Filmmaker-programmers Valérie Osouf and Dyana Gaye discuss their staggering and corrective film series 𝘛𝘪𝘨𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘶𝘥𝘦𝘴
FILM PROGRAMMERS are a thirsty bunch. If you love a work or an artist, your primary objective is to get it shown, right? It is therefore crucial to avoid developing proprietary notions of who got there first, or who deserves credit for screening what - but reciprocally, respecting the relationships made and legwork done by your forebears is just as crucial, both politically and artistically. Even if you have a fresh idea for a series or retrospective, there’s usually somebody else (older, more experienced, better-connected) who did something comparable, maybe not even that long ago; sometimes reaching out to them will help you push your idea even further, other times it’ll make you feel unoriginal and send you back to the drawing board. Programmers crush on one another’s ideas for series and retrospectives while making mental notes of the distributor or source for the film (or films) in question, craning their necks for gossip about what it’s like to work with this or that filmmaker - just in case it comes in handy down the road. The whole thing runs on a free exchange of information, but that fact carries with it an attendant phantom of jealousy (if not mutual distrust.) But good ideas deserve to proliferate; part of the programmer’s job is not just to platform the film in question but to prove there’s an audience for it.
When I moved to New York City in January 2008, repertory - although people who are actually from here tend to instead say “revival” - film programming was cleanly siloed into a handful of important nonprofit institutions (MoMA, Museum of the Moving Image, Anthology, Maysles Documentary Center, Film Forum, Lincoln Center and BAM) while cult and genre movies of yesteryear played either at IFC Center or via DVD in anonymous warehouses, DIY spaces and so forth. Thanks, I believe, in part to a new generation as equally addicted to social media as they are to movies, the subsequent decade and a half have seen the market for repertory cinema explode, with for-profit cinemas - Nitehawk, Alamo, Metrograph, Quad, Roxy Hotel TriBeCa - competing for that same revival-house pie, often with food and beverage offerings to incentivize ticketbuyers. (This profit/no-profit tension is much older than I’m making it sound, to be honest - Ben Davis’ book Repertory Cinemas of New York City: Havens for Revivals, Indies and the Avant-Garde, 1960–1994 is a jawdropping panorama of the city’s history as a place to watch movies.) All of this is to say: New York City is often cited as the rep cinema capital of the world, second only to cinema’s birthplace, Paris.
Last winter I became aware of a screening series at the Forum des Images (formerly known as the Vidéothèque de Paris) called Tigritudes, curated by filmmakers Valérie Osouf and Dyana Gaye, which made NYC’s corresponding month’s rep calendar look like a piece of lint by comparison. Tigritudes features 126 films spanning a period from 1956 - the year of Sudanese independence, one year before Ghanaian independence, which is widely seen as the Big Bang for postcolonial African politics - through 2021. 66 non-repeating screenings took place, each of a feature paired with a short film - the goal being to represent the African continent in what Osouf and Gaye call an itinerant cycle of “a Pan-African subjective and chronological anthology”. Tigritudes takes its name from a remark made by Wole Soyinká (whose own early film Kongi’s Harvest, made in collaboration with Ossie Davis in Nigeria in 1970, is included) at the first-ever “Conference of African Writers of English Expression” at Makere University in Kampala, Uganda, in 1962. “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude,” Soyinká said, “he pounces."
At that time Soyinká was responding1 to the Négritude idea made famous by, among others, Aimé Césaire. If I understand correctly, his concern was that Négritude - a movement which sought to assimilate oppressed Black literary traditions with Francophone literature and, therefore, European culture on a larger scale - would prove a distraction from the work of hard-won independence. (Much of Soyinká’s early work, including Kongi’s Harvest, engages the anxiety of losing his Yoruba heritage in the contradictory and often hypocritical shuffle of postcolonial “modernity”.) It’s appropriate that Tigritudes is separated into two categories: Afrique and Diaspora. The latter includes works from well outside the continent’s geographic confines, not just addressing the descendants of slaves in North America and Europe but also, crucially, migrant communities in the (slightly) more recent past. Gaye and Osouf also spotlight Afrofuturist works like Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu’s science fiction short Pumzi (2009). The project is sweeping and impressive, yet also exposes how much work remains to be done pushing against the established canon of filmic images comprising “Africa”.
As the series neared its conclusion, Valérie and Dyana were kind enough to sit for a long conversation with me via web conference; an edited transcript of our conversation is below. This Element X is a full-bore advertisement for Tigritudes; hopefully the Forum des Images cycle is just the beginning. (Ed. note: as of this writing, Tigritudes is touring Senegal - a version of this cycle is currently screening in Saint-Louis, having played Dakar last week.)
Thanks for doing this. Did you just come from a screening?
VALÉRIE OSOUF. No, another interview on Zoom, a program called “micro-cine”. I don’t know if you know it - there’s a critic, Samir Ardjoum, who has a program, I think twice a week or something like this since the first lockdown.
Tell me how Tigritudes came together - the backstory.
DYANA GAYE. The idea came up a long time ago. I’ve been friends with Valérie for 25 years; we met in Senegal when she was living there. We both were shooting our very first short. We always had this idea of doing a film festival - maybe in France, maybe in Senegal - but we were never really working on it. Three years ago came the opportunity in France to have a “cultural season” in Paris, and this time it was about Africa, which is weird: usually the season is for one country, not a whole continent. So we started to work on the project, which was to put together the largest anthology - would you say that? - which has a very, uh, particularity…
DG. Specificity of being chronological, from 1956 to the present day. We started with some films we both knew we liked. During lockdown, we started to ask around about links. We wanted to go looking for films at cinematheques in Africa, Portugal, Moscow, but we were stuck at home, like everybody else. The specificity of the chronology became a bit like a - how do you say tetrice in English?
VO. “Tetris” is the same in English and in French. (laughter)
A jigsaw puzzle?
VO. But I would say there was about a third of the definitive program - when I say “definitive” I mean it could still shift, a bit, depending on rightsholders, travel, et cetera. But that first third was there at the beginning, films we both loved, and the rest was added later, and we knew 50% of the rest already. But we had to watch each film again, to examine the balance, depending on: countries, periods, styles, genres, et cetera. The other half we discovered by watching approximately a thousand, maybe 1200 films - shorts included of course. Steve, because you and I met in La Loupe2, you know what a help that was for finding some movies. But some, unfortunately, we could never even watch in order to decide whether they were interesting or not. For example, there are three Libyan feature films known in the history of that country, but we could not track them down, despite our research.
So the program could have been even bigger.
VO. But they can always be bigger! (laughter) It’s a sizable cycle, you know - of course we want to tour it around. 126 films in 66 screenings, that's a lot. And always, there are films you love, you would have liked to include, and it wasn’t possible - that’s part of the exercise.
Let’s talk about the political context in which Tigritudes is taking place.
VO. Well, every year the President of the French Republic announces a bi-cultural season of cultural events. Right now it’s Portugal, next it’s gonna be Japan. It has been China in the past. As Dyana said, it’s usually one country. So you’d have poly-disciplinary Chinese artists showing their works in France, and French artists showing their works in China. But when Emmanuel Macron went to Nigeria in late 2018, he went to Fela Kuti’s shrine where he used to have his concerts. Macron had been in Niger, and said things that were a bit polemical, so he said: “Okay, next year it’s Africa.” 55 countries treated as one…
African art was shown in France, but it wasn’t the usual exchange. French artists did not show their works in any African countries, because those countries did not put a penny towards the season. It’s usually financed by both participant countries. But, to be honest with you: this was a good reason for us to put together a package, and we thank them - if that hadn’t happened, our research would have been impossible.
If you had delivered this proposal to the government before Macron’s trip, they would have said no?
VO. They said yes, and it was Tigritudes already, already with anti-colonial, Marxist films. But there are some sponsors I probably should not mention here.
DG. They are not looking at the project. There is a commissioner who takes care of all this - ours was very into films and cinema. Nobody can enter our program and say “This film goes too far”, or anything like that.
How has the program evolved as a result of COVID-19? There’s no virtual component of any kind, except for some of the master classes going online.
DG. Streaming is also very expensive (for programmers). Because Tigritudes had been postponed twice already, we had some meetings with our venue, Forum des Image, but it wasn’t a problem for us to go in-theater only. From the very beginning we wanted to go into the cinema, and be live - one screening per film, and every screening is unique. We’ve been lucky, with very quiet audiences. Every screening is very rare, so I wonder if people are aware they won’t get another chance to see the films.
VO. And also - what changed for us was that we really wanted to go to the U.S.S.R. I mean, Russia. (laughter) Because we wanted to look at all the student films from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, in Moscow. Because a lot of African filmmakers studied there during the Cold War. I went there for my research on Abderrahmane Sissako and I really wanted to dig into some stuff there, but it was impossible. So we only managed to get two films from that school: one by Suleiman El Nour, a Sudanese filmmaker, called It Still Rotates, shot during the Yemen Revolution - but we got this print from the Arsenal in Berlin, not from Russia. The other is called Man of the Dance, which was a graduation film by Costa Diagne, from Guinea. It was kind of smuggled, you know what I mean?
We also wanted to go to the Cinematheque of Algiers. In the 1970s it was one of the biggest cinemas in the world. We also wanted to go to Lisbon to watch more films from the Lusophone struggle in Mozambique, Angola - we were supposed to go to the Lusophone University of Humanities and Technology, but it was impossible because they didn’t pay any staff during the pandemic. It was totally closed. It was not possible to exchange any information, nothing. And South Africa is another one - so in one way, we had restrictions, but on the other, the delays and postponements meant more time to watch stuff and do detective work.
Surely the hunt for Tigritudes put new films on your radar that complicated the program.
DG. I don’t know if we’ll do a followup. Some films you assume will be tough to find, and they’re out there - others, which should be easy, are impossible. So many films from the 60s and 70s are lost, of course. We had a film from Egypt, which is called Anyab, which is a kind of… how do you say…
VO. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but in Egypt. A musical B-movie.
Fangs! My friend Nate Dorr programmed it at Spectacle in 2017. One of our favorites.
DG. We could never, ever find a print. For two years we were writing to every Egyptian contact we had, no rightsholders around, nothing. You do encounter sad, tragic stories, filmmakers who lost everything. And working on these films, I learned a lot about international systems of coproduction: we talked to people in Sweden, in Germany, and in the U.S. of course, but it became a huge map of seeking. Valérie was talking in a previous interview about an Algerian woman, Djamila Sahraoui, one of the very few filmmakers on the continent who has been going nonstop for 25 years. She has a large filmography. Well, she wrote us and she said, “Forget about me.” Because she didn’t know where her own films were, she didn’t own anything, everything was lost. And it’s a very common pattern.