By Young Film Critic Aswathy Gopalakrishnan
The Wedding Ring, the second feature film of Niger filmmaker Rahmatou Keita, has beautiful images.
Like the one where it's protagonist, a beautiful young woman, is sitting by the side of a lake, gazing into the calm water. The shot lingers on for a while, as if the camera too, like the woman, is enchanted by the tranquility of the place.
"This is a film about the other face of Africa. The peaceful, harmonious side of the region which rarely gets showcased in popular culture," Keïta explains.
The soft-paced romantic drama is centered around an aristocratic Sahelian family in Niger. According to the director, the film is an ode to Sahel, the region where she was born and brought up. "Sahel has a beautiful culture. Its traditions, customs, music, and way of life are slowly dying. Through The Wedding Ring, I wanted to show that there are happy people in Africa, beyond the dark images of economic poverty and terrorism that the Western world has always projected through its medias. Material wealth isn't always necessary to be happy," she says.
The Wedding Ring proceeds through Tiyaa, the young heiress of the family. She has just returned from Paris after completing her graduation. Tiyaa is heartbroken that her lover, whom she met during her stint abroad, is taking forever to approach her family with a formal marriage proposal. Her friend takes her to a shaman who asks her to wait till the night of the new moon and perform a secret ritual, which will unite her with her lover. In the days leading up to the new moon night, Tiyaa sheds her cynical self and rediscovers her roots through the people around her.
The wedding in the film is just an excuse for Keïta to narrate the story of her people and explore the community's culture in curious details. "My people are extremely shy. In our culture, no one says 'I love you’. They find some other way to convey their feelings." she says.
I was the first African woman to be seen on French TV as a journalist
The film’s portrayal of the interpersonal relationships of the women in Tiyaa’s community is impressive. "The women in Africa are fiercely independent and strong”, says Keita. "My grandmother had caravans and traded gold and fabrics, she left with her employees on the backs of camels from the Niger Sahara to Arabia and even sometimes in China on business purpose. I grew up seeing such women." As a young woman, Keïta studied Philosophy and Linguistics in Paris, and joined a television channel there as a journalist. "I was the first African woman to be seen on French TV as a journalist" she says. She quit mainstream journalism in the 1990s, and embarked on a career of filmmaking to narrate the stories of 'her country and its people'.
Her country, Niger, has a film industry that was non-existent till recently.
After her first film was screened at the Cannes film festival, the President of her country summoned her to his office. "He asked me why I was trying to tarnish their image by telling that the country leaders don't support and protect our culture. "What do you want now?", he asked furiously. (laughs). I used the opportunity to tell him that the country needs a national centre of cinema and with the ministry of culture we worked on it and we have it now. Then the military came to power after the coup, and I begged with them not to touch our cinemas. Later, when an elected government took over, I met the new President and spoke to him about the importance of government initiative in promoting cinema in Niger. He agreed and today the government of Niger hopefully will support our cinema. If I don't do these things, who will?", she says.
Hard to finance
She wrote the script of The Wedding Ring in 2006. It was not easy to find a producer for her feature film, she admits.
"I sent the script for funds in Germany, France and Switserland but it was rejected. After a spate of unsuccessful attempts, I was almost ready to give up my dream of making The Wedding Ring. I didn't understand why people thought it wouldn't make a good film. I thought my script might be bad," she says. "Later, when Algeria invited script proposals from African directors, I pulled my script out of the waste bin (laughs) and sent it to them. To my surprise, the jury unanimously decided to fund the film. so I realized that as my scripts are African strories through African eyes, maybe I have to ask my dear Africa to support its stories. It's possible that the people who decide over the funds in Europe do not understand my script as it is written without aany western cliché on Africa."
Something Hybrid and very interesting
Keita grew up watching films from various languages and cultures. "Hollywood, Nollywood, Indian comedy-musicals…" However, as she puts it, there was barely a film that reflected the society she was ever familiar with. "Nigeria has a flourishing film industry and in some of their films, it seems like the filmmakers are trying something hybrid by their influence of Bollywood. So musical comedies are being produced and the songs and dances in these films have Indian influences, it's interesting and very funny," she says.
She loves movies of auteurs like Milos Forman, Akira Kurosawa, Ozu, and Francis Ford Coppola. "I certainly admire them for their distinct sense of aesthetics."
The Wedding Ring has an interesting soundtrack that Keita picked out carefully. "As early as while writing the script, all the music comes to me - Bach, Shubert, Maïga and Dicko", she says. "Johnny Ali Maïga, a brilliant artiste who composed the piece we used in the portion where the kids are playing around, passed away shortly after the film’s shoot. Not many people know of him or his great music," she says.
A bigger, better cinema industry would tell the world of such gems from Africa, Keita hopes.
"Africa needs to find it's voice. It's important that we narrate our real stories now", she says. "In their films, the Westerners show Africa as a dark continent where nothing pleasant could ever happen. For ages, the white colonialist, certainly out of ignorance and stupidity, have tried to impose their culture in the African countries. They tried to destroy ours and send us a depreciated and negative image of us. They were afraid of us, but I know that they will never defeat us. We are indestructible. And, in fact, I think at least now, they should try to learn a bit of humanity from us," laughs Keïta.