From left: Manchia Diawara, Souleymane Cisse, Martin Scorsese, myself. Photo by Getty Images.
The April 29 Tribeca Talks: Directors' Series event with Malian director Souleymane Cissé and Martin Scorsese was a really terrific and enlightening and, for myself, kind of nerve-wracking event. I was the moderator and I got things off to a really dumb start by introducing Cissé's translator, NYU Cinema Studies professor and Mali native Manchia Diawara as Mathieu Roy. I have an explanation for this, and a lesson for the Future Moderators of Young America, that is, "Just ask." I had been introduced to Cissé and Diawara in the green room, only heard a portion of Diawara's name, and settled in for the exchanging of pleasantries while waiting for Scorsese and the start of the event. I wanted to introduce Diawara on stage, of course, but didn't wanna look like a dumbass by asking for the correct spelling and pronounciation of his name, so I thought I'd be clever and copy the name off of an e-mail document he had been looking at during or conversation. An e-mail not to him but to Mathieu Roy, whose name I would have recognized, had my brain been working properly, as that of the one-time Scorsese crew member and documentarian. So. Anyway, I bounced back from that error okay, I guess, and then we talked about Cissé's filmmaking beginnings. It was interesting to learn that he was raised as a fairly strict Muslim and that he was so knowledgeable about religion growing up that his boyhood nickname was "Imam." I pointed out that it was interesting that another would-be man of God had been lost to cinema; Scorsese, of course, considered becoming a priest in his own youth, and his sometime collaborator Paul Schrader had such a strict religious upbringing that he didn't see a movie for the first time until he was seventeen. Cissé was somewhat more precocious; he saw his first films when he was five, and vividly remembers the battles between cowboys and Indians if not the stars or directors of the films. The making of his first feature resulted in a lot of hassles from Mali's officials, including some time in jail; he recalls emerging from a cell determined to get started on his next picture, and then knowing that he was a filmmaker.
I tried to make a point that in a sense a filmmaker's output is very much determined by the conditions of the place in which he or she makes them, and that goes for a lot more than the state of that place's ostensible film industry. We westerners like to bemoan the paucity of Tarkovsky and Paradjanov's cinematic output, and the oppression those two filmmakers experienced, and those things are worth bemoaning. But on the other hand, just as a thought experiment, let's try to imagine the kinds of careers that Tarkovsky and Paradjanov might have had in Hollywood. Scorsese accepted the premise, and allowed that he had been "lucky" to begin as a filmmaker during a time when advances in equipment had made it possible for someone to just pick up a camera and shoot on the streets.
Beyond that, we spent a good deal of time exploring Cisse's film world, and a wonderful world it is. One of the most appealing things about the relatively small body of work he's produced since the '70s is its directness, the deceptive simplicity of the approach that puts the viewer right there in the characters' lives whether he's dealing with the contemporary world, as in the staggering 1978 Baara (Work), about, among other things, a factory owner's meltdown, or the ancient world of Bambaran lore and myth in Yeelen (Brightness), the 1987 film that's his best-known work in the West. As I said in my introductory remarks, it's a simple approach that can only be achieved via the deepest artistry. There's also the way the films blend that quality referred to by the liberal shibboleth "universality" with a very exacting specificity. It's bracing, for instance, to see in his 1995 film Waati (Time), Boer oppressors as they are seen through the eyes of black Africans, both the filmmaker himself and the oppressed African characters...as opposed to through the eyes of, say, white sympathizers with the oppressed characters, as is usually the case in Western films. We didn't get into this a whole lot on stage, but before the official discussion, when I brought this up with Cissé, he laughed—he's a terrifically engaging and warm person, by the way—and said that when he first went to South Africa and met some such individuals, he thought, these folks are a breed of their own; you can't even call them "white people."
We managed to tie in Cisse's film world with the work of Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation, an offshoot of his Film Foundation, and the organization that's making sure, among other things, that you too will be able to experience Cissé's film world in a meaningful way. (It was through the suggestion of my friend Kent Jones, the WCF's Special Advisor, that I took the moderator's spot, and many thanks to him.) I hope everyone in attendance, and everyone reading this, is inspired to check out and get involved in the Foundation's work. I know that certain unreproducible cinematic experiences of my life—to name just three, Limite, Touki Bouki, and Mest—would not likely have been possible without the Foundation's work. So it was very gratifying to be able, with the help of two truly great filmmakers, to help put the word out there. And if you see YouTube videos in which it appears that I'm looking at my Blackberry, well, it's a fair cop—but I wasn't checking e-mail or tweeting or anything but keeping track of time, which as you can imagine both the venue and certain of the participants were very much pressed for. I'll close with a picture of me saying something that makes Scorsese laugh, which should not be taken as an indication of a caption contest or any such thing.