The purpose of the African Women in Cinema Blog is to provide a space to discuss diverse topics relating to African women in cinema--filmmakers, actors, producers, and all film professionals. The blog is a public forum of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema.

Le Blog sur les femmes africaines dans le cinéma est un espace pour l'échange d'informations concernant les réalisatrices, comédiennes, productrices, critiques et toutes professionnelles dans ce domaine. Ceci sert de forum public du Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinémas.


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24 March 2010

From the Diaspora (Cuba): Focus on Gloria Rolando

From the Diaspora (Cuba): Focus on Gloria Rolando

Pioneer Afro-Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando is both prolific and inspiring. The subjects of her films are as varied as the experiences of the peoples of African descent of Cuba. Her filmography includes: Sisters of the Heart (in progress) Dialogo con mi abuela/Dialog with My Grandmother (2016) Reembarque/ Reshipment (2014, Breaking the Silence (2012), (2011), (2010), Pasajes Del Corazón y La Memoria/Cherished Island Memories (2007), Nosotros y el Jazz/The Jazz in Us (2004), Los Marqueses de Atarés (2003), Raices de Mi Corazon/Roots of My Heart (2001), El Alacrán/The Scorpion (2001), Eyes of the Rainbow (a film about Assata Shakur, 1997) My Footsteps in Baragua (1996), Oggun: An Eternal Presence (1991).

The timeless 1996 interview with Gloria Rolando reveals her passion for and dedication to African disapora history and culture. It was originally published in 2000 in Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film Video and Television by Beti Ellerson.

Gloria Rolando visited Washington, DC in November 1996, during a tour in the United States. Her films were screened at Howard University (Washington, DC) and a question-and-answer session followed, from which excerpts are included. The interview was transcribed from a televised interview, which was part of Reels of Colour, a talk show series that aired locally in Washington, DC from 1997 to 2000, produced and hosted by Beti Ellerson.

Gloria, could you talk about your experiences as a filmmaker in Cuba, how you got started in filmmaking?

I started working at the Institute of Cuban Film in Havana in 1976 when I finished my studies in art history. I belonged to a group of students at the university with whom I started working in movies. We did not have school at that time, although we now have an international school and a national school. The people who were part of the Institute of Cuban Film at the time already had the practical experience of making movies, so we learned by doing films. We did the research, assisted the director during the production, during the shooting, and especially during the editing. This is how I started.

I mainly worked on documentary films, so I worked with the majority of Cuban filmmakers involved in documentaries. The documentary for us was and is an important genre to learn. Seeing the film evolve, from the moment of the idea until the end, was for me and for many others an important experience.

I notice that your films Oggun and My Footsteps were shot on video. Do you mostly work in video?

We used to work in 35mm but now we have acquired experience in video. Some of us filmmakers also belong to the National Video Movement, and now there is a possibility to continue doing documentaries. In my case this is how I made Oggun: Forever Present and also My Footsteps in Baragua, both in video.

Is this choice largely because of the lower cost and the ease, comparatively speaking, in making films in video rather than 16mm or 35mm?

To do documentaries in 35mm is expensive, while video is cheaper and it gives one the possibility and the access to do more things. The cost of video production is not so expensive and it enables one to move faster in terms of the production of the film.

In looking at these two films, I see themes of memory, of African mythology and storytelling within the context of African diasporan cultures in the Americas. Are those the themes that you most want to get across?

I follow the practice that I started at the Institute of Cuban Film, because there I worked on all kinds of topics, such as sports, politics, and art. The objective was to continue the cultural tradition, using the documentary. It is true that when I decided to do my own directing, the collective memory, the presence of the people that surrounded me in the neighborhood, in the culture that I know, the Caribbean culture—because Cuba is part of the Caribbean—is something that I was attracted to and wanted to reflect.

The history sometimes shows only one group of people, but it is a common history of many others. It is this kind of thing that we talk about, the Diaspora and the kind of African roots that we have in Cuba. In so many of the Caribbean cultures, like here, you need to talk with the elders because they can tell you the history and its connection with Africa. This cultural, economic, and social history also grew in this part of the continent.

Your background in art, how do you connect that to your work in film?

When you study at the university, you receive a general background in culture, which is mostly European culture. At that time, I did not learn too much about African culture or the culture of the Diaspora. Therefore, I learned it from a combination of things. During my years while working at the Institute of Cuban Film, I discovered that I was more connected to the culture in my country. I also attended conferences and lectures at the Casa de las Americas, a prestigious institution in Cuba, which opened doors to Latin American and Cuban culture. There I met many important writers and painters from Latin American countries and Caribbean countries. I became more open to understanding something that we call our identity. It is something that is part of your education and the environment that surrounds you. Moreover, to talk about our identity is a combination of the past, present, and also the future, and the history of the people that surround you. It is not something that I need to invent or that I am only seeing for the first time.

I was struck by the elements of interviewing, the fictionalization of the story of the Orishas, and the actual ceremony of the worship. Describe your experiences in making the film Oggun.

Well, Oggun: Forever Present was my first film as director. When I decided to make Oggun, I worked with Lazaro Ros, who is the most important Yoruba singer that we have in Cuba. The film is dedicated to him. Many people from Yorubaland in Nigeria arrived in Cuba during the slavery era, and it is amazing that this culture right to the present is so strong, with such a strong spirituality. It is part of the Cuban population, for both the people that practice this tradition and even those who do not practice it. We have many blacks involved in this tradition and some whites also.

It is a culture that is alive, it is in the street. You don't need to go to the archives to get the information. It is information that you can get with your neighbors, with relatives, with friends that invite you to the religious parties. You discover this kind of philosophy in the street, this kind of dialogue with nature. I made Oggun with these kinds of resources. I did the research in the street while Lazaro told me the history. Of course, he has a beautiful voice, but for me it was not only important that he perform in the movie. It was important that we have a long interview where he could explain his experience and his spirituality, that at the same time is a spirituality that lives inside of him, yet belongs to many other people.

Could you talk about how Oggun as the legend, and as one of the Orishas of the Yoruba religion, ties into the spiritual practices in Cuba?
Within the Yoruba tradition there is the worship of the Orishas, who represent the powers of nature and also some very human feelings. For example, Oggun is the god of metal. Oshun is the owner of love, the owner of the river and of the sweetest element in nature, which is honey. Shango is the owner of thunder and the drums. He also represents masculinity. Yemanja is the owner of the sea, and life starts in the sea. So all these Orishas help in understanding the cosmology that comes from Africa, because sometimes it is thought that only the drums came from Africa. So they explain the world according to a cultural practice that took place in Africa.

In spite of the discrimination and exploitation that has taken place since slavery time, it is something that is still alive. Of course, we have lost a lot, but, through our films, recordings, and books, we are able to keep this collective memory. This worship is very rich in Cuba.

The name of the film is Oggun because Lazaro is initiated in this deity; he is the son of Oggun. He tells the history of the Patakinin Cuba, which means legend or mythology. In the film, he recounts the legend of Oggun, and around Oggun he narrates the history of many other Orishas.

In the film, you relate the relationship between Oggun and Oshun. Oshun was able to capture the love of Oggun.  Is this part of the legend, that he stayed within his own world and he was not able to share his love and finally Oshun seduced him with honey?

Each Orisha has many ways that it manifests itself. The history that I told in fiction in this film is a relationship between love and war, and love conquers and attracts. Oggun tastes the honey that Oshun puts to his lips and he is conquered by the love. There are many versions and histories about this. My purpose was to show the universal values that are in all cultures, which can be presented in fiction form. Part of the narration was made by Lazaro, and I continued the history in the dramatization of this legend. I used both languages in the film, fiction and documentary.

Your storytelling continues in your second film, My Footsteps in Baragua. When you say "my footsteps," are you talking about your actual footsteps in the process?

The title is from a Trinidadian poem, "My Footsteps in the Homeland." We took the title My Footsteps in Baragua because I was trying to narrate the history as if I narrated it myself. So, I take the point of view of a woman who used to live in this neighborhood in the east part of Cuba called Baragua in the province of Ciego de Avila. Through her voice, I narrate to try to let people know about this neighborhood.

There are many interesting people in the film and how did you meet them?

One of the people I interviewed was one of the last Barbadian women in the community, Mrs. Jones. When I met these people I said, "We need to do something about this history." She and many others arrived in Cuba—not only in Baragua but in other parts as well—at the beginning of the century with the hopes of having a decent life and with the idea of going back home. Some of them sent money back home because they needed to take care of the families that were in the rest of the islands. Most of them stayed in Cuba, they had families, and are now part of Cuba and their descendants as well.

It is a history of an immigration that ended many years ago, but we still feel the roots in the present. People are surprised when they come to Cuba and find that there are some black people that speak English and have English names. They often ask, "What are their roots?" My Footsteps is a tribute to all those people who arrived in Cuba and brought their culture. So, when we talk about the Diaspora and the oral tradition, this personal history is also part of this collective memory. Migration within the Caribbean Islands, where people search for a home and work, is still alive.

Are there autobiographical aspects of the film? Do you have ancestors in the English-speaking Caribbean?

I don't know, maybe. I live in a Caribbean island and everything is connected and is part of my life. So, even if I don't have these roots exactly, I feel a special commitment to tell something about this history. Even before I made My Footsteps, I had already found this history in the 1980s when I worked on the film Haiti in the Memory. During the process of researching and shooting this 18-minute documentary, I found black people who spoke English and I asked them where they came from. They told me that they came from Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, and Montserrat. I knew that in Cuba there were some black people who had English names, so I tried to write something about this history, and I thought that My Footsteps could show more of this history.

To what extent are the people from the English-speaking Caribbean integrated into the Cuban experience and culture?

They are part of Cuba as well. In the film they talk about when they arrived in Cuba in 1914, 1915, 1920. They arrived as immigrants and, of course, they were integrated into the cheap labor force and worked in the sugar factory. At that time, they were very isolated because of discrimination. As time passed, the people who stayed in Cuba became part of the country. They respect their customs, but they are totally integrated into the Cuban society, they are not separated. While they are descendants of another culture, they have the same rights, go to the same schools, and have the same opportunities.

Do the Cuban-born descendants of these immigrants speak English?

Some of them do, it all depends on whether their relatives spoke the language. It is a personal relationship that they have at home. Some of the people try to speak English and to learn English—not like me, because my English is not very good. But, they learn English at school. Though some of them do not speak English very well, they understand because they have the elders, their grandfathers and grandmothers, who are still alive. So they are obliged to speak it.

There was a discussion in the film of the immigration from English-speaking regions of the Caribbean to Panama, and then these same people migrated from Panama to Cuba. Could you talk about that?

I knew about this movement from reading about it. However, I realized the importance of this part of the history when I visited Jamaica, and especially Barbados. I found books and pictures which showed that the movement in the Caribbean countries since the last century was to Panama. After the emancipation of the slaves, although they were free, they had to continue in the plantation system because they did not have work. The big movement and opportunity, which we call the "Panama Fever," came during the construction of the railroad and then afterwards the Panama Canal. Many people went there, and at the same time there was a separation. There was a disintegration of many families because it was mainly the men of the family who went to Panama for work. Many of them died during the building of the Canal. In 1914, when the construction was over, they had to decide whether to go back home where they did not have many possibilities, or to go to Cuba, where, at the time, there were opportunities in the sugar industry. So they decided to go to Cuba.

Discussion with Gloria Rolando after the screening of Oggun at Howard University, 1996.

Let me tell you a bit about my history. I belong to the Institute of Cuban Films, where I have been working since 1976, after finishing my studies in art history. I did not study movies because at that time we did not have a school. My generation and the older generation of Cuban filmmakers learned movies by doing movies. The people who teach in the international school are the same Cuban filmmakers who have been working in the industry for many years; they became filmmakers and afterwards they became professors. This generation will be more qualified than my generation; there will be more women involved in the technical areas in the future. Now in the Cuban cinema industry we don't have many women working in the technical areas such as, camera and audio. We write and direct but we don't have access to the technology. I think that for the younger people there will be better conditions. In general, it is difficult for everybody because of the economic conditions that we have now.

In 1977, I wrote my first script, which was about the traditions that came to Cuba through Haiti after the Haitian Revolution. I studied music many years ago, so I knew a little bit about the language of music. While studying at the Institute of Cuban Film, I put image with sound. So it was a big risk, but I think that this first project that I worked on opened a new world to me and I fell in love with this work. I know that it is not easy, I know that it is not cheap, I know that it requires much personal dedication and effort, but I love my work. It is not only to be able to make your own films, it is a responsibility that we have to conserve the culture and pass something on to the younger generation.

Audience: When talking about the economy and technology in Cuba now, it is very expensive to shoot on celluloid. Are you finding that more and more people are beginning to go towards video because it is a lot more accessible and the technology seems to be changing towards video for post-production, which is a lot cheaper than it is for film?

Your question is very interesting, because it is one of the areas that we are trying to develop. In Cuba the National Video Movement has developed, which means that if you have access to a camera that you can share with a group of people, you can form your own crew and no company is needed. Some of us Cuban filmmakers are now involved in video. Oggun was shot in video, in Betacam, and edited in the same system.

At the beginning, I worked mainly in the production of documentaries. We produced around fifteen documentaries every year, so we had plenty of work at that time. I had been working in this way since 1976, and suddenly the production went down. What could we do? Some of us were trying to do something in order not to lose the tradition. Though Cuban fiction film is important, I think that the tradition of documentaries is much more important, because it is really our genre. Many topics that we worked on in documentary form became fiction film, but sometimes it was not possible. We were also aware of the fact that through documentaries we could preserve our culture and spiritual values. I think that it is an authentic way, especially, to focus on black culture in Cuban, Cuban culture in general, but especially black culture, whose foundation is in the oral tradition.

When I realized this, I started working more in video. I made Oggun with a new company called Video America. I planned to do something in 35mm but it was very expensive, and a battle I could not start. For that reason I decided to create the video group, Images of the Caribbean, which came out of the National Video Movement in Cuba. I am now in the process of getting more technology to develop this group. My Footsteps in Baragua was shot in Hi-8, we had the same production crew as Oggun, and we edited it in 3/4.

I know that it is not easy when you have been working in a professional way and suddenly you need to change the technology and the conditions of production, but what could we do? Stop? Cuban culture is very rich and the reality is so strong—the elders, and the heritage that comes from Africa, the problems of the black people, how could we wait? For me—and I think that other filmmakers feel this way—we want to continue. Yes, if it is not possible to work in 35mm now, we will do it in video. I made Oggun in 1991 and it was only last year that I could shoot again. The worries that I had between 1991 and last year were too much—many dreams, so how could I sleep!

Audience: I especially liked the dramatic aspects of the film. When you interviewed Lazaro Ros, were you planning all along to dramatize his story? What was your approach when you first set out to make this documentary?

When I first decided to make the film about Lazaro, I interviewed him many times. At that time, he was still working at the Folklorico Nacional de Cuba. I had already had the script for three years, but nothing happened. When I found that the people of Video America were interested in doing the film project, I interviewed him again. In one of the interviews, he told me about the mythology about Oggun and Oshun according to the Patakin legend. I loved it very much and I decided to start the film in this way.

Some people asked me why I started in this way. Well, because I wanted to put the people immediately inside of this world, this magical world, this world that comes from Africa. I wanted to put them inside of the mythology, the spirituality, inside of the forest. Lazaro told me about this history, but I consulted with many other believers about Oshun and Oggun. It is not something that you need to consult in the archives. It is something that your neighbors within two or three blocks have, especially those who live in black neighborhoods like old Havana. I didn't need to go to the library; I talked with many others in the streets. I think it is very important to be open to the reality of our people.

I asked them if I could show Oshun without clothes and they said, "Yes, why not? Oshun is beautiful, Oshun is honey, don't you know love?" I decided to show the beautiful body of Oshun, because what we women do in Cuba when we want to capture men is give them honey. But it is part of the mythology and the reality that people live.

I decided to dramatize this when Lazaro told me that these Patakins have a meaning in the religion; in the practice they use honey, stone, the water that comes from the river and the sea, and the elements within the culture. When I decided to dramatize this, what counted was the relationship between people and nature, the plants and the animals. Everything is part of the cosmology because the African people consider human beings and nature as one, nothing is separate. This philosophy I tried to show through this dramatization. This is something that I had to open with immediately. I could not wait for it later in the film; I wanted to show it at the first moment, I wanted to signify it by starting this way. Of course, I had to combine it with some moments of Lazaro's own life. He talked about his concept of religion.

The second thing was where to interview Lazaro, because if I had done so in the studio I would have broken the fantasy. There is a relationship between the place that I interviewed him and the mythology, so it must be near the ceiba. In Cuba, nobody cuts the ceiba. The ceiba is a sacred tree like the baobab in Africa. All the ancestors, all the sacred ceremonies take place at the ceiba and also by the palm trees, because we dialogue with nature. I had Lazaro sit at the ceiba, which is in the same area where Oggun lives. That was the connection, and it was also a way to interpret the world that Lazaro was talking about. I did not want to separate him, shoot him in the studio and then to show the mythology in another place. So everything must be integrated.

Could you talk more about the forms of worship that you documented in the film, Yoruba forms of worship, and the other forms of worship that exist in society, such as Christianity? What are the attitudes of the State towards religions in general and particularly the forms of worship that you have filmed?

Cuba is very rich in African tradition: people from Yorubaland in Nigeria, from Angola arrived in Cuba. We have a tradition that comes from old Dahomey, and I am very worried, because those who are left are very old people and we have very little documentation about them. We have many influences. In Cuba, we also have a Haitian presence. To talk about a Cuban culture in terms of Africa is really very complex because in all these groups there are cultural manifestations of religion. They have their own drums, but something that all the drums have in common is that they were brought by people who were subjected to slavery. There are many influences from Africa, but the elders died before transmitting the secrets. The Yoruba tradition that exists in Cuba is only part of the worship, and for many years, the elders did not like to have films made about this tradition. They were very careful and feared revealing Yoruba secrets, but now they are more open.

But we must also be careful. Do we want to make a spectacle of the sacrifices, as many Europeans do when they come to Cuba? Or do we want to show the spirituality? I need to ask myself many times, "What would I like to show? Is it an ethnographic movie, or is it a film to recreate the atmosphere of the spirituality that the people have inside?" I have had the experience of seeing many people arrive in Cuba: they shoot, they talk with the elders, they promise many things. Really, they do not respect the culture, and they do not show the real face of it. The tourists talk to the black people who play the drums. But what happens? They never talk to people like Lazaro. I decided to give a voice to these people. We have a diversity of manifestations. I am not interested in describing the worship. The worship is a religion: if you want to know, you must be involved. We need to protect the religion and not exploit the religion; they are two different things. I think that people in Brazil and many of the Caribbean and Latin American countries play a lot with this culture, they use this culture, and we have some of these same manifestations and I am scared of that. The only way that I can fight and do something different is with films like Oggun.

I also want to develop something about Shango, because Shango is the owner of the drums. All these drums come from Africa, and if we have this diversity of religions, it is because the Orisha who was king in Oya brought this through the Middle Passage, through the history. It is this kind of thing that I want to reveal.

When I visit the black churches here in the black community in the United States, I am surprised how African they are, even if they are Baptists or Episcopal. They play the drums with the body, the hands, with the voice, and it is beautiful, it is Africa. We ask, "Where is Africa in the Diaspora?" The colonialists say, "You speak English, Spanish, you speak French, you are Protestants, you practice Voodoo, you are different." No, we have more things that are in common than are different, and this is the analysis that I would like to show in a film about Shango. I hope that he will help me do it.

It is true that you cannot expect that prejudices will no longer exist. Even with the revolution in Cuba, some people have prejudices; some ignore the real value and use it only for tourism. It is a long process, and I think that we people who work in the media have the responsibility to give another kind of answer and to educate.

Discrimination within this culture is something that has happened since the time of slavery. Cuba was colonized by the Spanish, and Africans were obliged to accept Catholicism. However, some Africans were permitted to organize under what is called thecabildo. They had to accept the Catholic name in the front. For example, you pray for Santa Barbara, but in the back you pray for Shango and have the drums. You have San Francisco but in the back, you have Orunla. There is the Lady of Mercy but it is Obatala who is clothed in white. In my neighborhood, which is in Old Havana, there is a celebration on 24 September, which is the day of the Virgin of Mercy that in the Yoruba tradition is the birthday of Obatala. The church is full, because they love the church, but also because it is Obatala. And Obatala is the owner of the head and for that reason people cover their heads in white, and everything is in the head. When people are being initiated you can no longer touch their heads, only the elders can.

Because of this kind of tradition, it is something that you cannot stop because it is part of the Cuban culture. We have deep, deep roots and it is impossible to take them up. The first ones to preserve this culture were the Maroons who keep to themselves, but they also keep the traditions. There are some whites that are involved, because they discovered how powerful our religion and culture is.

Audience: Could you talk about what was involved in filming the party?

The camera operator and I tried to figure out how to hide the microphones because this was something very important. Normally this kind of party takes place indoors, but if the party had been indoors we would have had to use lights, and the weather in Cuba is a little bit hotter than here, and secondly, it would have created a distance with the people. We used two Betacam cameras. We invited people with whom Lazaro wanted to share this party. We decided to have it outdoors in an old building in Old Havana in a complex where people would not feel distant. The sound operator had many microphones around the Obatala drums. He was with the Nagra recorder in one place in the back and controlled the camera and the microphone that was always with Lazaro. And in this way, we separated Lazaro's voice from the drums, which were very powerful, and the choir, but it was not easy.

I brought the crew to different parties to study. I advised them that we need to respect the order, we couldn't repeat any dance or song, we couldn't stop. It was only one time that we had the chance to catch everything and also to follow closely because you do not know what is going to happen during this kind of party, if the people would become possessed.

Audience: Could you talk about the icons and symbols that were used—water, light, wind and fire, and steel? When you were dealing with steel at one time, you stepped outside of the narrower environment and went to a larger steel factory with more powerful technology. This caught my attention; it was a bit out of the norm. Were you aware of that, was that what you wanted to do?

When I was doing the research, Lazaro told me that Oggun exists in the present, which is how I got the name of the film Oggun: Forever Present. So it doesn't mean that he exists only in the past, he is in the present also. I decided to shoot in an old place in Havana where metal is melted. The place was so dangerous and I was so scared. One camera operator was with the big melting machine and I was downstairs where it was less dangerous.  I told the camera operator, "No, you can go alone and shoot." It was hard, but I decided to do it because I wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the metal, its beauty. I tried to show not only the expression of love, but also the transcendental aspects of his work. I decided to shoot the place where Oggun worked in one color, in the color of the metal.

What is important when doing this kind of work is to convey to the people what you want, and they will be involved with you in the same atmosphere. During the shooting of Oggun, when we were filming the honey, something magical happened. When we were shooting, a ray of sun appeared, and suddenly Raoul, one of the camera operators, said, "Look what is happening now, close to the honey!" It was Raoul who discovered this ray of sun. I said, "Do something, we need to shoot immediately!" He said, "Wait." When you see this, you will see that there was a reason that he wanted to wait, and it is very important. It was not a special effect. It was because he was involved with the spirit of what we were trying to show that he caught this magical moment. The meaning of the honey was revealed through this effect. We could have done this with a special effect, but this was natural.

When you are shooting, you have to be open. You may have written something else but the reality is so rich that you cannot be so closed and think, "No I didn't write this in the script." No, shoot and then you see what happens. There were small elements, such as the dog sleeping. We didn't know the purpose of the dog, but afterwards when I was editing, suddenly it worked because it helped to make the transition. The dog was awake while Oggun was working. Then she was tired and went to sleep; yet Oggun continued working.

We shot the rest of the animals in the zoo, not in the forest, because we didn't have time. We didn't have permission to go inside the cage, so we shot the two parakeets kissing each other from the outside. Our presence caused a big disturbance inside the cage. And apparently the couple became angry and decided to go into the small house, we immediately got the camera, we only had seconds to shoot, we didn't know how long it would last, so we had to be open.

To make films it is very important to have a budget and the technology, but also to have experience and a good heart, as well as to be able to convey to the people that work with you the importance of catching everything that happens. During the shooting ofMy Footsteps, it rained for two weeks. Raoul finally said, "Let's go shoot the rain, because it is raining everyday." I used some moments of the rain to help me capture the sense of time passing, and the sense of nostalgia. You never know, even if you write everything, something else will happen, and you have to shoot, you have to catch these ideas.

In the dancing there are times when the dancers became possessed. Should we not see it? Does the culture allow that to be seen? Does the culture not allow that to be seen? If the culture does allow that to be seen, what restricts the filmmaker from showing it? Respect for the culture?—which does not make sense in this context—or the filmmaker's interpretation of how that might appear for a different consuming audience that may not understand what they are seeing, and therefore would like to keep that away? There is this dilemma of how do we censor ourselves in showing our culture because we may think that in the West they may not understand it?

In my case, it is a question of respect and I know that they don't want the possession to be shown. We can show some things, but not the moment of the total possession when they talk. At this moment I didn't shoot. Even in the last dance for Oggun at the end of the film, the man went to the shrine and took the machete. He was there in the shrine, the image...we need to respect what happened to this man.

The drums are not only drums, they are deities. The drums are part of the initiation. They receive a sacrifice; the drums are fed also. It is through the drums that the Orishas are called. When the people are initiated, and the Obatala drums are played very well, sometimes people go into possession, even if the drums are not fed. It happened during the shooting. The strong energy spread during this moment and provoked possession. The woman that was dancing for Oya, she was out, completely out. So I showed parts of the possession with discretion, I did not shoot everything, I cut off the camera. I cut it off because I thought it was not necessary. I showed the film to the believers many times, and I also wanted Lazaro to feel comfortable with the film, to be happy with the film. Show the reality, the mythology, but also respect the people that he invited to participate in the party. I know that there are many others who want to show these kinds of elements, but we need to show respect.

[The following was an important point regarding the sensitivity around shooting possession that Gloria Rolando discussed at the African Literature Association (ALA) Conference at Michigan State University in April 1997].

In Cuba it is not only the possession but the internal worship and sacrifice and many other things they don't like to show. They permit you as an artist to make art around the religion, but not describe the worship, they don't permit this. Maybe in some houses, maybe some people do it, but it was not my intention. In the case of the possession it happened the same way, they considered this as part of the secret of the religion. And if we want them to accept what we are trying to do as artists, we need to respect them.

Audience: What can the Diaspora in the United States offer you in terms of support of your work?

When I came here for the first time, I often heard the word Diaspora, the African Diaspora. What does the African Diaspora mean to you? What is the history of the African Diaspora? We need to recognize the history of what happened to the black people of this continent after they were brought here in slavery. If you talk about the African Diaspora, you need to study what happens in the Caribbean countries because it is part of our history. While this history happens in rural areas, I don't think it is unfamiliar to people who live in cities. In the United States there are many people who have Caribbean roots and I think that Africa isn't only the past, it is also the present. It is present in these ways, in this century, with these people who are still alive. It is present in the people who worked in Panama trying to get a better life; the people who migrate from Jamaica right now to this country to work. I saw a documentary called H2 Worker before I came here; it is about Jamaicans who got visas to come here to cut cane in Florida.

In Africa, you may find some cities, but the majority of the people live in the rural areas. It is a history that concerns all of us. I need to clarify this because I live in a city, but I know that it is part of my roots. Even if I don't have English-speaking Caribbean roots, I have Cuban roots. I want you to understand my culture and the culture of the black people in my country. We need to consider it a phenomenon of migration because it is something that belongs not only in the past, it also is in the present. We also need to come together because I think it is not only my personal work, we need to work together to defend our culture, our point of view. So I am trying to get technology to bring to Cuba not only for my own work, it is a collaboration between filmmakers, between people involved in culture, a culture that we need to defend.


Filmography updated March 2018 

08 March 2010

A Conversation with Isabelle Boni-Claverie by Beti Ellerson

(Photo © Pascal Gentil)
Franco-Ivoirien, Isabelle Boni-Claverie, writer, filmmaker, cultural activist | écrivaine, cinéaste, activiste culturelle
Version française ci-après

Isabelle, could you detail your own development in cinema, your films, how they have been received?

I have been working in cinema since ten years. When my first short film, The Genius of Abou was released in festivals, as it was very personal and relatively successful, people thought that I had finished my studies and were now awaiting my feature film. In fact, I had just arrived at Fémis (École Nationale Supérieure des Métiers de l'Image et du Son) as an apprentice screenwriter, and I never imagined being a cineaste. It took me some time to actually wear this second hat. I have made some short documentaries but I am first and foremost a “fiction” person. I need to recreate a story through my perception of reality in order to make it visible. In 2004, I made a second short film in Marseille, Pour la nuit (For the Night), for which I had a lot of means, a technical team of fifty people, and as many extras. It really was the cinema! This film convinced the producers that I had to make a feature film. I currently have two projects in the works. One is a psychological thriller that takes place in the United States and will be shot in English. The other is a comedy that will, hopefully, give a different view of black people in France, particularly those of African origin. But the hat that I wear for the moment is that of screenwriter. It's my job, I've acquired a real expertise and I am happy that it is now recognized in the profession.

Could you talk about the film Pour la nuit and its reception?

It is a story that I wrote spontaneously in one night. I submitted the synopsis to my producer who said, “let’s do it!” At the time, I do not know why, I wanted to shoot in Sweden. I wanted my character to be in a city where she would feel completely foreign. And I like the North Sea, its vast desert beaches. The producer thought that Sweden was a bit expensive... So I suggested Côte d'Ivoire, a very urban film where Abidjan would be a character in itself. I crisscrossed Abidjan a lot at night when I was a teenager. I had very unique experiences, often poetic, that I've never seen transcribed in a film. The producer gave the OK. Yet, it was not that much cheaper! While waiting for replies for funding the political situation began to worsen in Côte d'Ivoire. There was so much distrust, so much violence, including the lugubrious "death squads", that it no longer seemed possible to make a film there that would be shot almost entirely in the exterior and at night. I settled for Marseille, which like Abidjan, is a city built on the edge of the water, with long roads, and a cosmopolitan environment. Of course, I did not make the same film. But I think that I was able to keep most of what I wanted to say: How each copes with life’s grief, even in a less conventional way. I was very touched by the reactions of audiences at various festivals in which I presented. Many times women came to me spontaneously, saying they had responded similarly during a loss. While this is a film about death, many have said it was a wonderful call to life. I very much appreciated receiving the Signis Ecumenical Jury Prize or that of the "prix du public" at the Amiens prison. The prisoners told me that they felt good to hear about love and to see a "little rascal" who also had her share of humanity. These are the kinds of reactions that give meaning to the films that one makes.

I really like the film. I see it in the context of identity, especially identity in movement, in Africa and Europe. Muriel seems very at ease as a Frenchwoman but I sense ambivalence in her bi-racial identity, especially vis-à-vis her mother, though I also feel a tension with her father. In reflecting on the debate raging about identity in France right now, could you reflect on your identity as a Franco-Ivorian and your film Pour la nuit in this context?

The debate over national identity in France is a false debate about a false problem. The French nation has always been diverse. This diversity is visible more now than ever and people no longer want to deny a part of themselves in order to melt into a model of assimilation. It irritates some disgruntled people. But the French have rejected this debate by an overwhelming majority. However, there is still some way to go for a “metissage”, whether cultural or ethnic, to become fully accepted. When you are mixed, you are always asked to choose. As if you could amputate a part of yourself! I feel completely French in France and fully Ivorian in Côte d'Ivoire. I'm not accountable to anyone, and certainly am under no obligation to prove my nationality, which, in fact, from the very start I had no choice in the matter! As I enjoy saying sometimes, the only person in my family who actually migrated was my grandmother. She was white, French, and she came to settle in Côte d'Ivoire.

Undoubtedly, it is hard to situate my character Muriel in Pour la nuit. She made her choice, to identify with her father who is white. Perhaps her mother did not give her sufficient reason to be proud of her African-ness or, she simply did not transmit her culture to her daughter. So, Muriel finds it very difficult to connect to the black part of herself. At the same time she feels that if she does not, something is missing, hence her aggression towards her father. Her encounter with a young man of Arab origin will enable her to connect with that part of herself which comes from elsewhere. Then and only then, will she finally be able to mourn her deceased mother.

You are also a writer...

Yes, I wrote a novel, La Grande Dévoreuse, when I was very young, at age seventeen, which was published. Then a few stories have appeared in literary magazines or have remained unpublished. It's La Grande Dévoreuse which led me to cinema because I wanted this story to continue to live in other ways. I love telling stories, inventing worlds, creating characters. To write responses to my deep curiosity of others and to help me better understand the world in which I live. In doing so, I hope to help those who read my work or watch my films, by giving them the emotional and spiritual keys to understand their own reality.

All of these creative elements, do you live each one separately? Together?

Together. Everything is connected and shares the same source. A story can live in me as a literary form. The images and sensations that the text arouses in me can give me the desire to make a film, or several. A number of my scenarios were born from new material, which I hope to publish someday.

Could you talk a bit about cinema in Côte d'Ivoire and your experiences with your colleagues there?

I do not know this milieu very well as I live and work in France, but also because there is simply no longer a cinema in Côte d'Ivoire! The "elders" of the first generation have died or no longer make films. There has not actually been a change of hands that has taken place. There was a policy put in place in the late 1990s to provide an institutional base to structure a film industry. It was a good policy, and at that time some Ivoirian colleagues and I established the association CORI, to implement on-site projects. But then the coups and war started, breaking the momentum. Today, the only really interesting initiative that I know of is an international festival of short films, CIFA, which takes place every two years in Abidjan.

I notice that you are immersed in the new technology of the Internet and the digital…

Yes, I love my computer and the Internet! I often say that if there were an object that I had to take on a desert island, it would be my laptop equipped with a Wifi connection. Even alone I would continue to feel like a citizen of the world.

Interview with Isabelle Boni-Claverie by Beti Ellerson, February 2010. Translation from French by Beti Ellerson.

(Photo © Pascal Gentil)
Isabelle, peux-tu élaborer sur ton évolution dans le cinéma, tes films, comment ils sont reçus ?

Cela fait maintenant dix ans que je travaille dans le cinéma. Quand mon premier court métrage, « Le Génie d’Abou » est sorti dans les festivals, comme il était très personnel et relativement abouti, les gens ont cru que j’avais fini mes études et attendaient mon long métrage. En fait, je venais tout juste d’entrer à la Fémis, comme apprentie scénariste, et je ne m’étais jamais imaginée réalisatrice. Cela m’a pris du temps d’assumer cette seconde casquette. J’ai réalisé quelques documentaires courts mais je suis avant tout quelqu’un de fiction. J’ai besoin de recréer à travers une histoire ma perception de la réalité pour mieux la donner à voir. En 2004, j’ai réalisé à Marseille un second court métrage, « Pour la Nuit », pour lequel j’ai eu beaucoup de moyens, une équipe technique de 50 personnes, et autant de figurants, c’était vraiment du cinéma ! Ce film a convaincu les producteurs que je devais réaliser un long métrage. J’ai actuellement deux projets en cours. L’un est un thriller psychologique qui se passe aux Etats-Unis et sera tourné en anglais. L’autre une comédie qui donnera, je l’espère, un autre regard sur les Noirs de France, en particulier ceux d’origine africaine.
Mais ma première casquette, pour le moment, c’est celle de scénariste. C’est mon métier, j’y ai acquis un réel savoir-faire et je suis heureuse que celui-ci soit aujourd’hui reconnu dans la profession.

Ton film « Pour la nuit » et sa réception…

C’est une histoire que j’ai écrite, comme ça, en une nuit. J’ai présenté le synopsis à mon producteur qui a dit banco. A l’époque, je ne sais pas pourquoi, j’avais envie tourner en Suède. Je voulais que mon personnage se retrouve dans une ville où elle se sentirait totalement étrangère. Et j’aime la mer du Nord, ses immenses plages désertes. Le producteur a trouvé que la Suède c’était un peu cher… Alors je lui ai proposé la Côte d’Ivoire, un film très urbain où Abidjan serait un personnage à part entière. J’ai beaucoup sillonné Abidjan la nuit quand j’étais adolescente. J’y ai vécu des choses singulières, souvent poétiques, que je n’ai jamais vues retranscrites dans un film. Le producteur a dit OK. Pourtant ce n’était pas tellement plus économique ! J’attendais des réponses de financement quand la situation politique a commencé à empirer en Côte d’Ivoire. Il y avait une telle méfiance, une telle violence, notamment avec les lugubres « escadrons de la mort », que ça ne paraissait pas possible de faire un film là-bas qui se passait presque entièrement en extérieurs et de nuit. Je me suis rabattue sur Marseille qui est, comme Abidjan, une ville construite au bord de l’eau, avec de longues routes, et un environnement cosmopolite. Bien sûr, je n’ai pas fait le même film. Mais j’ai préservé je crois l’essentiel de ce que je voulais dire : Comment chacun compose avec les deuils de la vie, même si c’est de la manière la moins conventionnelle qui soit. J’ai été très touchée par les réactions des publics dans les différents festivals où je l’ai présenté. Plusieurs fois des femmes sont venues me voir spontanément en me disant qu’elles avaient réagi de la même façon lors d’un deuil. Alors que c’est un film qui parle de la mort, on m’a souvent dit que c’était un magnifique appel à la vie. J’ai ainsi beaucoup apprécié de recevoir le prix du jury œcuménique Signis ou celui de la prison d’Amiens. Les prisonniers m’ont dit que cela leur faisait du bien d’entendre parler d’amour et de voir un « lascar » qui avait aussi sa part d’humanité. C’est ce genre de réactions qui donnent du sens aux films que l’on fait.

J’aime beaucoup le film. Je le vois dans le contexte d’identité, surtout une identité en mouvement—africaine et européenne. Muriel me semble très à l’aise comme française mais je vois une ambivalence en tant que métisse, surtout vis-à-vis de sa mère, mais tout de même je sens une tension avec son père. En réfléchissant sur le débat qui fait rage sur l’identité en France en ce moment, Peux-tu parler de toi en tant que franco-ivoirienne et ton film « Pour la nuit « dans ce contexte ?

Le débat sur l’identité nationale en France est un faux débat pour un faux problème. La nation française a toujours été diverse. Il se trouve qu’aujourd’hui cette diversité est plus visible qu’avant et que plus personne n’a envie de renier une partie de soi-même pour se fondre dans un modèle assimilationniste. Ca énerve quelques esprits chagrins. Mais les Français ont rejeté ce débat à une écrasante majorité. Cela dit, il reste encore du chemin à faire pour que le métissage, qu’il soit culturel ou ethnique, devienne parfaitement accepté. Quand vous êtes métis on vous demande toujours de choisir. Comme si vous pouviez vous amputer d’une part de vous-même ! Moi je me sens entièrement française en France et totalement ivoirienne en Côte d’Ivoire. J’estime que je n’ai de comptes à rendre à personne, et certainement pas d’efforts à produire pour mériter une quelconque nationalité que je n’ai, de toute façon, pas choisie au départ ! Comme je m’amuse parfois à dire, la seule personne dans ma famille qui a émigré, c’était ma grand-mère. Elle était blanche, française, et elle est venue s’installer en Côte d’Ivoire.

De toute évidence, dans « Pour la Nuit », mon personnage, Muriel, a du mal à se situer. Elle a fait le choix du père qui est blanc. Peut-être sa mère ne lui a-t-elle pas donné assez de raisons d’être fière de son africanité ou ne lui a-t-elle tout simplement pas transmis sa culture. Du coup, Muriel a beaucoup de mal à se relier à cette part d’elle qui est noire. En même temps elle sent bien que si elle ne le fait pas, quelque chose lui manque, d’où son agressivité à l’égard de son père. Sa rencontre avec un jeune homme d’origine arabe va lui permettre d’entrer en lien avec cette partie d’elle qui vient d’ailleurs. Alors, et seulement alors, elle va enfin pouvoir pleurer sa mère défunte.

Tu es aussi écrivaine…

Oui, j’ai écrit un roman, très jeune, à l’âge de 17 ans, qui a été publié : « La Grande Dévoreuse ». Puis quelques nouvelles parues dans des revues littéraires ou restées inédites. C’est « La Grande Dévoreuse » qui m’a amenée au cinéma parce que j’avais envie que cette histoire continue à vivre par d’autres moyens. J’adore raconter des histoires, inventer des univers, créer des personnages. Ecrire répond à ma profonde curiosité pour les autres et m’aide à mieux comprendre le monde dans lequel je vis. Ce faisant, j’espère aider ceux qui me lisent ou regardent mes films, en leur donnant des clefs émotionnelles et spirituelles pour appréhender leur propre réalité.

Tous ces éléments créatifs, tu les vis séparément ? Ensemble ?

Ensemble. Tout est lié et part de la même source. Une histoire peut vivre en moi sous forme littéraire. Les images et les sensations que font naître en moi ce texte peuvent me donner envie d’en faire un film, voire même plusieurs. Plusieurs de mes scénarios sont nés de nouvelles inédites que j’espère publier un jour.

Et le cinéma en Côte d'Ivoire ? As-tu des rapports avec tes collègues sur place ?

Je le connais mal car je vis et travaille en France, mais aussi parce qu’il n’y a tout simplement plus de cinéma en Côte d’Ivoire ! Les « anciens » de la première génération sont morts ou ne font plus de films. On ne peut pas parler à proprement dit de relève sur place. Il y avait eu la volonté politique à la fin des années 90 de structurer le cinéma en le dotant de moyens institutionnels. C’était une bonne politique, et à cette époque, avec quelques amis réalisateurs comme moi d’origine ivoirienne, nous avions créé une association, le CORI, pour mettre en place des projets sur place. Mais les coups d’Etats et la guerre sont survenus, brisant cet élan. Aujourd’hui, la seule initiative vraiment intéressante que je connaisse est celle d’un festival international de courts métrage, le FICA, qui a lieu tous les deux ans à Abidjan.

Je remarque que tu profites pleinement de la nouvelle technologie de l’Internet et du numérique.

Oui, j’adore mon ordinateur et Internet ! Je dis souvent que s’il y a un objet que je devais emporter sur une île déserte, ce serait mon ordinateur portable muni d’une connexion Wi-fi. Même seule, je continuerais ainsi à me sentir citoyenne du monde.

Entretien avec Isabelle Boni-Claverie par Beti Ellerson, Février 2010

(Re)Discover: Isabelle Boni-Claverie, writer, filmmaker, cultural activist | écrivaine, cinéaste, activiste culturelle

(Photo © Pascal Gentil)
(Re)Discover: Isabelle Boni-Claverie, writer, filmmaker, cultural activist | écrivaine, cinéaste, activiste culturelle

Articles on the African Women in Cinema Blog

Trop noire pour être française ? | Too black to be French?
by/de Isabelle Boni-Claverie

"Pour la nuit" by Isabelle Boni-Claverie

A Conversation with Isabelle Boni-Claverie | Entretien avec Isabelle Boni-Claverie

03 March 2010

JCFA 2010 : Les Journées cinématographiques de la femme africaine de l'image

Les Journées cinématographiques de la femme africaine de l'image JCFA 2010

Un nouveau festival en alternance avec le Fespaco

Entre deux éditions, le Fespaco organisera désormais les Journées cinématographiques de la femme africaine de l'image (JCFA) dont la première édition aura lieu à Ouagadougou du 3 au 7 mars 2010.

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