If Sembene Ousman, the Senegalese filmmaker, is the father of African cinema, then Alassane Moustapha is the grandfather. Moustapha created Aouré (Wedding), the first Black African film in 1962; he also delivered another animation La mort de Gandji in 1965.
By 1995, the Nigerien filmmaker had released up to 30 films compared to Sembene's 15 at the time. But the naming politics have never bothered Moustapha, who was one of the founders of the most anticipated Pan Africa festival FESPACO, as long as African cinema is growing.
At the recent occasion of the 39th International Film Festival Rotterdam, Africa cinema was the headline. Several films by Africans were screened and a tribute was paid to two pioneers of cinema in Africa: Momar Thiam from Senegal and Mustapha Alassane from Niger. We caught up with the grey-bearded director and actor and here are his thoughts on Africa cinema.
Photos/BELINDA VAN DE GRAAF
How are they reacting to your feature films here (Rotterdam festival)?
Overall, people are curious and want to learn about them and other African films in general.
What about your animation and other African animations in general?
Looks like animation is yet to catch on in Africa. The only distribution outlets for African animation Africa remains the television and especially children programmes.
We are fighting to improve the state of affairs. I recently met the director of Senegalese television to discuss the possibility of screening my movies. This was four months ago. I am still waiting for a response from him. I have made many animated films, it must be worse for other younger filmmakers. Even in North Africa, people still screen Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain and Hollywood content.
But even with the disappointments, you are still not giving up?
On the occasion of the Cinematographic Framework of Hergla in Tunisia, I was awarded a medal. It was accompanied by a computer. I'll be receiving it soon; it is a more efficient machine that will help me to work comfortably and improve my cinematic technique.
Dou you have any new projects of animation?
Currently on several, inspired by African oral stories: From Ivory Coast, one from Mali and another one from Niger. We have treated them in storyboard, which is ease to read.
The African Centre for Research on Oral Traditions, which I am working with, should convince other countries to do the same with their oral legends and stories. When history is recorded in this manner, it becomes easier to make a film out of it.
Do you think these films will find space on television?
Since the centre belongs to all African states, it gives them the rights on the production. The day the centre will produce these into films, each member country will have the right to screen. This is a nice approach to increase African animations and fertilise African storytelling today. The centre is run by the African Union and is located in Niamey - Niger.
You are also working with Unicef; what exactly are you doing?
Unicef has a big office in Niger. I contacted them to develop animation projects. The initial proposals went well. They know my work and are very excited. The films will be aimed primarily at young people. The first phase is basically about movies and educational materials. Unicef has specialists in different fields, and we as filmmakers, bring the form that carries the messages.
How easy is it to live off your film work and your animation studio?
The little that I earn is enough. You know; so long as we have enough to buy millet, rice and sorghum, it is largely sufficient. The rest, we can look elsewhere. The most important thing is what we bring to the world, not what we take. When the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave me the medal of the Legion of Honour I said: But what have I done to deserve this? They very promptly said: You have made films that were screened in all our cultural centres. It's true merit that we collect.
Some critics say that in the absence of national support, the African film depends heavily on France. What do you think?
But there is history. If it was not Africa, maybe it would have been Latin America. French is spoken in Africa than in France. Many African countries have French as their official language. Even the Arab countries are adopting the language of Molière: Le Maghreb, Lebanon, Syria. There is a large Francophone culture that goes beyond France, which has a large influence. But Africa is a huge market and strategic for France.
Are the governments aware of the need to invest more?
I am not sure, but some countries are beginning to take small steps in that direction. I hope that this continues, otherwise it would be death to our cinemas.
In Niger, are there any initiatives to promote national cinema?
Currently, there is a branch of the department of film in the ministry of Culture. They are putting up a film school. There is also the will to start work on a plan for acquiring films so that Niger holds images of films shot on its territory. If someone comes to shoot a film in Niger, he /she would be asked to leave at least one copy in the country. This is how we can preserve our memory. It is the same for national movies. The Government buys three copies: two for the "cinematheque", and one for the archives. There was a debate about this in Niamey, with the director of the film department.
Is there a reason to be optimistic then?
We must always be optimistic. Even when the film library of Ouagadougou is swept away by the torrential rains, it is not a drama. One step back allows better jump forward. In Africa,, there is a saying; "when the house of the chief of the village catches fire, it is the promise of a better home". We will build one that will be better.
interview by Hassouna MANSOURI
Original version published in African review
Photo credit: Belinda Van de Graaf.