Interview - Hachimiya Ahamada: A Filmmaker of the Land
First published in Regarder l’archipel des Comores autrement – No Man’s Land Blog - 01 January 2010
Translation from French to English by Beti Ellerson
Born in France in 1976 to parents of Comorian origin, Hachimiya Ahamada is nonetheless a filmmaker of the land. Her camera pointed towards her homeland, the Comoros Archipelago, her favorite themes are identity and memory. In 2008, she directed the drama short, The Ylang Ylang Residence, co-produced by Aurora Films in Paris and Washko Ink in Moroni. The film was screened in some sixty international film festivals, from Cannes to the International Black Film Festival of Montreal, passing through the Women's Film Festival in Chennai, India. In 2009 alone The Ylang Ylang Residence won numerous awards such as the Grand Prize for the Short Film at the Quintessence Festival of Ouidah, the Best Screenplay at the Francophone Festival of Vaulx in Velin, the Jury’s Special Mention at the Cinema of Africa, Asia and Latin America Festival in Milan. During this interview [with Regarder l’archipel des Comores autrement – No Man’s Land Blog] Hachimiya reveals a chapter of her professional and intimate life.
No Man's Land: Hachimiya, how did you come to cinema?
As a teenager, I spent my Saturday afternoons in the video studio in Dunkerque on the Ecole de la Rue Street. With a group of friends, also passionate about cinema, I took my first steps while making small documentary portraits. So cohesive was the group, with such a passion for films, that today some of us have turned that passion into a profession. Among us there are directors, a producer, a projectionist (who is also from the Comoros) and a film events organizer. Moreover, the video studio was in the same building as the art film movie house. Hence, the film events organizer at the time planned an annual festival of international films during which we had the chance to interact with filmmakers from different countries. They helped us to sharpen our vision of the world and develop a cinematic discourse by the means of image and sound. Unfortunately, the festival no longer exists. This period of my youth provided the persistence of vision that continues to drive me to go further in this direction.
Subsequently, I enrolled at INSAS, a film school in Brussels where I trained in film directing and completed my studies in 2004.
No Man's Land: You are a young woman, and also Muslim, born into a family of Comorian origin. How has your family reacted to your decision to make a career as a filmmaker?
Since my adolescence, my parents have always seen me with a camera in hand. They knew that I spent all my Saturdays at the video studio. Apart from that, I filmed some traditional marriages that took place in the Comorian community of Dunkerque. I also took pictures of my own family; it was obvious that I wanted to pursue this passion as a profession. However, not fully grasping the word “cineaste” my family is trying to discover it through my journey. I try to make them understand that I'm not a “journalist”! A term that is easier to conceptualize.
Whether men or women filmmakers from the Muslim community (and Comorian on top of it), we're all in this together. It's not being a woman that will be the obstacle, or religion that would thwart efforts to embrace this career. It is the lack of knowledge in general about any profession in the arts. Our parents have been lulled by the cinema of Hollywood, Bollywood and Asian films, and as we have not yet conquered this technology, it is normal for parents to be apprehensive about their child going into this unknown world. The women and men of our generation must move forward and not raise false problems and questions about religion or traditions. We strongly need artists, and in my area, filmmakers and actors who by stepping into the shoes of the super heroes will represent us as producers, technicians... To date, we are in a phase where we are laying the groundwork for the future generation.
No Man's Land: What is your view on Comorian women, whether in the diaspora in France or in the Comoros in general?
I confess that I find these very feminist types of questions difficult to answer. Comorian women are inwardly very strong. No matter in what situation she finds herself, and even though she is closely tied to tradition (since the Comorian woman is the guardian from generation to generation), she manages to assert herself with men. She makes the major family or collective decisions. Contrary to what one might think, women have authority! Although, we continue to be a society where women live within a world of women, this strengthens women, and they really support each other. The upside of this is that it provides the cohesiveness to better address their individual difficulties, oh so many! I admire the younger generation of women, who are very dynamic, very ambitious, very competitive and who know how to combine modernity and tradition. They give great hope for our future ideal Comoros. So be it!
No Man's Land: You've spent your whole life in Europe. Why did you decide to shoot your film The Ylang Ylang Residence in the Comoros? The language of this film is Comorian, is it a coincidence?
After my training at INSAS, I wanted to get into fiction. The Ylang Ylang Residence is my first short film. I've always done documentary films, which is a very good school to pass through to get into fiction or reality fiction. I began with a subject that was dear to my heart: home. This short film was very important to me because there are autobiographical influences and it was also necessary that I return to my roots through the film. I was born in Dunkerque, therefore, I belong to the Comorian diaspora and my gaze is necessarily one of "I’m coming..." With The Ylang Ylang Residence, I wanted to break through that gaze. Having completed the film, I still do not know if I managed to do it.
On the other hand, it was my greatest insight into the Comoros. During the research phase in preparation for the film, I met people who gave me the opportunity to understand the everyday life of the Comoros, through all levels of the social strata. The experience of this short film is also proof that we can make plans of any kind in the country and that the people long for this type of initiative. There is potential and so much energy that you cannot pass up this opportunity. The major problem that remains is by what means do we get there?
To the question of language, a film reflecting a country should be in the language of the country where it is made. Comorians were born and bred in the Comorian language: it would have been meaningless if the actors had played in French. And, Comorian viewers must forge a vision that is based on their own point of reference. For that reason, I shot the film in Comorian even though I myself am not fluent in the language. I must make a lot of progress to move my work further.
No Man's Land: You have presented your film around the world, at festivals, and internationally renown ones at that. What memories do you have of these events of the 7th art?
The tour of the film went very well. A short film normally has a two-year lifespan. In two and a half years, The Ylang Ylang Residence was screened at over 35 international festivals. That is great and unexpected because I do not think my future films will have this kind of trajectory. The memory that I keep is the immense curiosity of the spectators about a country that they do not really know. They have heard the name but do not really know where it is located in the World: Comoros, in the minds of others is a world in a very remote location. What struck me was also their surprise to see the omnipresence of green (lush vegetation) or to hear a language that is unknown to them. These kinds of encounters at festivals encourage me to continue working in this direction. Unwittingly, I was a bit of a flag bearer or a spokesperson for the Comoros at each encounter with a different audience. There is a real thirst to see pictures from the Indian Ocean in cinema—not on television, but in Cinema. For this reason, there is much work to be done to quench the thirst of the outside world (and at home for that matter).
No Man's Land: The next Hachimiya film will talk about what, and in what country will it be shot?
I am currently working on a feature documentary project entitled “The Drunkenness of an Oasis” produced by Shõnagon Film and the CBA in Brussels. Five years of work that is about to be completed; a real uphill battle in terms of production. The production time was very long because I focused on a topic that apparently did not interest producers. This was not so bad, in fact, because I still have the freedom of content and form. I always shoot around the same theme: the unfinished house awaiting the return of its owner somewhere in exile. For an “I’m coming” what makes us go “back to the village” is the pride of the father: the family home he built in his native village.
No Man's Land: But as a child of the diaspora, what does one do with this house, which remains unoccupied for many years?
And more broadly, what happens to our Comorian cultural heritage when we're from France, or when we leave the Comoro Archipelago Islands, when we’re from the Grande Comore, Anjouan, Moheli and Mayotte?
In 2006 I went alone to look for filming locations on the four islands of the archipelago and came back with a small crew this year to film again on these islands. It's a film of self-examination about the Comorian identity of my family that leaves to go to elsewhere. Again, the wanderings through the islands were real revelations about my quest for identity, my encounters with, respectfully speaking, the common people. However, they made me understand each in their own way, what could be an ideal Comorian. I am currently in the editing stage in Brussels. In this long road movie, the editor and I try to bring the four islands together. I hope in the end to have a film in the “Cinema” that truly reflects the actual feeling of the whole archipelago.
No Man's Land: What positive affect can cinema bring to Comorian society in particular and societies in the world in general?
Whatever the genre of film (fiction, documentary, docu-fiction, experimental film), to make a film is to give a unique vision to the world around us. We share our stories with the Other in image and sound. In countries where there is a shortage of films, even if there is escapist types of films, this medium has a political role. It gives the contemporary feeling of the countries in crisis and expansion. The bigger the crisis, the more there is material to tell a story. The larger the crisis, the more there is censorship and this constraint requires the author to find a particular identity to her work (I have in mind Chinese and Iranian cinema whose authors manage to present interesting stylistic work despite severe censorship and they pay the price for just having the desire to film their country). This is the same for countries with no film industry.
With regard to our islands, there are so many stories to tell in the Comorian culture. It is a society rich in contradictions and there is enough for us to draw from so that we can make many, many films with strong subject matter. By portraying our society through film, without making any concessions would have an immeasurable impact on our self-representation. At present, in the North (we also see this in our own islands), what images are presented about us? Do we recognize ourselves in these pictures?
There is a tremendous need to put up a mirror in order to correct our own problems, to reflect, to entertain or take a break with a hero who resembles our island. With the massive onslaught of American, Asian and Bollywood films on DVD, there is a lack of identification with Comorian characters. Except in Mayotte (but we must also ask who is the audience that goes to see movies), there is a lack of cinema houses on the other islands. To have at least one in each capital would be already quite a bit.
No Man's Land: When it comes to movies, we always talk about investment, cinema houses, viewers who go out and purchase tickets, distribution, in a word, an actual film industry. Do you think that the development of a film culture in Comoros involves creating a film industry like Nollywood in Nigeria, Bollywood in India and Hollywood in the USA?
But with what means, this creation of a Comorian cinema and the distribution of its films?
This is a crucial question that also affects all Francophone African cinema to date. In the North, there is concern about the lack of African representation on screen to show in their movie houses (outside of festivals for Africa), while in the South, films continue to be produced each year (though with financial difficulty) on a variety of media and with varying quality. Nevertheless, there is a real absence of structures that could focus specifically on the distribution of these films between African countries and outside of the film festival circuit.
For the moment I'm a bit pessimistic about the existence of a film industry in the Comoros. I have a rather different dream of a creative system that would be a mixture between a Nollywood, Bollywood and a director’s cinema that sets high standards. Everyone will find her or his place.
But by what method? So the Comorian State would create a film commission under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture as is done in a few African countries? If this kind of structure does not already exist in the country for other art forms such as literature or the performing arts, I will still be dreaming for a long time.
Then there is the other alternative, which is funding for cultural projects coming from the North or the Middle East, but should this be the sole means to produce our work?
It’s something to think about...
Image and text from Regarder l’archipel des Comores autrement – No Man’s Land Blog
Also see on the African Women in Cinema Blog:
Also see on the African Women in Cinema Blog: