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12 February 2011

Reflections on Safi Faye in Petit à Petit. Notes by Beti Ellerson

Reflections on Safi Faye in Petit à Petit

Notes by Beti Ellerson

Returning to this article with a revised version on

8 March 2023, International Women's Day

An elegant black woman in a designer convertible drives in the chaos of cars on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, appearing halfway into the film Petit à Petit. She spots the protagonists, entrepreneurs Damouré and Lam, who have navigated around the capital since the beginning of the film—Damouré initially, then joined by Lam. According to the details around Jean Rouch’s film, it would be a modern version of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters 1721 about two Persians coming to Paris and their first impressions of what it was like there. It would be called "Petit à Petit ou Les Lettres persanes 1968".

The woman shouts above the honking horns and screeches of sudden braking: “Hello my friends...Are you from Africa?” “Come, I’ll invite you to my place!” They respond: “Do you know how to make rice with fish? Well, come over to our place.” And they are off on an adventure together. Her name is “Safi” interpreted by Safi Faye herself. Upon arriving in their apartment she asks a barrage of questions. They in turn ask her where she is from. In a dreamlike sequence, a humming voice accompanies a shot of rolling waves as if traversing the restless sea in a journey to Africa. In the next scene Safi appears, continuing to hum the song, as she promenades along a path next to a white wall bordering the sea—a scene that was shot in Dakar, a month before. The third scene returns to Safi relating the beauty of her country to her hosts: “the women are beautiful, beautiful as the night, yet somewhat dangerous.” From this description she recalls the poetry of Charles Baudelaire that lauds the splendor of a woman: "that is from you know Baudelaire?", she asks them. Damouré responds, “I have only been here in Paris for a month, I don’t know Baudelaire!” They place a cloth on the floor where they delight in a sumptuous dinner. Safi promises the next meal will be at her place. Afterwards, she introduces them to her fashion line of clothes. As she is also a model, she presents some of her designs. Some they like, others not so much. They soon appear in a nightclub. Safi laughs, smokes and drinks as Damouré and Lam enjoy the atmosphere. They meet Safi’s friend Ariane, she is immediately incorporated into the team. They navigate Paris by the riverboat, Bateau-Mouche. They agree to go to Africa to work in the eponymous firm, Petit à Petit,—Ariane as secretary, and Safi because of her interest in developing her fashion line. Safi represents the cosmopolitan woman of the world. And yet, while she muses about Africa and the beauty of women when in Paris, in Africa she becomes increasingly bored, even condescending to the African women who do not like Parisian fashion. Safi and Ariane eventually leave, hitchhiking a ride—it is imagined—out of Africa.

In 1966, Safi Faye, a young teacher at the time, serves as a hostess at the First World Festival of Black Arts in Senegal, where she intermingles with the global African diaspora of artists and intellectuals and other Western participants, notably French anthropologist/filmmaker Jean Rouch. He tells her he will be shooting a film and asks her to be part of it, her father gives his consent. Beginning in 1968 during the shooting of the film Petit à Petit, she travels to France, Switzerland, Cote d’Ivoire and Niger. Rather than playing as “actress, Safi Faye is a participant in a collaboration which allows the characters to assist in the construction of the scenario, improvising as the story unfolds.

In a 1978 interview, Safi Faye takes a bit of distance from the film, describing it as rather silly and unwieldy with no plan or objective, though not specifically discussing the woman she portrayed. Perhaps reflecting her change in functions, hence looking through the lens as a filmmaker from a different positionality. Though in a 1996 interview, the criticism appears to have subsided. And in an interview ten years later in 2006, she actually presents a favorable view of Petit à Petit—appreciating what she described as Jean Rouch's anarchist approach, which she also shared. And yet she has always expressed a fondness for Jean Rouch, her "papa Français". Perhaps, too, after his death, she could take a retrospective view of him and his oeuvre, and indeed, more importantly her relationship to him and his work, and in particular to the film Petit-à-Petit. During an interview in 2017, she confides in Mame Woury Thioubou, about her plans to make a film about her life, in which she will give details of her friendship with Jean Rouch, who meant so much to her.

One may ask why there is so much discussion around a film that even Jean Rouch admits was rather folkloric. That Safi Faye wondered after completing the shooting whether it was all a game and what could possibly come out of it. Perhaps its significance lies in the fact that the events leading up to the film project and afterwards were seminal moments in Safi Faye's life and the choices that she would make that would shape her career. While somewhat controversial, interest in the film remains. Filmmaker Oumarou Ganda, who at the start of his career collaborated with Rouch, considers Petit à petit one the most Rouchian of the films made with his collaborators from Niger, in which his ideas were dominant and his fantasies are very apparent. Safi Faye recalls Jean Rouch telling them to do what they want. When they ran out of ideas in the interior scene, they would go to the exterior. Hence, the scenes in the film were constructed by the actors themselves. They played on each other's momentum, each other's imagination. Jean Rouch filmed as they constructed the scenario—in real time, with the camera continuously running. She notes that there was not an actual story behind her role, that Jean Rouch gave her no explanation on what they would say or do—he agrees that is his method of working—she did what she wanted to do, and he would construct the film during the editing.

Though not thought out with a specific goal, she spontaneously creates her "Safi" character, with all of its contradictions. Did Safi Faye consciously construct these ambiguities? Did she purposely frame her role when in Africa as oppositional to the African women in the film? Probably not. Were the women aware of this “game” as Safi Faye describes it, that they too were spontaneously creating the scenario? Though the final editing decisions were made by Jean Rouch, hence, building a film by choosing the desired scenes. What were Safi Faye’s intentions? Is it Jean Rouch’s story? What will be Safi Faye’s legacy in Petit-à-Petit? Will she be remembered as the joy-riding liberated Parisian woman, who returns to Africa, becomes bored and only thinks about her return to the Champs-Élysées in Paris?

Safi Faye describes her first film La Passante made in 1972 as influenced by Baudelaire's poem "A une Passante,” about the fugitive beauty of a woman passerby. Like Baudelaire’s poem, her film, in which she interprets the character, captures a fantasy moment as a beautiful African woman strolls down a Parisian street—“a woman between two cultures—French and Senegalese”. Safi Faye’s identity as a passerby in Europe with thoughts of Africa, is reminiscent of those initial musings of Safi in Petit-à-Petit. So Safi Faye, the African, the anthropologist, the filmmaker, does return to the Africa that she loves, indicative in the films for which she is most known, Kaddu Beykat (1975), Fad’jal (1979), and her masterpiece, Mossane (1996), all of which center Africa. Africa is where she always returns. And with her last oeuvre she mythologizes its beauty—Africa, “beautiful as the night.” 

Interview with Safi Faye (1978) by Pierre Haffner from the series of interviews, “Jean Rouch judged by six cineastes from Black Africa” IN CinéAction, Jean Rouch, un griot gaulois, 1982. Translated from French by Beti Ellerson:

Pierre Haffner: In Paris and in certain African countries, not all of them, there is a certain hostility towards Rouch.

Safi Faye: Yes, he is denigrated; we see though, that if others had the same means as he had to go to Africa, they would have done the same, in this epoch…I think that he first came to Africa as a (Ponts et Chaussées) public roads and bridges engineer.

PH: In fact the bridge that he made, was the bridge between Africa and himself.

SF: Yes!

PH: How did Petit à petit come to be?

SF: In 1966, at the Festival of Black Arts, I was a teacher at the time, but during the festival I asked if I could be a hostess; at the international colloquy I met many people, notably Rouch; I saw him everyday, I brought him to meet my parents, they found him amiable. I don’t know how long he had been in Dakar, but he had never been invited to dinner in a family. But for me, when I meet someone I invite them over to meet my family.

PH: What do your parents do?

SF: My father was first employed in commerce then he was a merchant, my mother never attended school.

PH: So you brought Rouch to meet your parents?

SF: Before leaving the festival he told me that he would be shooting a film in a year or two and would like for me to be the actress…A year later he contacted me through his producer Pierre Braunberger, and off we went. The tour of Africa interested me much more than the money.

PH: You went to Niamey…

SF: To Niamey, to Senegal

PH: For one scene, of the sea…

SF: Yes, but we did other things, we had I think, 16 hours of rushes! We went to Switzerland and to Paris…

PH: Did someone go to America? At one point there is a long traveling on a highway and in Los Angeles, I think. There were plans for Damouré to look at American buildings.

SF: That was fabricated, I don’t remember, it was a while ago. There were places where Damouré left and I stayed in Paris. It was tiresome, nothing was written, every day we had to create the unfolding of the film! The atmosphere, the entourage, it was very nice, but I think still, one should think about the ending of the film, how it will turn out. In fact, I ended up not liking the film.

PH: Why?

SF: Because I find it naive and a bit silly!

PH: You’re exaggerating!

SF: You are Rouch’s buddy? The film is funny, but I don’t like that kind of drolleries.

PH: You told me once that during the shooting you said what you wanted to say; so these drolleries are yours as well. Were you influenced by someone else…

SF: You don’t know Damouré! Lam is a shepherd, you see, a guy that is calm, but Damouré! Really, it is stupid to make a film with nothing in it.

PH: You mean without knowing how it is going to end up?

SF: To have tons of film, to shoot what one wants, to make what one wants. It’s all well and good. I remember while viewing the rushes on the Champs Elysées, I slept through it, we had to spend our afternoons watching the rushes! 

PH: Finally, you are not at all influenced by Rouch’s shooting style?

SF: When I met him, I was not interested in cinema, which did not mean that I did not go to the movie theater or critique the actors, or even think that I could have done better! And after Rouch’s film there was nothing else. I went back to teaching, I continued my life as I wanted. I came to France in 1970 with a man, and we married afterwards; he was a sociologist. All of that is history, I live my life as Safi Faye and in my life I do not want to mix together my child nor my ambitions. I am telling you this parenthetically. 

Excerpts as it relates to the “Safi” character, translated from French by Beti Ellerson from an article by Pierre Haffner “Petit à Petit en question” IN CinéAction, Jean Rouch, un griot gaulois, 1982

Petit à petit at the Ciné-Club of the French Cultural Center of Kinshasa (ex-Zaire), on 19 July 1979.

The Parisian and the Senegalese

X-So what is the Parisian and Senegalese doing there? Is it to show an insight into both worlds? The distinction between the Parisian and Senegalese is it not a failure of these two worlds?…

X-It is to make a point about the fact that one is never satisfied with what one has. In Europe, the African woman encountered a situation that surely had its share of problems, the same in Africa, and if we talk about the return, is it to Europe? It is not easy to interpret.

The boss, capitalism and the building

X-The Senegalese was too used to Europe, she thought that in Africa she could continue to have fun and relax, it was the fact that she had to work that made her leave.

A film ethnological or moralist

X-In the film there is a socio-cultural aspect that must be considered, when for example the Senegalese presents her garments and the African says, no, that’s not interesting”, this a encounter between Africans and Europeans, there is a humanistic approach regarding customs, I think that it is this aspect that must be considered, that is what the artist wants to underscore; evidently it is symbolic…but it is important.

Petit à petit at the Ciné-Club of the National Conservatory of Dakar (Senegal), on 25 April 1980.

The European model

X-It is in fact an ethnographic film, which poses an important question: the African society and the western society, but I think there are other problems as well. It is the African seen in her/his society, it is the European seen also in her/his society. The case of Safi, for example, this is a woman who has been to France, been to the West, who ends up viewing the other Africans as “savages”…The European woman speaks about being exploited and the African secretary says, “I work better than you but am paid less…

Two women or two symbols?

M-I want to ask one question, why did Rouch introduce the two women in the film?

X-In my opinion, introducing Safi is very symbolic, it is to show another image of Africa, this Africa that had the chance to go to Paris, and thinks that life is no longer in Africa, but who unfortunately, has not done well in assimilating into western civilization. Because Safi Faye appears to be a very superficial, extravagant woman, who has denied her roots. The introduction of the European is also important because in fact there are two problems regarding her presence: first, she has no professional qualifications and yet she is employed and brought to Africa. So generally the technical assistant is not what they should be, but paradoxically they have enormous privileges, for example this young woman is paid much more than her African colleague. The two women have an important role in the film.

X-I think that the purpose of introducing the two women into the film is to show us that in wanting to assimilate a foreign culture into one's culture, one ends up being alienated.  

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