BACK to Home Page  Workshop: Orality and Literacy in African Societies

Dr. Brigitte Reinwald
Neubergerweg 121
22419 Hamburg
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(A projection of Kouyaté's film preceded the following contribution.)

Last night, many of us have been spun in the "cohesive web surrounding the relationship among the text, the audience and the performing artist, the orator-narrator", as film analyst Ukadike (1994: 201) defines African story telling, both in the village setting and in its technically reproduced form, the film. In this respect, all of you are heartily invited to give your opinion about last night's performance as well as your critical comments about what I retained from it.

In the following, I will give you first a few details about the film-director, the main character of his film as well as the background of the film's subject. Then, I will try to resume, in a nutshell, the messages transmitted in the film (as far as I could capture them), and the narrative technique applied, which means brushing the last subject of my contribution: To what extent can film be considered the today's medium in order to transmit and to translate orality and by it, the historical and cultural heritage of a society or its groups? This also means to ask for the way in which a film shapes the historical consciousness of its audience. How does it introduce the past into the viewers' minds? To what extent does it educate them, promoting as the oral story telling did, a growing self-awareness and identity?

Keïta - L'héritage du griot is the first film by Burkinabé film-director Dani Kouyaté, realized in 1994 and presented at the last-year's film festival of FESPACO in Ouagadougou/Burkina Faso where it was awarded with a first prize. 1995-FESPACO's theme has been: Cinema and History. The filmmaker Dani is the son of Sotigui Kouyaté, the griot and narrator Djéliba, main cast of the film and also a griot and actor in real life. He has starred in numerous films starting from 1972 with Mustapha Alassane's satirical comedy "Femmes-Villa-Voitures-Argent" to 1987 "Black Mic-Mac", and 1990 "The Sheltering sky" by Bertolucci, just to cite the best-known. In addition, he was repeatedly on stage as a main actor of Peter Brook in "Mahabharata", "The Tempest" and "The man who mistook his wife for his hat". Cosmopolitan and versatile, he also works as a herbalist and stands himself in the chain of transmission of oral traditions. Add to this the historical role of the Kouyaté family as griots of the Keïta-dynasty, you may get a first idea of the multi-leveled aspects, contents, messages, and persons running through the film. To a certain extent, Sotigui is thus casting himself, with his son paying tribute to his father by highlighting the griot's difficult mission in today's contradictory and transitory Africa.

In this respect, Sotigui Kouyaté the griot asserted in an interview made in 1995, that he still considered himself being part of the continent's memory with his mission being the teaching of history, the taking of responsibility for the youth and the mediation in conflicts between individuals, families and even states. He practices this mission by playing, acting which means for him searching the contact with the audience, creating the communicative web.

In a similar vein, his son, the director Dani Kouyaté confirmed (also in an 1995-interview) his interest in the acting-playing of the griot:

What really does interest me in the method of the griot, is the play. He plays with things. And this is good for the cinema. He takes true and essential stories and changes them into plays. In the context of these plays, everybody gets his money's worth. The one who takes life easy, takes pleasure in this play, and the one who is ingenious can carry off some important educational elements (Gavron 1995).

Dani's following statements may serve as an introduction to my next point:

Most people speak about the shock provoked by the encounter of modernity and tradition. For me, this shock does not really exist. There are two parallel realities, and we are in between. And this is the problem. Sometimes we are traditional, sometimes we are modern without ever having achieved to integrate the two in an intelligent way. And this is why we have to take the bull by the horns (Gavron 1995).

What is the film about? What are its messages?

"The world is old and the future is born in the past" (Introductory comment in Keïta). Everybody has to know his story/her story in order to identify himself/herself in space and time. Without knowing this story, it is impossible for us to assume ourselves as human-beings aware of ourselves. And as far as African history, at least the West African cultural fund, is concerned, a slave was the one with no name, no ancestors he/she could identify with when being asked for his/her origin. It was this genealogical knowledge which prevented an individual from enslavement. And the griot has the mission to tell the person his/her story. This is what the film ist about. At least: This is one message transmitted by the film.

The second message is contained in the meeting or better: confrontation of two world visions. Djéliba, the griot comes from Wagadu, a simple village, with its name indeed evoking the legendary kingdom and core of the Mande civilization, the historically identified Ghana, situated north of the Upper-Niger valley, founded by the Soninke at the end of the 8th century. Djéliba has thus come a long way to town. His meeting with the Keïta family is the encounter of two modes of living regarding both space and time: the rural mode, synonymous with disposal of time, slow-motion-rythm, all elements being propitious for story-telling, and the urban mode of traffic jams, fixed dates, separation of home and working place, accelerated-motion-rythm. Djéliba is the pole of tranquility, the other persons moving around all the time. Djéliba's is the teaching of the school of life as Amadou Hampaté Bâ would have called it, while Mabo attends the school the Europeans have left, or better: a cartoon of school where he is taught European stories.

The third message concerns the role of the griot in space and time. There is Djéliba, carrier of the mission which is thought to address to all who want to listen. As filmcritic Biny Traoré puts it:

Djéliba the narrator develops the role of the witness. (...) He wants to be a trustworthy and reliable narrator or storyteller. He has received his story from his forefathers and so it is authentic. It deserves to be preserved (1995: 29).

The story he tells the little boy Mabo, is a screen adaptation of the epic poem of the Mande, notably of "Soundjata ou l'épopée manding" by Djibril Tamsir Niane, the written version of the oral tradition concerning the kingdom of Mali. According to Traoré's comparative analysis, the film narrative is to be considered "very faithful to the book" and coming "close to the spirit of Niane in the orality recovered by writing" which is true for many sequences (1995: 25). The film plot starts with the legend of the first Mande king Kaya Maghan Konaté and closes with Sundjata's way to exile. It is the mission of Djéliba to propulse his audience into the 13th century.

There are other types of griots depicted in the film, such as the urban griotte, the female counterpart praising Mabo's father on the occasion of the marriage ceremony for money - a glimpse of the filmmaker at the perverted role of the griot in the today's environment. And there is the historical griot, advicer of the first king of Mande, the father of Sundjata, who finally has the solution for the kingdom's future, signalling the king how to outsmart the resistant bride Sogolon. There is some sort of another griot, the schoolteacher Fofana whose intentions and loyalties are opposite to Djéliba's. Their antagonism is excellently developed in the sequence I consider the key-scene of the film - their quarrel about Mabo's future, a clash between two incompatible systems of knowledge, an esoteric and sacral, and a profane and, not in the least convincing, stick-and-carrot-system. Beyond it, these teachers cannot communicate: neither does the schoolteacher understand Djéliba's mission, nor can Djéliba read his letters. Although the filmmaker does not at all hide his sympathy towards Djéliba's school, he gives in, by developing a realistic though finally pessimistic solution. Mabo's teaching by Djéliba won't be confined to school-holidays, it won't continue at all. And this is exactly the fourth message. According to Biny Traoré:

It is at the moment when the crisis over tradition is serious that Djéliba who nevertheless seemed to have supernatural powers capable of resisting everything, shows signs of weakness and departs (...) (1995: 28).

This message is however not as easily to decode. Whereas, in a sense, an alarm is sounded as regards the vanishing social role of the griot in today's Africa leaving the continent's human resources to the mercy of second class education not adapted neither to the economic and social realities nor to the aspirations of the majority of the African youth. But from the arguments developed in the film, Dani Kouyaté can be considered also being sceptical about the miracles oral tradition could perform if not adapted to pressures and opportunities which characterize today's Africa. I would however not go as far as Biny Traoré who states:

The wife's threat to desert the family home if Djéliba persists in his mission can be interpreted by the author of the film as a warning in the face of any events that may be provoked by the evocation of traditions in an Africa threatened by growing tribalization (1995: 28).

I would rather assume that Kouyaté, the director, refrains from a definite assertion. He lays out the conflict to us, as if to say, to paraphrase Brecht: "Now, dear audience, it is up to you to look for the final solution. But it must be a good one, definitely" (1974: 144). I stop here for this subject leaving it for further discussion.

I come to the narrative technique. In this connection and referring to Frank Nwachukwu Ukadike, author of the 1994 published analysis "Black African Cinema", when we compare the method applied by traditional story telling to modern-day cinema's technique, we discover an apparent similarity. The viability of traditional story telling is enhanced by the heterogeneity of its mediating elements which are first: the narrative structure which uses both fiction and truth in order to depict circumstances, second: plot and dramatization, third: continuity and discontinuity of time and fourth: relationship between the image evoked and sound (narrator's voice, dance, musique).

Though technically refined, the cinema proceeds in the same way by establishing a multileveled process of narrative construction plus its mise-en-scène which is first: to visualize the performance, second: a combination of divers codes, achieved by camera-work, image organization that is editing, dialogue, voice-over or off-screen narration (in order to dramatize, to create continuity dis-continuity of time and so on), and third: the image-sound relationship. Given the enormous differences concerning the technical equipment, these astonishing similarities are usually not perceived (1994: 24).

Let us see how these techniques work out in "Keïta". Dani Kouyaté has established a multiple narrative structure with its components being however simple and linear (compared to films such as "Wend Kuuni" by Gaston Kaboré, "Jom" by Ababacar Samb Makharam or "Visages de femmes by Desiré Écaré). There is one main story (Djéliba-Mabo-encounter) which contains two stories-in-the-story, the first being the story of Sundjata, the second the less-skilled retelling of the Sundjata plot's elements by Mabo to his schoolfriends which is in fact a demonstration of the filmmaker that story telling is only for the griots. The critic Traoré Biny does indeed identify Mabo the narrator with modern historians such as Ki Zerbo, Ibrahima Baba Kake (1995: 30). Though there is only one carrier of the oral narrative: Djéliba, we have a distinct joint character - the eternal hunter - whose appearance ties together all stories, and transcends all time and space levels of the film, catalysing action, starting from the cowrie-soothsaying where he announces the future fate of Mande, his presence at Sundjata's birth, his advice concerning Sundjata's walking-stick, Djéliba's dream or meditation in Wagadu, and Mabo's loneliness after Djéliba has left.

Whereas the main story is linearily structured (that is continuity of time but not of space) and autonomous, Sundjata's story is, though being linearily structured, not autonomous which means it rests fragmentary due to the interruption provoked by the climax and resolution of the main story (Djéliba's departure). This is an important aspect as regards the message of the filmmaker, confirming thus that though the past is not dead, its revival might be irreversibly interrupted, depending on the pressures and ignorance exerted in present-day-life.

It is by flash-backs that the two stories are repeatingly alternating. This could lead to a piecemeal plot, which is indeed prevented first by the function of the hunter, second by an internal logical thread spun through questions of Mabo and the explanations of Djéliba. This permanent contact between the active griot and his also active audience, thus the interactive process of the performance is worked out at best by the filmmaker. The cohesive web I alluded to in the beginning is thus demonstrated par excellence.

There is an obvious juxtaposition of fiction and truth, a permanent intermingling of past and present, myth-reality, metaphysical and physical world. And it is again the hunter who alone embodies the synthesis not achievable by the other characters. The filmmaker shows us, his audience, by this, the existence of two parallel realities which might interfere if we be open towards this interaction between two visions of the universe, towards the integration of the past into the future. And as I already mentioned, he is sceptical about it. The past exerts its power, inclining Mabo to stay away from school, provoking conflicts between the spouses and irritating at least the schoolteacher. But it is, somehow dialectical, the assimilation of the past's norms, the story telling of Mabo in the baobab which finally leads to the crisis, and thus to the departure of Djéliba. In this respect, the film is, as I see it, the director Kouyaté's reflection on the interference of past and present with, as its indispensable mediator, the griot. But the conflicts which the encounter provokes are far from being settled - the less convincing model gains priority. Nevertheless Mabo and - in a wider sense all those curious of their story - is already infected, and he surely will find the one who continues to explain his name for him. Kouyaté makes clear with his film that although it is the griot who catalyses action through his transmission of ancient wisdom and knowledge, by stressing everyday patterns of communication, it is actually today's actors, that is the African - and by chance the European audience - to integrate his message into their lives and to demand for more stories in order to transcend their everyday train, be it in order to amuse oneself or to go deeper.

Just to cite a few elements of the codes established: Djéliba serves as a transmitter of tradition also in another respect: He often speaks in proverbs, his knowledge, his experiences and his wisdom are shown to come from tradition. By this, Mabo and the wider audience are getting notice from another potential world underlying the visible present one, in an allusive and nevertheless moralistic way. And let me here point at a code which did not convince me. As the slightest fault committed by present day actors is pointed out by Djéliba by a reference to tradition, it is the character of Mabo's mother who cannot but loose morally. This adds a pinch of salt to the generally negatively painted female characters, be it physical ugliness, wickedness, jealousy and so on. You surely know what I mean. Sogolon is bound to be less than attractive according to the tradition the filmmaker adapts here. But he could have transcended tradition by giving it an opposite character in the present.

The music at the beginning and the end has an educational content with its theme being: "The trials and tribulations of man never end as long as he is alive". As I do not understand the Bambara, it is Biny Traoré I rely on in this respect (1995: 30).

Filmography, bibliography

Dani KOUYATÉ, Keïta - L'héritage du griot. Burkina Faso/France 1994, 96 min., Bambara/French (German subtitled version).

Laurence GAVRON, Y'a pas de problème. Impressions du cinéma africain. Documentary. France 1995, 65 min.

Bertolt BRECHT, Der gute Mensch von Sezuan. Parabelstück. Frankfurt/M. 1974.

Biny TRAORÉ, Keita and the storyteller's cultural function. In: Écrans d'Afrique/African Screen 12, 2/1995, pp. 25-30.

Frank Nwachukwu UKADIKE, Black African Cinema. Berkeley, University of California Press 1994.

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