The fantastical narrative, which stars Saul Williams and Aissa Maiga, follows a man named Satche (played by Williams) during the last 24 hours of his life.
It's the 3rd film by the director of the director of the critically-acclaimed L'Afrance (2001) and Andalucia (2008).
Alain Gomis (AG) - I’m 40 now. This is my 3rd movie. I was raised in France. I don’t really know how I got into film – it was just something natural for me: I’ve always been allowed to see movies and I’ve always loved to dream about films. I like to be in this space. I like to think about films, I like to watch films – it’s a dream space for me. It seems like the best place to face yourself – especially films coming from other parts of the world; they can tell you more about yourself than your next-door neighbor, even your best friends or your brother or sister.
I remember going to the movies with my class to see [Yasujiro] Ozu’s Tokyo Story. I really remember that because most of the films I had seen were from America or on TV, but these two kids [in Tokyo Story] were just like me and the relationship they had with their father was really close to mine. I had this feeling that I understood them. I remember also this moment at school when I saw the film East of Eden, the [Elia] Kazan film and I felt that I could understand the grammar of cinema. I always noticed the way he filmed the different shots, especially the shots that were a little bit…bent…The camera angles were trying to give the viewer a sense of anguish. I was very young, but I was seeing the way Kazan was telling the story and I loved this way of telling the story, but also telling something a little bit behind the story and trying to make you [the viewer] feel something more to understand. So when I decided to try to make films, I was about 15 years old. From that moment forward, everything I did was in an effort to become a filmmaker. I went to university, studied cinema, and I had the chance to write a script during my studies and a producer and director from Burkina Faso, Idrissa Ouedraogo, helped me when he saw the script. It was the first sign that maybe this was possible because I came from a family that was not really involved in this kind of culture or world.
SH - Can you discuss your inspiration for the film? Where and when did the idea for a film like Tey come from?
AG - That’s a bit difficult because most of the time when I get an idea, I only start working on the script a year later. It takes a long time for me to draw links between all these little ideas to make a complete script that makes sense. First I have to put down all my ideas – all that I think and know – and then I have to find the links between these ideas. This script took me almost a year and a half to write because I knew all the scenes I wanted, but I also knew I didn’t want the viewer’s understanding of what was happening to come simply from the dialogue, so I wanted it as natural as possible. I hate when in a movie, you hear or you see what is important – when the important information is given directly to the viewer through dialogue that seems unnatural and not subtle. For me, it’s cool when you can feel a film – feel a moment, feel a character. I try to say as little as possible because I like it when you [the viewer] may not really consciously understand, but can still recognize yourself or a moment – you can feel it. It’s really a question of sensation; it’s not so intellectual per se. Cinema for me is like music.
SH - Discussions of the film often draw similarities to the films of Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety and for good reason, but one can also see other influences. For example, there were several moments in the film that were reminiscent of the works of Abderrahmane Sissako and Ousmane Sembene – at least for me. Can you talk about some of your biggest influences – West African, French, or otherwise? Furthermore, in what ways do you hope to set your work apart from that of those who influenced you the most?
AG - In general, my first influence, my first shocks in the beginning were the films of [Sergei] Eisenstein. I was just like “Wow! This is big!” After that, it was the cinema of [F.W.] Murnau. And just after Murnau, it was the films of Djibril Diop Mambety. For me, these guys are really the most important influences. I don’t know how much these influences can be seen in my work, but they gave me a lot with what we were talking about before: cinema is not literature; it’s not necessarily about telling you something, it’s more about being together in a moment as a community and the mystery of it all. What I love about their movies is that when I see one, I’m with them. It’s really about that. There may be aspects of a film we don’t know or understand, but being together, or seeing through the eyes of the filmmaker, is one of the most important things for making a great film.
And also, [Andrei] Tarkovsky has been very important to me, especially the way he creates a world between reality and dream. These people are my major influences, but I love all kinds of cinema. I love Spike Lee, Scorsese. I really love all kinds of movies.
What is difficult today is fighting with the big industry. It’s like every film has to follow the same rules. It’s a shame – it’s like poverty to me the way every film has to tell the story the same way and that after ten minutes you already know where the film is going and you understand everything. I love films that create a totally different world and are totally surprising – this is my pleasure.
I think that everybody has something interesting to say or to show if you try to reach a personal point – if you are the only able to tell a specific story; you are the only person in that precise position in the world. It means trying to be honest, which is quite difficult. For me, this is my way of being free of these influences. Your first natural movement is to make films or write stories like the ones you’ve seen before, so trying to free yourself from your influences, or find your own way is a big job. It’s the most challenging part of making a film. Most of the time, your first idea is just like something you’ve seen before. You have to work to find something that may at the beginning sound weird, but there may be more truth to it. When you use the words or images of someone else, there is something that feels a bit fake about it – no matter how talented you may be. There are a thousand ways to say I love you to somebody.
SH - As much as the film seems to be a meditation on death, it is also bursting with allegory and offers commentary on the current political and socioeconomic moment in Senegal, West Africa, and Europe. You touch on issues of the migration of Africans by boat to Europe, the Y’en A Marre and other youth movements, and the recent political upheaval that led to Abdoulaye Wade’s loss of the Presidency. Can you talk a bit about your own take on these issues and the importance of their portrayal in the film?
AG - It was really a great moment because it was a moment when especially the young people in Senegal said “We are the country now and some things have changed. We will not let you continue as you were doing before.” And so it felt like the country was about to take a new step. It was a fantastic moment, but at the same time there was also this feeling that, like other places in the world, you had a population that wanted to act politically, but [didn’t know how – couldn’t find the means]…it was like a movement without words. It was just like “it’s enough!,” but trying to go through such a political construction is difficult for a lot of these movements. We’ve seen it in Tunisia, in Egypt, even in Europe. You see a lot of people who want to act, but have a problem with which way to proceed, which way to do things now and it was very symptomatic of our moment in our different societies. I felt that it was not only Senegalese, but something we could see all over the world. It was important for me to put it into the film because the political fight is part of our lives as human beings. For him [Satché], this is a really important day. It’s a man’s journey to find the appropriate way between fighting and letting go.
Every generation has to have its own fight. In every time, it’s always the same question, in fact. You have to fight whatever the questions are: for justice, for a better world, and you have to be involved in it – this is necessary for me.
SH - Can you tell us a little about the process of making a film like this? Are there any interesting stories that you can think of off the top of your head about the making of the film? How did it all come together, so to speak? How did you get connected with Saul Williams and what ultimately made you decide to cast him as Satché?
AG - While I was writing the script, I was just dreaming and I think I saw a picture of Saul because I was a fan of his music and his film Slam. And when I saw this picture, I thought “he could be Satché” – he has this special aura. I knew that the character would be mostly silent, so I needed someone with a strange power and he had it. Also, he has this face that looks Senegalese. In fact, when he was in Senegal everyone thought he was Senegalese. He really has the face of a Tout-Couleur or Peul. So when we were there, everyone thought he was Senegalese and everyone would talk to him in Wolof. I think someone asked him “why don’t you remember your own language?”
Saul is a really cool and open guy, so I think for him it was a really big experience. Just to be there and to be considered Senegalese – not to play an American guy. I remember the sequence where he’s in the street, just after leaving his mother’s house. You know where he goes through the streets and everyone gives him presents. We shot it on my father’s street, so I knew everyone on the street. In the beginning we had about 30 extras, but by the end of the day the whole street was there. It was very special to see Saul happy. It was Satché, but it was also Saul living the experience of being the chosen one in Africa – people saying “you are us. You are our brother.” It was really special. It was a beautiful moment. This is one of my favorite memories.
This also explains the way we made film. Just before that, we had spent 4 days shooting the scenes with the family and half of the characters are played by my real family and the other half are played by actors. Satché’s brother is actually my cousin. My uncle is the guy who speaks during the ceremony. What we did was before shooting, we would have a rehearsal where I would explain the situation and then let them perform the scene how they wanted. We based the ceremony on a real ceremony that we do in the south of Senegal and Guinea-Bissau among my ethnic group (the Mandjak), which is a way of speaking to your ancestors. The eldest family member starts to talk and there is a dialogue with the ancestors.
So I said to everybody “let’s do it! Imagine that Saul is Satché and Satché is your son, cousin, etc, and you know that he is going to die. Let’s do the ceremony and see what happens.” And they all got it in a second! It was just incredible and very profound because these people were saying “goodbye. We love you” as if to a real family member. We managed to do it in only 4 days. There was already a script, so I knew the different steps, but at each moment, everyone was free to add something of their own to the scene. Sometimes I would just make a sign to an actor to say something from the script. We used really long takes so I could talk or signal to the actors. It was almost as if we were doing it live. Everything about it was really true and genuine. I don’t know why, but sometimes it’s magic. You’re acting, but at the same time, it becomes real or true. People were really crying!
SH - Given how visually arresting some of the locations you shot in are, can you tell us a bit about the process of choosing filming locations and how you found some of the spaces in the film? What did you look for in different filming locations?
AG - I can tell you that the first thing is that the family house, it was really based on my neighborhood and my own house. I wanted a real, middle-class area. The sounds in particular were important. The sounds in the morning of this neighborhood when the street wakes up. This was really the feeling I wanted. And then with the family in this house, I wanted the house to feel like a womb. So I wanted sunlight coming from the outside, but not too much. Family for me is really comfortable, especially when you’re really young. And then, as you get older, you start feeling oppressed and you just want to get out. After that, you have the street. The street was also based on my street. I wanted to show the fresh air, the people, the noise, the light. Another moment is when he stops in the little restaurant. I wanted this moment to be like a little repose. I wanted something very soft. I needed a place where you could feel the outside, but at the same time, the characters are separate from the outside world. Then he goes to see his old friends and I wanted to go to a part of the city that’s a little more Bourgeois. There’s no noise, it’s all white, and it’s like a dream. I chose each location for a sensation in relation to what Satché was supposed to be feeling in each moment. And Dakar is a fantastic city for that because every area is like a different planet. It was like going through a labyrinth. I walked a lot to find locations. I would walk and walk until, from time to time, I would stop and think “this is it!”
SH - One of the most spectacular things about Tey is just how aesthetically and sensually driven it is – the viewer is immediately enveloped by it’s wonderful visuals, the use of sight, sound, and feel, with eyes and hands acting as powerful motifs. Can you talk to us a bit about how you achieved the film’s aesthetic and such an effective use of the senses/sensuality to drive the narrative? Moreover, can you discuss your decision to rely much more on aesthetics and the senses, rather than dialogue, to drive the film’s narrative?
AG - What the film is saying is really simple and if you put it into words, it would sound a bit stupid. But sometimes the simplest things are what touch me the most. I don’t think that movies are on the screen – they’re in the head of the viewer. People like Hitchcock and Eistenstein have said this a million times before. Hitchcock said something like “the horse that is running on the screen is actually several different close-ups of the snout, the hooves, etc” – it’s a bunch of different close-ups and then you reconstruct the close-ups into a whole image in your mind. If you’re the one reconstructing the image, it implies certain ownership over the image. It’s like you film some of the pieces, but not all of them and the links have to be made by the viewer. So the image is actually created by the viewer and coming from inside the viewer. So that’s the goal: not showing everything, but trying to give the necessary elements for the spectator to be able to construct the full picture. This gives the spectator the sensation that the film is his or her own.
SH - The world you create in the film is certainly one of contrasts, with construction sites and unfinished buildings juxtaposed against towering, modern glass skyscrapers and middleclass households and former colonial neighborhoods appearing alongside shanties and informal settlements – not to mention a disheveled-looking madman with CFA bills stapled to his tattered clothing. What are some of the things you might be trying to convey through such contrasts and imagery? What might the significance of these contrasts be in relation to the film, Satché, and Satché’s last day of life?
AG - That’s just the way it is. It’s amazing to see, especially in Senegal, but everywhere. Walking in any city, in just 5 minutes you’ll see incredible differences. If you’re trying to find the right image of New York City, you can have a thousand images and still not have the perfect picture of New York. The real New York City exists in the gaps between all those pictures. Truth is found in all those things that escape us. Truth is in the in-betweens. It’s a feeling. It’s when you go from one thing to another.
SH - What do you see as the place or job of a filmmaker like yourself within the larger world of cinema?
AG - Just trying to build a cinema that is independent of the formulas.
SH - Who are some of your favorite contemporary filmmakers?
AG - I’m interested in a lot of people. For example, Paul Thomas Anderson, Abderrahmane Sissako, [Asghar] Farhadi…I still love the films of Spike Lee, since he showed us this was possible. Also, Lars von Trier or Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I love him, he’s one of the best and most interesting filmmakers at the moment. Oh! And I love what Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is doing.
SH - I hear you’re working on starting a film school in Dakar…
AG - We started 3 or 4 months ago now, with 10 or so students. They’re all supposed to shoot a short film in November or December. It’s called Upcourt-Métrage. For now, we’re using our own money, so it’s small, but hopefully we’ll get some help. One of the main goals of the project is to allow people to meet and network – especially those involved in independent cinema from around the world. In Senegal, you can’t see many films and you can’t even imagine that in the US there is independent cinema. You can’t even imagine that you have people making films with less money than we do it with in Senegal. Trying to share these experiences is really one of the things I’d love to do with this project.
SH - Finally, can you tell us about any upcoming projects you might be working on at the moment?
AG - I’m working on a project in Kinshasa, Congo. It’s about a female singer. She’s from a band called Kasai All Stars.