Temporal subversion and political critique in Abderrahmane Sissako’s La vie sur terre
Contemporary African filmmakers use cinema as a way of depicting and interpreting African experiences in the postcolonial context while simultaneously reinventing aesthetic forms and political engagements. [open notes in new window] Abderrahmane Sissako is a world-renowned filmmaker from Mauritania who has in his own individual and creative way renewed francophone African cinema. His film La vie sur terre (Life on Earth) (Mali 1998) is a documentary fiction on the passage of the millennium in a rural Malian village. In this article, I explore the dynamics of temporalities this film presents; frequently the film resists a linear conception of history, creates temporal disruptions, and manipulates time in order to offer strong socio-political commentary.
La vie sur terre was commissioned by the French/German television channel La Sept Arte as part of a series entitled L'An 2000 Vue Par… (The Year 2000 Seen By…) for the millennium celebration. Each film was to be directed by a young filmmaker, set in a different country, on a different continent, and to take place during the last few days of December 1999. Out of the ten movies, the only director chosen from Africa was Abderrahmane Sissako. To fulfill the guidelines, Sissako decided to film in his father’s village in Mali, portraying his own return to his native land, and to draw on Aimé Césaire’s most famous poem “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land.” Within the film, as the international French radio announces to the world the change of the new millennium, life goes on in Sokolo…
Using Walter Mignolo as a reference, I will argue that Sissako’s film La vie sur terre subverts conceptions of Time and History as linear, chronological and dialectical in order to resist a global “chrono-politics” and re-inscribe the local time of the present and possible futures into “pluriversal time.”
The logic of coincidence
“Coincidence” may be defined as, “the occurrence of two or more things at the same time (coexistence, simultaneity, correspondence);” it is also “the notable concurrence of events or circumstances having no apparent causal connection.” (Oxford English Dictionary). Considering the production of the film La vie sur terre, coincidence seems to have worked in two ways.
First, coincidence operated in the production process. The narrative emerged while making the movie, and many of the things that happened in the village occurred by coincidence. There was no fixed narrative determined in advance. Instead of unfolding according to a traditional plot structure, La vie sur terre functions in some ways as a report, recording social reality and events from different places in the village. Indeed, the movie shows the village of Sokolo in its present way of life. The film is like a documentary fiction or a fictional documentary because by setting up fictional mini-stories in the village with no link to one another, it subverts the sense of realism generally pertaining to the documentary genre. It was shot without professional actors, with a tiny shooting script of two or three pages. Villagers who become characters appear anonymously in their daily activities and routines (e.g., Dramane’s father, the radio announcer, the post office employees, etc). Costumes were not used. Small narratives involving a number of figures in the town were developed and shot. This way of filming thus utilizes a middle ground between documentary and fiction and leaves space for both the director’s and the villager-actors’ improvisation.
Second, the movie’s final structure largely took shape during the editing by cutting and juxtaposing shots contrary to traditional dramatic logic and sequencing and also by adding a narrator-Dramane’s voice over. Dialogue is either brief or non-existent, with the audience’s attention drawn more towards the scenery, emotions and humor. This manner of shooting and editing is especially adapted to the difficult conditions of film production in Africa: financial and logistical uncertainties, shooting in Africa then postproduction in France, lack of professional actors, the communities’ experience of severe climatic conditions. However, it also has its advantages: a strong light and colors contributing to an aesthetic of local reality that is the substance of the film.
The experimental and ambiguous flow of La vie sur terre that we can view as a “documentary fiction” does not proceed with the logic of action. Indeed, as I mentioned, the film reduces narratological developments to a minimum. Often the viewer seems plunged into a purely visual situation accompanied by ambient sound. As one day passes in the film’s slight narrative, characters move through a present situation shown in its “everydayness.” People in the movie evolve in a temporal reality that goes beyond the immediate past, present or future. The movie seems to achieve what in Deleuzian terms, could be called a time-image characteristic of modern cinema, in opposition to the movement-image, typical of classical Hollywood-inspired film. Regarding “movement-image,” or more particularly “action-image,” the presentation of time is indirect. It is tied to a sensory-motor process through which one image is subordinated to the other to produce a narrative; time here is subordinated to movement. In regards to time-image, the perception of time through movement no longer functions: “time is out of joint.” In time-image, movement no longer measures time, but folds into time; the time-image, a new cinematic language, creates a direct presentation of time.
La vie sur terre also frustrates an idea of authenticity, a quality one could attach to the documentary genre. La vie sur terre can generate unstable meanings attributable to the events in the film because of its suggestive but not precisely located connections between images, texts and sounds. In its gestalt it creates what Deleuze would call a rhizomatic dynamic. As a result, it produces for the viewer a new and dynamic level of perception/reception. As an example of coincidence, director, Abderrahmane Sissako, tells in an interview that he had chosen randomly Nana for the main female character of the movie—when she was riding her bike one day in front of the camera. Moreover, for the scenes at the post office, the director asked people to make a phone call, but what happens next was the product of pure improvisation and spontaneity:
“We were fortunate for the movie that this girl went by at this moment. It was the same thing for the scenes at the post office: when I would ask someone to call (the phone is very present in the movie) I did not know what would happen next. I was choosing the other characters depending on the things I had already got. But it was always a surprise. This construction was open to permanent improvisation. We had “to be there.””
In this way, the filming in the village constantly relied on a process of “documentary fiction.”
Furthermore, the moment of the millennium does not work as an element of a character’s action or a crucial narratological element. But it does work as a motif or a coincidence in the sense that two parallel moments are occurring at the same time. The local radio broadcasts global news in the background (Radio France International), providing information on the celebration of the millennium in various metropolises worldwide. Simultaneously the images reflect the very present moment of that announcement to depict a village where life is caught in a movement that transcends the duration of the movie. Presenting Radio France and its village listeners creates a parallel and a discrepancy, discordance and contrast between advancing, linear modern time juxtaposed against the village’s suspended time.
In Mignolo’s essay The Darker Side of Western Modernity, “time” is a fundamental concept for building the imaginary of the modern/colonial world and an instrument for both controlling knowledge and advancing a vision of society based on progress and “development.”[7b] Modernity creates its own counterpart or binary: “tradition” without which it could not exist. These two terms, time and tradition, could only emerge through a linear conception of time, imagining a point of departure and a point of arrival. This conception of time underpins “progress” and “evolution,” and nowadays “development”; it serves as a rhetorical discourse imposing modernity and the coloniality of knowledge  at the expense of any other conception of time being relegated to the “traditional” or “old”:
“The idea of modernity needed its own tradition in order to be distinguished as modernity. Thus, while modernity was established by inventing its own tradition (Middle Ages and Antiquity) and colonizing time, it so happens that in the colonization of space the rhetoric of modernity was used to disavow the legitimacy of the “traditions” (invented in the process of inventing modernity) of civilizations that were colonized.”
Mignolo’s analysis builds upon the Martiniquan writer and theorist Edouard Glissant’s critique of History in revealing the structure of power serving an ideology of progress and modernity to justify imperialistic ambitions. Glissant denounces the hegemonic concept of History (with a capital H) as a linear and hierarchical process, instrumentalized to erase the collective memories of colonized peoples. Glissant writes:
“History is a highly functional fantasy of the West, originating at precisely the time when it alone ‘made’ the history of the World. If Hegel relegated African peoples to the ahistorical, Ameredian peoples to the prehistorical in order to reserve History for European peoples exclusively, it appears that it is not because these African or American peoples 'have entered History' that we can conclude today that such a hierarchical conception of “the march of History” is no longer relevant."
According to Mignolo, contemporary globalization continues to reproduce imperial and colonial differentiation. In the postmodern era, the leitmotiv “time is money” and the accompanying corporate ideology of efficiency and productivity give rise to an “acceleration of time” that mainly occurs in the spheres of the market, finance, and media. In turn, relations between time, work, and value are completely disrupted.
Sissako’s film La vie sur terre, from my perspective,illustrates the discrepancy between two different conceptions of time as it attempts to resist “global coloniality.” The movie starts in a Parisian supermarket saturated with consumer goods and then shows Sokolo, the village of the director’s father. Time in the village appears to pass slowly. Life is given rhythm by the natural cycles of the seasons and harvest (the rice), natural elements (birds coming to eat in the fields), and life events (birth and death). In addition, the film is edited to focus on just one day, showing typical patterns of daily living in one specific village. Time as represented in the film corresponds to what Mignolo calls “cyclical” or “cosmological time.”
The fever and hectic time of the millennium embedded in a linear time of chronological events would be completely absent in the film if it were not for the news from France International Radio playing in the background. The radio provides commentary on how many cities celebrate the millennium’s passage. But these reports seem out of place in the village where life is not disturbed by this event; indeed, nothing “exciting” seems to happen. The voice on the radio states,
“In Paris, thousands are expected to attend local dances and fireworks displays. Huge crowds are expected at the Eiffel Tower. For 1000 days, it has been counting down to the year 2000.”
At the same time in the village, a barrel falls off a donkey cart driven by a reckless youth. Its crashing down makes a sound that foreshadows the counting of the millennium, but at the same time that sound also re-appropriates this counting down in its own way, in the way the village is experiencing it. It is a trivial sound that does not mean an important celebration, a passage toward something new or different. The juxtaposition of the radio countdown and this crash reminds the spectator of time’s abruptness and artificiality since this event does not produce anything significant other than a brief, amusing moment in the course of daily life.
There is an inherent paradox about life in Sokolo: it is a life in the margins away from the hectic time in the world’s capitals. Here nothing much seems to take place except time as played out in life’s daily routines. The fragmented narrative of La Vie sur Terre as a documentary-fiction creates an atmosphere or an impression, using intersecting images. The film as a whole demonstrates a refusal of linear narrative logic. Despite being an apparently drowsy place, the village also has within it constant movement—people walking, riding bikes, or driving carriages, and all sorts of animals (cows, donkeys, dogs, chickens…) crisscrossing the landscape. In addition, long shots with a stationary camera and a fixed focal length create very linear spatial movements on the screen, especially in images dwelling on the environment.
Aimé Césaire and the colonial critique
Born in 1913 in the island of Martinique, which was at the time a French colony, Aimé Césaire came from a modest family of seven children. He was a brilliant student, and he spent five years in Paris completing his education—in the prestigious lycée Louis Legrand and later in the Ecole Normale Supérieure.
His years in exile were very formative. In Paris, Césaire began to discover progressively the repressed part of his Martiniquan identity, his African identity. Furthermore, that discovery coincided with his growing awareness of the colonial situation since he was in contact with students from Africa and the African Diaspora. Among those was Leopold Sedar Senghor, who was seven years his elder and who also attended the lycée Louis Legrand where they met and started their longtime friendship. Along with the poet and soon-to-be president of Senegal, Senghor, and his Guyanese counterpart, Léon Gontran Damas, Césaire co-founded the the student journal L’étudiant noir, targeting an audience of Black students.
In this journal was Césaire’s epiphany; he wrote an article that for the first time coined the term “Negritude” in response and as a counter to the colonial system of oppression and racial alienation. Against the French imperial project of a “civilizing mission” and cultural assimilation, the Negritude movement worked toward giving a new valorization to Africa and its culture. Negritude meant claiming pride in an African heritage that had been long disregarded and looked upon as “primitive” by ethnocentric European ideology. The founders of Negritude were influenced by German anthropologist Leo Frobenius (1873-1938) whose late work Kulturegeschichte Afrikas (1933) (History of the African civilization), translated into French in 1936, sought to address and rehabilitate Africa’s pre-colonial past. Frobrenius’ research posited that Africa was the site of many highly significant and esteemed cultures and civilizations.
Aimé Césaire started to write what would become his poetic masterpiece: Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) as he visited the Adriatic coast with his friend Petar Guberina from Yugoslavia. A small island Martiniska whose name coincidentally resonates with Martinique, Césaire’s own island, would have inspired him. Upon his return to Martinique to teach at his former lycée Schoelcher with his new wife Suzanne Roussi, he published the first version of the Cahier in the journal Volontés in 1939. The poem was later discovered in 1942 by the surrealist poet André Breton, who with a group of intellectuals (among whom also the Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam) was fleeing World War II in Europe and sought refuge in the United States. During a stop in Martinique, Breton serendipitously ran into the review Tropiques at a small store when his intent was simply to buy a ribbon for his daughter. It was there he read in amazement some excerpts of Aimé Césaire’s poetry. Thanks to this unexpected encounter, the Cahier made its way to New York and Cuba, contributing to Césaire’s worldwide acclaim. Consequentially, a Spanish translation was published in La Havana in 1943 that was enriched by illustrations from the surrealist painter Wilfredo Lam. Later, the first bilingual edition was published in 1947 in New York and included a laudatory preface from André Breton to Césaire that described the Cahier as, “the greatest lyric monument of our time.” Finally, the commonly accepted “definitive edition” of the publisher “Présence africaine” appeared in 1956.
Nothing like such a poem had ever been written from the Antilles; the style there was marked at that time by “doudouisme,” a literary style grounded in a very exotic and stereotypical representation of the French Antilleans. Influenced by surrealist poets and their ancestors, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, and the symbolists Claudel and Lautréamont, using both verse and prose poetry, violent imagery, obscure and technical vocabulary, Césaire reveals the most intolerable reality of his island. The Cahier transports the reader through his personal journey while developing a complex vision of the devastating alienation, desolation, and self-estrangement of Martiniquan people who were worn out by years of slavery and colonization. From the explosive poem, written under the sign of poesis rather than mimesis, surged an ontological preoccupation:
“a claim of existence from within the colonial discourse rather than establishing a counter discourse from outside.”
The extraordinary force of Césaire’s poetic voice is to achieve through language the promise of an emancipatory project by articulating a lyrical self-realization that manifests itself in consciousness within the historical context of a collective fate. The poem not only seeks to claim the value of Negritude, to transform a racial ideology into a heuristic and creative impulse, but also to embrace the African heritage and in doing so to rearticulate its relation to temporal past, present and future with European colonial powers, and in solidarity with all the oppressed people of the world.
“It weaves a tragic and in no way complacent poetics of the geography and history of this country that was still unknown to itself, and for the first time in our literature, it marked a communication, a relation, of this same country, with the civilizations of Africa, the histories, at long last known, of Haiti and the blacks of the United States, the peoples of the Andes and South America, with the sufferings of the world, its passions and its tremors.”
The poem has had an immense impact on Caribbean literature as well as French poetry and also on decolonization movements across the globe including artists and writers from Africa and the Black Diaspora. In Martinique, in particular, Césaire has had a profound influence on the following generations of intellectuals, such as Frantz Fanon, who was his student at the lycée Schoelcher and Edouard Glissant.
Césaire’s poetic project was closely tied to his political engagement. After World War II, he joined the Communist Party and in 1945 was elected mayor of Fort de France (will be constantly reelected to serve for 56 years) and deputy of Martinique for the French National Assembly (a position that he kept for 48 years). Furthermore, against the assimilation of his island by France, he successfully initiated the law of departmentalization that would give Martinique the status of an overseas department, with equal economic and legal rights, although this law raised a lot of controversies later upon failing to create independence for the island. As a parliament member, he was at the forefront of the critique of colonialism. The publication of his best-known prose essay, Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism), was first unnoticed in 1950 but internationally acclaimed after the second publication by Présence africaine in 1955. Contrary to what the title may indicate, Discours sur le colonialisme has never been formally a speech. Rather, it takes the form of a virulent, implacable pamphlet against European colonialist ideology, an ideology that led to the worst atrocities and racist regimes in the history of humanity. Césaire attacks colonialism through its own principles by highlighting the contradictions and hypocrisy of the western notion of humanism, progress, and civilization. Fascism and Nazism are the direct outcomes, or “the supreme savagery,” of practices and methods that Europeans implemented first against non-European peoples in their colonies. Judging Europe as “indefensible,” Césaire with great audacity calls into question French intellectuals and politicians with poetic eloquence and personalized satire. Discours sur le colonialisme thereafter became a groundbreaking and key text for the anti-colonial movements against European domination.