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Interview with Jean Pierre Bekolo (By David Simo )
Memory and African identity are of primordial importance to Jean Pierre Bekolo, who through his films, highlights the desire to “write from a particular place and not for an audience” because one can be easily manipulated by the expectations of an audience. Bekolo spends time in Europe, US and Africa. Travelling becomes a substantial part of his creative process.
Each of his movies stands out as a phase or the break with a phase of his artistic development: Quartier Mozart symbolises origins, family and identity, Aristotle’s Plot represents the identity of an African cineaste, while Les Saignantes is speculation or science fiction.
Despite his numerous sojourns, Bekolo’s energy is always focused on Africa and Cameroon in particular, where he believes cinema has to go beyond representation and shed more light on questions which will lead to change, a concept noticeable in his latest movie Le President.
You live and work between Africa and Europe or other continents. What does Africa represent to you?
Africa is a project.
Europe is the recoil. America is the encounter with oneself.
How has the fact that you have travelled and lived somewhere other than your country of origin changed your life and conception?
Leaving did not change my conception. Leaving was part of my process of creating from the outset. Therefore, there is nothing like travelling on the one hand and creation on the other. They are both intertwined.
Are there several stages in your artistic career? What marks possible breaks?
Each of my films is a break or a stage. Quartier Mozart is the family, Origins, identity, Aristotle's Plot rather represents the cinema, the identity of the African film producer, while Les Saignantes is a speculation on the future of Cameroon, the gender, science fiction, and The President, I do not need to draw a plan, addresses the question “How do we know when it is time to take leave?”
How would you like to be seen?As an African artist? As a French - Cameroonian artist? Merely as an artist? Do you claim other identities?
Just as perception remains the matter of the beholder, that is how I leave to those who look at me to define what they see, so I willingly accept all these characterizations, although I have great difficulty with the identity 'French-Cameroonian' because I also deeply feel like an Anglophone. Does being an Anglophone give me an American identity that I could claim as well?
Do you have an idea of how you are perceived as artist and as individual? Can you identify these perceptions? What impact do they have on your creation?
If there is one thing of which I am sure, it is that I refuse to be confined by the stares of others. It is a question of permanently outmaneuvering the various attempts that go in this direction. For example, international institutions in charge of African cinema have difficulty with my films and my profile, which in itself is good and reassuring. None of my films has ever obtained their financing while in difficulty. They always arrived afterwards as if to make recovery.
What does being an artist mean to you?
Am I only an artist? Is a film producer an artist? To me, being a film producer is like being a radiologist of the society. It shows… It shows pictures, fiction pictures, but pictures that are real, because they were precisely invented. These pictures must make sense or at least make us question ourselves about the meaning of things. Of course, we must not forget the aesthetic dimension, because the beauty and the real have a link: aesthetic and ethics.
Do you belong to an artistic school? If yes which one?
I am rather of those who believe that Africa is yet to invent as the West did according to Mudimbe. But this time, it is up to us Africans to do so; to propose an Africa free from both its past and the West. It is this loophole that colonialism opened. Can we want something other than the determinism of our African origins (traditions) and the mimicry of the West that Fanon refers to? If yes, how does one obtain what one cannot see? I would like to say that I am an African futurist. I like the idea of speculating on the possible Africas. The reinvention of Africa interests me, because now that we know where we come from, where are we going?
When you create, what inspires you?
Reality, the real, call it as you want. Inspiration comes from the absurdity of our world on the one hand and our poor human condition on the other hand. One brings a touch of humor, the other a certain emotion. This is what I am looking for in order to say “this is a good topic for a film”.
Where is the place of reminiscence or recollections in your life and in your creation?
The game with memory or rather with African identity is very conscious in my films. I try to bring in African or local elements in a cinematic way. When thumbnails in Les Saignantes ask the question “how can one make a film on hope in a country without future?” or “how can one make a thriller in a country where one cannot investigate?” etc.; it is a matter of putting a certain reality before the cinema in general; of producing a dialectical relationship which can be found at several levels between the two.
Can you say that there is something African in your Art? What is it made of?
My choice is that the African you are talking about is a discourse and not African because I am African. Once again in Les Saignantes, the concept of "mevoungou" in a film that takes place in 2025 is a willingness on my part to include African traditions in a futuristic perspective of an Africa in the making so that tomorrow will not necessarily mean that there are no traditions.
Do you feel that you have obligations towards a community, towards an object, a person, a group of persons? Which one?
If I feel an obligation, it is primarily the obligation of being a man, but a man does not grow on trees, he comes from somewhere. I feel I have an obligation towards those who enabled me to achieve becoming a film producer; doing everything not to betray the cause they defended in helping me to become a film producer. That is why being a film producer with everything that this may well entail is an obligation to me.
If you had to advocate for something, what would it be for?
I have the feeling that I am already advocating for us not to accept the idea that everything African is inferior to others. What other people think of us is not what I am concerned about, but it is rather what we think of ourselves that is crucial and the cinema has a role to play.
What would you like to change in Europe?
Narcissism! If people everywhere have the tendency to look at the world from their point of view, Europe exaggerates. They must be at the centre of everything, even when they are at the centre of nothing. They always find a way to make something important out of this lack. Europe can awfully stand the idea of being absent. They would rather prefer to be the “bad guy” than not to be mentioned. It is a form of propaganda that is very far from the truth.
And in Africa?
Cynicism! We no longer dream in Africa. The energy of daily action at the level of leadership is not that of a dream, but rather a relationship in itself in the order of duplicity.
How does the current situation of your country of origin instigate you? Are you concerned about it?
Cameroonians have become like a porcupine. You will never hear the porcupine yelp if it is caught in a trap. It dies in silence!
And its future, how do you see it?
I have the feeling that various Cameroonian elites have given up, each one of them retreated to their villages waiting for things to blow up. Yet this is the time to reach out to others ... so that this does not precisely happen. Everything will depend on the ability of each and other to unite. I hope that everything goes well, but for now, I do not see how.
Would you like to be a model? Of what?
Still the gazes of others ….
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