YIDFF 2023 International Competition

Crossing Voices
Raphaël Grisey (Director)

Interviewer: Abe Koji

Working with Bouba Touré

Abe Koji (AK): Crossing Voices tells the story of Bouba Touré’s long career, along with its diversity, continuity, and richness. It’s not an academic or journalistic re-enactment of a biography, but rather expresses deep empathy and respect for Touré’s humanity, as well as a feeling of solidarity with his activities. Could you tell us how you arrived at the idea of making a film that, through such expression, positions the entirety of Touré’s personal history in a historical overview that resists colonialism?

Raphaël Grisey (RG): That’s a very big question, and it’s not easy to answer. I first met Bouba Touré in France. He was my mother’s friend. He had spent some time in France as the representative of the Somankidi Coura cooperative, and as an educator. Immediately after he came to France, he placed great importance on relaying history through his work in photography, and, in particular, he made it his key mission to relay the conditions that those called “migrant workers” faced. He always brought his slide projector and camera with him, spent long hours in the residences of France’s migrant workers, and while asking what had happened, would explain the agricultural cooperative, and would talk about the fight of those who had come from the colonies. He had done that in his own village, and he did the same thing with French people, talking to people like me, who had no knowledge of the situation, as well as to people who had no connection to it whatsoever. So I, too, was pulled into this history. After, when I was a student at an arts school, I remembered his work in photography, and began discussions with Bouba in 2004, long before I shot this film. I spent a lot of time trying to capture his journey and what lay at its foundations, what he had accomplished, and his generation’s situation. He was really patient, and would tell the same story over and over again. In this way, he filled the roles of diplomat so to speak, educator, and narrator. I knew that I wanted to shoot this film at a fairly early stage, around 2004-2005. I wanted to make a film through which you could get a sense of how Bouba Touré lived his life, of the wisdom passed down from his ancestors and the feeling of their presence, of the things that his grandparents had experienced.

We had exchanged many words about the films and videos he had produced or distributed, his photographic works and the films he had appeared in as an actor. There were two films by the Mauritanian filmmaker Sidney Sokhona. He himself lived in migrant workers’ housing, studied film at the Paris 8 Université Vincennes-Saint-Denis, and was assistant director to Med Hondo. The first of the two films by Sokhona was Nationality: Immigration (1975), and Bouba was the projectionist, so he was able to keep a copy for forty years. The other film was Safrana ou le droit à la parole (1977). This film is fictional, but it is a story of a group that establishes a cooperative.

I wanted my film to speak about the production of these images, and to speak as a film that leaves behind a visual history through his footage. I wanted to collect his voice and find a cinematic form that could integrate his works and footage–that was my starting point.

First, we published the book Sowing Somankidi Coura. We gathered materials about the founding of Somankidi Coura, and those are also in the film. There was also the exhibition project. We exhibited the materials used in the film and held discussions about them. We held them in art museums, art centres and communal spaces for the groups linked to our activities, in Paris, Berlin, and Senegal.

In this way, it is very difficult to say exactly which of us, Bouba or me, was in charge of the film; that is to say, this is a collaboration made with the feelings we shared on a deeper level. The film was just a project to convey the story of the road that Bouba Touré had travelled.

For example, there is a sequence where Bouba’s voice plays over fixed images, and the lines that he speaks are based on an interview from over ten years ago. We re-structured it, translated it into the Soninke language, and made the film polyphonic. We worked together on selecting the archival footage. This is because we understood that it would become an important part of the film. Our collaborative work stretches back before even the film’s first shot.

AK: The footage of termite mounds appears in the film as a striking image of colonial policy and their oppressive measures.

RG: There was a lot of footage of termites themselves. The dirt from demolished termite mounds was used to make irrigation canals. On the other hand, termite mounds also mark the dwellings of djinn who were the first to live on this land, and they have a kind of cosmological connection to the place where the cooperative was founded. As such, both Bouba and I immediately knew that the termites should appear as special characters in the film. This is because the film’s purpose is to portray the historical profundity and deep time that open up from the beginnings of the colonial period to the future. Through a character like Bouba, the film moves back and forth through this time, but the termites also become that character. The same is true for the river. They become key motifs or characters in stories that play an important role in planting and cultivating seeds, and they weave through the story of plants. I searched the archives of the colonial period with those images in mind.

AK: Conversely, there is a sequence where Bouba Touré picks up a camera and speaks in his room. The part where he says, “I don’t want to die” and “I walk with time” was particularly striking. The sequence that pans from there to the picture of him with his mother was wonderful. Was that a film that Bouba Touré himself had made, re-worked into this film?

RG: Precisely. It’s a piece that he had filmed in his apartment in the 11th arrondissement in Paris. We edited the piece, which he had shot in an hour in 2008, and we used it as an image of our collaboration. We edited the original film down to about thirty minutes, and we screened it at several exhibitions. We had included it in the film as a piece of Bouba’s audio-visual archive, but in it he is not only speaking about himself as he shot the film, but he also speaks about his relationship with his family, and tries to position himself in time. In doing so, a person is able to reconnect with past time. Bouba was not just a traveller, but he was also someone who looked at the world through his ancestors’ eyes, and he possessed a tenacious awareness of history. He mapped out his own works by time periods, he systematically kept information about the days he had taken his photographic works, and, even with the things he was given, he never failed to record the date of receipt. For him, it was important to write his own story, along with the dates of travel—sometimes forced travel, that is, moving to immigrate—into history.

Overlapping stories

AK: This film’s narrative is divided up into a few parts. It felt like it begins with Bouba Touré’s departure from Mali, his struggles after returning to Mali from France, then it superimposes colonial history, including his ancestors being drafted into the frontlines, onto the story of the Somankidi Coura cooperative’s founding, and at the end, it makes a full circle and returns again to Mali. Then, in the part where the film traces the history of protest movements against the discrimination and oppression faced by those who had come to France as labourers, it again traverses the history from the beginning to the present, before returning once more to the beginning. Did you have any particular reason for choosing this kind of structure?

RG: This film does not portray temporal progression in isolation. Those things are interrelated, forming layers and overlapping each other. Like a mountain range, hidden layers appear on the surface in some parts, and in other parts, different layers appear. At the same time, there is also the system of memory and the process of recollection. To remember something is to revive a memory somewhere. This film had to progress in a linear fashion, but at the same time, it had to emphasize a number of important points. For example, the story of the cooperative, the stories of the migrant workers and illegal residents in France, and the history of the colony. I wanted to bring all of these complexities into the film. The complexity of these problems is reflected as is in the film, making the editing process extremely difficult.

AK: As another example, the theatrical performance Traana was divided into three parts and incorporated into the film.

RG: When it comes to what was incorporated into the film, I am far more indebted to the work of Chaghig Arzoumanian, who was in charge of editing. It was incredibly difficult to incorporate this theatrical piece into the film, but it really was skilfully arranged, and we were able to truly, wholeheartedly collaborate on the montage.

AK: The images are exceptionally beautiful, and it was particularly striking how the composition went first from aboard a small boat floating on the sea, and eventually to the sight of a town on the opposite shore. That, too, was wonderfully incorporated into key parts of the film’s narration.

RG: African culture places great importance on theatrical elements. Incorporating theatrical materials was also an important cultural element in the immigrant movements. We could say that preliminary research helped the process of making the montage. I tried to think of micro-history within the bigger frame of colonial rule’s negative effects. That continues even today, in the world we live in. It was important to look at things at different scales. If I were to give an answer to the question of how Bouba lived, I would say that, for thirty years, Bouba spent four months of each year in Mali, with the remainder spent in France, but he never picked one and threw the other away. He lived, geographically speaking, between two spaces, and he thought from two places. Sometimes, it was complicated thoughts about neo-colonial, insular relations, and at the same time, he wanted to shift those circumstances. As a result, it yielded the structure of going back and forth in a space with different topography.

AK: So, more than a question of narrative, it is a question of different spatial arrangements. On that note, another important element is the support for migrant workers, for example, the reportage on Foyer Riquet, where the migrant workers who occupied the bourse du travail (labor center) had lived. In this respect, the film expresses an activist orientation, one that embraces actions of protest against society’s oppression of people on the margins. It goes from interviews with the migrant workers who occupied the immigration museum in the Palais de la Porte Dorée, to footage from the student revolt of 1968, and then present-day protests in France, where you can hear Dominique Grange’s “À Bas l’État Policier (Down with the Police State),” which was also sung back then.

RG: For Bouba Touré, that was not just a part of history. He lived that himself. If we think about Paris in 1968, there were political refugees who had fled from Africa, were working in Paris and leading the fight for migrant workers, and they wielded a lot of influence. It was the same for the conflicts in Africa. Bouba had come to France as a labourer, so he had experienced the kinds of places they lived in first-hand. I myself could not but continue listening raptly to his words on the issue. In doing so, I tried to grasp the magnitude of the story he told. This is because I am of a new generation, and it is important that we learn history from the people of his generation. In this light, even if the individuality of labourers’ struggles tends to disappear, what is important is that they generate a sense of solidarity among the people they encounter. For example, people built a cooperative after encountering a collective movement to support liberation from Portuguese colonial rule—those people came from similar movements. As a member of the new generation, I have tried to grasp the importance of student movements and support activities, as well as the struggles towards international socialism and third worldism. These movements consequently generate an abundance of other movements that tackle many issues, such as ecological problems. It is important to understand, as well as to give the new generation the power to know the history and details of the past.

Crossing languages, voices, music

AK: The end of the film depicts the activities of a rural radio station in Africa. This radio station relays important information and scientific knowledge to farmers. It seems like a counterpoint to everything you had shown thus far, portraying resistance movements against the global economy’s current alienation of agricultural workers. Did you have any particular reason for showing this rural radio station’s activities at the end of the film? I personally felt it was an incredibly natural way to end the film.

RG: While Bouba Touré and I were writing the script for this film, we debated many things, but we decided it needed to end with a lyrical chorus of multiple voices. It was a kind of homage, or rather, we wanted to include something like the songs by the griots (travelling poets, musicians, and storytellers who pass down oral history) of West Africa, the songs they dedicate to people important to each stage of life. Also, we wanted it to have a more musical aspect, and we wanted to make it polyphonic. Actually, we had to include the radio episode for a number of reasons. The first is the fact that researchers had this footage of a regional radio station. At the same time, it was fully in solidarity with the Somankidi Coura cooperative, whose members were listeners. Also, the existence of an independent radio station is itself important, and in France as well, a free radio station has an important role as a tool for social communication. Especially in France, the radio is an icon of resistance. This radio station was originally established under the dictatorship of Moussa Traoré. As such, it was not directly a political tool, but a means for supporting the work of farmers. At the time of its founding, its slogan was, “A radio station for the paysans (peasant farmers), by the paysans.” Moreover, this radio station was multilingual, and used the four languages spoken in the region, Soninké, Bambara, Pulaar, and Khassonké. At the same time, the radio station gave a voice to the people scattered across other countries. Today, it is an exceptionally useful tool not only for livestock farmers, who must look after livestock in remote places, but also for families scattered abroad, wanting some connection with daily life in the village. Radio truly is a tool that carries people’s voices to others far away, and in the film, we wanted to show radio as a site to re-discover aural space. Then, we could re-incorporate all of the spaces that had appeared in the film into the final scenes.

AK: Voice certainly plays an important role in the film’s final sequence. It is clear how the voice of radio, as an answering voice, is vitally important for its ability to reach people far away. Moreover, it is already present from the film’s first half as a hidden layer, and it comes to the surface here. Also, music plays an important role. The songs sung in the local language are incredibly beautiful and moving.

RG: That’s exactly right. It is Mah Damba, a griot who sings in Bambara. The collaboration with her was suggested by Bouba Touré. She was a singer who often performed at places like the labour office that the migrant workers had occupied, and the script co-written with Bouba already indicated that we would use her song. That was also important for radio. This is because we translated the song that Mah Damba sang in Bambara into the Soninké language, and had its substance explained to us. At the end, we translated it again into the Pulaar language. Essentially, we wanted to have the audience listen to voices in these different languages. In the end, Bouba Touré speaks offscreen in the Soninké language, but that really was inevitable. Recording it turned out to be difficult work. Bouba’s illness had already advanced, but he took up the work of narration. Bouba’s voice was a lyric voice that he built up with the other narrators, singers, and griots like Sira Dramé. The griots came to the studio by bus, together with their musical ensemble, and they did the recording for the film. I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to the many musicians, beginning with her.

The entire story of the migrant workers’ fight and liberation became song, and song connects many different and distant spaces. There was a lot of music used in the archival footage, so rather than erasing the music, we chose to embrace it, reapply it, and put those voices back on the airwaves.

Later, we used more recent music, like hip-hop in the Soninké language, and radio served to carry it to listeners. There are a lot of other musical citations. The song that plays at the end of the film is about the fight that took place in the Sonacotra foyer, and it was composed by the band Troupe de 26 Mai, a musical ensemble originally formed by Senegalese students living in France. Bouba Touré was someone who constantly listened to music, so this film likewise had to be musical.

AK: In the film’s final scenes, the credits and music are superimposed onto images of the Senegal River—it’s a striking way to end the film, with everything seeming to flow into it.

RG: In the Soninké language, it is called “Fan xoore.” We could say that the temporal structure—which, in the end, returns once more to the film’s form, and, like a refrain, serves as a reiteration or re-enactment—is an important part of this film.

Compiled by Abe Koji
Translated by Joelle Nazzicone

Photography: Furukawa Eri / Video: Sato Hiroaki / 2023-10-09

Abe Koji
Member of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival Board. Abe received a BA from Tohoku University and left the advanced PhD course at the Graduate School of Tohoku University before graduating. He specializes in 20th century French literature, esp. Marcel Proust, and theoretical studies on documentary films. He authored Proust: Kyori no shigaku (Heibonsha, 1993) and co-translated into Japanese La Vérité en peinture by Jacques Derrida (Hosei UP, 2012).