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Senegal’s Moussa Sène Absa on ‘Xalé’ and Why African Filmmaking Needs it Own Roar (EXCLUSIVE)

By Thinus Ferreira,


In a scene from Senegalese filmmaker Moussa Sène Absa ’s trilogy-concluding “ Xalé ” – the opening film at Joburg Film Festival – a bunch of kids sit on a beach and watch a movie as a projector throws grainy images on a white canvass while the magic of filmmaking transports them to another world.

About the scene, the 65-year-old director, who says he still wants to be a rebel filmmaker, tells Variety from Dakar he included the scene as a homage to his own past and how film can help transform lives.

“I started seeing films like this in the open air, next to the beach. I shot ‘Xalé’ in the place I was born. This beach is my beach. It’s a bit of my own childhood. I felt that I had to include in ‘Xalé’ a memory of my own childhood – a moment where you can jump on a boat and look at a film from far away,” he says.

“It’s a souvenir about what I love the most,” says Absa, “because I used to say that cinema changed my life and saved my life. Film saved my life because I was a streetboy. It’s a miracle that I became a filmmaker. Film gave me the chance and the opportunities and saved me from a lot of things.”

Xalé marks Absa’s first film where the crew and cast are all from Senegal. “It’s the first time I’ve used an entirely local crew in terms of DOP, sound, art director, costume design, editing, music – everything has been done locally.”

“For a long time, we have been producing films using external crew from France, for example. All my films have been made with French or Canadian production crew. To now see these youngsters who could be my sons and daughters, just around me working on this film, was extremely exciting – to see that there’s a new generation, taking on the role of leading, as artistic crew, from Senegal. That’s been a very, very exciting moment.”

“Xalé,” chosen as Senegal’s Oscar submission in the Best International Feature category this year, also marks a “very important moment of my life,” Absa says.

“I’ve been making films now for almost 35 years. I travel the world. I teach film. For ‘Xalé’ to be Senegal’s official entry sends the message of ‘we can make it.’ It says we have strong storytellers. It’s a huge moment as an African filmmaker. Give African filmmakers more opportunities to tell their stories. The world of cinema is still missing a leg: African cinema. The day African film is seen over the world, the world will change and cinema will change.”

“Xalé,” a colorful, melodic and tragic tale about Awa (Nguissaly Barry), a 15-year-old girl who has her hopes and future destroyed by an uncle, is the director’s third film in his trilogy about women, following after “Tableau Ferraille” and “L’Extraordinaire destin de Madame Brouette.”

“It’s been like looking for a good friend for a long time. I’ve been struggling for so long to get this trilogy completed. It’s a big achievement for me since I’ve always told my kids that I might likely not get to complete my plan; I might never close this chapter, to be able to open another one.”

“It’s a big relief and at the same time it’s a nice conclusion to what I wanted to remark on about women and how women are very important in my life – because I’ve been raised by my mom and my aunt, so I’ve always been surrounded by strong women.”

“Now I feel light. I feel like something I’ve wanted to say, that’s very important for my community, but also for the world – to say: Look at these women, how beautiful they are, but how fragile they are, especially in relation to a patriarchal situation.”

Aided by a chorus, remarking on events transpiring throughout “Xalé,” Absa says music is deeply incorporated in all three films “since music for me is a character.”

“Music is present all over African life. When we work, we sing. When somebody’s born, we sing. When you get married, we sing. When you die, we sing. Songs are an allegory of life. Music is always present to shape the narration, to shape an important moment of life.”

“Every time I make a film, I make the music before I shoot,” he explains.

“This is a very special way for me to make films because you can see the music in the frame; you can feel the musicians, you can watch them. Sometimes, you can even start to ‘miss’ them. To me they are like angels, crossing the storylines and opening chapter by chapter as if it’s a book.”

“Storytelling for me starts with a song. We always say ‘Once upon a time’ and then a song starts. And this song is not just about the story you’re telling but the audience you have in front of you. Music is really something that I’m really very, very connected to.”

With “Xalé,” which he also wrote, Absa says he felt unrestrained by production do’s and don’ts and didn’t have producers telling what he could and couldn’t do as a director.

“Oh, man. Filmmaking is an act of freedom. The problem filmmaking is having now is a growing lack of freedom. This lack of art. How do you tell a director what constitutes art for him?”

“In ‘Xalé,’ there’s a moment where a character is yelling, standing in front of the sea. It was not supposed to be shot like this. But I was in front of the sea and thought: Maybe the character is shouting to someone who is over the sea.”

“That kind of freedom is what’s important in filmmaking. If I had a producer, he would go: ‘No Moussa, this is scheduled like this, you can’t change the script because of this and that. I didn’t have that. So working on ‘Xalé,’ I was just very free to do whatever I like,” he says.
Moussa Sene Absa

“This is something that is missing in the film industry. I’m really sad when I see some films from the young generation and I can see that they’re being boxed in. They cannot get out of the box. We have to get out of the box.”

About the challenges confronting specifically West African filmmaking, Absa says there is a younger generation trying to tell stories but often feel inhibited from shaking up the status quo.

“I always say to them, hey, you have to shake the coconut tree. Shake the coconut tree! Don’t make a film like us. Make a film like you. If the film doesn’t look like you, it is not your film. Then it’s a film from another perspective. It should be your DNA.”

Absa says his message to especially African filmmakers is to beat their own drum.

“Others can never have the rhythm of our drums. When I see all of these big Hollywood films talking about Africa, telling African stories, I can feel that there’s no real African soul. We have to change that. We have to tell to the world who we are – let the lion tell the story, not the hunter. I want the lion to tell its own story.”

As one of his long-gestating ideas since 1996, Absa still wants to bring the biopic of the black French light heavyweight boxer, Louis Mbarick Fall to life, who was known as Battling Siki, born in Senegal and who reigned as world light heavyweight champion.

“If I don’t do it, I won’t be happy in my life. This is a very important subject. A film about Siki, made by an American won’t be the same. It’s a pity that we don’t have the opportunity to tell our stories. The lion has to roar with his own voice, not the voice of the others – and this is one of my biggest challenges. The script is already finished and I’ll love to make it.”

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