"This story is not intended only for Mali, but for all of Africa and beyond"
The distance a crow flies between the Malian capital, Bamako, and Gao in the east of the country is 946 kilometres. A three-hour flight. But it generally takes Ousmane Samassekou much longer to travel this distance between where he lives and the location of his new film, The Witnesses from the Shadows. “The roads are bad so it can easily take one or two days by bus”, he says. “But because Gao is in a militarised zone, often you have to take a detour – through Burkina Faso and Niger – and then it can take twice as long.” Nevertheless, Samassekou regularly makes the trip to film in a centre for immigrants returning, destitute, from their journeys to ‘the promised land’ of Europe – or who didn’t even manage to cross the border into Libya. “Some didn’t even want to go on the adventure, but don’t dare say so. To then return as a failure is terrible. There is a taboo on this subject in Mali. Above all because this impacts the whole family. Everyone has saved up and helped pay for the trip, and they expect a triumphant homecoming. In Mali, immigration is not an individual phenomenon but a family matter. I know from my own experience. I had an uncle who left for Germany 33 years ago and who we never heard from again. This is why the immigrants are willing to talk to me: I understand. For them, it also works almost like a form of exorcism.” Samassekou’s personal experience of the world outside of Mali includes film training and internships in Senegal and France. “As a teenager, I really wanted to be a pilot”, he admits. “After studying economics, by chance I ended up at an art school where they taught film. It was a real eye-opener. At first I made short fiction films, but then through a workshop in Dakar I was introduced to the documentary phenomenon, which – if possible – was an even greater revelation. I knew then, I have found my film style. You don’t play God, staging everything, but rather record the moment – reality.”
In addition, not unimportantly for Samassekou: directing documentary films is often very personal. His first feature-length documentary film, for example, was about the student protests in which his best friend lost her life. The next project, which he is currently working on, will be at least as politically committed, but will have a very different tone and style. And this has a lot to do with Samassekou’s participation in the 2019 IDFAcademy Summer School. “I showed my trailer for The Witnesses from the Shadows – this was the first time I received feedback from non-Malian viewers. Two Colombian colleagues immediately recognised the story of returning immigrants. Others also responded positively. For me, this was confirmation that I had hit on a universal subject and that I am on the right track. Because this story is not intended only for Mali, but for all of Africa and beyond.” “In the workshops, I was always being asked about the story of my uncle and whether this is included in the film. This wasn’t the case. My first trailer consisted mainly of observations, shots filmed by hand. But thanks to the Summer School, I now have a stronger presence in the film myself. I am now alternating the footage shot in the reception centre with calm, poetic images of the desert – the extreme heat during the day and the cold at night, which make a link to my own family story, which is also presented in the voice-over.”