Joseph Gaï Ramaka

“I am not a filmmaker engagé. I am an ordinary citizen engagé.”

The interview that follows with the veteran and noted Senegalese filmmaker Joseph Gaï Ramaka addresses two issues of importance to political film practice. The first concerns the deployment of the concepts of “globalization” and “postcolonialism” to explain historical activity. Ramaka dismisses the claims of academic scholars by challenging the utility of these concepts for people “to grasp their reality and act.” In counterpoint he asserts that “[t]he importance of the word is determined by the space in which it is uttered and by the reason why it is uttered.” And he calls for the recovery and redeployment of the concept of “neocolonialism” to interrogate North/South polarity and the specificities of reality because “this concept is still useful as opposed to concepts that have no reference for the collective conscience.” In doing so, Ramaka suggests, as Gramsci and others have for the West, the role of the African intellectual is to develop concepts “to help the masses of Africans understand what is happening to them.”

The second concern is alluded to in the statement by Ramaka that “…my concerns are not as a filmmaker, but rather as a citizen who happens to be a filmmaker.” In contrast to received views, this statement suggests that artists, like citizens, should deploy their resources and talent on behalf of the common good and intervene in the process of democratization.

Ramaka’s theorized stance is certainly not without precedence as he references Marx and the anticolonial texts of Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire. His views about the documentary—as a means of social and political intervention “against injustice”—are aligned, although less schematically, with the theorist-filmmakers of the New Latin American Cinema who situated film, especially the documentary, in larger national/continental projects for change. In Ramaka’s documentary Plan Jaaxay! (2007), on the intolerable plight of a flooded Dakar suburb exemplifies this mode of documentary practice.

A [“citizen”] filmmaker whose body of work is modest, yet timely and provocative, Ramaka was born in Saint-Louis, Senegal. Following studies in visual anthropology (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) and cinema (Haute Etudes Cinématographiques) in Paris, he established in France the production and distribution company, The Ark Studios (Les Ateliers de L’Arche) in 1990. With Ghaël Samb Sall in 1997, he developed Les Ateliers de L’Arche—Dakar, and, the following year, L’Espace Bel’Arte. During this period (1990–97), Ramaka wrote screenplays, including Karmen—a modern adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen set in contemporary Senegal—which he produced and screened at several festivals including the 54th edition of the Cannes Festival in 2001 and the following year at the Pan African Film and Arts Festival (Los Angeles), where it received the Best Feature Award. Among his documentary films, So Be It (Ainsi soit-it) was awarded the Lion d’Argent at the 54th Mostra Internationale d’Arte. Cinematographica of Venice in 1997 and And What if Latif Was Right? (Et si Latif avait raison!) was awarded Best Documentary Film at the Festival Vues D’Afriques (Montreal) in 2006.

Presently, Ramaka resides in New Orleans.

The interview was conducted by Michael T. Martin and occurred on March 5, 2008, during Ramaka’s visit to IU-Bloomington.

MM: What influenced you to become a filmmaker?

JR: Two people influenced me. The first was a grandfather to whom I performed shadow shows. He was my sole audience and happy when I would tell him a story about the shadows. The second was the blues and jazz singer Nina Simone. Her songs evoked the need in me to express myself.

MM: Do you have an approach to storytelling?

JR: First, I work a lot on the text which takes most of my time. What nourishes me, though, is a vision of life that has its source in Africa. The mental disposition from which I write is a “surrealist” understanding of the world. This way of seeing the world pre-dates the more recent concept in Europe. It’s a way of thinking about the world that, for example, is illustrated in the text Leuk the Rabbit [Leuk et le lièvre by Abdoulaye Sadji and Léopold Sédar Senghor] or in Emmanuel Dongala’s Jazz and Palm Wine. I believe that in Africa surrealism is a way not only of thinking about the world but projecting oneself onto it. This way of thinking completely liberates you. Everything is possible when you start from this point of view. So, it’s not only a vision of the world as it is but opens up a possible way of transforming it. The weakness of those who are leading Africa is that they don’t think of this way of transforming the continent. This replaces ideology. And the link between this way of thinking and cinema is quite natural because cinema is a place where everything is possible. Cinema is a place where one can stop the sun from setting, if one wishes.

MM: Why did you create in 1990 the production and distribution group in Les Ateliers de L’Arche [The Ark Studios]?

JR: From the start, I wanted to be independent. Les Ateliers de L’Arche was for me a way not to be dependent. Dependency is anguish.

MM: Then in 1997 you and a colleague, Ghaël Samb Sall, established Les Ateliers de L’Arche—Dakar. For what purpose and does it still exist?

JR: I saw so many beautiful productions from around the world that it seemed crucial to share them with my Senegalese compatriots. It was a desire to show these beautiful works in Senegal that pushed us into creating Les Ateliers de L’Arche, especially L’Espace Bel’Arte. This allowed us to show fifty beautiful films, all of which had received the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Originally from Senegal, I was for various reasons living outside the country. But Senegal nonetheless remained the place where we set and filmed our stories, and this necessitated having a structure in Senegal. For both organizational and funding needs, at least at that time.

MM: Are the functions of these institutions different?

JR: No, since they share the same purpose. And if you consider the mechanisms of film production in France in relation to the former colonies, you can obtain the funding in France only under the condition that the films are made in Africa. There was a period when you had to go to Senegal to obtain funding in France. You have the right to make a film only if you create images about where you come from. For a long time an African filmmaker could not secure financing if he made a movie entirely in France. He had to go home. So, if you are there [in France], you’re not really there. This reveals the personality of neocolonialism.

MM: What is the Ateliers de L’Arche and where is it located in Africa?

JR: While there are film studios in Tunisia and South Africa, there are none between them in West Africa. This project would have realized the construction of the first film studios in West Africa. Until 2000, the project went forward and a space was selected for construction in Dakar, since I am familiar with the city. Later, following the election of President Abdoulaye Wade in 2000, the project was aborted.

MM: Why the name Les Ateliers de L’Arche?

JR: The reference is to the Bible: Noah’s Ark. The analog to the aftermath of the Flood is what you call here…how do you put it?—“the postcolonial.” The studio was the site where I would have gathered the things which I would like to retain.

MM: In 2006, you completed And What if Latif Was Right?, which received the Best Documentary Film award at the Festival Vues D’Afriques. Its subject concerns democracy and governance in Senegal. Why this subject and why in Senegal?

JR: For two reasons: First, Senegal is falsely claimed to be an example of democracy in Africa. This is historically inaccurate. Senegal is neither the first country nor the last one to change from one political party in power to another peacefully and democratically. However, while Senegal has been presented and viewed as such, the myth has enabled those in power to conceal vast corruption since independence. Aside from the fact that as a Senegalese I am directly affected by the corruption, the main reason for the film was to say, “Be careful, this country you want to sell others is in fact a counter-example of real democracy.” It is critical that we stop using Senegal as an example of what it is not. Second, I wanted to contribute by the film to the democratization of Senegal.

Figure 1. Karmen (2001). Photo courtesy of Joseph Gaï Ramaka.

MM: What is L‘Observatoire Audiovisuel sur les Libertés (the audiovisual observatory on liberties)?

JR: It’s a concept and practice of filmmaking—cinema engagé—that engages with social issues, politics, and the real life conditions of people and their efforts to mobilize for change. In my own practice it informs the documentary I started in 2000, showing that audiovisual as well as the news media have a role in raising consciousness, in reactivating a devotion to democracy in response to the political changes that occurred in Senegal since the election of Abdoulaye Wade.

MM: What is the Audiovisual African Coordination for Democracy that you co-founded at the Bamako World Social forum in 2006?

JR: My first experiment for this structure was with And What if Latif Was Right? I realized that the problems we have in Senegal are similar to those in other countries, such as Burkina Faso and Gabon. I wanted to enable people working in audiovisual media in these countries to become involved with cinema just as I have. The “Coordination” is an informal structure and was started after an encounter with a friend who was working on Burkina Faso’s situation since the assassination of the journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998. So it originated with two people who in their respective countries used audiovisual for democratic struggle. We need to continue to coordinate our activities by disseminating information to others. If there were in other African countries films such as And What if Latif Was Right? or Borry Bana (Mére de Norbert Zongo, 2005), they would raise consciousness.

MM: Are you still in contact with your counterparts in Burkina Faso?

JR: We are in contact. They have recently completed a film about the murder of [the then-president of Burkina Faso] Thomas Sankara (Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man, 2007). Work goes on.

MM: Although the coordination is informal do you convene meetings?

JR: No, it’s direct between Abdoulaye Diallo and me on our projects.

MM: Given your professional associations and political concerns, you are among a group of African filmmakers who are interrogating Africans’ complicity in Africa’s dependency and underdevelopment. Indeed, your work resonates with that of Jean-Marie Teno (Clando, 1996), Abderrahmane Sissako’s more recent film (Bamako, 2006), and even Gaston Kaboré’s later work, Zan Boko (1988) among others. Together, do you constitute a selfconscious movement of African filmmakers?

JR: I belong to no cinema organization or structure, African or non-African. I view myself as a global citizen and not in relation to a nation. A collective struggle has meaning only for the extent that it is rooted in each individual consciousness. My concerns are not as a filmmaker, but rather as a citizen who happens to be a filmmaker and who believes that he has the means to act as a citizen with what he knows best. Things are not right in my country. What can I do as a citizen? If I were a writer, I would write. Cinema is the site from where I can act as a citizen. From this perspective, I would like to underscore the respect and admiration I have for the work of Jean-Marie Teno on the situation in the Cameroon. I admire the consistency of his action as a citizen. He’s a filmmaker who thinks Cameroon is in an abyss and throughout his work he attacks this sickness—with what he knows how to do—to transform it. He is a remarkable filmmaker, a remarkable citizen.

MM: Is the work of these filmmakers—and you—part of a larger oppositional project?

JR: I believe the action I take inscribes itself as an act of a global citizenry where each person contributes with his abilities, his skills, his feelings. This is how I perceive belonging to a movement. It means committing, first, at the national level, to struggle against what is unjust and, second, with others, to struggle against what is unjust around the world. Each person brings to this struggle what he can. What is common to every person is that we fight against an unjust situation. That is our duty.

Figure 2. Joseph Gaï Ramaka. Photo courtesy of filmmaker.

MM: Do these principles inform your own interventions?

JR: Yes, for example, as I said earlier, I don’t conceive of my commitment to social justice as a filmmaker. I am not a filmmaker engagé. I am an ordinary citizen engagé. I want the rank-and-file, the policeman, filmmaker, administrator, and judge to be engagé as self-conscious citizens. What interests me is the commitment of the citizen, not the militant filmmaker or his organization. I follow a different path. For example, in the documentary Plan Jaaxay!, I worked with the people who struggled against the government, who had failed to reconstruct their neighborhood in Dakar after a flood in 2005. As a citizen I participated in this struggle by making a film that showed what was happening.

MM: Let’s move now to globalization and its various manifestations. At FESPACO (2007), the 800-pound gorilla in the room was globalization, which invariably took center stage in conversations with filmmakers. Is globalization a source of societal trauma, masking refashioned forms of imperialism and neocolonial appropriation in Africa, as slavery and colonialism once were in the second half of the past millennium?

JR: I think that before discarding an old shoe I should make sure that it can no longer cover my foot. I always ask myself, in the multiplication of new concepts, if the one I have still fits before I choose another one. And this is the case for globalization and postcolonialism. I even have trouble uttering the words.

At one level, I question the terms’ utility in relation to concrete reality—their ability to grasp reality. The question that I ask myself is what word or concept does a person need to understand his reality? In the case of the women whose homes were flooded in Plan Jaaxay! and government that wishes to deprive them of their land, I ask how do these words, “globalization” and “postcolonialism,” function to enable these women—the oppressed peasant—to grasp their reality and act? The importance of the word is determined by the space in which it is uttered and by the reason why it is uttered. If the word is uttered by the academic world, it cannot have the same function, the same need, or the same urgency as in the case I’ve just described. There are enduring concepts which I believe enable Africans to understand our reality. I, therefore, do not need a new concept, if the old one still enables me to comprehend what is happening to me.

At another level, this dialectical way of thinking about the world has given rise to concepts, notably colonialism, then later, neocolonialism. When we consider the place where we interrogate our situation, the concept of neocolonialism is still relevant because it enables me to understand what is happening to me, as it does the oppressed Senegalese peasant to understand what is happening to him. This word is functional. This word is relevant. No other word is as relevant as this one because it makes it possible for the person who experiences a neocolonial situation to understand it. So any other word to describe this situation should be thrown away in the trashcan—in that same trashcan with postcolonialism and globalization— because we already have the tools to understand the world. We don’t need, especially the last one [globalization], which is very hip here in the United States. I wonder where it was conceived?

MM: Has the study of visual anthropology influenced your views about the disjuncture between how peasants understand their reality and academics account for and describe it?

JR: No. It is not linked to a formation or background. With these anthropological studies I was going against the grain. I oppose objective anthropology and defend a subjective anthropology. My concepts are down to earth, basic, and functional. I love a nation, a woman, a child. What can I do to make them well?

MM: However problematic is the term, can the African specificity be sustained and affirmed against the homogenizing and deterritorializing processes of globalization?

JR: As far as I am concerned, the concept of globalization does not enable us to understand the world.

MM: In conversation, the Burkinabé filmmaker Gaston Kaboré has asserted that “[t]he ultimate question that Africans must ask themselves is who are we?” Is there an answer to this question in a globalizing world?

JR: I disagree. I believe that the majority of Africans don’t ask themselves who they are because they know who they are. This question does not make sense. Therefore, I can’t answer a question derived from a presumption I consider invalid. What does the question mean in concrete terms? Take the case of Burkina Faso: Do you think the question four million peasants must ask themselves is who they are? If you observe the spheres in which such concerns prevail, they share nothing with the actuality and reality of Africa. Africa comprises millions of unemployed people. Along with constructions of Africa, intellectuals, reflecting upon Africans and their condition, do not really address these people. What we should expect from intellectuals is that they at least develop concepts that will help the masses of Africans to understand what is happening to them. If not this, then what are they here for?

Figure 3. What if Latif Was Right! (2006). Photo courtesy of filmmaker.

MM: Although these questions about globalization are clearly frustrating, your responses are illuminating and warrant further discussion. Have the economic and cultural processes associated with globalization affected filmmaking practices in Africa?

JR: We think with words. To be able to think together, we have to first agree on the terms we use. When talking about cinema practices, the first hurdle is that the neocolonial state does not permit decision making by any other sector in society. People who work the land can’t live by their labor and certain industries are not permitted to exist because of the neocolonial state. Infrastructures don’t exist because the leadership does not concern itself with the development of the country. This situation is the principal cause preventing things from happening, and it is the point of departure for every other development in the country. Consequently, it becomes impossible to make films in the neocolonial state because the political leadership prevents the necessary conditions from developing for its creation. That is why people go elsewhere. In the film sector, they must leave their country and go elsewhere. Regarding film aesthetics, the issue is more complicated. In some circumstances, filmmakers, however dire the condition, are able to shoot, revealing remarkable aesthetics.

MM: Are these cinematographic productions increasingly homogeneous under globalization?

JR: I don’t think so, since we are in a fragmented situation. For example, dominant film industries are not only associated with a global North nor dominated ones exclusively with a global South. When we speak of a homogeneous cinema, Hollywood is an example. However, in the sphere of dominant film industries, Hollywood is a particular cinema that dominates and influences other dominant film industries, such as French cinema that tends to resemble the Hollywood formula. On the other hand, when we consider Hollywood cinema in the American domestic context, and not global context, it too dominates other cinemas by independent and black filmmakers for example. That is why I say that the term globalization is not functional. It does not enable us to understand the world as it is in reality. Maybe because I write and make films, there is also the issue of the filmmaker’s individual consciousness. To make films influenced by globalization, one must mentally be under its influence.

MM: Let’s consider this issue further from the standpoint of another term—modernity. Can an African modernity be at once universal and African?

JR: I’m going to respond to the question in the way I understand it. I think that Africans, like all other people in the world, have the capacity to think about their problems and propose solutions for themselves that can help others in the world. More concretely: If in one country the cure for cancer is found or if in a remote country in Africa a poem makes you love man and nature, I can propose it to the rest of humanity. So the dialectic between the particular and the general is applicable to and valid for Africa, as well as for the rest of the world. My response to your question may be limited because that’s how I understand it.

MM: But consider that other African filmmakers deploy the concept of globalization—as a unit of analysis—to comprehend and not obscure the daily lived experiences of people. For example in Abderrahmane Sissakos’s most recent film, Bamako, globalization, along with the IMF and World Bank, frame the experiences of peasants, workers, and professionals at the level of everyday life. The reason I’m pursuing this line of discussion is because there is a consequential exchange between filmmakers who agree with you, as well as with Sissako.

JR: I want to return to Kaboré’s earlier assertion about the question Africans must ask themselves. I think that an African in Burkina Faso should ask himself first and foremost how to get rid of a president who murdered a former president and journalist and regularly assassinates citizens who fight against oppression. In Bamako, the World Bank is the embodiment of globalization. African dictators, like Bokassa, applaud others who struggle against it in countries other than their own. Yes, the World Bank is to blame, but who is the World Bank? And what is the use of struggling against the World Bank and globalization if you are unable to fight against a dictator in a given country? I don’t understand what would be the use of such a struggle? So, for example, this movement against globalization will go to Senegal and organize a conference against globalization, but you won’t hear any of them say that Abdoulaye Wade is a murderer and thief. They will talk about and struggle against the World Bank and globalization, but who makes it possible for the bank to function in the country that they’re talking about?

Figure 4. Joseph Gaï Ramaka. Photo courtesy of filmmaker.

MM: But isn’t that precisely why Bamako is so relevant, because it juxtaposes these multinational entities—that may very well constitute an abstraction to ordinary people—against their real and consequential effects on nations and, at the local level, communities and people? And Sissako depicts this relationship by situating the tribunal and its deliberations amidst laboring people and nursing mothers to underscore that North/South polarity is structural and not arbitrary?

JR: I just want to say that it was a pity that the women in the film wasted their time at the tribunal because the real struggle is in the streets.

MM: Doesn’t Sissako address this concern, too, in the scenes where criticism is leveled, not just against the whites as colonizers, but also the complicity of African dictators as well?

JR: This was the essential part that was not emphasized in the film.

MM: With few exceptions, films made by Africans are financed by Europeans. Does this compel African filmmakers to present Africa as Europe is prepared to receive it, as some African filmmakers claim?

JR: I can answer this question only by drawing on my own experiences as a filmmaker and, since 1992, as someone who has participated in funding commissions. I personally have not witnessed the censorship of any particular subject matter. But it’s important to interrogate the category of auto-censorship in this process because supply and demand in the market is significant. The issue of funding is in relation to what one wants to do and under what conditions one wants to do it. If I want to make a movie about the United States and have it play in 10,000 movie theaters, I am not going to make it in Breton or in Yoruba. Consider, for example, my last film: It was essentially funded by television networks, although traditionally filmmakers from Africa who reside in France fund their films by national institutions and networks. As far as I am concerned, from the writing of the script to the finished manuscript, if it is not reflected in the film, it is entirely my own fault. I am not forced to accept changes to obtain funding. I can say no and go elsewhere. I do not have to change it, if the subject matter I submitted to you does not interest you. I can submit it somewhere else.

MM: What should be the relationship between the filmmaker and the state with regard to the promotion, production, and distribution of African films.

JR: The state’s duty is to provide the concrete conditions in which people can thrive, including peace and security. These conditions should enable and support the creation of film studios. I believe that the automobile industry in the United States would not have developed without the government’s intervention. Similarly, African states have a role to play in providing an adequate infrastructure for the film industry. For example, electricity is needed to make films and the state has the responsibility to provide electricity. And a corrupt or totalitarian state does not attract commerce. States in Africa should evolve democratic conditions because we need democracy to make films.

MM: When should the role of the state cease? Should the state protect local film production?

JR: When the state speaks of protecting us, I get scared. Under democratic conditions there is no need for the state to protect us. In the case of Senegal, democracy comprises many elements. Aside from providing an infrastructure, the state should also fund certain fields. For example, some industries add value to a country, along with culture, and under certain circumstances should be protected. Even here in the U.S. some sectors are protected by the state. A responsible government in certain cases assists a sector so that it can maintain and develop itself. In my opinion, this is one of the state’s roles. However, the issue of whether the state should protect the country against the foreign invasion of images [television, film] is more complicated. I think it should focus primarily on creating the necessary conditions in the country to enable the creation of images. Strong images produced at the local level would settle this issue, because, otherwise, what comes close to protection can lead to censorship. In the case of Senegal, I believe this approach led to disaster. One can no longer write. Ironically, I can no longer write a script in Senegal without censorship since they adopted laws supposedly intended to develop the film industry.

MM: You personify the transnational subject who resides in First- and Third-World metropolises. The archetype of this identity is marked by a cosmopolitanism that rejects the specificities of the national for an enlightened universalism. You presumably are at home in Dakar, Paris, New Orleans, and, perhaps, here in Bloomington as well. How do you—the seemingly displaced subject—inhabit multiple spaces in a world whose signifying references are no longer apparent and less discernable?

JR: I want to ask you a question: How would you have asked this question to a friend named Peter, from Texas, who has lived in Senegal for 23 years? This question is the beginning of my response. There is a resemblance between Buruma who lives in a poor neighborhood in Dakar and Frank in a poor neighborhood in New Orleans. Imagine they know each other and that Buruma invited Frank to Dakar. Arriving there, Frank, who is undereducated and on the brink of starvation, like Buruma, is too a postcolonial fellow, but from the dominant world. He would tell Buruma, “Listen I came to see you, but careful, I am not a postcolonial person. I come to see you from the dominant world.” They would have a good laugh together.

MM: Yes. But if Frank were white and privileged, the dynamics of their relationship would not be the same, nor would the circumstance of their encounter.

JR: This means to me that the concept of the postcolonial is not functioning, since it does not enable us to understand reality in order to transform it. In this sense it is a dangerous concept. President Bush and Abdoulaye Wade have more in common than Abdoulaye Wade and I do. One can’t put me in the same category as Abdoulaye Wade, although we both come from the postcolonial world. And when I observe writers or filmmakers, who think they are raising peoples’ awareness, use this term, I say “Wait a minute—do they realize what they are doing?” Because they, as intellectuals, are prostituting themselves to exist amidst the very privilege they criticize.

MM: I’m not talking about the Third World intellectual who negotiates the privileges she/he brings to the table.

JR: I know. I’m answering the question in stages because I can’t answer it directly. At another level of response, I’d like to give an example. Are you familiar with the phenomenon of Modou Modou? They are peasants from Baol who speak several languages. They have lived abroad as long as I have and you can find them in markets where they make money that they bring back to their country. I include them to situate the issue and answer your question. I am not a postcolonial subject. I have an individual consciousness that looks at the world in a certain way and acts accordingly. This is what matters. If I thought from the framework where others would like to enclose me, it would be disastrous. Each individual carries baggage [history] on their back. Their consciousness evolves and is dynamic. An important influence is the migration of people—in your case from Italy to here [US]. I am not talking about globalization, but I believe we should struggle against any constraint on the natural movement of people. When these constraints are man-made, they are foolish. I don’t consider living in the United States a conflict because I come from the Third World. I believe that Senegal exists in the United States and that the United States exists in Senegal. I don’t have any problem with living in the U.S. precisely because life is not homogeneous. In fact, it is less problematic and more peaceful for me here than in Senegal. Between birth and death, a person follows a trajectory. He takes on many things, including culture, and rids himself progressively of other things. He is the consequence of such processes. I would rather tell you that I do not understand what this means, I do not understand your question.

MM: If you reject the categories of postcolonialism and globalization because they mask the reality of experience, what would you substitute them with to understand reality?

JR: Instinctively and empirically, I would return to the concepts that describe the world as transforming rather than through these terms as unchanging. In the past, people revolted. How did they talk about it in order to rise up? I would research this question. Coming from Senegal and Africa, I realize that to understand Senegal today, as in 1968 when we identified the concepts and practices of neocolonialism and the “bourgeoisie comprador,” and fought against them. Maybe we should go back to reexamine these old shoes and see if we can still use them.

MM: In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon asserts that “to speak means to be in a position above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.” Are the concepts and terms that Fanon applied to describe the colonial period more relevant to the postcolonial period than those you have consistently resisted in this conversation?

JR: Fanon says to speak is to take a position, to express a culture. He created a concept which at that precise moment in time enabled others to understand the psyche of the alienated and colonized. We should revisit and reconstitute these old shoes before changing concepts. But even before Fanon, the dialectics that helped make sense of the world and on the necessity of social uprisings and resistance to injustice were clearly articulated in the Communist Manifesto. From time to time we should reread it and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. There is enough material in these texts to consider the world and the conception of the state that dominates us in unimaginable ways. The Paris Commune too is still relevant and the ideas expressed in it are worth fighting for today, even here in the United States. And Fanon’s writings and Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism enable us to understand the world. I believe that these texts help us identify the problems we have to solve today.

MM: If language gives specificity and expression to experience, then is it through language that a national and continental African identity is possible, although the language of necessity and, seemingly, choice and convenience is derived from the metropolis? What is at stake here? And how do you address this issue as filmmaker?

JR: Languages have a significant and unparalleled role in expression. There is no substitute for a native tongue. But it is a limitation not to speak other languages as well because they complement and enrich one’s native tongue. I wish that all the world’s citizens could appreciate all the world’s languages. The need to communicate in a multi-lingual world is possible through translation and, in the case of film, subtitles and voice over [VO]. But language expresses a culture’s way of seeing the world. So it is not just simply the language, it is the culture itself that is being conveyed in language.

I believe that in Africa developments in literature and cinema will be stifled if we don’t confront the language issue. While it is great to have translations, how beautiful it would be to taste things in the language in which it was conceived and felt. Take, for example, the Senegalese writer Boris Diop, whose novels I have long enjoyed in French. When I read his latest novel in Wolof it was extraordinarily powerful. Some parts of the novel can’t be translated because it would be too complicated and because in a passage there is an implicit reference to something that exists in a specific culture that can’t be translated because there is no term that exists in the language of the translation.

MM: With regard to work in development, I understand that your film Karmen Geï is being reincarnated in the context of post-Katrina New Orleans. Why revisit Karmen in New Orleans?

JR: There is a musical event on Carmen in New Orleans. Local musicians, individuals from diverse class backgrounds are going to participate in the performance. I was invited to participate in this project and welcomed the opportunity to revisit the character of Carmen and the social issues she evokes. The story of Carmen is intellectually rich and consistent. However, as many times as the story is told, you never get to the bottom of it. I’m also interested in the social context of New Orleans, which I find important. So it is not Karmen Geï whom I’m revisiting, it is Carmen.

MM: Will Carmen, assuming she is a woman in this new rendition, critique the debacle that is Katrina?

JR: I’m not sure. My initial intuition concerns the point of departure for the film. Although I haven’t begun writing the script, it will start with an orchestra. A young man from one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans, in the limelight, beautifully plays the cello. I intend to emphasize the contrast between day and night, as everyone listens in the night from which he dreams, and the contrast between the man’s poverty and the audience’s cheers. I want to underscore the idea of visibility and invisibility through the recurring opera figures of Carmen and others. This is how I intend to approach Carmen. I have yet to consider the point of arrival in the film.

MM: Thank you, Mr. Ramaka.


I am indebted to Eileen Julien for her critical comments and editorial interventions and to Laila Amine for her nuanced translation of the interview from French to English.

Featured Director

Joseph Gaï Ramaka

Joseph Gaï Ramaka was born in 1952 in St. Louis, Senegal. After completing studies in visual anthropology at the Paris School of Social Sciences and film studies at the IDHEC, Ramaka created the French production and distribution company, Les Ateliers de l’Arche, in 1990. The Senegalese branch of this company opened the Bell’Arte space in Senegal in 1999, a Dolby stereo-equipped screening facility. This in turn jump-started the creative work of the Arche Studios, West and Central Africa’s first 15,000 square meter sound stage with computerized lighting. Some of Ramaka's films include And What If Latif Was Right winner of Best Documentary Film Award at the Vues d'Afrique Festival - Montreal 2006, Karmen Geï (2000, Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals), Ainsi soit-il (1997, Short Film Prize at Vues d’Afrique), Nitt...N’doxx / Les Faiseurs de Pluie (1988), and Baaw-Naan / Rites de Pluie (1985). He established the New Orleans Afrikan Film Festival in 2007 and in 2013, he created Gorée Island Cinema, a space for encounters and cinematographic creations, which has presented the Gorée Cinema Festival since 2015.

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About the Author

Michael T. Martin

Professor Michael T. Martin, director of the Black Film Center/Archive, is a documentarian, scholar and historian whose work looks at the postcolonial immigrant filmmaking tradition in the diasporic communities of Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. Learn More