For Cannes or Abidjan?

By Holly Aylett

tinpis-run-pengan-nengo.jpgTinpis Run, dir. by Pengan Nengo, 1991 © E.Vaucher

Journeys through the independent cinema of the south with Jacques Bidou

Holly Aylett
: When you started out in film, what motivated you to ignore the geographical and economic barriers and to work with countries of the South?

Jacques Bidou: I studied cinema at school, directed three shorts, then 1968 arrived and I entered into politics for about fifteen years… It was such a powerful experience that by the end of it I had an irresistible desire to be independent, to keep involved in world affairs in whatever modest way, and above all never to get bored. So in 1987 I set up JBA Production to make documentaries. The first film was South African Chronicles (1988). Made by a collective of young filmmakers, it was an insider view on communities which were victim of extreme violence, shot on video 8, the format best suited to the project, and feature length. I pulled together finance from seven European television channels, and the film went round the world. I had found my territory. Compelling situations so as to avoid making unnecessary films; projects which served a purpose; the willingness to learn and learn again alongside these communities, and finally to bring together strong subjects with a cinematic point of view. Working in publicity had taught me definitively that there is absolutely no point in trying to communicate without a strong, creative point of view. On the ground I learnt to respect the other, to listen, to debate, to work whilst getting rid of the guilt which persists – those deep, post-colonial contradictions which result in paternalism, complacency, condescension, all kinds of shitty feelings which can poison working relations.

monday-morning-ota-iosseliani.jpgMonday Morning, dir. by Otar Iosseliani, 2002 Jacques Bidou as the Producer (pictured) © Nicolas Tarielashvili

HA: What role have you been able to play in the countries where you have worked?

JB: This question takes me back to the fact that most of the countries of the South confront immense difficulties when it comes to film production. The scenario is always the same. Firstly there is the invasion and the absolute supremacy, except in a few rare instances, of American cinema. The market is entirely manipulated, dedicated to this flood of images, and the intoxicated public finds itself totally dependent. What’s more, the markets are often too narrow, the number of cinemas limited, the buying power of the audience restricted – so many factors which stand against the creation of a local economic base. So it’s a market which becomes viable for films whose costs are largely written off through sales in other territories.

To this you have to add the absence of policies at the highest level by states which certainly don’t consider cinema a priority in the face of economies which are often wasted. If I mention these issues it’s because above all I consider that producing with the South is to root the finance in the country of production, and to take this a bit further this means favouring the emergence of reliable, national producers and financiers. So long as you don’t create a solid, national economic base, the films which see the light of day will always be the exception. This is the theory by which I have tried to live and work. Effectively, the situation has deteriorated everywhere, in the South as much as the North.

fools-ramdan-suleman.jpgFools, dir. by Ramadan Suleman, 1997 © Cedric Nunn

HA: Could you describe the way your choices, both material and aesthetic, have been affected by local production values, and the way you have confronted the challenge of producing a film with European finance but without compromising the filmmaker’s vision.

JB: The reality of making a film in a country of the South is always complex. It’s rare to find an archetypal situation with a local filmmaker finding foreign finance coming from the North. Look at Rithy Panh, director of The Rice People (Les Gens de la Riziere, 1994), and Ramadan Suleman (director of Fools, 1997). Born in Cambodia and deeply Khmer, Rithy went through the tragedy of his country under the worst conditions, then rediscoverd himself in France and went to Film School at Idhec. He is typical of the complex cultural mix, somewhere between ‘Buddhism and Rene Char’, and, moreover, he goes back to his country to direct his first film, a country whose culture had been ruined and one without a cinema.

Let’s take Ramadan. He came from Soweto where he was in theatre. He discovers documentary, at Varan in 1983, goes to London to the National Film School where he learns cinema, then sets himself up in Paris for a long period, works with other French filmmakers, sells mopeds, and writes Fools. It took four years to find the money. Then Ramadan directed the film and went back to his country. Another incredible crossover of influences – between Ford, Truffaut and Kiarostami – and yet South African to the core. All these influences mix, and what an extraordinary cinema emerges, even though the source of funding is not without influence on the film. European finance comes to groom a filmmaker, educated in Europe, for a film whose journey will be principally European. This is the endless argument amongst filmmakers from the West Africa: whether to produce for Cannes or for Abidjan?

The fact that a European producer works on the ground contributes little, or badly, to the development of competent, local professionals: neither does it necessarily help to find the means of finance to produce. In South Africa, for example, where there are a significant number of professionals to work on films – films for television and foreign advertising – you witness strange contradictions. Foreigners always engage their own technicians for the key roles (director of photography, sound etc), which means that you do not find the equivalent professionals on the ground. That said, local manpower is organised and well paid, so almost beyond reach for a production based on a local economy and, what’s more, the best professionals are often unavailable. During the production of Fools some members of the team left the shoot for an American production, Tarzan, clearly more profitable for them.

Secondly, this type of intervention facilitates distant, external finance, whose objectives need to be examined. Whatever the good intentions, the source of finance has a deep influence on the work. It inevitably Europeanises the film, adapts it for the interested markets, (something which can be flattering for the filmmaker), and the project therefore becomes a complex vehicle, subject to contradictory forces. Firstly, in the writing, in the choice of language (the English in Southern Africa imposed their language on people who spoke Shona or Zulu); then in setting the film’s budget which is influenced on the ground by the foreign source of finance; then through the international, technical requirements, through the presence of foreign technicians, and the transfer of post-production to Europe because of the lack of local facilities; and also because of conditions imposed by European subsidy which result finally in a very serious ‘overspend’ on the film itself, making it very difficult for the film to remain rooted in its own, local economy. When I produced the first feature by a filmmaker from Papua New Guinea – the first film for that country – in spite of all my good intentions, I had the annoying impression that there would not be another for a very long time, which nine years later has proved to be the case.

tinpis-run-pengan-nengo-2.jpgTinpis Run, dir. by Pengan Nengo, 1991 © E.Vaucher 

There is a lot to say on this question, which in a relationship of growing dependency puts the cinema of the South at a real disadvantage. But the debate is open and necessary, because, with no illusions, we must celebrate the existence of each film as a victory.

To push this sensitive question a little further, and in the interest of structures of support which only survive in a much weakened state, it is worth emphasising that these last years have been marked by the spectacular withdrawal of financial partners on the consumer side – television, cinemas, audience – the real money which guarantees the future of a work. This is how the contradiction increases between a film’s finance and its life outside the country of production (since 1997 no African film has sold more than 5,000 tickets at the box office in Paris), between anchoring the projects in their own territory, which is essential, and this ‘soft money’, from grants and subsidies which increasingly cut the films off from a real economy. This is a huge discussion.

To return to my own concrete experience, I search for solutions, without naivety and without illusion. Firstly, in whatever way possible, to set up the film within the local economy. Sometimes this is impossible, as in Cambodia; sometimes the struggle achieves results as in South Africa. Then, to allow the filmmaker to discover his own ground (I hardly ever go on the shoots, or only for a few days maximum), to give him/her the means of working and the necessary time to do it, to allow the maximum freedom from all the restrictions linked to finance in the choice of crew, actors etc, and to work with total transparency, budgets and expenses on the table. If a producer is not open it sets up deep distrusts which are utterly unproductive. Finally, to protect the filmmaker from the financial backers. In this respect, the financial plans are such a complex mosaic that each individual source actually carries very little weight. With twenty-four sources of funding, not one of the financiers of Lumumba (1999) had any real influence.

rice-people-rithy-panh.jpgThe Rice People, dir. by Rithy Panh, 1994

HA: What were the particular challenges in making Lumumba, a film about one of Africa’s least-known leaders, Patrice Lumumba, and directed by an experienced filmmaker, Raoul Peck, from Haiti?

JB: After making Lumumba: the Death of a Prophet, Raoul Peck dreamt of making a great, popular film on Lumumba. This was an absolute contradiction in terms given the actual landscape of cinema. Could you seriously make a political film about an African hero assassinated in 1961 for the general public? American cinema is everywhere. It influences the whole world, as I mentioned before, as much in West Africa as in Europe. I once produced a good film on this subject, Aristotle’s Plot (1996), by Jean-Pierre Bekolo; an African story of a gang who are fanatical about American cinema and forced to watch African cinema – ‘with the time to go and piss, to have a drink, and when you get back you are still in the same scene’ – it’s a film to be seen. So, with Lumumba we decided to find a way to make a film of universal interest, therefore with a classical approach. The result bombed in Europe amongst cinephiles, but met with incredible success in West Africa, (out in thirteen countries, an audience of almost a hundred thousand in spite of the disastrous conditions of distribution), in South Africa and in the United States, – nearly $800,000 at the box office, and above all the distribution of a version dubbed with American voices, (at a cost of 1.2 million dollars!) – on HBO in prime time. So, Lumumba’s story spread, and finally to the place where it’s impact was most useful.

HA: Once a production is over and the dust has settled, what kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind for the local community?

JB: It is not my vocation to specialise in countries of the South in particular. I’ve just finished producing two Portuguese feature films and three from Belgium. That said, I do always go back with the films to the people who have made them possible. I remember the extraordinary experience of projecting The Rice People for the people of the village, of showing Fools to the schools in the townships. Having spent time in a country, my concern is to have trained as many people as possible; to have raised the maximum amount of money locally, so that other films can be made; to have found a viable way of distributing the film locally; to give it maximum impact abroad, in particular at the big festivals in order to give the filmmaker more weight in their own country, and to have taken the filmmaker’s creative ambition to its farthest point. I don’t subscribe to the idea of the little film, low-budget and unsuccessful, above all for filmmakers’ first films.

HA: You have said that it is important in Europe to invent and nourish a chain of production and distribution open to the fullest exchange with international cultures. Do you still see this as the way forward?

JB: I am completely convinced that to live in and understand the world, we need the films which come out of these cinemas. This is just to say that the northern countries who finance these films are not engaged in charity, which is what they often believe. Notwithstanding, we have to prepare for harder battles to come. For this we have to raise the general level of what is being proposed: never to give up support for training producers capable of making their films through a local economy and to develop training programmes and solidarity between countries of the South so that they can co-produce within a reciprocal system. It is also essential to follow very closely the way that techniques of production evolve, in order to be able to produce with less money without compromising on essentials. That said, we must also continue the struggle to convince governments of countries of the South to engage more boldly in supporting cinema, whilst persuading the countries of the North to open up a little more, something they need to do in a vital and effective way.

Jacques Bidou is a consultant and advisor to the training programme for European producers, EAVE. He was vice-Chair of FEMIS, 1995-98, and Head of Studies at EURODOC (Media11), 1999-2001.