May
14

Annette Mbaye d'Erneville of Senegal Subject of New Film



Nancy Keefe Rhodes 05/14/09More articles
Merebi.jpg
(Annette Mbaye d'Erneville, right, from Ousmane William Mbaye's documentary, "Mere-bi," which screened at the 6th Syracuse International Film Festival on April 30.)


There is a wonderful scene late in the new film “Mère-bi/Mother of All,” Ousmane William Mbaye’s portrait of the charismatic Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, in which she is sitting with her grandson, Laity Ahmet Mbaye, teaching him to recite poetry. He looks to be about 14. In the poem at hand, she praises her own son – Laity’s father, who’s also filming this conversation – for getting through his circumcision at about age six without crying. She wants her grandson to read one line with more verve and shows him what she means, drawing one phrase out with an elegant sweep of her arm. He reads the line as she did and goes on; when he’s done, he asks her about the ceremony.

“This man, the Namane, he puts sand on your lap to see if you’re trembling,” she says.

Laity listens intently, his eyes wide and the corners of his mouth pulled back a little in apprehension. When she reaches the part where “he cuts it in one go!” and demonstrates with another sweep of her arm – she adds, “The blood gushes!” – Laity’s head snaps back at the thought of it, after which the old woman and young teen relish a laugh together.

Now 82, d’Erneville says in the film that with grandchildren “you have this feeling of infinity.” She still directs the Henriette Bathily Museum of Women, named for her close friend and colleague, which she founded in 1994 at the historic slave port at Gorée Island, and she says her sole ambition now is that her magazine “Ciné Culture Afrique” be printed regularly and survive.

Mbaye, 58, distilled this film – first about 90 minutes long and now 55 – from 50 hours of footage shot over 15 years. Besides being a poet, D’Erneville was Senegal’s first degreed journalist, valedictorian of the program founded by Pierre Schaeffer in 1952 when he headed radio broadcasting for overseas France. That year she began broadcasting to West Africa from Paris, to which she had gone in the late 40s as a student. She continued as a journalist when she returned to Senegal in 1957 with her husband and the first two of four children. Léopold Sédar Senghor – poet, major intellectual in the emergence of the Négritude movement, Senegal’s first president, and d’Erneville’s tutor in Paris – had exhorted Senegalese ex-pats to go home and build their newly independent country. There, D’Erneville founded Senegal’s first women’s magazine, “Awa,” was Radio Senegal’s program head, a prime mover in the film festival RECIDAK, a founder of the national writers association, a poet and writer of children’s books and a teacher. The mother of four, d’Erneville divorced her husband, whom she had met in France, when he tried to curtail her many public activities. Mbaye treats this matter-of-factly in his film, including a number of clips of his father during which Ndakhte Mbaye adds his comments.

“Mère-bi” has screened just twice in the US recently before Mbaye took it back to Africa and Europe for upcoming festivals in Cameroon, Spain, Milan, Brussels and Cannes. It’s been airing on national television in Senegal and in June will air on TV5-World. One of the two US screenings occurred during Syracuse International Film Festival (SYRFILM), the result of its having been recommended by Senegal’s Ben Diogaye Beye, SYRFILM’s African liaison and a visiting artist here last year. Mbaye brought the film to Syracuse directly from Old Dominion University’s ONFilm Festival in Virginia, where his sister, Mariè-Pierre Myrick, lives.

As it happens, the poem in that scene with her grandson is “Kassacks,” written in 1958, from d’Erneville’s book “Kaddu.” “Kassacks” appears in “A Rain of Words,” the new anthology of 47 women poets from 12 French-speaking African nations, published late last year by the University of Virginia Press, edited by Irène Assiba d’Almeida and translated by Janis Mayes. Mayes teaches at Syracuse University and takes students abroad for Paris Noir, the program focused on the mid-century cultural and political ferment in Paris among African intellectuals who gathered there to study, from which emerged the movement called Négritude. Mayes was alerted to the Syracuse screening by Myrick and d’Almeida, and in turn alerted others. The film, which screened in the same time slot as the crowd-drawing “Appaloosa,” still had a sizable and enthusiastic audience, and Mbaye sold DVDs of the film while here.

Mayes said afterward that the “audience response was fantastic,” adding that “women especially have not received the artistic and scholarly attention they have earned and deserve. ‘Mère-bi’ is a stunning record of the force of her decisions, and more. My very favorite part of the documentary is at the end, when this beautiful, dynamic woman responds in Wolof – in poetic verse – to her son's teasing question, ‘What do I mean to you?’ And my next favorite part is the response she gives when asked if she regrets not having married again! Wow. ‘Have you seen my photographs? Believe me, I had opportunities.”

Greg Thomas, who also teaches at SU and has a new book out himself, attended the Syracuse screening and calls d’Erneville “legendary.” He says the film “is the best of tributes in the great Pan-African tradition – just beautifully and custom made for the whole Pan-African world.”

In one scene Mbaye asks Myrick for one word to sum up their mother and she replies, “Multicultural.”

Mbaye spends considerable time on this subject in the years well before d’Erneville ever reached Paris, from tracing his family’s roots – both the Serer tribe and the Frenchman “who began a family in Senegal in 1780” – to the effects of d’Erneville attending the teachers’ training school at Rufisque run by the ardent Gaullist, Germaine Le Goff, who “taught us to straddle two worlds” by loving both Africa and France, a revolutionary idea at the time that had its detractors among both Europeans and Africans. There is a wonderful scene, apparently filmed three or four years ago, in which d’Erneville reminisces with three of her old classmates; you can only be grateful that Mbaye, who cut his film by a third to fit television length, spared this conversation. Later, driving through Dakar, d’Erneville reflects.

“Each time I hear ‘La Marseillaise,’ I feel something inside,” she says, adding that it’s the same with “Pincez tous vos Koras,” Senegal’s national anthem. “I like Samba Diabare Samb, I like Youssou N’Dour. But I also like Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand. I can’t say it’s a duality. There’s no struggle. It’s a symbiosis.”

D’Erneville also hosted for many years a weekly salon called Club Africa in the large courtyard of her Dakar home, modeled on gatherings she’d attended during her student days in Paris, both at the homes of French intellectuals and artists like the young actress Simone Signoret and those among African students living in the Latin Quarter. These gatherings of young artists, intellectuals, activists and journalists in Dakar particularly earned d’Erneville the nick-name “Mère-bi.”

Contacted in Dakar by email before I sat down with Mbaye at the Renaissance Hotel the morning he left Syracuse, filmmaker Ben Beye – who also appears in the film – wrote back quickly, “I'm very glad you met my friend Willy and that you'll interview him. We did lot of things together and not only in the film business. Mère-bi – his mother – was my boss when I was working as a radio broadcaster. I can say that she's also MY mother. In fact she is the mother of everybody from Willy's generation. Tell him that his friend Ben wants him to make Syracuse people know about Club Africa.”

Like Ben Beye, Mbaye has been coming to the US for some years as part of an on-going exchange between African and African American filmmakers as well as to visit friends and his sister on holidays in Virginia. Beye first came in 1978, invited by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art as one of a group of Senegalese filmmakers. Then Mbaye first came in 1981 – Ben Beye also made that trip – for a gathering hosted by the National Black Program and Consortium. The opportunity to meet colleagues in a relaxed setting was a huge draw for Mbaye to come to Syracuse, along with the film’s editor, Laurence Attali. Here’s part of our conversation.

NKR: I understand that your film was recommended by Ben Beye, who was here last year.

OWM: Yes, he talked to Owen Shapiro and my film was accepted. I am really happy to be here because at this festival I meet many filmmakers of different nationalities, and it’s difficult to meet them in other places. Here we have time to talk with them and we are in the same hotel, so it’s easier to make contacts. I think it’s a good thing. I’m really happy.

NKR: How did you come to make this film? You’ve been working on it for some time.

OWM: Yes, for many, many years. About 15 years, over 50 hours of footage. I made this portrait as an example to young people. I think it’s time now to show to young people the people who believe in something, who fight for something, and who win. Because now I think young people think it’s not possible. But sometimes you make some sacrifices in your life and in your love, but if you have an idea, you can follow the idea and win. And it is to show African youth that now you can be African and be emancipated. Some Africans think to be open about the world is to take on the culture of others. You can keep your culture and be open and attain modern life, you know? That’s the example I want to show.

NKR: Your sister uses the word “multicultural” to sum up your mother. And that comes through very strongly, that your mother has been able to move between cultures and to be very accomplished in each one.

OWM: Yes, exactly. It’s that I want to show young people. You can have your culture, you can have your religion, and be open to others. And if you’re not open, you have a terrorist. If you are not open, you become a fanatic. We have the capacity – you can be Muslim, you can be Catholic, and also give the other their choice to be what they want to be. My mother and her generation traveled. She was born in the village. She went to school at St. Louis – in Senegal – after which she went to France. She returned to Senegal for independence and tried to make something for the country and the people. That’s why she’s open. And I think the young people today who travel can go anywhere, but they don’t open their eyes.

NKR: She was in Paris at a very important moment and you were yourself born in France.

OWM: I don’t remember my childhood in France. I just remember my education in Senegal. But Senghor and the Négritude movement – a cultural movement – they were with French intellectuals. You see that Picasso opened his eyes. He came to see African art and took its influence – because he’s open. If you are not open, you cannot make a body of work. And I think the best period was Négritude because they mixed African, they mixed Caribbean, they mixed French – and they spoke the same language. After, the same people wanted to create unity in Africa. But the French colonists didn’t want Africa unified. French colonization worked to break old alliances, old confederations among tribes.

NKR: The French wanted you to fight with each other.

OWM: Yes. And they broke the unity. It’s why Africa has so many problems. The United States is very strong because it’s united. Now you can’t name any country that can be strong alone.

NKR: The area that your mother work in and emphasized was arts and culture. Was there a choice on her part to emphasize arts and culture instead of politics?

OWM: Yes. Because my mother, when she come back to Senegal, she wanted to serve Senegal. She began with the women’s movement and culture. A little politics. But she didn’t want to be political, though all the Senegalese politicians met and talked with her. She made the first women’s association. She made the first journal about women. And the politicians were with her in Paris. They knew each other a long time ago.

NKR: Your mother is 82 now, very healthy and still working.

OWM: Yes. She is still working for the museum, because she doesn’t have money for the film journal. So she directs the museum in Gorée Island. And when you see her – [laughs] – when she goes to the meetings, she goes to the island, she takes the boat – she has energy.

NKR: Tell me a little bit more about your own filmmaking, because you’ve been making films for many years and have won some major awards at festivals such as Carthage, Milan and elsewhere.

OWM: Before “Mother,” the last movie I made was “Fer et Verre” in 2005, another portrait of a Senegalese woman, the painter Anta Germaine Gaye. Before that I made “Xalima la Plume,” a portrait of the Senegalese musician Seydina Insa Wade. Before that, my mother had organized a film festival in Senegal – RECIDAK – and I worked with her seven years. Before that I was Ben Beye’s assistant in his first film, the short film “Les Princes noirs de Saint-Germaine des Prés.” I worked on that film in Paris with Ben and also on his film “Sey, Seyeti” in Dakar. I made “Dial-Diali,” a short film about the aptitude of Senegalese women to charm the men. After that I made “Fresque,” about five Senegalese painters who go to Paris to make a fresco for a big salon near the Eiffel Tower. And I made “Dakar Clando,” which opened the Rotterdam Festival. I made “Duunde Yakaar” and my first film was a short film, “Doomi Ngacc.” That is about the village of my grandfather and the title means “child of.” I was also assistant director to Ousmane Sembene for his film “Ceddo.” I was assistant director for many films, also screenwriter, art director and producer.

NKR: You know I have emailed Ben Beye about meeting you and he said to ask you especially about the Africa Club. Would you tell me about the Africa Club?

OWM: You know, in Senegal, just after independence there was only one political party, with no opposition. And the young people – like us – formed a cultural group for talking to each other about politics without having a political party. We found the theater and cinema and conferences, you know, to talk to people. We didn’t have a party – instead we had a cultural and social club, and the name of this club was Africa. And my mother opened the house for the group Africa. And after that started I began working in cinema.

NKR: Ben said that your mother was his mother. And that she’s really the mother of your generation.

OWM: Yes.

NKR: And he said that Club Africa was where everybody met everybody else. How has that been for you?

OWM: Ben is a friend, but in Africa, Ben is my brother. Because my mother is the mother of all. My sister in Virginia, she put that on the poster for the film screening, “Mother of all.” Sometimes I say I have many sisters and brothers but we don’t have the same blood. But they are my sisters and brothers! Really, because they consider my mother like their own mother. If I see them, I say, ‘My sister! My brother!’ because we have the same education, the same upbringing. They were all the time in my mother’s house. I don’t know if Americans understand but in Africa it’s easy. Because Ben is my brother, I can’t fight Ben. Not only my friend and my colleague. There are other filmmakers – they are my colleagues, but Ben Beye is my brother.

NKR: One of the things I remember Ben talking about when he was here is that many of the movie theaters in Senegal have closed.

OWM: Yes, now the movie theaters are broken down. If you go to Dakar, you cannot see movies in the cinema. There’s no regular theater in Dakar. And Dakar was the city of cinema in Africa! We have tried to form “cine-clubs.” I started a cine-club in one restaurant in Dakar and some younger filmmakers started another cine-club in the cultural center. It’s really hard! And now you have a generation who never see a movie in the dark. They watch a movie on the computer or on TV. I say it’s a problem. For movies you must be in collectivity and in the dark. There’s movies, there’s television. It’s not the same. I think there is a transformation of the mentality of young filmmakers who don’t see movies in the dark. They don’t make movies like real movies. Because they are young now and they have rap songs, they make their films very fast, without concentration. A young filmmaker may make one, two, three films and never see a classic film.

NKR: When you were growing up there were lots of movies in Dakar.

OWM: Yes, yes. You would go with your girl friend, with your friends, with your family. If you had a meeting with anyone and you didn’t see a film, you were not happy. For two days after you go to see them, we would still talk about the film.

NKR: Are there some films you’ve seen here at this festival that you were glad to see?

OWM: I didn’t see many films because I have a problem with the language. My English is not good and I don’t understand the subtitles. But I understand that the editing makes the structure of the films. I saw a Hungarian film yesterday and two of Rob [Nilsson]’s, ‘Need’ and ‘Northern Lights.’ Yes – very beautiful. I liked his films very much.

NKR: Any rising young filmmakers in Senegal whose names we should know?

OWM: Yes, we have a young filmmaking generation and I think they can do well. I want to mention my partner – Laurent Attali, who did the editing of this film. She’s also co-producer, and she’s a filmmaker. She has directed many films in Senegal. We worked hard together because “Mother” is a film that only four persons made. Because there is the character, Annette d’Erneville, first. Me, I directed. Laurent Attali, editing. And the musician, Doudou Doukouré. It was enough – we four made this film.

NKR: And you shot it?

OWM: Yes, directed and shot and sound. It’s why this film is particular for me.

NKR: How did you come to work with Laurent?

OWM: Laurent came to RECIDAK after she come to Senegal to make a film, and I drove her around Senegal – for contacts for making a film – and I would tell her what I think, and we began to work on her film and after that, we continued to work on my film. She lives fifty percent in Senegal and fifty in France. Now she has Senegalese nationality. We go to Paris together today. She stays in Paris. I go on to Dakar and I come back for Cannes. “Mère-bi” will be at Cannes at the international market. The organization Culture France invited me.

This article was announced in the May 14, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle on page 17. Nancy covers the arts and writes the film column Make it Snappy. She served on SYRFILM’s pre-screening committee this year’s festival and also in 2008. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.


CATEGORY: Movies
TAGS: Annette Mbaye d'Erneville, Ousman William Mbaye, documentary film, Mere-bi, Ben Beye, Senegal, SYRFILM, Janis Mayes
EDITION: The Eagle


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