"I am not interested in denouncing polygamy: my film goes beyond that". Interview with Angèle Diabang by Olivier Barlet about "So Long a Letter"
Source: Africultures.com. Photo © Olivier Barlet, Cannes, mai 2014. Translation from French by Beti Ellerson
Senegalese director Angèle Diabang was selected to participate in La Fabrique des cinémas du monde during the 2014 Cannes Film Festival professional program that contributes to the emergence of young artists of the South on the international market. Designed by the French Institute, the annual program invites with their producers, ten directors to Cannes who are developing their first or second feature film. Angèle Diabang's project in development is the adaptation of the celebrated novel by Mariama Bâ, So Long a Letter.
Adapt a celebrated book; this is an impressive and risky project! Why this choice?
I made the choice to adapt it into a film because I think the debate on polygamy but also on the situation of women vis-à-vis society, family and love is as important today as ever. At the present we are in an era where the image has a great impact, many young people no longer read. We look at more and more images, films, either on the Internet or television, even if there are no more cinema houses in Dakar. I thought it would be great to take an emblematic work of African literature, and adapt it for the screen.
Is polygamy still practiced in urban areas?
I think so, even in the urban environment and though our country has evolved and modernized, polygamy is still there.
It is true that the topic is dealt with in recent films, such as 5x5 by Moussa Touré.
Exactly, the debate is on going.
You come from the documentary genre; you have directed and produced many, why this passage to fiction. What desire is manifested in this?
It is true that so far I have produced and directed documentaries, and also a short fiction, but I have never made strict boundaries between fiction and documentary. I always knew that one day I would also do fiction because there are stories I want to tell that are impossible to do with a documentary: it would be too sensitive and not sufficiently subtle. I prefer to relate it through fiction. In the case of Mariama Bâ, it is an adaptation and so I can only do it in fiction. But I would never set limits with respect to these two genres. Rather, the documentary is a learning experience for me, allowing me to grow and develop into fiction.
While it is a fiction, it is still quite documentarised, since it is her own story...
Exactly. This novel is, so to speak, a "semi" autobiography and I'm sure there will be a documentary aspect in my film.
The literary adaptation is relatively rare in black African cinemas. It is an approach that has not shown real results. I remember the workshop "Etonnants scénarios" that I introduced a while ago in Bamako, whose objective was to bring together writers and filmmakers. However no concrete projects emerged from it. How did you go about your process?
It came about when producer Eric Neve from La Chauve-Souris and I agreed to work together on the novel. It took us several months to find out who had the rights and how to obtain them to make the film. When we got the rights, I knew that since I am not a screenwriter and having made documentaries, I did not want to write the film adaptation, but rather have someone else do so. Because Eric Neve believes strongly in me, and my talents, he pushed me to do it. He told me: "Begin, and when you know where you want to go, you take on an author," and now, I'll begin the third version of the script by myself! So far it's going well, people who read it are quite surprised and happy with the results. After this writing phase, I think there will be a screenwriter or a second writer.
Were the rights difficult to obtain?
Not really. There have been discussions with the rights holders for Mariama Bâ, but there were no difficulties.
Eric Neve has worked with Moussa Touré for the film La Pirogue, which is also loosely adapted from a literary work. How is your rapport with someone who is known to be an efficient producer, with his expectations and his constraints?
For me it is easy and pleasant to work with Eric Neve who I have known for a long time. We have had a very human relationship, pleasant and friendly. For the fiction, he was the one who pushed me to direct it, since for the last several years I have only worked as producer. He believes in my talent as a director and really propelled me, encouraging me to resume directing. He is in tune with what I want to do but he knows also how to read and make constructive criticism.
With a producer of his weight, the funding issue may be easier?
We are still in development. I'm at the Moulin d'Ande, which allows me to isolate myself, insulated from everything, and concentrate on writing. When Eric makes films, he does not say: "This is an African film, we will try to mend it." No, he simply says: "we will have the budget required for the film," regardless of the cost. He does not fix the budget according to the origin of the project.
Is he aware of the importance of the topic to contemporary African society?
Yes, I think he is aware. He has a house in Gorée, he comes to Senegal often and is steeped in Senegalese culture. We are on the same wavelength.
Can one imagine that the film once completed could be used for educational purposes, in schools for example, bringing the classroom to cinema?
I'd love to do that in fact. Since I finished Fémis, I have thought about a cine-school project or image education in Senegal. For this film, it will be imperative that I make the rounds of the schools to present it to students since it is a novel that is in the curriculum. If a student told me that after seeing the film that she/he revisited the novel to read, I would have succeeded because I have participated in reuniting this student with the literature!
As a woman I suppose this is a topic that touches you?
Yes, but with this film I am not interested in denouncing polygamy. Neither my producer nor I come with an anti-polygamy approach. There is merely the desire to show how the sociocultural rules of Senegalese society evolve and how we as women are a bit torn between a certain modernity—we are well educated, we travel, we want more freedom—it is a position specifically female, and that wants to respect tradition. How to manage this split between a strong tradition that is worn with pride and the desire for more freedom? It is in this sense that the project interests me, and less in the direction of pushing to abolish polygamy, because I am for freedom of choice: whether homosexuality, polygamy, the freedom to practice religion, everyone is free to choose. If someone feels good being in a polygamous relationship it is her right, after which she deals with the consequences. It is not for me to say whether polygamy is right or not.
I remember an anthropology book, “The Woman of My Husband” by Sylvie Fainzang and Odile Journet, which showed that polygamy in rural areas had an important function for women as it facilitated the sharing of heavy workloads, including childcare. But the book concluded that nonetheless polygamy was still negative for the status of women.
It is true that it is rather difficult. I could not be in a polygamous marriage, but that is me. I think it is difficult for women as for men because you have to manage two families, and today, financially, with the economic crisis, polygamy is not particularly useful to those involved. If a woman arrives at a certain age and is not yet married, she is not very well regarded by society. So when she reaches her forties, she resigns herself to be a second or third wife. Perhaps the evolution of sociocultural rules will bring about attitudes that will accept that a woman can live, be free, be someone socially respected without being married. It is not because a woman is married that her moral values are superior to those of others. I hope that we can one day see these attitudes come to fruition, thereby preventing the practice of women having to marry because of social pressure. I think that there are still many marriages that take place because of social pressure, both by women and men. I would like the adaptation of So Long a Letter to participate in moving things in that direction. I have friends who are in a polygamous marriage and who are happy with their situation, so who am I to say to them that it is not good. I would like the debate to evolve beyond "is polygamy right or not?".
This goes against a number of stereotypes about African women.
Exactly. As Eric Neve has often said, modernity does not mean Westernization. I think this way of condemning polygamy means that if you are not like us, you're not modern enough. But we can be modern without copying Westerners!
Does La Fabrique des cinémas du monde allow you to make significant developments? What have been some of the results?
Actually there have been important developments, as the project has already gained visibility. Before then, I had been developing it by myself underground. Today I can dare to talk about it, people know about it, are waiting for it. We met the artistic directors of the Critics' Week, and so they know us and are interested in our work. Apart from that, we met German, Norwegian and Brazilian producers, which has enabled us within this professional framework to discuss our project concretely with co-producers with whom we could finalize it. Having our project selected at La Fabrique makes it better received: having already been among the ten chosen out of more than one hundred candidates. And when looking at the percentage of projects completed at La Fabrique, one recognizes its quality.
Will there be a follow-up that continues throughout the next year?
Exactly. One already comes to Cannes with an established schedule of activities and meetings. We have the opportunity to indicate whom we would like to meet during the festival; it is a luxury! I was able to see the director of the CNC Brazil, for example. If I need contacts later, they will help me advance in this new phase. We were fortunate to have Walter Salles as a sponsor: a generous person with a great artistic sensibility. It was really a great opportunity; it was wonderful!
Last year with Raoul Peck, the participants said the same thing: in other words, sponsors really do participate!
Yes, Walter had read all projects before coming. I, myself was lucky because he had read So Long a Letter well before knowing about my project and when he saw that I had adapted it, he was enthusiastic. But he really had a genuine sensitivity regarding all the directors and producers who were there. He was interested in all the projects.
Last personal question: how do we combine family life with cinema when you have a young child?
It is not evident! For the last two years I have not really worked because I was taking care of my child, my work was a bit on hold. But I'm glad to restart with projects such as So Long a Letter and my documentary about Dr. Mukwege of DRC, as well as working with the Société des gestions collectives (League of collective management) in Senegal. Now that my child has grown a little older, I can balance my work and family life, one just needs to find a balance. It is not easy I’ll admit, but I am trying to find it!
ALSO SEE: Angèle Diabang adapts "So Long a Letter" to film - Interview by Agnès Chitou
ALSO SEE: Angèle Diabang adapts "So Long a Letter" to film - Interview by Agnès Chitou
Links to other translated works of Olivier Barlet on the African Women in Cinema Blog
Aya Cissoko : Danbé, head held high | la tête haute – film by/de Bourlem Guerdjou, analysis/analyse, Olivier Barlet
Beyond clichés/Au-delà des clichés - Olivier Barlet : analysis /analyse, “Girlhood” | « Bande de filles » - Céline Sciamma
Mille soleils (A Thousand Suns) by Mati Diop, the heritage of Touki Bouki an analysis by Olivier Barlet