A Fortnightly Review.
A Letter from Yene
Dir. Manthia Diawara
2022 | 50 mins
By SIMON COLLINGS
IN 2010, THE NEW YORK-based scholar and filmmaker Manthia Diawara bought a house in a small fishing village on the coast of Senegal – a private retreat and place of escape. Some mornings pelicans land behind his house before heading out to fish at sea. Down on the beach the local fishermen are readying their nets and boats for the day. There are no tourists. It’s a scene the director describes as ‘priceless in many ways’, but it is under threat. Diawara documents the challenges facing this community in his new film A Letter from Yene.1 Spending time here, he tells us at the start of the film, turned him into ‘an activist for the environment’.
Fish stocks are in decline along the coast and the price of fish commonly used in local cooking is beyond the means of ordinary families. It is sold instead to Europe and to local tourist hotels. Officially, fishing boats now require a government licence to operate, but these are too expensive for small-scale local fishermen. Wealthy Senegalese buy licences to enable large boats from Spain, Portugal, France and China to fish the inshore waters.
Climate change is also impacting the region, with increasingly torrential rains, which the locals say are ‘unusual for this part of the world’. The coast is eroding, and part of the village, including the area where ancestral shrines were located, has been submerged. We see footage of flood water running through the main street of the village, the body of a drowned goat washing up on the shore, mounds of plastic waste piled along the tide line.
Some of the women who used to work as fishmongers have been reduced to collecting pebbles on the beach for use in house construction, an activity which unwittingly contributes to the further erosion of the beach. The women say they depend on this work to survive. The stones lifted from the beach are used to decorate the exterior walls of the second homes bought by wealthy Dakarois and émigrés like Diawara.
THE DIRECTOR’S PREVIOUS documentaries typically feature interviews with people representing a variety of views, with the filmmaker often in the shot listening. Diawara may express a view in these films, but as a contribution to a discussion rather than from a privileged position of authority. In A Letter from Yene, we hear only the voice of Diawara, the experiences and thoughts of others always mediated by his words. We see them but do not hear them, as though the filmmaker wants to avoid rendering them too familiar and knowable. In the section of the film about the decline of fish stocks the narration is accompanied by a close-up of a fisherman’s face. He stares implacably into the camera before the film cuts to footage of foreign boats fishing just off the coast. The image then returns to the man’s face. His steady gaze is disconcerting.
Traditionally the Yene community believed they were protected by the spirits of the ancestors. One fisherman, Aliou Diouf, tells Diawara how his grandfather was always guided by the spirits to where the fish were. Local rituals, which we witness, have fishing and the sea at their heart. But this world has been dislocated by globalisation, the sea transformed into a rubbish dump. In the old culture, Diawara argues, there was a greater respect for land and sea, which were seen as forces with their own agency. He quotes Diouf saying: ‘When you throw death at the sea, the sea will throw death back at you.’
As a relatively wealthy second-home owner, Diawara recognises that he’s implicated in the demise of the community, so he wants to help local people regain the initiative. He draws inspiration from the nearby community of Bargny where the population mobilised to force the closure of a charcoal factory which was polluting the local river. A group of women in Bargny have started a market-gardening business and also collect rubbish. If Yene were to organise in a similar way, Diawara thinks, the village might find ways to influence events. But how can he bridge the gulf between their world and his? One of the women on the beach, Maty, suggests that if he wants her to stop collecting pebbles he should pay her, but Diawara resists her seeing him simply as a source of money. He wants to find a more enduring solution.
The 50-minute film-essay consciously eschews slick production values, and some of the shots have a ‘home movie’ roughness. The camera often dwells for some time on a particular scene, the women working the beach, the garbage strewn along the shore, excited children dancing, the images given time to stand for themselves without commentary. There are no structured presentations of data or talking heads offering expert views in support of the film’s analysis, and its conclusion – which I will discuss in detail later – is curiously tentative.
Some viewers were clearly disconcerted by A Letter from Yene, judging by comments posted on MUBI, where the film is being streamed. The lack of a simple, unified thesis in the film, the absence of a clear plan of action, and the reflective, self-questioning tone don’t match the expectations generated by the typical conventions of mainstream documentaries. Some viewers considered the film a failure.
DIAWARA WAS BORN in Mali, spent part of his childhood in Guinea Conakry, studied in France and later moved to the US where he is now a distinguished professor of cultural studies at New York University. He has written extensively on his personal experience of living as an émigré in France and the United States, of racism, and of the tensions in his interactions with Africans who have never left the continent. His preoccupations in A Letter from Yene with the challenge of finding common understanding with the villagers, and the work that this demands from him, come out of a decades-long interrogation of such questions. They are themes which are explored at length in two of his books, In Search of Africa (1998) and We Won’t Budge (2003), both part-memoir, part-political and cultural discourse.
The first of these titles is based around visits to Guinea Conakry Diawara made in the 1990s. It’s a country of personal significance – he lived there as a child until his parents were expelled by Sekou Touré, the radical leader of the newly independent state. Touré was a key figure in the independence struggle in Africa, famously rejecting De Gaulle’s offers of increased autonomy for French colonies within a community led by France. Touré’s defiant stance was an inspiration to many young Africans, Diawara among them. But Touré later turned into a paranoid and brutal autocrat. In Search of Africa assesses Touré’s controversial legacy and considers the degree to which traces of the revolutionary fervour of the initial post-independence years still survive. Touré was a great champion of Guinean culture and the effects of his support for local musical and dance traditions are still discernable in the cultural life of Conakry.
Diawara made a short documentary in 1997 linked to the book, sharing the same title. His 2004 film, Conakry Kas, revisited the same territory but at greater length.2 A central concern in Diawara’s work is what he calls ‘Afro-pessimism’, the sense of hopelessness about the continent expressed by both external commentators and by many people living in Africa. In Conakry Kas, Diawara presents evidence which contradicts such self-defeating assessments. He meets with local intellectuals who point to social changes which are modernising the society and talks with young people about their views on how cultural norms are changing. He also interviews a powerful peace activist, Madame Kaba, who leads a regional women’s network advocating for an end to conflict. She emphasises the importance of culture in the struggle for economic justice. ‘The worst thing slavery and colonisation did,’ she says, ‘was to damage African’s confidence in themselves and their own culture. A tree without roots won’t live.’
IN SEARCH OF Africa also explores the very different experiences of black people in America and the complex relationship between Africans and African-Americans. African-Americans grow up in a culture which values individuality, self-reliance, competition and the market. Independent Africa, on the other hand, in looking to tradition, tends, Diawara argues, to emphasise community and social hierarchy to the detriment of caste clans and women. Diawara has lived with these contradictions for decades, influenced by elements of both his African heritage and American cultural values. It’s a conflict which often leaves him feeling an outsider.
But engaging with ‘the other’ and allowing oneself to be changed by that encounter is, in Diawara’s view, the only way for black people to gain their freedom. His views here are strongly influenced by the philosopher and writer Édouard Glissant, who grew up in Martinique but emigrated to France, and who now also spends time in the United States. Glissant’s 1997 work, Poétique de la relation (Poetics of Relation) makes a powerful argument for embracing le métissage, the mixing of cultures and the mutual contaminations which ensue. He sees this as a process leading not to the creation of a single uniform culture but to a rich and ever-changing diversity whose totality can never be grasped. This outcome, Glissant argues, is inevitable because of what he calls our ‘opacity’ as individuals – our inability to fully know either ourselves or another person. Encounters with the opacities of others alter us and increase diversity.
Diawara made a documentary about Glissant in 2010 but it took him many years to convince the writer to agree to be interviewed. The philosopher did not want a film constructed on conventional lines, but an approach which mirrored his own elliptical style of writing. He is critical of films which treat the cinematic image as transparent and of the ‘systematic and dogmatic stitching together of shards to make meaning.’3 The resulting interview with Diawara was shot partly on board a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic, retracing the ‘middle passage’ of the slave trade, and partly in Martinique.
HOW AFRICANS AND Africa-Americans have historically been represented in film is another major area of Diawara’s work and he has written at length of the search by black filmmakers for a cinematic language capable of challenging such representations. In 2007, Diawara was invited by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin to curate a festival of contemporary African cinema. His book African Cinema: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics (2010) arose out of that event and describes Diawara’s approach to the commission and the work that was screened. It includes statements by some of the directors showcased at the festival. All of the filmmakers shared a preoccupation with finding ways to tell their own stories in their own ways.
Jean-Pierre Békolo describes his motivation as a filmmaker deriving from ‘a feeling of powerlessness’.4 ‘It comes from an impression,’ Békolo says, ‘that in the world confronting me, everything which I do or which defines me as the person I am, in a sense, is denied.’ He remembers seeing the premier of Claire Denis’ first feature Chocolat (1988), filmed in Cameroon, and finding nothing he could identify with though he was himself from Cameroon. He describes his own films as playing with the standard conventions of cinema, ‘taking an initiative with words or the camera to say what I want to.’
Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda, who grew up in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and who studied in Belgium, did a PhD on the representation of Africans in film.5 He says: ‘I’ve always thought that narrating a story about Africa – or more precisely, about Africa as it is, with its own ideas and images – was what really matters most.’ He goes on to say: ‘I imagine African film as a film of encounters – a cinema that creates a desire in Europeans to bump into the people in my films at the next corner.’
For Diawara, it is only by Africans becoming the subjects of their own stories, rather than the objects of someone else’s narrative, that they can become the ‘Other’ capable of generating a ‘poetics of relation’ through encounter.
JEAN-LUC GODARD’s last major film, The Image Book (2018), is stylistically a very different film from Diawara’s A Letter from Yene, but a comparison of the two works can perhaps help to further illuminate where Diawara is coming from. Godard’s film is a complex montage of images and sound, accompanied by a narration, spoken mostly by the director, including quotes from a wide range of authors. A major strand in The Image Book is a critique of Western representations of the Arab world. Over an image of two Arab boys clambering on rocks by a beach, the colours brightly enhanced, Godard says: ‘The world is not interested in the Arabs, nor in Muslims….If the Arab world exists as a world it is never viewed as such. It is always examined as a totality.’6 Later he asks: ‘The Arabs, are they able to speak?’
Martine Beugnet and Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli, in their analysis of The Image Book, date Godard’s engagement with Orientalism to his 1976 film Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere) made with Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville.7 This film grew out of a project designed to support the Palestinian uprising in Jordan in 1970. Filming was aborted because of the ensuing fighting and the deaths of some of those interviewed. The film that emerged six years later, Buegnet and Ravetto-Biagioli say, ‘was Godard’s initial attempt at using montage to juxtapose images from the Middle East with those of the West.’ Here and Elsewhere represents, they argue, ‘Godard and Miéville’s unflinching self-critique of an overthought project. Marred by a priori concepts and clichés, the project demonstrated an inability to see and to listen to the Palestinian people.’ Godard’s last film reprises many themes from earlier work, including his critique of the Western world’s closedness to other cultures.
Substitute ‘Africans’ for ‘Arabs’ and Godard’s statements could have been made by Diawara – the invisibility, the lack of recognition of the diversity of the African continent, the difficulty African filmmakers have being seen and heard. The Image Book includes a clip from Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014) and, an image, from an unidentified source, of a crowded train moving away down a track somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
Diawara, in his film, describes the fisherman Aliou Diouf as a ‘kind of philosopher’. This occurs in the passage where he recounts Diouf’s belief in ancestral spirits, a belief at once ‘mystical’ and ‘real’. Godard implies a similar perspective when he includes a voice recording of the veteran Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine saying every Egyptian is a ‘philosopher’ because he has ‘the time to reflect, to think, to look at the world.’ The women contributing to the erosion of the beach, and the rubbish heaped on the shore, likewise find an echo in Godard’s film. At the beginning of the fifth and final section of The Image Book Godard says: ‘In brief, the grossest environmental disorganization is the existence of two groups, the richest million and the poorest million. The rich destroy with their rapid overconsumption of resources and their production of waste. While the poor destroy their resources out of necessity and a lack of belief.’
An affirmation of the necessity for belief, and a refusal to give in to pessimism, also links these two directors. At the end of The Image Book Godard speaks powerfully of the necessity of hope: ‘The domain of hope (espérances) will be vaster than in our own time. It will extend to all continents. The desire to contradict, to resist, which we had in our youth will extend to all continents. Ardent hope. And even if nothing will be as we hope it will, that does not change our hope.’ Diawara, with his search for a cause for optimism amid the ruins of the Guinean revolution and his rejection of Afro-pessimism, articulates similar values, and they underpin his approach to the calamity confronting the people in the Senegalese village which he has made his second home.
AT THE END of A Letter to Yene we see Diawara sitting on the beach, framed by the window of a derelict building, gazing out to sea. It’s an image which echoes the film’s opening moments, bringing us full circle, or more accurately completing an ellipsis, underlining that this has been a philosophical meditation. The making of this film, he says, is not just for ‘the environment’ but also about how he can learn how to reconcile himself with the people he has come to live among, and an opportunity for them to be reconciled with him. ‘They change me and I change them,’ he says. But he’s uncomfortable with this formulation, and in a spirit of self-criticism he adds: ‘So maybe I need to find a better way to phrase it, yeah.’
Some viewers might feel a sense of frustration with this outcome. Its proposal for a ‘poetics of relation’ is nebulous and demands of the viewer an act of faith. The results of the venture are yet to be seen, so that A Letter from Yene is not so much the documenting of productive dialogue but rather a prelude to such a possible engagement. A more generous view might see the film as an exercise in humility, a refusing by the filmmaker of the role of expert and teacher, of authority figure or mediator. Diawara advances an argument for listening and engaging as perhaps more effective ways of resisting the institutions and practices impoverishing communities like Yene.
SIMON COLLINGS lives in Oxford. His poetry, short fiction, translations, reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of magazines including Stride, Fortnightly Review, Café Irreal, Litter, International Times, Junction Box, The Long Poem Magazine, Ink Sweat & Tears, PN Review and Journal of Poetics Research. Why are you here?, a collection of his prose poems and short fiction, was published by Odd Volumes in November 2020. His third chapbook, Sanchez Ventura, was published by Leafe Press in spring 2021. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. For more information, visit his webpage.
- A Letter from Yene was commissioned by MUBI, the Serpentine Gallery in London, and Polygreen Culture and Art Initiative as part of the Serpentine’s Back to Earth project. This multi-year initiative has invited 60 international artists to create work in a range of media which responds to the global environmental crisis.
- This film is also available on MUBI.
- ‘Poetics of Relation’, a talk given by Diawara on at the Perez Art Museum, Miami, USA, on 9 Nov 2015, is here.
- Jean-Pierre Békolo’s Le complot d’Aristote (Aristotle’s plot, 1995) and Les saignantes (The bloodettes, 2005) are available on DVD.
- A twenty-minute extract from Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda’s feature Juju Factory (2007) can be viewed here.
- All translations of the narration in The Image Book are mine.
- Martine Beugnet and Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli, ‘The Image Book: or Penser avec les mains’, Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media no. 23, 2022, pp. 10–31.