|Claude Haffner with her grandmother|
An interview with Franco-Congolese filmmaker Claude Haffner by Beti Ellerson regarding her documentary film, Footprints of My Other (2012)
Claude, a moving autobiographical story about your place “in between”—black and white as a racial signifier, Africa and Europe—their contrasting beliefs and customs, class, status and gender—what you represent as an Alsatian and its contradictions as a Congolese. I also discern your need to redefine yourself in relationship to your father and mother—a liberation, as you call it, and finally as an expectant mother, your research on the formation of identity and how you will transmit your own multiple identity to your child with the hopes that she will be able to find, as you have between black and white, her own colour. Some reflections?
Initially, I wanted to make a film that focused solely on the diamond operations and the turmoil that I discovered the first time I went to the Congo. I saw the poverty in which my mother's family lived, and I wanted to talk about this heartbreaking reality in a different manner than that presented by the media, that is to say without the tendency to dwell on the sordid side of life, which I hate. I looked for a way to educate and at the same time not bore the viewer, but also that he or she may be able to identify with the story, whether the person is black, white or any other colour of the rainbow. I knew that to bring it to the screen, I had to enter into the story. But I did not at all imagine that I would talk about myself, my history, my bi-raciality.
Then I contacted the South African producer/director Ramadan Suleman to propose the project. Ramadan read the draft and immediately called me back to say that he liked the idea a lot and he was prepared to produce the film, however he thought that I had to be more involved in it since it was my family, my country, my feelings; that this aspect should be more pronounced. So I added my individual history to the story.
But what is wonderful about the documentary is that no matter how much one may write and rewrite the script, at the end it is the characters and the scenes that are shot that will decide the final product. The issue of culture, of being mixed-race, the place between father and mother, the transmission of identity to the child, none of these themes were written. They emerged during the filming. I had not planned to talk about skin colour with my cousins for example. It’s what is called the "magic of the documentary." At least that's the way I love films and how I would like to make them. Not knowing everything in advance about how the film will look, not forcing situations in order to relate the story, but rather leaving room for unanticipated situations. The film should redefine itself as the shooting unfolds in the same way that the filmmaker redefines herself in relation to her initial idea and to her subject. This is evident in the fact that in 2004 I could not foresee that I would be expecting a child after having filmed in the Congo, and that I would actually include myself, while pregnant, during the scenes in Alsace. Somehow, the film helped me to define my identity and my place between Europe and Africa and to become aware of the richness that I possess to have come from a double culture or perhaps I should say, multiple.
Through your narration and the family photo album we find that the story is also about your parents who also lived in between—Africa and Europe, your father Pierre Haffner, whose passion for African cinema takes him to the Congo to teach, and which continues upon his return to France. But more visibly of your mother, who is black living in a white world, African living in a European culture and more poignantly a Congolese woman escaping the poverty that her family must endure. How did their experience influence you?
One cannot tell everything in 52 minutes, and I unfortunately could not construct the theme that was dearest to my heart, which would relate a bit more in detail the story of my maternal family. Actually, my mother and her siblings were born, raised and educated in Katanga and not Kasaï, which is the land of our ancestors where my grandparents were born. However they left for Katanga to live as newlyweds. There, my grandfather was a chauffeur and earned enough money to offer a decent life and education to his children. But in the 1990s, Mobutu drove out the Kasaïans from Katanga, and told them to go back "home" (as the European Jews were sent to live in Israel after World War II). My mother’s brothers had never set foot in Kasaï, as there was no work for them. This is where my family’s situation began to deteriorate.
I wanted to clarify this point, because it is important to help understand that my mother had attended school and received a religious education by the Belgian nuns during the colonial period and immediately afterwards. And as many Africans of her generation who had completed high school or university, she had already been exposed to European culture even before she and my father met. So for a long time, I was not really aware of my family’s poverty. I of course realised that we were extremely privileged compared to them, but to be honest it did not prevent me from sleeping at night. As the saying goes: "out of sight, out of mind". For me we lived in Alsace, and as a child I was not at all aware of what my mother was living "in exile" in Strasbourg. We lived in a nice neighbourhood; there were children of all races and all religions in my school, I did not ask any questions on this existential "in between-ness". I thought it was cool to be of mixed race, because my parents kept telling me it was a great opportunity to bring colour in the bouquet of the world. And this has been true until the day I went to Kasaï. Suddenly I was a foreigner there, a stranger in my own family, a foreigner of the culture, of the history. I was pleased with this experience, but as I stated in the film, I was very uncomfortable. To really understand, one must experience things for oneself. And with maturity, one observes the world differently, asking new questions. In other words, the experiences of my parents would remain abstract as long as I had not been confronted with Africa.
Growing up with your father’s interest in African cinema, how did this experience shape you as filmmaker and also as film critic? I’m thinking of your research “Le documentaire africain, un remède éventuel aux maux dont souffre le cinéma africain?” and “D'une fleur double et de quatre mille d'autres.”
In fact, very early my father made me aware of cinema, as he organised film screenings at home for my friends and I in Kinshasa, when I was barely two years old. And then filmmaking professionals were part of the family. Ousmane Sembene was godfather to my brother for example. But when I was preparing for my school diploma and my father asked me what I wanted to study, I told him I wanted to go to film school and he categorically refused because he wanted me to do some "serious" studies. So I opted to study history. But the idea of making films did not leave me, and parallel to my history degree, I enrolled in my father’s film classes. When I submitted my first paper to my father, I was nervous, as he was very strict with me. I had no room for error. He telephoned me after reading it and told me that my paper was excellent and that he was very proud, acknowledging that I had mastered film culture. After graduation, he agreed to let me go to Paris to continue audiovisual studies at university.
At that time, I wanted to be continuity supervisor. I made dozens of short films while working in that capacity, and my father liked the idea because it was a job as a worker like other technicians. I think he was afraid that this difficult world of cinema would swallow me, and I am grateful to him because it gave me the strength to meet the challenge and go further. And as it were, the death of my father made me decide to make my first documentary. On the one hand, the first barrier between filmmaking and me had fallen, and on the other hand I had to honour his memory by remaining "serious". The documentary is a very serious form of expressing stories in images, and it operates as a continuation of my passion for history. As for my experience in film criticism, it allowed me to reflect on the field in order to define my own film language. But I'm not interested in film criticism, per se. Because it is so difficult to make a film, I do not like writing about a film that I do not like. Though one cannot only critique films that one likes. However I love teaching, and when I get the opportunity from time to time, at an association event, at a school or university, I take great pleasure in talking about films that I like.
You choose to focus most of the story, around 40 minutes, on your experiences in the Congo, as a return to your ancestral homeland. The first time accompanied by your mother, which you describe as having experienced the reality of Congo as you hid behind her, and the second time alone, having been “liberated”, you were now trying to “find your place.” Your mother talks about raising you and your brother totally acculturated into Alsatian culture, and you lament about not having learned Lingala. Why this physical alienation from Africa, in a household full of books, music, sculpture and paintings and with a father whose expertise is in African culture?
I feel like saying "this is a question to pose to my parents!" Indeed, I think one first learns what is taught at school. And I received a French education. One shares the culture of one’s young classmates. And I was surrounded by children from diverse backgrounds, but not particularly African. And it's not because your parents have a library full of Nietzsche, for example, that you know or you are interested in philosophy. It is not because there is a Picasso on the wall that you know everything about Cubism. And if your parents speak French at home and do not teach you another language, I know few, especially children, who would go through the process of learning it. It is true that this is something I deeply regret about my childhood and I blamed my parents for it, but it's never too late to learn, to reconnect to one’s native culture. This is the message of the film. Life should not stop with what has been acquired, it is a permanent learning experience; this is what is wonderful about it.
In the film you talk about reconciling with your mother having better understood where she comes from, beginning to respect her, becoming closer to her. Reconciliation implies there were issues that had to be resolved. What prevented reconciliation before now?
I felt secondary to my mother’s concerns about her family in the Congo. I thought she spent too much time dealing with them and not enough on us. I suffered from her "absence." With age, one finally understands the complexity of life, and if one follows the path of wisdom, one is able to forgive.
As a viewer I was very touched by your putting yourself in such a vulnerable position when talking with your cousins about how you suffered from feelings of not belonging—as your cousin stated, being “in between”. Nonetheless, I found your cousins equally vulnerable as they had to deal with your European and light skin privilege—an assignment that you adamantly rejected. Some reflections? Why the choice in filming this encounter?
Again it is the miracle of the documentary that was in operation. In my scenario, it was written that I would be filmed exchanging formalities with my cousins. But, upon arriving in the family courtyard, I turned to the cameraperson, Donne Rundle, who was preparing the equipment, and I said: "Frankly, I do not know at all what I will say to them, we never talk to each other, I am not at all comfortable." Donne responded to me: "Well that's exactly what you're going to tell them!" And I am very grateful to her, because for this sequence and others, her support was invaluable. During the editing everyone was touched by that moment, it was imperative that this scene turn out well! We spent days on it, editing and reediting, because it became pivotal to the film. It, in fact, determined the film's title, which was originally to be called “Kasaï”.
I discerned a bit of a feminist moment when you asked why as a woman, you could not participate in the ancestral mourning ceremony. On the other hand, you exerted power in the context of class and wealth, distributing money to your relatives—men and women, all very appreciative of your gift. Some reflections on these contrasting roles?
Feminist, I do not know! But it is clear that I did not expect this, since in many communities that I visited the women were the ones who spoke to the dead and who wept. And here I am with someone I do not know, who I had only met for the first time, and who will do the ceremony in my place. That's why at the end of the film, it was important for me to do my own "ceremony" in Alsace. To say, "yes, I respect the tradition of the Baluba in their land, but elsewhere I do it my way." However, if there is feminism in the film, it is in honouring my grandmother, my aunt, my cousins and all the women of Africa and elsewhere who fight to "keep the pots turning" as the governor of Kasaï said. That's why I wanted to end with the idea that there are solutions for our country and our people to lift themselves out of poverty, starting with the focus on girls’ education.
In constructing your story there were of course some things that you left out for various reasons. What cinematic choices did you make to tell this story?
Oh yes, there are many themes that I wanted to cover and that I had to give up along the way, because I could not deal with everything in 52 minutes, which is the format of the TV documentary. I especially wanted to present more information on the historical background of the Congo from the 70s until today. I also wanted to talk about the history of my ethnic group the Baluba, who has suffered from the "pogroms" and is known for being rebellious and combative. And above all I wanted to denounce the exploitation of diamonds and looting in my region. But all of these deserve the space of at least a two-hour film or a series. You have to play the game and make choices, even if they are extremely hard to do.
The film ends with a quote by your father: “In order to journey still a bit further in the miracle.” In what context did he say this and what does it mean to you and for this story you have told?
I found this phrase in one of his books, and strangely, I do not remember which one (I looked for it before editing the film, but I still have not found it). His fellow artists wanted to create an original work for his tombstone, and I found this epitaph. Because my father was an optimist humanist, I felt that this sentence reflected his thoughts, his philosophy. And I think that he gave me this gene. In any case, this is the manner in which I wanted to construct and conclude the film: Yes it is hard, yes it is severe, yes there is poverty, yes there is suffering in the world and among people, but nothing is definitive and impossible. Life is a journey that continues into death, which is not an inevitability in my view, but rather a continuum: a miracle, in the extraordinary sense of the word. Yes life is an extraordinary journey.
Interview with Claude Haffner and translation from French by Beti Ellerson, March 2012.