, you deal with issues like immigration. This time I wanted to explore a person who is dealing with profound personal issues, and not political or social ones.
Tell me about your collaboration with Saul Williams...
I kept Saul's photo on my desk when I was writing the script. At that time I knew him as an artist (a poet, performer, writer and singer), but not personally.
Saul looks familiar and strange at the same time. What is more, he looks Senegalese, and he has the aura and the energy of someone who has been chosen - someone extraordinary. He had only been to Senegal once, and he does not speak Wolof. When you do not know a language, you listen differently, and you are more attentive and present. All this made him perfect for the role as Satché.
When I approached potential funders I told them that Saul Williams would play the lead, without having asked him. One day a friend - who, like me, did not know Saul - bumped into him by coincidence and told him that I wanted to cast him in a film. From there on everything went smoothly, he read the script, came to Senegal to rehearse for a couple of days, and after that we started shooting. It was a fantastic experience.
... and Djolof Mbengue?
Djolof is my best friend. He is not an actor, but a computer scientist who acts in my films. Though he is not professionally trained, he is an actor with very strong presence; a quality that cannot be taught or rehearsed. When he is next to you, you feel safe and good about yourself.
At a certain moment it was as if each one of us became the link between the two others. At one point Saul became the link between me and Djolof, and I the link between Saul and Djolof. We all became indispensable to one another.
Your previous features explore the themes of alienation and isolation in exile. Tey follows a man who is at home, but seems to be as alienated and isolated as El Hadj (Djolof Mbengue) in L'Afrance and Yacin (Samir Guesmi) in Andalucia.
The moment Satché learns that he is going to die, he finds himself in a situation that is both familiar and unfamiliar. Time does does not mean the same anymore, and suddenly he starts seeing the world with the eyes of a stranger - someone who is about to leave.
Talk about your choice to make slow and meditative films in a fast running world obsessed with box office.
My aim is not to tell a story, but to create a moment in time for the audience to contemplate, making the viewer the engine of the story. I do not have any answers to questions about life and death, and no conclusion to offer. All I want to do is to strike a few chords that I hope will resonate with my audience.
It is political. I make films, not yoghurt. I am not interested in selling, but in giving people the opportunity to reflect and feel. Film is art and I want my films to be like music; something that is experienced emotionally and instinctively, rather than on an intellectual level. I am not making films just to make a film and I am not in it for the money.
How do you position yourself as a filmmaker?
Humans are communicating through codes - shared words and concepts that represent reality - but as any representation or illustration, these codes do not capture reality in its essence. I try to do away with the codes and go straight for the core.
Being of mixed heritage, I am both a stranger and at home wherever I am. This gives me a certain freedom to break the rules. I love art that is truly liberated. Art made by artists that are not trying to fit into predetermined categories. It is only when I manage to create outside the narrow realms of such categories, and when ignoring what has been said and done before, that I am able to talk about universal concerns in a way that is truly mine but still relevant to others. Maybe it is impossible - we are all talking about the same things after all - but I want to reach a space where I move people as if it were the first time.
How has Tey been received?
It has been amazing to witness how strongly audiences all over the world have identified with Satché. In general the discussions around the film has been very different to those around L'afrance and Andalucia. People do not talk about Africa after having seen Tey; people talk about people, and about themselves. That proves to me that there is room for something different.
by Katarina Hedrén
This article first appeared in edited form in the Durban International Film Festival's Reel Times Newsletter as part of the Talent Campus Durban 2012 programme.
"First published on Katarina's blog: In the Words of Katarina
(Tey, distributed by Jour2Fête, will be released in France in January 2013. The film will be screened in Senegal in October 2012 in collaboration with the Senegalese cinema bureau, the Goethe-Institut and the French cultural centre.)