'The Image, blowing in the wind'
interview with Djibril Diop Mambety
(Senegalese film-maker of new urban African movies)
by Simon Njami
SIMON NJAMI - To address film in order to discuss photography was a crazy idea. And crazier still was interrogating Djibril Diop Mambety, the filmmaker who's given Africa a new rhythm, a new image, an unexpected point of view, the filmmaker whose fans had given up hope that he'd ever make another film. Almost 20 years have elapsed since his two cult films, Touki Bouki and Badou boy were released. The project he's currently editing, Les Hyènes, is an adaptation of F. Durrenmatt's "La visite de la vieille dame". The interview was not a disappointment. We knew what we were after: a loose discussion of the nature of photography, the meanderings and digressions of a conversation blowing in the wind, because only the wind...
DJIBRIL DIOP MAMBETY - Everything led me toward cinema, but my personal style got in the way of becoming a professional filmmaker. If I didn't make one film right after the other it's because I really didn't want to. Nor was it the industry which prevented me from making more. I almost starting feeling guilty one day, I told myself I should have made more films. My deepest desire was, and still is, to make Westerns, like the ones I saw when I was a child. That's why I went into film, not to tell stories... I was distracted for a while by social as well as personal considerations. And when you see how films are distributed in Africa you wonder if filmmaking is really the best way to reach people.
SN - I've been writing my will since I was seven.
DDM - I'm nothing if not literary, but I'm sick of writing. My last moments will be devoted to editing my will. I've been working on it since I was seven, since the day I dreamt I died. It was gentle, soft. It was at my grandmother's house. There was a long staircase and I fell down the steps. Then there was a gust of cool wind; That's when I died. In the name of god, to die breathing, to die of breath. I swear, that's what I did. That's why I don't like to be sick, I have to die breathing, almost willingly. I'll only die with a breath, otherwise I'll betray death and death will betray me.
It's cinema that chose me, because I always, always wanted to remake High Noon. If I hadn't seen this film I might not have become a filmmaker, I would have written, maybe. Why High Noon? Because I heard: "if you desert me too..." and in fact it's solitude that characterises my life, despite myself. In Touki Bouki there are lone men. In Badou boy it's lone children. In Contrat city it's a lone town. Les Hyènes is about a lone man, who dies breathing, a cigarette in his mouth.
SN - I hate photography.
DDM - I hate photography, but I always wanted my brother to be a photographer. I like other people to do it, but personally, I'm too ambitious, it doesn't suit me. Photography is a death, a frozen moment. When you take a picture you can never retake it, because time has gone by. When you know a gesture lasts for generations... and a photo yellows. I respect musicians because when they're sick the music stops. They are, in fact, the only artists for whom I have absolute respect. Film is a little cowardly as well, because what I said for photography holds true for film too.
SN - Image, where are you ?
DDM - The image doesn't have a role, it takes orders. In film, an image by itself doesn't exist until you tell it what to do. But you have to follow up on your instructions. You have to say: "O.K. image, where are you?". And it answers: "here I am". And you say: "go and do this". And it does it if you asked nicely and politely.
The only divine act of creation accessible to man is the act of creating the wind. Have you ever asked yourself where the wind blows? I've never stopped asking myself this question. The fate of the image, the fate of the wind, man's fate, the fate of a breath, a feeling, a cause, is where the wind blows. To show the course of men is a solemn act, and you can't get it wrong.
SN - You have to be ill bred to die badly.
DDM - There's an old Dioula song that says: when I'm talking about you, you'll never be mean. It's a solemn act to show the paths of men because you shouldn't show their baseness; they're redeemable. Men are redeemable because they all wear the same shroud. When I say man, I'm talking about birds, about nature, about every living thing... according to a certain ideal of beauty, which is the happy ending. Like the last breath I mentioned a minute ago, you have to be ill bred to die badly. The role of my image is to go with the wind, I am the wind. For me, photography is like an unfinished foetus. I'm not good at unfinished things. God save me from ever making films that grow old and yellow. Live with the wind and live with death. The wind is complete, and to be complete is to die. That's why I'll never finish. If I finish, I'll be complete. It's crazy to have power over life. While the filmmaker doesn't have power over his own life, I don't underestimate the power to show life on film. If indeed it is a power, it's a power that belongs to the wind.
SN - And the wind remains.
DDM - I respect film as a social act. A social act in the sense that films will exist for generations. It's a contribution and I fully acknowledge this aspect of the thing. That's why I'm totally frustrated to have had only one High Noon in my life. That's why I want to make more. I'm in the process of making a Western that would make even Gary Cooper blush. If there's one thing I hate, it's lying, when I get caught in a lie. On the other hand, I'm the world's biggest schemer.
Djibril Diop Mambety interviewed by Simon Njami
published in the magazine Revue Noire RN03, African Photography, Decembre 1991