Although a consummate artist, Senegalese film director Moussa Sene Absa is soft-spoken and almost self-effacing. Till he begins to talk about his love: filmmaking. Moussa Sene, talented painter, screenwriter, musician, and filmmaker who has added his mother’s name”Absa” to his own “out of my love for women,” speaks to OGOVA ONDEGO.
Moussa Sene Absa began as a stage actor before moving into film directing with the production of his own stage play, La Légende de Ruba.
Absa, who began flirting with filmmaking in 1984, is also a producer, editor and actor all rolled into one. His maiden film, 20 Minutes, was made on 16-mm on African immigrants in Paris, France and went on to receive acclaim globally.
Before this, Absa had been a theatre actor in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
“Although I had always dreamt of making film, it wasn’t easy to do so in Dakar,” he explains. “This forced me to travel to Paris in 1982 where I was to remain for ten years. Not having been to film school, I started as a trainee, serving coffee and acting.”
It was while serving numerous mugs of steaming coffee that Absa wrote “The price of a lie,” a film script that was well received by the Film Commission in Paris who immediately gave him money with which to produce it.
But what was the script about?
“It was about two African brothers living in Paris,” he says. “While one decided to have a nice life in Paris with white women without any intention of returning home, the other was determined to make some money and return to Africa with it. This is one of my best short films.”
By 2003, when his film “Madam Brouette” was screened during the 6th African Cine week in Nairobi, Kenya, Absa had made 15 documentary, fiction and short films.
He wrote the screenplay for Les Enfants de Dieu that was honoured at the Francophone film festival.
Absa’s directorial debut, the short film Le Prix du Mensonge, earned him the Silver Tanit at the Carthage Film Festival in 1988.
Absa says that “film is a vision” and that “therefore every film is unique.”
The themes that flow through his films are African issues, and music (traditional and modern women divas in Senegal).
“When I listen to music, I feel excited like a child and I am then inspired into discovering new things,” he says.
But is it true that fiction is superior to documentary due to the creativity required?
“Documentaries talk about reality–agriculture, education, water–unlike fiction that may deal with issues from imagined perspective,” he says. “Film is a vision, a dream that can be packaged as fiction or documentary. It’s storytelling and there is no easier way of storytelling. In documentaries you have to have life. In fiction it’s artistic.”
How are his films received?
“My films are well received throughout Africa and globally. They have been to international film festivals like Berlin, Rotterdam, San Francisco, Montreal, South Africa, and Fespaco,” he says.
This exposure has given him credibility when it comes to looking for funds for making film.
His primary audience is “everyone who has feelings. My films talk about Africans, African issues, women, children, beauty, innocence, and happiness. Filmmaking is sharing vision, dreams, and feelings. If you can share these, then you can make film. If you can tell stories and communicate, then you can make film,” he says.
Absa’s films are usually in French and Wolof.
“Language is a way of transferring ideas, highlighting, and pushing them to the people,” he explains, adding that he uses French in order to reach more people. He however stresses that images ‘not language’ are the most important things in film.
Talking about Madam Brouette (Miss Wheelbarrow), Absa says it is about a woman’s destiny: “It is about a young woman who had had no chance in love. She was unlucky. It says that love is a question of chance. There are women who say they’ve had enough of men but one never really knows when one falls in love. It can happen to any one. How to make love grow is action, word, attention, humanity, etc. Madam Brouette tells us how to deal with love when you no longer believe in it.”
We asked Absa why his film did not win a prize at FESPACO in 2003.
“Madam Brouette has received many prizes globally except at Fespaco. When you are free, freedom has a price. I am not connected to any lobby group. Many people don’t like those who are free and independent-minded. You have to lobby to win in Fespaco. But I don’t want to get into that here,” he says.
“When you make film you want to tell your story. Everyone thought that I would win a major prize in Fespaco as all my shows were jammed with people. People think African film should be arty. I make popular films. Art film deals with notions of space, landscape, measures, and minimum storyline. That’s not what I make. My films are crowded, noisy, full of music, and full of life. The jury may not like this.”
But what is the future of African film?
“African films should reveal African dreams, issues, and tackle problems,” he says. “You target your people first and then the world.”
Having made award-winning films for close to three decades, does this make it easier for Absa to solicit funding from donors to make more films?
“Yes, it is a little easier now but not easy,” he says.
Absa, who says he has his own distribution network for his films, says more than 100, 000 viewers in Senegal have watched Miss Wheelbarrow and that the film is also distributed internationally from Montreal (Canada), Paris (France), South Africa, and Brazil.
“My worldwide distribution is handled by an international distributor,” he says.
But is there a large enough audience for African film?
“Yes,” Absa says. “Africans like to see their own images on the screen but there is no free screen for them. We must de-colonise our screens and put African movies on our own screens.”
Describing the digital technology as a revolution, Absa says African filmmakers will win only is they use it: “It provides freedom, enabling one to make film without having to wait for 10 years to make film on celluloid. I have films I’ll shoot on digital technology and others I’ll only do on celluloid. You can do a lot of things with digital camera that you can’t do with celluloid.”
Absa says Africans must lobby their governments to rescue film theatres from closing as is currently happening all over Africa.
“We must tell our governments that we need the theatres for entertainment and education and that they should be salvaged from being taken over by mosques, churches, and commercial enterprises. This closure of theatres is happening in Senegal and I am equally concerned.”
Absa also advises African filmmakers to strike a balance between art and business.
“Art and commerce need each other. I make films that can get money from the pockets of others and into mine. But don’t let business kill art. If that happens then something is wrong,” he says.
Saying Africans should use film in pushing what he terms the “African agenda”, Absa advises his colleagues to “work hard, protect the industry, and push governments to support film.”