|Rama Thiaw, photo ©Sabine Cessou
Article by Sabine Cessou republished from Slate Afrique, 8 September, 2011. Translated from French to English by Beti Ellerson
The Senegalese filmmaker became known with her documentary Boul Fallé, The Wrestling Way, a politically committed film which uses sport to show how the youth of Pikine—a disadvantaged neighborhood in Dakar—overcome their plight.
Rama Thiaw, 33 years old, talks about herself and explores the way that she films Dakar, with her camera, free, in constant movement with perceptive glimpses at the details and surroundings of her city.
Her subject matter also has a purpose. From wrestling, the national passion of Senegal, she goes to reggae, another African passion. Her endeavor: to relate the politics of the last thirty years on the continent through reggae. A vast subject which has already taken her to Abidjan and Bamako, with future locations in Johannesburg following the footsteps of the late Lucky Dube, the South African reggae singer.
Rama Thiaw is of a strong character. While studying in Paris, she pursued both a Masters in economics at the Université de Paris I and a diploma in filmmaking at Université de Paris-St. Denis. Social issues are her focus. While making her first short film on youth and religion in France, she navigated between the Aubervilliers suburb and the Stalingrad metro station. She also produced short episodes for the politically engaged Parisian television station, Zaléa TV, but quickly ran into hurdles.
“No one wanted me to film, no one believed in what I wrote,” she states.
In 2005, she packs her bags and leaves, returning to Senegal. There she is still disillusioned.
“At first I went to television stations and communication companies. I was a camera operator and I was looking for work. Either I was not given an interview or throughout the interview the French intern next to me was given the attention. When one looks like a rapper and comes from working class neighborhoods… Moreover, there is the idea in Senegal that women cannot have technical skills.
Rama Thiaw is unrelenting. After all, she knows she must fight. She grew up in Pikine. Her father came from the Tally Bou Mack neighborhood, (the big road in Wolof) and her mother from Guinaw Rail (behind the tracks). Names she mentions with pride, despite their bad reputation and high levels of poverty.
“It is the last part of Dakar, populated by the poorest. Up until the last two or three years there was no power, and before 2004-2005, no water, we had to go to the public tap,” she says.
Both Feet in the Ring
From 2005 to 2009 she wrote her film on the Boul Fallé (don’t worry) Generation, which was born with hip-hop in 1990’s Dakar.
Boul Fallé is the title of a song by the rap group Positive Black Soul (PBS) before becoming the name of the wrestling team founded by Mohamed Ndao Tyson, a Senegalese wrestling star with which thousands of young Senegalese identify. Tyson, who came from nothing, brings hope and shows the way forward. By dint of determination and hard work he became a success.
Rama Thiaw grew up with the Boul Fallé Generation that believed in the "Sopi" (change) proposed by Abdoulaye Wade before being elected president in 2000. For her, the recent developments in Senegal evolved in three stages:
"In the 1980s our parents went to France, we had a French minister, Jean Collin in our government. In the 1990s, young people rejected the French model and French intervention in national affairs. It was about finding out who we were. Wrestling, our national sport, forgotten after independence, had an important role in this quest. It also was a means to break away from these prejudices: the youth of the Dakar suburbs were tired of being treated like bandits, aggressors. In the third stage came the Sopi in 2000, and young people have begun to find their own path, knowing there was nothing else to expect..."
Finally in France she found a Franco-Ivorian producer who was interested in her topic. With Philippe Lacôte she rewrote her script to tone down the aspects deemed "too anthropological." Moreover, she participated in writing residencies with Africadoc in St. Louis, Senegal, an international program for the development of African documentary filmmaking. Then, without a budget, she filmed her documentary, doing the main part of the production work on site.
"I managed to do it," she says, smiling. She obtained a grant of 750 euros from Senegal, after laying siege at the film bureau of the Ministry of Culture.
"It does not look like much, but for us it was a lot of money."
Initially, she wanted to follow Tyson. When she approached him, he had already played in L’Appel des Arènes an adaptation of Aminata Sow Fall’s novel by the Senegalese director Cheikh Ndiaye. She was not able to pay him the desired funds. So she decided to follow Nguer, a wrestler of the Boul Fallé wrestling team in Pikine.
"One may find the spirit of Boul Fallé in hip hop. It is made of liberalism, resistance and involves taking the freedom to own one’s work. To take charge while thinking of others, which is what Tyson did, by investing his money in a team in Pikine to train other young people from the same disadvantaged backgrounds."
Her aesthetic is that of the hip-hop music and action movies that she loves. No fixed frame, the camera moves, as in the Brazilian film City of God [Fernando Meirelles, 2002].
"We're tired of seeing the same brown shades in African films: people who are all black in the same way, while there are people with shades of sand-brown, blue-black and black-brown. In Senegal, there is plenty of light and color. We worked around the camera to change the way of filming. We de-saturated certain colors and saturated others during the shooting, without the classic calibration on white paper or white skin, as everyone does on television or in the cinema.”
Rudolph, her chief operator, fell ill in the middle of filming. Rama Thiaw grabbed the camera and continued working without asking any questions. At one point, her documentary goes from a social perspective to a kind of sensual poem on the bodies of men in training.
"Well-built, hefty men, they’re not my type! But I find them beautiful. It was important to show it. The black man is beautiful. We are always into models that are not our own. Let’s show positive role models, it is important to change the images."
A Fresh Look Amid the Wrestlers
Rama Thiaw filmed a sometimes-violent sport, as Senegalese wrestling is done with punching. She wanted to show the pacifist side, with boys who are committed to great mutual respect, as well as to its spiritual dimension. In rituals prior to the match, the fighters go into a trance, as Nguer is seen in front of the camera. Was being a woman a handicap with the wrestlers? She reverses the question.
"It is because I am from Pikine that I film Pikine in this manner. All the brave people of Senegal come from there. I had to show that I was determined, that I was not there to have fun."
In the male world of wrestlers, it was not yet won. But Rama Thiaw went slowly: at first, she stayed by the door and at the end, she was among the wrestlers, sharing with them a "beautiful human experience." The voice off at the end of Boul Fallé, a film which unfortunately is only visible in film festivals and mobile cinema gatherings across Senegal, provides the key to her topic:
"Let's become again the noble warriors who we are."