Temporal subversion and political critique in Abderrahmane Sissako’s La vie sur terre

by Elise Finielz

Part 1: Visual essay of La vie sur terre


This essay is comprised of two parts. Part I is a visual essay closely analyzing the aesthetic and narrative aspects of La vie sur terre/Life on Earth. The images and captions presents the film chronologically illustrating and giving evidence for the arguments developed in part II. Part II explores the dynamic of temporalities at stake in this documentary fiction as it aims to resist a linear conception of history. It focuses on how the representation of time pertains to a political subversive narrative in order to capture the complexity of the everyday post-colonial state. Both part complements each other. [Click here to go directly to Part II]

The opening sequence of the film begins with an ascending medium shot showing ornamental ceramic ducks in a Parisian supermarket aisle. Dramane (short for Abderrahmane) is both protagonist and director of the film; he is revealed a few seconds later, among the ducks. This lighthearted opening shot suggests the absurdity of consumerism as he analyzes the products, pursing his lips with a rather comedic duck-like expression. The next shot tracks over an array of butters and cheeses, accompanied by the busy sounds of the supermarket’s cashiers and customers. This long tracking shot connotes overabundance, which later will contrast with the scarcity of resources of Sokolo, a village in Mali. After several shots showing the main protagonist walking through shopping aisles where advertising goods and sales tags stand out amongst the products, Dramane converses with a woman trying on a hat.


The camera then follows him ascending an escalator, leaving the store. He carries a polar bear, again a useless decorative object that will contrast later with the harsh and hot weather the protagonist will encounter (it also has a witty connection to Aimé Césaire’s poetic line, “For a screaming man is not a dancing bear,” recited later in the film). The slow motion image accompanied by the profoundly slow notes of an African lute that has replaced the sound of the supermarket. The audio shift underscores Dramane’s introspective and reflective thoughts.

This opening sequence, depicting an excess of material goods, stands in contrast to the scenes of village life in Mali: artificial neon lights versus Mali sunlight; a giant refrigerator versus the heat of the Sahel; an endless array of dairy products versus the little stalls of street merchants; an escalator versus bicycles, walking, and animal-drawn carts; the winter clothes that Dramane is wearing in France (brown overalls and a hat) versus the traditional colored African boubou he wears in Sokolo.

The nostalgic music of the African lute continues playing in this scene that establishes passage from Paris to Sokolo. The camera zooms in slowly on the branches of a majestic tree, a symbol of Africa. At the end of the zoom, the branches fill in the screen like a grand tapestry. The image fades to black over which the opening credits appear. The music then ceases and is replaced by the sound of the native land: cows, dogs, and the noises of the countryside. Zooming in on the branches metaphorically indicates the transition between two worlds: Europe and the village of Sokolo.

The branches are emblematic of a transnational connection. The horizontal zooming on the branches could be seen as a metaphor for Glissant’s “devenir-rhizome” or a rhizomatic becoming in the world, representative of Dramane’s migratory status. Their sporadic interconnectivity resembles a rhizome, an image borrowed by Glissant from Deleuze and Guattari that characterizes the Caribbean author’s conception of a plural identity opposed to an unique “root identity”[1].[open notes in new window] Although Dramane is drawing upon Aimé Césaire most famous poem of the negritude movement, Dramane’s return “to the native land” is a transitory one. He is not rediscovering his “African” roots and identity, but in a more contemporary way explores the cross-cultural dynamics and nomadic identities that thrives within the context of various cultures (Malian, Mauritanian and French).

Such cinema privileges ellipses and repetitions rather than a beginning or an end. It seeks to explore “states of meaning” as “it brings into play different regimes of signs.” It depends on a multiplicity of non-dominant and non-hierarchical configurations of representations. Instead of historical narration, La vie sur terre presents history “as a map” and not a “tracing”; in particular, it resists chronology or a specific time organization around the passage of the millennium.


In the next scene, Dramane’s father is sitting on his bed covered by a mosquito net. Next to him, another bed with another net is empty, probably indicating his returning son. The camera slowly tracks in from behind and zooms in on the father smiling while reading his son’s letter with a flashlight. Dramane’s voice narrates as his father reads. Dramane’s letter informs his father of an important change of plan: he intends to spend the turn of the new millennium with the father.

The passage to the millennium is the only chronological reference in the movie, yet it does not constitute a plot device or a source of action. As Dramane mentions, after the millennium nothing will have changed for the better. It works merely as an excuse to fulfill a desire to film the village: “the desire to film Sokolo, the desire to leave as Aimé Césaire said.” The desire to film allows the exiled protagonist to put into words the experience of being exiled and the losses it entails.

In this scene, Dramane references for the first time Aimé Césaire and his most famous poem: Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Dramane establishes a clear link between the Martiniquian poet and his own film and personal story. The themes of exile and wandering are keys to Sissako’s works and in particular his first films. For his first documentary, Rostov Luanda (1997), portraying the situation in Angola after 20 years of a devastating civil war, he draws on a biographical and personal approach: the search for his friend from film school in Moscow whom he had lost track of for 20 years. Octobre/ Oktyabr (1993) and La vie sur terre/Life on Earth (1998) pose the question of returning home.

En attendant le bonheur/Waiting for Happiness, Sissako’s 2002 feature about migration, examines in depth questions of migration and offers extended reflections on relations between the European and African continents. Like Dramane, Abdallah, this film’s main character, is an uprooted individual, born in one country, raised in another, and on the verge of immigrating to a third. In transit in a city located in northern Mauritania, between desert and ocean, he is waiting patiently for a hypothetical happiness that he seeks in Europe.

During the voiceover of the letter, the scene cuts to a long shot of the field with boys chasing birds. Dramane is questioning the precarious condition of his own exiled status: “Is what I learn far from you worth what I forget about us?”

He reflects upon a life torn between here and there and the complexity of his in-between-ness. He is a foreigner in both France and Sokolo. What used to be a familiar place has become awkwardly more alien. The return always challenges the exiled to face the loss of familiar places of the past, and so the desire to return is always illusionary: “No return to the past is without irony or without a sense that a full return or repatriation is impossible. ”[3]

This image at sunset indicates that the film will evolve from the personal conflict of Dramane’s exile to the greater collective concerns of the village and Africa as a whole. Visually Dramane will progressively disappear from the narrative space giving precedence to the real threat that the village faces: famine caused by birds eating their crops.

The movie starts on an optimistic note: “The birds have gone, this is good news,” Dramane mentions in a letter to his father. However the presence of two boys shouting and swatting at the birds with a white flag indicates the birds’ threat is imminent and the villagers refuse to surrender. Indeed, the same image is repeated at the end of the movie. The birds have returned, indicating the situation is still not resolved and Sokolo remains on the verge of starvation.

In the next scene, a pick-up truck loaded with luggage on the roof passes by on a dusty road. As the truck is driving away, Dramane walks toward the foreground in wide shot. It’s sunrise in a desert land dotted with a single palm tree. The sun is important in this narrative as time and activities in Sokolo are anchored in the course of the sun.

Dramane’s voice-over recites the poetic words of Aimé Césaire. The poet is first mentioned in the letter as an insight for the viewer to connect Dramane’s story to the poem, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, or at least assume the referential link. The landscape’s beautiful natural light and ochre colors complement the poet’s lyrical words and set up a loose relation of text to imagery. Such an associative link between poetry on the soundtrack and scenes of visual life defines Sissako’s aesthetic in this film. The loose relation between sound and image provides a wide latitude for the viewer’s interpretation of the meaning of the “events.” It also allows for the words themselves to provide imaginative images. Because of this suggestive rather than directive relation between sound and image, the viewers, in turn, may focus more at various times on either the image and/or the soundtrack.

“Leave. My heart was bursting with fire and ardor. Leave. I will arrive fresh and young in my country and tell this country whose dust has penetrated my flesh…”

“… I wandered for a long time. I now return to your hideous open wounds.”

Dramane’s father, as in the previous scene, is sitting on his bed. He is now holding Muslim prayer beads in place of the letter, patiently passing the beads along in prayer and awaiting his son.

Since Césaire’s foundational poem, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, the exile’s return home and consequent rethinking of his relation to his homeland has become a recurring theme in African postcolonial literature and cinema.

The 60s and 70s generation of filmmakers, for example, focused more on questions of immigrants’ suffering in the former colonial nation. Afrique Sur Seine (1955), shot by the Senegalese Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, before decolonization, is considered historically the first African film. This film explored the question of suffering and alienation of young Africans in Paris, nevertheless in a constrained way since the filmmaker was denied the right to shoot in his homeland. La noire de…/The Black Girl (1966) from Ousmane Sembène, Concerto pour un exil/ Concerto for an exile (1968) from Désiré Ecaré, and Soleil ô (1969), Les bicots nègres vos voisins/ Black wogs your neighbors (1974) from Med Hondo, all raise the same haunting issues: the representation of a Black body in a foreign environment, and the economic exploitation, and racial and social oppression in a place where immigrants do not have a livelihood and do not possess the cultural codes. ...

... In the 1990s, African Francophone filmmakers started to develop the theme of the return home to Africa, in the form of documentary (Vacances au pays/ A trip to the country, Jean-Marie Teno, 1990) or documentary fiction (Bye-Bye Africa, Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, 1998; La vie sur terre/ Life on earth, Abderramahne Sissako, 1998). Framed by an autobiographical narrative, a trip back to their country becomes an opportunity for the filmmakers to reflect personally on the situation of their homeland and more broadly on postcolonial Africa (a reflection on the state of cinema in Tchad in Bye-Bye Africa, a reflection on the passage of the millennium and what it means for the village of Sokolo in Mali for La vie sur terre; and a reflection of the illusion of modernity and the meaning of development in Vacances au pays). The exile reconstitutes new understandings of self, family, and environment, but the filmmaker also self-consciously uses the camera as a medium to allow a distant and critical perspective.

In a fixed shot, Dramane walks closer. He wears a shirt, white pants and carries a bag on his shoulder. The music of Salif Keita “Folon” starts as the lines of the poem conclude, giving a sense of continuity between poetry and music, and sustaining the element of nostalgia, cutting to …. …. a long shot of cattle in a harshly lit desert ….

…. cutting to a reflection of a bike laterally passing across swamp water.

On the water after the bike passes off-screen, a wooden canoe transports Dramane and his bike in the opposite direction. Dramane appears in a colorful costume, indicating that he is no longer a traditional member of the community and brings with him a foreign or even touristy air. In most of the scenes throughout the movie, he is with his bike, which emphasizes his transitory state. With his bike, as with his camera, he is rediscovering the village.

As the boat transverses the screen, in voiceover Dramane reads Aimé Césaire’s lines,

“As I arrive, I’ll say to myself: Beware my body, beware my soul. Do not fold your arms in the sterile stance of a spectator, for life is not spectacle. For a screaming man is not a dancing bear.” (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land)

As a filmmaker, Sissako conveys Dramane’s realization of his exile status and his anti-colonial stance by harnessing them literally to the verbal force of Césaire’s poetry. Césaire’s landmark poem draws attention to the suffering of a people that have endured years of colonization and slavery, as he calls for collective emancipatory action. These same lines from Notebook of a Return to the Native Land also appear in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks [4]. In fact, Fanon cites Césaire frequently in his book and hopes Césaire’s work will inspire African and diasporic intellectuals in the future. These lines have also inspired the title of a more recent movie, Un homme qui crie/ A screaming man (2010) from Mahamat-Saleh Haroun.

In La vie sur terre, Dramane’s return to a place that suffers is the motivation for his filming and raising awareness. However, the quote “a screaming man is not a dancing bear” implies that one may not exploit the suffering of others in a self-aggrandizing or sensational way. By filming his father’s village, Sissako bears the responsibility for representing the people of Sokolo with dignity and respect. In this sense, it is important to notice that it is precisely Dramane who appears visually as we hear these lines: he becomes then an object of representation or “makes a spectacle of himself”. By doing so, he redefines his own position to the village but also rearticulates his relation to Europe. Indeed, how should he film a familiar place that has become more and more distant? How should he film coming from France without subjecting Sokolo to an “exotic” gaze?

In Sissako’s film, more than a convenient narrative device, the director’s presence appears as a way for him to legitimately film the village of Sokolo. It appears to be a method or even a work ethic. His return is indeed not really represented. Dramane is suddenly there, most of the time riding his bike or with his father. In an interview about Life on Earth, a journalist asked Sissako about his “omnipresence in his movies”: “Your omnipresence in the movies, is it a way to control them?” To that question, Sissako answered:

“No, on the contrary; when I become aware of it (of the fact that I tend to control the movie) I feel uncomfortable, because it is not my intention; I will be less present in the future. In Life on Earth, it was only to be respectful to what I was filming. The topic was a return in a place where nobody films. I had to be myself an object.” [5]

Parallel to Dramane on the boat, a woman (Nana, the main female character as the viewer will learn later) is riding her bike on a road by the water’s edge, but in the opposite direction. The camera follows her as she passes women carrying buckets and a man with an umbrella. Her itinerary will narrowly cross paths with Dramane’s in the rest of the movie.

In the next scene at his father’s house, Dramane is writing in a notebook, his bike by his side. Although the viewer does not have access to what he is writing, his voiceover recites the letter he sent to his father announcing his return. He reemphasizes his desire to film Sokolo. Writing in a notebook reveals his affinity to Césaire and accentuates the introspective nature of his journey as he rethinks his relation with Sokolo to Europe.

Rejecting Europe and “its mad rush,” Dramane aligns his particular story with a deliberate anti-colonial stance that builds explicitly on Aimé Césaire’s literary works to stress the temporal and spatial divide between Europe and Africa. The colonial past still haunts the present. And the voiceover continues with a quote from “the poet”: “Europe convulsed in screams; the silent currents of despair fearfully pulling itself together and proudly overestimating itself.”


In a tracking shot, the camera moves from Dramane to a table full of books and a radio to his father. In this way the shot composition and camera movement establish an affective intellectual link and transmission of knowledge between Dramane and his father. Wearing glasses the father is reading in a dignified position (probably a book brought by Dramane), showing his receptivity to his son’s studies. He does not speak in the film, but the voice of his son speaks for him, as does the voice of Aimé Césaire through a voiceover.

Nana, smiling on her bike, enjoying her ride in the sun, representing an answer and a contrast to Europe and “its mad rush,” an image that then… …cuts to Dramane on his bike. His voice still recites the letter informing the viewer that he sent books to be read on the community radio (Radio Sokolo), which will appear in later scenes.
A fixed establishing shot of the village center gives the viewer a village perspective. It shows a photographer and men sitting in the shade of a tree listening to the radio while goats are crossing the street with a cut to… …. a close up on the sign of the radio ironically named: “Colonial Radio, voice of the rice fields.” ….

Radio was seen as a tool of democratization and economic development [6]. In the year 2000, Mali had a thriving rural community radio-sector, with an estimated number of 121 community stations [7]. Broadcast in local languages, community radios reached a wide audience, especially in rural areas where people, for the most part, do not speak the official language (French), are illiterate, and do not have easy access to books. Radio is indeed an easy and cost effective source of information especially if, requiring the use of batteries, there is no access to electricity. Radio also mediates between written and oral language, as indicated in the title of the program, “the spoken library”; it offers a means of education, self-expression and communication, while also promoting the community’s history, music and oral tradition. Furthermore, community radio is accessible because it operates with minimal technological equipment and infrastructure.

For example, here the medium shot of the presenter, a recurrent shot in the film, displays a very basic recording setup consisting of microphone and transmission equipment. Through a gesture to the technical assistant, the presenter starts a jingle of Kora.

…. This is followed by the radio presenter opening the program “the spoken library.”

Radio is the mass medium in Africa with the widest geographical reach and the largest audience, compared to other media such as TV, newspaper, Internet etc. At the end of the 1980s the development of private sector media accompanied the movements for political liberation, advent of multi-parties and legal reform.

Farmers on little donkeys walk in sync to the light melody of the Kora, an instance of sound editing that connects successive shots together.

Another medium shot on the sign “Colonial Radio, voice of the rice fields” cuts to the presenter while he is introducing the reading of the day, an excerpt from Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism (1950). The audience, according to the presenter, might not know this particular work but knows the author (“our Martiniquan brother Aimé Césaire”) which places emphasis on the high recognition of Aimé Césaire in Africa (and maybe implying that it is not the first time that they read his work on the program).


As a European voice recites the passage the radio presenter chose to broadcast from Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, it is implied that this work is a foundational text of anti-colonial and postcolonial literature, an irrevocable critique of European colonialism and their “civilizing” mission. The Discourse on Colonialism complements the themes developed in the Notebook. “Europe and its mad rush,” as broadcast by the community radio, in turn counters French International Radio.

While the passage is being broadcast on the radio, the presenter himself silently reads the books brought by Dramane, so that the scene integrates auditory and visual aspects of reading.
In the meantime, Dramane and another man are at the bike repair shop and seem absorbed in the radio book reading. The next shot is of village merchants behind their table. The camera follows the airwaves; there is no causal effect between two shots; the sound is what links them. The radio serves to connect the images.
The camera then cuts to the post office while the audio continues reciting Césaire. Here again Césaire’s text playing on the soundtrack in the background through the radio gives another meaning to the man waiting. He, like Dramane in the previous shot, seems absorbed by Césaire’s speech; the coincidental shot (of the man in front of the camera) provides another resonance with Césaire’s speech as applied to the scenes of daily life. While the woman is on the phone announcing the arrival of Nana, a low angle shot of a radio antenna alludes to the difficulties of communication from village to village by phone. One of the themes of the film, the village’s isolation, embodies Sissako’s larger commentary through Césaire’s discourse that communication with the rest of the world is made even more difficult, as Europe turns a deaf ear to the plight of Africa.

Nana is on her bike. The camera films her from left to right. As she appears in the frame of a broken wall, she slightly veers her head and enticingly rings her bike’s bell. The camera pauses while Nana is continuing her ride. The frame remains empty for a fraction of a second until Dramane also appears (from left to right) in the frame trailing behind her. Then a panoramic view reframes placing the two characters, Nana and Dramane, in the center of the shot. Dramane might have accelerated his ride to join Nana. But the absence of perspective and the pause in the tracking shot create a light suspense; the film lightly sets up a possible atmosphere of romantic pursuit. Dramane brakes in front of her and they start what appears to be a cordial and slightly flirtatious conversation.


Dramane is in the village of his father. But he is also a foreigner, living in Europe and coming back just for a little time. Nana is from the next village. She is staying at her aunt’s home. Both outsiders to the village, they are mainly filmed in motion on their bikes; they create curiosity in the eyes of the inhabitants of Sokolo. Their foreign status also serves to heighten the significance of exterior relationship to the village at a local and global level.