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20 July 2018

Mariama Khan, filmmaker, poet, cultural activist, scholar: Reflections on cinema culture in The Gambia

Mariama Khan,
filmmaker, poet, cultural activist, scholar:
Reflections on cinema culture in The Gambia

Mariama Khan, Gambian with Senegalese root, is a filmmaker, cultural activist, scholar and professor, currently teaching African History and African Civilizations at Lehman College in New York. Her present research focus includes The Gambia-Senegal border relations, culture, cross-border transport and trade and religious movements in Senegambia. She is founder of the Documentary Film Initiative-The Gambia and the Makane Kane Center for the Creative Arts projects, which are currently on hold. She talks about her experiences with the moving image, cinema culture in The Gambia, and her role as cultural activist and scholar.

Interview by Beti Ellerson

Mariama, please talk a bit about yourself, your background.

My name is Mariama Khan. I am a Gambian from Brikama New Town in the Kombo Central Region and the Western Division of The Gambia. I was born to a Senegalese father and a Gambian mother. I am a great lover of film, poetry, music, nature and public service. I’ve previously worked with the government of The Gambia for about ten years in junior, middle and senior-level positions. I’m a documentary filmmaker and a poet. I’m currently on the faculty of Lehman College, CUNY, at the Department of Africana Studies. I teach African History and African Civilizations, respectively.

What were your experiences with cinema, the moving image when growing up in The Gambia?

When I was growing up in The Gambia, most of the films I watched were through two primary channels: Senegalese national TV- RTS and home videos. I religiously watched films, movies or soap operas - like Dallas, Dynasty, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Cosby Show (all dubbed in French) and Mademoiselle, among a few others shown on RTS at that time. My sister Haddy also made me watch Wollof-language children’s comedy and films on RTS in the evenings. It was also common for me and my other siblings to watch Wollof-language films on RTS. Sometimes, we watched the dubbed non-Senegalese French-language films with our father, who spoke fluent French and our second mother, who also speaks French. After The Gambia established its own television station, we watched films through The Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS). On occasions, too, I watched home videos of films like Problem Child, Sarafina, etc., with my best friend in High School, Rebecca Gomez, at my cousin Lamin Camara (L-boy)’s family home. So, my experiences of “cinema” or productions of the moving image involved socializing with family, friends and neighbors. It also involved taking part in group entertainment, sharing and building relationships.  My film-related experiences also inspired my interests in filmmaking and the moving image. 

The Gambia does not have a visible screen/cinema culture on the continental and international level. Please describe the local scene and your place within it.

When I was young, Brikama had a popular cinema, which was run by one of my father’s best friends in the town. At that time, going to the cinema was popular in the community. However, when the cinema stopped functioning at a time of considerable economic depression and political dilemma in The Gambia, people who had television sets in their homes watched Senegalese TV or other accessible stations. Video clubs were also popular. But males mostly frequented such clubs in those days. There has always been some form of “cinema culture” in the country. It was less bubbly like the culture Nollywood has helped push into the Gambian film sector. That film culture was primarily centred around consuming exported cinema productions from the West, Asia (specifically, India and China) and later South America. However, with the establishment of The Gambia Television and the local boom of Nollywood films, we see a “new’ cinema culture gradually unfurling in the country. We now have a growing number of Gambian film producers with considerable talent. Prince Boubacar Aminata Sankanou, who is a man of many talents, is making great contributions towards the development of a truly Gambian cinema culture. Sankanou and other new generation Gambian filmmakers are a great inspiration and they deserve every support from the government. 

I like to think that if I do have any position in the current cinema environment in The Gambia, then that position might be located on the slim fringes of The Gambian film sector. So far, I’ve only produced a few films in the country. This limited number of productions makes my contribution in the sector very modest and less significant compared to the numbers of new drama, feature or documentary films produced by my other compatriots. Most of these new producers have now established a niche as full-time Gambian filmmakers in the country. So, maybe, my place in the current local scene has been overtaken by the new promising productions that are available online and through other means. With that realization, my task as a filmmaker is to refocus and re-initiate my filmmaking career following its long hiatus, which resulted from the lack of grounded-ness in my life and career in the world of exile. In other words, the ups and downs of living a life in exile have stalled my filmmaking career, too. 

You are founder of the Documentary Film Initiative. Please talk about why you created it, its objectives and future goals.

The Documentary Film Initiative (DFI-The Gambia) was created to promote social justice, inspire change and to create youth employment through documentary-filmmaking, which is one of its objectives. It was apart of a broader project called the Makane Kane Center for the Creative Arts. I’ve made a few productions under the DFI- Gambia. However, the bigger part of the project, which was to establish an educational institution—the Makane Kane Center for the Creative Arts—to teach the creative arts in The Gambia could not take-off due to political barriers from the National Training Authority. I invested a lot of money to buy professional filmmaking equipment, furniture for classrooms and offices, and leased the premises that were to host the school—which was located along the Latri-Kunda- Tabokoto highway. I also identified staff for the school. I submitted the application for a permit with all the required documentation, but the National Training Authority did not give me the permit that I needed under national rules to operate such a school. I met all the requirements for that permit. But the Training Authority did not issue it to me. This was at a time I had a political conflict with the former President of The Gambia. Ostensibly, as a result of that, the National Training Authority decided to sabotage the take-off of my school project. I ended up losing a lot of money and I later had to go into exile as a result of my political difficulties with the former President. That stalled both the The Documentary Film Initiative-The Gambia and the Makane Kane Center for the Creative Arts projects. However, we’re now revisiting both projects. 

You have made several films, “The Journey up the Hill”, “Sutura” and “The Professor” in 2008 and “Devil’s Waters-Illegal Migration in The Gambia” in 2009. Talk a bit about the production of these films and their reception.

My documentary, The Journey up the Hill,  was produced out of my “Recording America” class project at Brandeis University. My beloved former film professor, Henry Felt, invested his personal resources and time on that project. I worked closely with him to film and edit the documentary. Additionally, thanks to Professor Felt’s insistence, the documentary had a successful premier at the Heller School [Heller School for Social Policy and Management], with a phenomenal attendance. I owe a lot to Professor Felt for that film. He taught me how to make films with such rigor in class and also as part of his year-long, one-on-one tutorial he gave me during that full-academic year course. The film explores the experiences of international students like myself, who come to America for educational purposes. In it, different international students from the Heller School share their experiences studying in America. I also had some of my beloved professors from the Heller School such as Professor Susan Holcombe, who was my advisor at Brandeis, and Professor Kelly Ready, make contributions in the film. The title of the film captured the fact that Brandeis is located on a hill in Waltham [Massachusetts]. The hill was also a metaphor of the experiences of international students as they adjust, struggle and work hard towards their educational success symbolized by reaching the top of the hill. The film recognizes the fact that getting to succeed entails challenges as most of us struggled with home sickness, culture shock, adapting to American academic life and so on. However, we also formed some lasting bonds. In fact, Heller was a wonderful place that made us feel at home, with all the several parties on and off campus. The social life helped most international students to develop a sense of belonging away from home. 

The Professor was the second documentary project I worked on and produced with Professor Felt, while at Brandeis. It is based on Professor Felt’s life. I came up with the idea to document some of his life story, which was fascinating to me. In addition to being my professor, Professor Felt was also a beloved friend when I was going to Brandeis. We had lunch together many times. We used to have conversations on many subjects including topics like Islam and Judaism (I am a Muslim and Professor Felt is Jewish), The Gambia’s relationship with Israel, about America, about New York, about Africa and so on. In those days, I was amazed by how well Professor Felt was informed about the daily news of The Gambia. I fondly recall that before we start class, he would tell me what was happening in my country. It was impressive that he paid more attention to what was happening in The Gambia than I did at that time. So, the documentary The Professor was one way of celebrating the life of a man who was an exceptional teacher to me. I fondly remember when I was returning home to The Gambia after my studies in 2008, he had these very kind words for me, he told me while we were at the Heller School, “consider me your teacher for life …” then with a broad smile, he added, “keep rising.” The production of the film on his life also signifies the appreciation I have for him.  In fact, I owe Professor Felt some promise I must deliver.  That promise carries how much he has touched my life as my former professor and friend. Wherever he is, I re-promise, I shall keep the promise, Professor Felt, God willing.

The documentary Sutura was commissioned by Dr. Leigh Swigart of the Brandeis University International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life. It was also a collaboration between Dr. Swigart’s program, the Senegalese Female Lawyers ‘Association of Senegal and the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal. The concept of the film came from Dr. Swigart. Dr. Fatou Kine Camara of the Senegalese Female Lawyers’ Association and Professor at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, facilitated all the pre-filming arrangements for the film. The film was premiered in Ghana, thanks to Dr. Swigart and her partners. It was also shown in Senegal, Germany, the Netherlands, in the USA (Boston and California), and in The Gambia.  People from a number of African countries who I met at a conference in Ghana and at The Hague also acquired the film and promised to show it to some of their constituents after their return. Sutura was well received and also won a UNFPA award. 

Devil’s Waters was produced in collaboration with The Gambia Ministry of Youth and Sports. It came out of the desire to educate Gambian youth and other people about the dangers of irregular migration through the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea.  It was premiered in The Gambia. 

You have a work in progress, Facscinala - Divorce and Human rights in Senegal. Talk a bit about it and its development.

The documentary and work-in progress, “Fascinala: Divorce and Human Rights in Senegal” aims to explore the different experiences women have during and after divorces. It is inspired by what I’ve learnt about women’s conditions in Senegal, thanks to the Senegalese Female Lawyers’ Association, which increased my awareness about the situations of women in Senegal. After doing the initial filming for this project, I could not continue working on this production due to situations beyond my control. But hopefully, soon, I will refocus on the production and get it completed.

Do you see future developments in cinema in The Gambia?

Yes, I see future developments in cinema in The Gambia. As I stated, already, some of my compatriots including my friend, Prince Sankanou, have been doing great work in the Gambian film sector.  They’re all great inspiration for me and I hope to join them soon, following the long hiatus that kept me away from the sector. 

How do you see your contribution in this regard?

As part of my contribution in the film sector, I will reinitiate some of the projects I need to complete like Fascinala. Additionally, I will explore new projects I wanted to work on before I left The Gambia. I will be delighted to partner with Prince Sankanou to work on a project we’ve discussed about many years ago. In other words, I will work to strengthen the sector. 

Your neighbour, Senegal in contrast has a very long history of cinema and is well known internationally, is their a possibility of co-productions?

Of course, there is a possibility of co-productions between Senegalese and Gambian filmmakers. In fact, I’ve worked with a Senegalese filmmaker on almost all the productions I’ve made after I left Brandeis.

Is there a relationship in terms of local Wollof-language filmmaking?

I’ve a number of friends who are Senegalese filmmakers and some of them produce films in Wollof. They’re very talented people, too. Sutura was filmed in Wollof and “Fascinala” is also in Wollof. Yes, there is some relationship in terms of local Wollof-language filmmaking. There are plans to further develop collaborations with these Senegalese friends, some of whom have become family to me.

Are there other women in The Gambia who are active in the moving image sector and have you been able to connect with them?

In terms of women, I've not had the opportunity to work with any independent female filmmakers when I was at home. The only female filmmaker I encountered was a Gambian lady who at the time I met her was married to a man from Germany and they were working together. This was a while back and I did not know her real name [Isha Fofana], but she was called Mama Africa. There was no opportunity for collaboration between us after our chanced encounter. Other than her, I know of other female "filmmakers" who were working for the national television such as Fatou Camara. Once or twice I've worked with her on some other professional capacity in the past. Of course, I know her in a limited way.  However, I had the opportunity to work with some excellent Gambian male filmmakers like the late Ebrima Sagnia of The Gambia Family Planning Association and his assistant Sanna. I also worked with Omar Njie who helped with some shooting, thanks to his boss Haruna Drammeh of Mediamatics (now of Paradise TV), who offered Njie's services to me for gratis, as support to my endeavour. However, I know that recently there are some rising female Gambian filmmakers in the country. I do not know any of them in person and as such I will not be able to talk about their experiences. Hopefully, anytime I'm able to go to The Gambia, I will be interested in having connections with some of them, just as I had with some female Gambian authors and poets.  

Throughout your higher education you have focused on international development, how have these experiences influenced the themes of your films?

The purpose of studying International Development is to do good for humanity and for the world (including the environment). As such, the films I’ve made so far are all about uplifting the human condition, improving human welfare and well-being and promoting justice and peace. My personal and professional experiences have shaped my passion for international development and that passion has also affected the themes I explore in my filmmaking.

You are currently on the faculty at Lehman College in the United States, where you teach African history and African civilizations, talk about the ways that you use film and cinema in your teaching.

As faculty member of Lehman College, I’ve moderately used film in both my African History and African Civilizations courses. This is the first time I’m teaching both courses. It has been an experiential process. Now, with feedback from the students who were part of both courses, I will better streamline my use of film in the future segments of both courses.  

Future projects, goals, especially as they relate to local cultural production in The Gambia.

I love culture. And one of the things I like to identify myself with is being a scholar of culture. Therefore, my future projects will focus more on issues relating to culture—Gambian or Senegalese culture and in combination, Senegambian culture. Again, as I work to take-off from the hiatus of my filmmaking career, I’ve been musing about producing culture-related documentaries or feature/ drama films. We will see how that goes, God willing.

Interview with Mariama Khan by Beti Ellerson, July 2018.

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