Why and for Whom Do We Film Today?

By Abbas Kiarostami, Merzak Allouache, Gaston Kaboré and Nour-Eddine Sail

A hundred years ago, a new art was born in Europe: the cinema. In its first century the cinema industry has spread throughout the world. Today it is dominated by American production. Simultaneously TV, with its familiar and familial images, has been making its presence felt everywhere. Now that TV, which many consider to be the greatest invention of the century, has displaced cinema as the principle means of mass communication, will cinema, with the impact of ever more sophisticated techniques, increasingly move away from the real to an imaginary virtual world? This is one of the questions to which a group of directors from North and South, East and West, cinema professionals, critics and theatre people tried to respond at a colloquium entitled ‘The Cinema in its Second Century’, held on 20-21 March 1995 at the Odeon Theatre in Paris. We reproduce below four contributions to the discussion: those of the directors Gastoj Kaboré (Burkina Faso), Abbas Kiarostami (Iran), Merzak Allouache (Algeria) and the critic Nour-Eddine Sail (Morocco). They are all representatives of countries where cinema is still a new art form; where, despite being exposed to intolerance and suffering from a serious lack of facilities, it retains a promising freshness.

Abbas Kiarostami

Born in Teheran in 1940, Abbas Kiarostami was involved from his youth in the making of commercials. In 1969, he co-founded the Department of Cinema at the National Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. This has become one of the most prestigious Iranian studios. He has made about 15 short fiction films and many full-length features, including The Traveller (1974), Homework (1989) and Close-Up (1990). Where Is My Friend’s House (1987) was the first part of a trilogy, followed by And Life Goes On (1992) and Through The Olive Trees (1994).

A Single Film, A Hundred Dreams

At first, I thought that they turned out the lights in the cinema so that the images on the screen could be seen better. I watched the audience more carefully as people settled comfortably into their seats, and I decided that there was a much more important reason: this darkness allowed every individual in the audience to be separate from all the others and to be alone; to be, at the same time, amongst the others yet separate from them.

Each individual watching a film creates his own world. From ever detail appearing on the screen – of a town or a prairie, a person or an object – the spectator creates his own universe. The cinema does not evoke in us a single, unique world but many worlds. It doesn’t speak to us of one reality but of an infinity of realities.

For a film-maker, just as for a spectator, truth is found within the cinematic conventions, but these conventions are not necessarily fixed. The universe of each work, of each film, tells us of a new truth. In the darkness of the cinema, we give each person the possibility of dreaming, and of freely expressing those dreams. Insofar as the art form manages to change things and propose new ideas, this can only happen thanks to the free creativity of the person to whom the film is addressed: the spectator. Between the constructed and ideal world of the artist and that of the person being addressed there exists a solid and permanent bond. Art permits the individual to create his own truth according to his own criteria and desires; it also enables him to not to accept other, imposed, truths. Art gives every artist and every spectator the possibility of greater insight into the truth hiding behind the sadness and passion which ordinary human beings are subjected to in their daily lives. A film-maker’s commitment to changing daily life would not be possible without the complicity of the spectator. The spectator is only active if the film creates a universe full of contradictions and conflicts, because he is susceptible to them.

Let me quote a phrase by Jean-Luc Godard: “Reality is a badly made film”, and, from Shakespeare, who said: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”; in other words: “We are more like our dreams than we are like the life which surrounds us.”

A luxury cinema seat is often more help than the psychoanalyst’s couch. The spectator completes his own film from the basis of our ‘semi’-film. A hundred spectators construct their own film at the same moment; it belongs to them and corresponds to their own universe.

Let me quote Godard again: “What one sees on the screen is not alive, it is what passes between the spectator and the screen that is alive.” I think what Godard wanted to say was that the film-maker and the spectator play an equal part. If the film-maker creates wonders and the spectator is filled with wonder, we are not in a relationship of equals. The spectator is creative and expects the film-maker to be equally so. It sometimes happens that the spectator imagines the film much better than its creator.

I believe in a cinema which gives more possibilities and more time to its spectator. A half-made cinema, an unfinished cinema which completes itself through the creative spirit of the spectator. Thus, at a stroke, we have 100 films!

It’s true that a film without a story doesn’t have much success with the spectator, but it is also necessary to understand that a narrative must have holes, empty spaces like those in crossword puzzles, and it’s the spectator who fills in these gaps and holes. Or, like a private eye in a mystery, he reveals them. As a film-maker I count on this creative intervention. Without it the film and the spectator would die together. Flawless stories which work perfectly have one great defect: they work too well to allow the spectator to intervene.

Respect for the spectator as an intelligent and constructive element in the creative process is inevitable in the next century of cinema. In order to achieve this it’s necessary to get away from the idea of the director being the absolute master. It’s essential that the director should also be a spectator at his own film.

Merzak Allouache

The Algerian film-maker Merzak Allouache graduated from the Institute of Higher Cinema Studies (IDHEC) in Paris in 1967. He has made five feature films: Omar Gatlato (1976), A Hero’s Adventures (1978, Grand Prix at the Carthage Festival), A Love In Paris (1987, Perspective Prize at Cannes), Bab-el-Oued City (1994, a film made clandestinely on the streets of Algiers in May and June 1993). He is also the director of a documentary, After October, about the Algerian uprisings of 1988.

Allah Superstar!

I hope that in the future we will still be able to talk about cinema in Algeria. At the moment the country is in complete confusion about everything to do with images, just as it is about everything to do with reality and virtual reality.

A few years ago, when the Islamicists were already a large political party, and having demonstrated as such on the streets, a very troubling phenomenon occurred. Since 1988 the Islamicists have taken to organising large processions, huge crowds which recall the films of Cecil B. De Mille – something which indicates that they do, after all, have a sense of cinema, popular cinema. One day, when they had assembled more than 50,000 believers in a stadium, the word ‘Allah’ suddenly appeared, written across the sky. The 50,000 faithful spectators were spellbound. Within two days the news of this phenomenon had spread throughout the country. This writing in the sky gave unimaginable strength to the Islamicist party, which, ever since that day, has become ever more forcefully the party of God.

After an investigation, it was realised that the vision of Allah’s name in the sky was in fact the work of an American communications company which had already worked in Iran, and had adapted their exploits there, making use of a laser technique. Subsequently, the best idea the Algerian authorities could come up with was to contact another company – I think it was a French company – in order to write ‘Long live the Revolution!’ and other slogans of this kind across the sky on 1 November, the anniversary of the Revolution. Some time later, the Islamicists answered back. The name of Allah appeared once again, in front of about 10,000 believers gathered in a mosque, and thanks to another laser beam. Clearly the phenomenon was following the movements and meetings of the party of God. What is serious is that day a crew from French TV’s TF 1 was filming there, at the mosque at Kouba. As soon as the cameraman saw the first signs of exaltation on the people’s faces, he picked up his camera and filmed the sky. Now there was proof! There really was an inscription in the sky: French TV, satellite TV, had filmed it!

Algerian TV is considered insignificant to such a degree that people say you should watch it with your eyes closed! The problem for us Algerian film-makers is that, when we are on location, or have to film in the street, we are taken for people from TV. The cinema camera is taken for a TV camera.

At home, there is no longer any difference between cinema and TV. The camera is rejected because it is the camera of power. The Algerians have even invented a new verb, ‘to cameraise’. When people today in Algeria see someone in the street with a camera, they say that ‘He is cameraising’. These are the contradictions we have to live with.

Our cinema has been invaded by TV, and in a very concrete way. In most cinemas, films are no longer projected on the screen; instead there are projections of TV images on specially installed TV monitors; video copies are made from Canal+, and thus TV films are run in the cinemas. Whilst we are still at an artisanal stage in film-making, the world of TV is in the process of completely passing us by, along with the additional phenomenon of satellite dishes. The Islamicists no longer try to disconnect the latter because they know that they serve their interests. In this rather bizarre world we no longer have a clear idea where, in the midst of this coming and going of images, to place the cinema.

Gaston Kaboré

Gaston Kaboré was born in 1951 in Bobo Dioulasso in Upper Volta, today Burkina Faso. After a masters in history he earned a Diploma in Cinema Studies from L’Ecole Superieure in Paris in 1976. Following several documentaries he directed three feature films: Wend Kuuni (1982), which created a box office record for Burkina with 125,000 admissions, Zan Boko (1988) and Rabi, which won the special Jury Prize at the Carthage Film Festival in 1992. He is Secretary General of the Pan-African Federation of Cineastes.

Images and Legends

African cinema is a very young cinema, in the process of being born. It came into the world at a moment when Africa bowed to others’ ways of seeing. We had just emerged from the colonial night, during which images, those which dominated us as well as serving us in some sense as models, were produced by others.

How did I come to the cinema? I was studying history at the Sorbonne (Paris IV) and, after my graduation year, I wanted to use my academic training to learn about the image of Africa presented in the illustrated press in France at the end of the 19th century – from 1885, the date of the Berlin Conference, which sanctioned the division of the African world between several colonial powers – to the end of the century. I chose to base my research on the publication Le Petit Journal illustré. I took myself to the offices at Rue Oudinot[i] and went through all the numbers which had appeared during those 15 years, to see how Africa had been represented. The sections where this was at issue were under the rubric of ‘The civilising work of France in Africa’. What interested me was the iconographic approach. Obviously, everything was designed to justify colonial conquests. All the prejudices towards Africa as we find today, the ‘savage’ continent and so on, were already in place: one king was described as ‘bloodthirsty’, another as the leader of a kingdom of cannibals, yet another as the chief of an army of bandits.

I approached this material in two ways: first as an African trying to understand how others had judged my world; second, from a directly visual point of view. At the time I didn’t see how this could lead me beyond the field of history. As I was beginning the first year of the third academic cycle, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to continue my research by investigating how Africa was shown in contemporary documentary cinema. This was in 1974, and it led me to a film school. Having arrived there intending to learn the language of cinema in order to serve my interests as a historian, I became aware, after a few months, that it was more important for me to use cinema to tell stories rather than to write History with a capital ‘H’. From then on, I would say that my modest career has centred on a questioning of the multi-faceted realities which I have experienced, not just as a citizen of Burkina Faso but more generally as an African.

I asked myself what perspective I could bring to Africa, to respond to some degree to the gaze which had turned the continent to stone, and which was so powerful that, deep down, even I, an African, had ended up unconsciously absorbing some of the stereotype. It appears that I am from a continent where representation in very important, particularly in the societies south of the Sahara, where all elements of life are the object of a strong theatricalisation. For example, during the performance of our funeral rites, there is always someone there to represent death, and to reproduce actions which the person who has disappeared may have accomplished. This is always done with a certain humour, establishing a sort of distance which enables one to go beyond the drama of death by suggesting, at the same time, a new meaning, and thereby throwing a challenge to those left behind, who must perpetuate the society and confront its customs.

In the films which I’ve made, I’ve been obsessed with finding a cinematic approach which would rehabilitate a way of seeing which up till then had been branded inferior, or pushed out of sight as if Africa hadn’t the capacity to make sense of its own reality. This is why the action of my first film, Wend Kuuni (The Gift Of God), is set before the colonial period. It wasn’t because I wanted to avoid the contradictions of Africa today, but because I did want to bring my way of seeing to a society which, to pick up what I was saying just now, I would describe as autonomous, in as much as it had developed according to its own logic. Of course, it had been affected by outside influences, particularly from the Arab world, with which there was a great deal of exchange and interaction. Nevertheless, it was an Africa which still had its own way of reasoning, which lived in the consciousness of a collective memory, in the transmission of a heritage, and so on. This is why I chose to tell the story I did, one which wouldn’t reinforce the opposition between modern and traditional Africa, as the opposition is just another aspect of the way in which the continent is stereotyped. Indeed, it perhaps needed the wars of today, those currently being waged in certain European countries, for the similarities with the wars of Africa to be noticed, and for any kind of western humility to come into being.

In the cinema which I try to make, I ask myself how the destiny of man is perpetuated in myths and legends, and what testimony has been given of reality. It is this which seems important to me, and validates my struggle to bring individuals and all societies. I wish for cinema to be a powerful tool, one allowing my continent to tell its story and relate its vision of the world.

Nour-Eddine Sail

Born in Tangiers in 1949, Nour-Eddine Sail is a cinema critic and scriptwriter. Also he has experience as a film producer. Currently he is the Head of Acquisitions at Canal+ Horizons-Paris.

The Poor Man’s Refuge

I spent some days in Morocco last week, more precisely in Tangiers, the town where I was born, and I tried to recover memories of the passionate experiences of cinema which I lived through there between the ages of 8 and 18. Alas, I proved that this project was doomed to failure. I have just heard that, with the disappearance of the last cinema in Belleville: ‘East Paris will be transformed into a cultural desert’. But can such statements really mobilise people here in France? Back home they have no impact at all. So, seen from home, my response to this rallying cry, however legitimate it may be, is that it’s a choice between this or something worse. And this something worse may be of interest to you.

Where I come from, when a cinema closes – according to my count there are now 4 cinemas in Tangiers, which for a very long time had 14 – when a cinema closes and is replaced by a supermarket or a McDonalds (it happens), it is almost taken as a sign of progress, so successfully has the latter concept been imported, transferred on to us from here. Some new cinemas have been built, but they are too new and the public doesn’t go to them. And the old ones, which used to be full, are closing one after another.

We’re talking about cinema, but we’re not talking about the same cinema. We’re talking about spectacle, but it’s not the same spectacle. We’re talking about contact with the other, but I ask myself who is this other when seen from my home town, Tangiers, and who is this other when seen from here, Paris. And I have found that there was a possible correspondence between the cinema, the big cinema audiences of my childhood, the ones going to four or five different venues – all closed now – a correspondence between this audience and the location of wealth and poverty. The more poor people there are in my town, the greater the number of people going to the cinema. The more wealthy there are, the fewer go to the cinema. On the contrary, the latter are the people who shut themselves up inside a cocoon. Little by little there’s a movement away from the cinema as the poorer areas disappear.

The cinema was a place to come together, a refuge of warmth and solidarity. People used to meet up with each other. Whole classes of school-children used to go together. It was a kind of protected space. There were four cinemas, all now closed, situated in the popular neighbourhoods of the old town. They were called the Capitol, the Alcazar, the American, and the newest, the Vox, which specialised in Egyptian films. This led to what I would call a pressure from below. These cinemas weren’t upgraded, but others were built in the European town, and there was a kind of slippage, little by little, once independence had come. People started to become modern, to get rich, and there’s been an exodus towards the new town on the part of those who have become wealthy. A new group of the poor has invaded the cinemas, and begun to take over the social spaces which they have discovered. With the arrival of cassettes and video recorders and the increase in satellite dishes (there are about 7-800,000 in Morocco), the wealthy in the European town increasingly stay at home; those who used to be the poor of the old town have ‘risen’ towards the vacated ‘European’ spaces, and a new class of poor, coming from the outskirts of the city, and from the country, has replaced them. These people have become so numerous that the cinemas which they frequented have been forced either to raise their prices or to close down. They have closed down.

Thus today, the cinemas in the new town are filled with people who are literally not presentable. And who occupy the venues to take refuge. They are in a state of turmoil, and at the same time, one wonders if they are there to be together or to watch a film. There is a kind of absolute disjuncture between the presence of these people in the cinema and hat one imagines their desire for film to be. There’s something in it which is not comic but dysfunctional, and this disjuncture could be a matter for reflection or a source of humour, depending on how you take it.

When one comes face to face with phenomena such as these, and sees the cinemas implode in this way, one is forced to ask what contact is there now with the spectacle, with the show itself? How can one still talk of cinema, and what kind of cinema are we talking about? There is a position for cinema, and thus a way of making films, which corresponds to outlets such as those I have described. The observation I have made, as someone who started going to the cinema towards the end of the 50s, was that the force uniting all audiences has always been the American film. How is it that this film is able to appeal across the whole range of outlets, from the popular cinemas to the cinemas in the European new town, from the video cassette to the vast quantity of TV arriving via the satellite dish? How is it that this has always been the common bond which has imposed itself on everyone? I fear that the answer must be that these films also know how to address those who, having no culture, and being very poor in every sense of the word, take to the cinema as a refuge. In this sense the US really does have a democratic language – comprehensible because impoverishing; perhaps, however, one result of being poor is that one can only understand such a language, one that is impoverishing. And perhaps it would be best not to imitate it.


[i] Location of France’s Colonial Ministry (Vertigo)

These four articles first appeared in Le Monde diplomatique. We are grateful for this publication’s permission to republish them. They have been translated by Holly Aylett.