En Français ci-après
I have the sad news of the passing of Chantal Bagilishya, Paris-based Rwandan producer, in the early morning of 28 September. Let us give tribute to her, her work and her contribution to cinema. She will be dearly missed.
Chantal, could you talk about how you came into the world of cinema? What were your experiences as a young girl? Did the idea develop as early as your childhood?
No one in my family has worked in this milieu. It was a dream like all other dreams. One never actually knows whether it will become a reality. As it turns out, my dream has become a reality and I am quite satisfied. I remember exactly when I became aware that I was attracted to the world of cinema. It was the first time I saw the cinematic image, I was just about ten years old. I was completely fascinated by this image...I was watching the TV for the first time. I thought to myself, "How is it possible? How can people actually be behind the television image?" Afterwards, I don't know how it happened exactly. I did not consciously decide to work in the area of cinema. I know that I was very fascinated with the people and later, thirty years later, here I am inside of this world.
You entered having already met people in cinema?
No, not at all. Since it was an area in which I was quite interested, when I went to university I studied communication with a specialization in the audiovisual. In the audiovisual area, I already began to focus on production. While I definitely wanted to work in cinema, I preferred to stay behind the scenes, thus in production.
You have never been interested in actually being a filmmaker?
No, I have never been interested in being a filmmaker or doing any of the artistic aspects. I have always been interested in the area of financing, organization, and the structure around the production. I like the idea of being at the head of the production line.
Did you study cinema production management as part of your course work?
No I did not; actually, there were no formal courses in which one could specialize directly. It took personal motivation and then, of course, the interest in wanting to focus on this aspect. For instance, during my studies, each time that I could pursue a subject or theme individually, I would work on the financial aspects of production, while my colleagues would focus on a certain filmmaker, and so on. The majority of the colleagues in my class became journalists. Out of thirty students, only two of us went in the direction of cinema. I went in the direction of film production, and another colleague is a camera operator for FR3 [a French television station].
After your studies, how did you evolve into cinema in general and cinema production in particular?
I went to the theater five or so times a week. I had many subscriptions to film journals and I read everything concerning cinema. Gradually, I met people who in turn introduced me to others. Eventually I found myself on the inside.
As a producer, could you talk about your profession, and what you do?
The work of a producer consists of going from a project, an idea, and finding the means to materialize it. To materialize an idea, unfortunately, costs a great deal of money. That is, in summary, what I do.
Do you produce mostly African films?
Actually no, for a long time I worked in a French production company where we made documentaries. I have a passion for documentary films, and I am interested in this genre in general. For a long time, I have wanted to work in African cinema, on African film projects. I have lived a great deal of time outside of Africa and, since I do not live on the continent, I feel that to work on a project about Africa provides me with a connection with Africa. The most direct way to have this connection is to work on a film project that takes place in Africa, which gives me the impression of living with Africa.
Have you had the opportunity to be the producer for an African film yet?
Yes, for the first time I had the opportunity to be chosen as executive producer of an African film by Cheick Oumar Sissoko of Mali. I was doubly proud. First, because I would be working on an African film and, secondly, in my opinion Cheick Oumar Sissoko is the best. We have completed the shooting of Genesis and are beginning post-production. It has gone well so far because Sissoko is very good; he is a real artist, and so we speak the same language.
Could you talk a bit about Genesis and the post-production process?
I am now organizing the people and materials needed, which include a technician, editor, mixer, and others who will participate, as well as finding editing and mixing facilities. In addition, I must negotiate prices. Because the costs are very high and it is rare that payments can be made entirely up front, there is always the role of negotiating installment payments.
How did you and Cheick Oumar Sissoko come together in a director/producer relationship?
I was looking for work, he was looking for someone to organize his production, and I was available. Since we all know each other or about each other in this area—we knew each other as colleagues, we knew who was who—we both agreed. I, of course, read the script, and then we discussed how the production would be organized and what was necessary to bring it to fruition.
You are located in Paris and Sissoko is in Mali—is the distance an impediment to the process?
We communicate a great deal by telephone and fax, but also he passes through Europe quite often. Of course, it would be much easier if we were in the same place.
Do you have your own company?
Actually no, I am executive producer and I work independently, in a free-lance context. Companies call me to work on a particular project and when it is over I go to the next one.
In terms of the production of African films, do you think that African filmmakers find it especially difficult to find a producer? Is there a lack of producers who are interested in African films?
No, there is not a lack; in fact, I think that a good idea always finds a producer. Of course, I am exaggerating somewhat. There are many great ideas that, unfortunately, never see the light of day. However, it is as difficult for an African filmmaker debuting in cinema to find a producer as it is for any other artist in the world. Because a producer is someone who, above all, believes in your idea. It is not just any idea, but one that is of interest to the producer. It is also the filmmaker as a human being that interests the producer. To be able to combine both is not always easy. A producer is not a machine; an artist is not a machine. It must be understood that to make a film takes a minimum of two years; it can take five years. Therefore, for two years, five years, we will be together. We work together in difficult conditions. We do not know if the film is going to be made, there is no money. We really have to be motivated and supportive of each other.
If there is a certain compassion and sympathy in the relationship, the work will be easy. You can have one of the most magnificent projects in the world, that is also well-financed, but if I find that on the human level we do not have the same values I will never work with you.
Someone who comes with an idea wants me to find five million, ten million francs to produce it. There is a great deal of ambition on the part of the artist and a great deal of megalomania on the part of the producer to imagine that from an idea she or he will find five million francs; and this is a minimum. Of course, if you are talking about an American film we are talking about millions and millions. On the one hand, there is a certain "absurdness" that goes with this work, and this excitement or extravagance must be managed efficiently. There is a great deal of money that is at stake and everyone is expecting to get something out of it. It takes a special kind of profession to imagine that "your vision" of the world is worth all these millions!
What role do you play once the film has been produced? Do you have any connections with the distribution and exhibition of the film that you produce?
First of all, there is a difference between the production of the fiction film and the documentary. When I worked on documentaries in France, it was handled in a certain way. For instance, either you were an "heir to Ford"—where you could finance your own film—or you had to go through several stages. For example, there must be a television company that is connected to your project and interested in financing it, after which you may get funding from other state institutions, such as the Centre National du Cinéma. Of course, I am simplifying the process. Your film is then contracted to be broadcast by the television company. It is the television company that finances the funding of the film production. In this case, distribution becomes less of a problem. Of course, it is up to the producer to find other companies around the world if you want to reach a larger audience.
On the other hand, the fiction film is more difficult. Financing through a television company only is not sufficient because the cost is often much higher, and the television company cannot assume the cost alone. Then you will still need to find a movie distributor, and that is also difficult.
There are many films that are financed but are never screened in the cinema houses. For example, in France there are some two hundred films that are made each year with a lot of state funding, and there are perhaps only eighty percent of them that are actually shown. Imagine all the people involved in making the film: the producer, the filmmaker, and others who have participated for some time. The family has suffered, and then no one sees it! It is dramatic, but, in fact, it happens often.
Would you say that it occurs twice as much with African films?
Yes, I would say twice as much, but not because they are African films. I do not think that African films are censored. If one can define African films, I would say that they are viewed as art films. Moreover, art films throughout the world have difficulty finding producers. Because quite simply, they do not bring in much money. And this is the case, whether it is a French filmmaker who does not enter in commercial cinema, as we know it, or any other filmmaker across the globe. Even within independent cinema in the United States, filmmakers are in the same situation, although it is America with all the film networks. I think it is a false problem to say that African films are treated differently because they are African films. All films that are different have a limited audience.
What do you see as the future of African cinema?
A cinema cannot exist without the support of the state. So much is determined by it; financial support, for example, and there is a whole legislative structure that must be established. It is not the filmmaker or even FEPACI (Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers) that can do it. It must be the state that takes the lead. And for the moment, African states have no interest at all in this area, or in culture in general. I can even say that there is no interest in anything that has nothing to do with weapons or defense. As long as African governments do not take culture as a right, as a basic element that is essential, as important as any other domain, our cinema will always be nonexistent.
Every cinema in the world—except the United States, which exports its cinema and is doing quite well—the cinema in all the European countries, apart from France, is almost dead. France has been able to preserve a cinema because the state is involved on a daily basis, on all levels. It supports a national cinema; it is an example. Our countries do not do this because, first, culture is not a priority for our governments and, secondly, even if they were financially motivated, they do not understand that cinema is also a source of revenue. For Americans, for instance, U.S. cinema exports rank second in foreign revenues. Support of African cinema does not exist in Africa. Therefore we are obliged to look to the outside for funding. The majority of the funding of African films comes from Europe, from foundations such as the Ministry of Cooperation. While it comes from outside of Africa, it is very generous on their part, because otherwise African films would not exist.
It is rather troubling to realize that without outside support our cinema would be zero, it would not exist. Not because there are no artists—there are many—but because we do not provide the means. There are a few countries in Africa—I know the francophone countries better—that attempt to do something, notably Burkina Faso. We must pay homage to them, we are very thankful. Burkina Faso is a country that is not financially wealthy, but it has given culture the importance it deserves in everyday life. It has done a great deal for cinema and for African cinema in general. There have been many inter-African co-productions initiated by Burkina Faso. Each time that assistance is asked of the state of Burkina Faso, support is given.
Translation from French by Beti Ellerson
En guise d'hommage à Chantal Bagilishya, décédée le 28 septembre 2009, cet entretien réalisé en 1997 et 1998 par Beti Ellerson.
je rigole bien sûr ! (rire).
C’est toujours pareil, c’est une question de langue, c’est l’héritage de la colonisation. Les rapports entre nous ne sont pas très étroits parce qu’on n’arrive pas à communiquer, d’abord de par la langue et deuxièmement parce que le voyage interafricain est plus compliqué et plus cher qu’en passant par l’Europe. Il y a beaucoup de choses qui rendent la communication difficile. Si on veut communiquer, il faut qu’on réfléchisse à d’autres façons de communiquer. La communication est très difficile, non pas parce qu’on a des visions différentes mais parce qu’on a des langues différentes. Dans la cellule de réflexion que les femmes sont en train de faire, il y a des femmes du Kenya, du Ghana et aussi des femmes francophones : moi, des Burkinabés et d’autres. Nous avons toute la bonne volonté du monde pour essayer de communiquer mais c’est difficile, et ça fait mal.