Dec 18,2010 - 12:59 PM
Cinema has played a huge role in Africa in the past 40 years. So much so, that it can often be difficult to navigate and pinpoint those who have really shaped the history of cinema in the continent. It is in this vein that Malian director Souleymane Cisse will be honoured tomorrow evening as one of the truly defining figures in African film, when he is presented with the DIFF Lifetime Achievement Award.
Cisse’s career spans over 50 years; starting out in a projection room in Bamako, screening the arrest of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba to a Malian audience recently liberated from colonial rule. ‘When I started out there was no film industry to speak of in Mali,’ Cisse told the DIFF Daily. ‘It was non-existent. Even now we are fighting for it, to make a stronger, more structured industry.’
Cisse’s experiences in the projection room developed into a deeply ingrained belief in the influence that cinema could have, and this drive took him to ‘60s Moscow – first for a three-month projectionist course, and then, in 1963, for a scholarship at the State Institute of Cinema. There, Cisse explains, he learnt the basics of cinema. ‘It was all about how to make a film. Even though it was the Soviet era, whether or not there was an ideology wasn’t important. I learnt the craft of creating a film there, and for that I am very grateful. Arriving into a country where I didn’t know the language, and it was a completely different culture and climate from Mali, prepared me for the problems that I would face as a filmmaker in my own country in the future.’
As part of Cisse’s recognition at this year’s DIFF, two of his most celebrated works are being screened. The epic ‘Yeelen’ (1987) charts a father-son odyssey across the continent’s mysticism and traditions. ‘Waati’ (1995) is the brilliant, yet deeply unsettling story of a black woman in apartheid-era South Africa, who sets out on a journey to learn and understand the myriad facets of the African spirit. ‘”Waati” is stronger today than it was in 1995,’ says Cisse about the film, which competed in Cannes that year. ‘But its message is not only for South Africa. It’s universal. I watched it again before coming here and I consider it an extraordinary movie.’
The Dubai International Film Festival recognises Cisse’s contribution to the history of African cinema, as both a passionate exponent of the continent’s cultural output and an auteur who has developed a uniquely Malian cinematic language. ‘Both “Yeelen” and “Waati” are two films that were closest to my spirit,’ says Cisse, ‘and this is a film festival close to my heart.’