- Joseph Gaï Ramaka:"I am not a filmmaker engagé. I am an ordinary citizen engagé."
The interview that follows with the veteran and noted Senegalese filmmaker Joseph Gaï Ramaka addresses two issues of importance to political film practice. The first concerns the deployment of the concepts of "globalization" and "postcolonialism" to explain historical activity. Ramaka dismisses the claims of academic scholars by challenging the utility of these concepts for people "to grasp their reality and act." In counterpoint he asserts that "[t]he importance of the word is determined by the space in which it is uttered and by the reason why it is uttered." And he calls for the recovery and redeployment of the concept of "neocolonialism" to interrogate North/South polarity and the specificities of reality because "this concept is still useful as opposed to concepts that have no reference for the collective conscience." In doing so, Ramaka suggests, as Gramsci and others have for the West, the role of the African intellectual is to develop concepts "to help the masses of Africans understand what is happening to them."
The second concern is alluded to in the statement by Ramaka that ". . . my concerns are not as a filmmaker, but rather as a citizen who happens to be a filmmaker." In contrast to received views, this statement suggests that artists, like citizens, should deploy their resources and talent on behalf of the common good and intervene in the process of democratization.
Ramaka's theorized stance is certainly not without precedence as he references Marx and the anticolonial texts of Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire. His views about the documentary—as a means of social and political intervention "against injustice"—are aligned, although less schematically, with the theorist-filmmakers of the New Latin American Cinema who situated film, especially the documentary, in larger national/continental projects for change. In Ramaka's documentary Plan Jaaxay! (2007), on the intolerable plight of a flooded Dakar suburb exemplifies this mode of documentary practice.
A ["citizen"] filmmaker whose body of work is modest, yet timely and provocative, Ramaka was born in Saint-Louis, Senegal. Following studies in visual anthropology (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) and cinema (Hautes [End Page 206] Etudes Cinématographiques) in Paris, he established in France the production and distribution company, The Ark Studios (Les Ateliers de L'Arche) in 1990. With Ghaël Samb Sall in 1997, he developed Les Ateliers de L'Arche—Dakar, and, the following year, L'Espace Bel'Arte. During this period (1990–97), Ramaka wrote screenplays, including Karmen—a modern adaptation of Bizet's opera Carmen set in contemporary Senegal—which he produced and screened at several festivals including the 54th edition of the Cannes Festival in 2001 and the following year at the Pan African Film and Arts Festival (Los Angeles), where it received the Best Feature Award. Among his documentary films, So Be It (Ainsi soit-it) was awarded the Lion d'Argent at the 54th Mostra Internationale d'Arte. Cinematographica of Venice in 1997 and And What if Latif Was Right? (Et si Latif avait raison!) was awarded Best Documentary Film at the Festival Vues D'Afriques (Montreal) in 2006.
Presently, Ramaka resides in New Orleans.
The interview was conducted by Michael T. Martin and occurred on March 5, 2008, during Ramaka's visit to IU-Bloomington.
MM: What influenced you to become a filmmaker?
JR: Two people influenced me. The first was a grandfather to whom I performed shadow shows. He was my sole audience and happy when I would tell him a story about the shadows. The second was the blues and jazz singer Nina Simone. Her songs evoked the need in me to express myself.
MM: Do you have an approach to storytelling?
JR: First, I work a lot on the text which takes most of my time. What nourishes me, though, is a vision of life that has its source in Africa. The mental disposition from which I write is a "surrealist" understanding of the world. This way of seeing the world pre-dates the more recent concept in Europe. It's a way of thinking about the world that, for example...