Interview with Léandre-Alain Baker (and translation from French to English) by Beti Ellerson, May 2011
With the film Ramata, there were many elements already in place, the film adaptation from the eponymous novel by Abasse Ndione, and producer Moctar Diouga Bâ was in search for a director for the film. How did you make the film your own?
It was important to imbue the film with my own sensibility, my artistic vision, my narrative voice. The same novel adapted by someone else, even the same film made by another director would have had another tonality, another rhythm. Of course you know there are dozens of filmic versions of Carmen, adapted from the novel by Prospère Mérimée. There is even the Senegalese version, Karmen Geï. And none of these films resemble each other, though they all are drawn from the same story. The character is the only point in common, and in some cases even that is not evident. As it relates to Ramata, I drew from the adaptation by Miguel Machalsky bringing to it my experience from the theater and as a writer, and my passion for poetry and painting. And then it also seems to me that film, in the same way as poetry, is an art made of ellipses, metaphors, sound, rhythm, ruptures of tone, etc. And finally, it is a poetic and theatrical film. It was a narrative choice. When taking a closer look at the film, one notices that it is influenced by various film genres: the detective, the western, adventure film, the social drama, the romantic comedy etc...yet maintaining the storyline of the drama that builds between the protagonists. For me it was a way to break free from certain archetypes of African cinema, the anthropological side that is seen all too often in its films. I wanted to work more on the eye language, the unspoken, the thoughtful gestures in everyday life, sympathy, compassion, the love for another, thus inscribing the narrative into a hushed and nocturnal environment rather than under the grueling and piercing sun or under the palaver tree.
Right after the shooting of the film, Katoucha, who interpreted the principal character Ramata stated in an interview by Fatou Kiné Sene and Thierno Ibrahima Dia (see entire interview below): I only had the script that the director, Léandre gave me. They did not want me to read the novel, especially since the story was so similar to my own life.” How and why did you choose Katoucha for the role of Ramata?
It was precisely because of this similarity that she invokes. Initially, I was a bit reluctant about the idea of having her interpret the character Ramata because of this nefarious reputation that was attributed to her—even if this reputation was often exaggerated. And also because she was not an actor. But I quickly went along with the producer’s advice, and having considered all the other possibilities I finally returned to her as my choice. Katoucha was a very remarkable woman, charismatic and of an unusual beauty which was closely akin to the character described in the novel.
Ramata, the wife of the Minister of Justice, lives a wealthy bourgeois life, which is seemingly happy and fulfilling. However, her encounter with Ngor takes her to another side of the social spectrum of society and awakens a deep longing and desire, unsatisfied and intangible, which smolders within her, and that ultimately Ngor is not willing nor able to satisfy. An emotionally irrational need for Ngor plunges Ramata into an emotional abyss that unravels into self-destruction. And yet, this illusive lover, Ngor, has no discernible role in this story!
Ramata is a deeply wounded woman, a wound that dates back to her childhood and thus is constitutive of who she is. This encounter with Ngor Ndong, her young lover, will awaken in her the grief that had been dormant. Essentially, it is the story of the metamorphosis of a woman, her relationship with the world, and the universe around her. The affair with her young lover, Ngor Ndong, takes a dramatic turn when the hidden chapter of her past comes back to haunt her. It is true that their relationship is irrational, and so is the desire for another, for love. It is this irrational aspect that reveals to us the things that are the most concrete in their lives. This is what allows us to discover who they really are.
I have not yet read the novel but based on the synopsis and the interview with Abasse Ndione by Christophe Dupuis there are many differences, and in some cases fundamental ones. How did you adapt the novel to screen and what were the choices that you made?
The novel is rich and lively, around 500 pages. If it had been transposed in its entirety, it would have required a 4-hour film rather than the 90 minutes, as is the case. The other possibility was to make a film in three or four episodes. It is my understanding that Abasse Ndione had this in mind. But the economic reality of African cinema does not allow one to engage in risky adventures. In my case, I had the creative liberty in the adaptation process, with of course, the tacit approval of Abasse Ndione who co-wrote the screenplay. And by definition, an adaptation should betray the initial work, break free, move away from it, at the same time preserving its essence. And it seems to me that I have not betrayed the author too much, there are some infidelities, but quite often he was in agreement.
The other women in the film: DS, Ramata's sister-in-law, her daughter Dieynaba, and the club owner Yvonne and her daughter Diodio play important roles in Ramata's life, and yet, their presence is rather cursory. Even the intriguing relationship between Ramata and Yvonne is cut short. Some reflections?
What you perceive as distance is something that I have observed a lot in certain situations in Africa. Everyone knows who Ramata is, everyone knows that something is going on, but everyone acts as if everybody doesn’t know. And so nobody says anything. But yet, the are paying attention—the caring gestures in everyday life, empathy, kindness, affection. The character Yvonne is a kind of alter ego for Ramata but in the opposite sense, as the weight of her past is less burdened with serious consequences. Even though Ramata did not confided in her, Yvonne is very protective of her because she senses that she is confronted with the fragileness of a woman who reflects her own image. All of the women around Ramata know very well who she is, so there is no need to go through myriad intricacies and endless palaver.
In Senegalese films, there is a litany of intriguing female characters and their connection with water--Anta in Touki Bouki and Ramatou in Hyenes both by Djibril Diop Mambety, Safi Faye's Mossane; Karmen Geï by Joseph Gaï Ramaka and Gagnesiri in Tableau Ferraille by Moussa Sene Absa and even the stoic woman played by Mbissine Therese Diop in Emitai by Ousmane Sembene. While the majority of the film is set in urban Dakar, the end of the film takes us to Gorée Island on the Atlantic Ocean, where Ramata spends the rest of her years.
Yes, exactly. Because the setting is beautiful and tragic I wanted to inscribe it into the beginning and end of the film. In the novel these sequences take place elsewhere, between Rufisque and Diam Nadio. It is evident that the historical and emotional weight of Gorée renders the solitude of Ramata event more tragic. In terms of the other characters in the films that you cited, the context of water did not come to mind. Though it seems to me that the geographic location of the city of Dakar is such that it would be difficult to avoid the ocean. It is evident. Certain places, by their sheer beauty, have an unconscious influence on the films.
Sadly, Katoucha has left us. What are your feelings about her death? What was post-production like having to work with her only in memory? I suppose it is important for you that this film not evolve into some kind of homage to her.
Yes, it is a great lost. What feelings can one have about the loss of someone? Regrets no doubt. Regrets and still more regrets. Tremendous sadness. Sorrow…No, the film is not and should not be a homage to Katoucha, but through the film she is among us. There is a magnificent poem by Birago Diop, which goes something like this:
“Those who have died have never left
They are in the shadow that fades to light
They are in the shadow that deepens”…
What has been the response to the film?
The reception by Senegalese audiences has been very positive and encouraging. The film has been screened at numerous festivals with favorable reactions. Upon its release in France at the beginning of June, I hope that it will also find its public there.
Interview with Katoucha by Fatou Kiné Sene and Thierno Ibrahima Dia, December 2007 the final day of the film shooting of Ramata, less than two months before her death. (Translation from French to English by Beti Ellerson).
Africiné: What moved you to agree to play in this film, was is it the novel?
Katoucha Niane: I only had the script that Léandre, the director, gave me. They did not want me to read the novel, especially since the story was so similar to my own life. I never wanted to be an actress because I believe that there are men and women who know the profession very well, and I respect them a lot. Besides, my sister is an actress. I can tell you that at the time I did not have the feeling that I was acting because Ramata resembled me so much. So yes, that is how I got involved with the film.
Was it the woman’s personal story that touched you when your first read the script?
Yes, Yes. As the producer Moctar Ndiouga Bâ said, it is this eminence and decline. This woman is uncompromising and I am exactly like that. She does not hesitate to abandon everything: a minister husband, fortune and everything that goes with it, for the love of a 25-year-old man who has just gotten out of prison (laughs). And I am like that somewhat. I have always had uncompromising love affairs. Ramata is a determined woman who knows what she wants. And then at the end of the story, she falls into madness.
Initially, did you ask yourself whether you had the necessary experience to play the role of such a remarkable character?
I had doubts about myself right until the last moment, but I had told myself that I must excel. And that's what I liked about this adventure. I am very happy to say today that the film is finished. I did it and it was not so bad, that I stayed right to the end. Now you can tell me when you see the film, since you are the critics.
You just released an autobiography that describes your life and what you confronted. You reveal yourself in this book. Is the film another unveiling?
Not at all. It is a great adventure that I just experienced. I did not realize that I could work and live with the same people for six weeks—the duration of the shoot. It was something that was quite difficult for me to grasp, but they were a great professional team. The director of photography François Kuhnel and the film director Léandre-Alain Baker realized that as a model I already had the experience of posing and that I could move to another stage: that of an actor. Ramata is really a woman, not specifically an African woman, she is universal. I liked Moctar’s approach, to want to make a film, not necessarily an African film.
Is this your first role in a film, what were your experiences?
This is called a baptism of fire. (She bursts out laughing) besides, we started with a scene where I make love with an actor that I did not know beforehand. It was pretty tough.
What was the mood of the film?
The film was shot at a fairly steady pace, everyone was delighted to work on the film and to see it through to the end. I'm sure that initially there were some technicians who thought, “but we will waste our time with her, she is a model, she is going to be a pain in the ass, etc...” But they finally saw that I was a professional and that I respected everyone. In fact, it went well.
Did you have any blockages during the film shoot?
But of course. I told you earlier that we started with a lovemaking scene. The first scene I had to play the first day was a love scene. I tell you, it was pretty amazing to have a gentleman on top of you, who, just an hour before you did not even know. But that is cinema. I learned and I hope I improved throughout the continuation of the shoot.
Are you tempted to continue your adventure in cinema?
You know we just finished the last shot of the film today [Saturday, December 22, 2007]. The film is complete. Give me some time to think about what I have just gone through and then we'll see. But I know there is an interest in making a film about my autobiographical book that was just published. But obviously, it will not be me because I am no longer a twenty-year-old (laughs). No we'll see, we'll see. Ramata was exceptional. I do not know if I will do it again, but this adventure was great.