Abderrahmane Sissako: “The relationship between China and Africa filmed in Black tea is not a utopia”

Abderrahmane Sissako: “The relationship between China and Africa filmed in Black tea is not a utopia”

In his new film, premiered in February at the Berlinale, Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako looks at the links between small traders from all walks of life in the Chinese city of Canton. The film can be seen in theaters in Belgium and France.

Some people talk about the film Black tea, the new opus by Abderrahmane Sissako, presented as a utopia at the Berlinale last February. But in the eyes of the filmmaker, this is not the case. “ It's not a utopia. It is, at most, a wish for a world that is moving in the right direction. The world is a permanent meeting of different entities. Humanity is constituted in this way. Even if there are countries more developed than others, there is also a new global world that is being created. This China-Africa relationship is new for many people but this is mainly due to the fact that the gaze is not turned in that direction. underlines the filmmaker of Mauritanian origin.

A need for emancipation

“I use this China-Africa framework for cinematic reasons, of course. But Aya (actress Nina Melo, Editor’s note) decides to assert his freedom against society which often takes the upper hand. She leaves and in China, she meets other women who look like her. This film is essentially a women's story. »

In “Black Tea”, Nina Melo plays the role of a young Ivorian who leaves to settle in China.

To capture his point, the filmmaker traveled for three years in China and met a lot of African women who spoke Mandarin very well. However, he finally decided to choose a “ professional actress ready to take on the challenge of learning Mandarin and performing in another language. A way to move a little further away from the shores of documentary” to depict this particular district of Guangzhou.

“Canton is the factory of the world. Africa and the Arab world are very present there, much more than Europe or Latin America. Chocolate City is an energetic neighborhood where a lot of small traders come and buy 2000 or 10,000 items to export to their country. There is something very beautiful, very human in the life of this small community. In this sense, there is an identity, a link and similarities between China and Africa in this type of economy of small traders. But the economy is changing, China is more and more present in Africa so there will soon no longer be any need for African traders to come to Canton to obtain their supplies”, he notes.

In “Black Tea”, actress Nina Melo plays a young Ivorian living in Canton.

The night: one more step towards fiction

The director had this project in mind since 2007. “And even before. » This idea was already in the making in his film Heremakono (2001) where he observed a “couple formed by a Chinese man and a Mauritanian woman dining together. » After nine months of waiting and a refusal from China, Abderrahmane Sissako headed to Taiwan in 2019 to shoot his film there. Which required him to further modify his scenario. But these obstacles did not stop him.

“Cinema is fiction. It’s a universe that we create. » The fact of having had to film in Taiwan rather than Guangzhou, brings him back to his movie Timbuktu turned in Mauritania due to lack of authorizations. “ It is not the place, the geography that counts, but the subject, what we are telling. What matters to me are emotions. The choice to shoot mainly at night reinforces this impression of leaving reality because then, everything becomes possible. »

“There is no poor culture”

In his eyes, the subject was worth hanging on to. “ Racism is the fear of others, it exists everywhere: in China, in Libya, in Germany. It's a reality. Through this scene, I want to show that there is a generation that is changing its mentality. I trust in a new China. Every society evolves. China has been closed for a long time and therefore inevitably, the other is worried. All Africans say it: Taiwanese society is magnificent. We are happy, we have never felt racism there. Apartments can be rented easily. Perhaps because it is an open society which reaches out more easily to others. » In his eyes, the new generation in China will change things: “I believe in man. That's what I'm optimistic about: I believe that this world will change in a positive way. We must learn from others, there is no culture that is poor. »

Aya, a young exiled Ivorian, speaks Mandarin perfectly and has learned the art of tea.

“Every society needs to imagine that racism is elsewhere. It’s a reflex”, underlines Abderrahmane Sissako. “When I made my first film October in Russia, the French told me: 'Ah but, the Russians are very racist'. I do not agree. We cannot generalize. It is important for me, as an artist, to bear witness to the suffering of Africans in China. This racist and violent photo exhibition which compared Africans to different animals existed in China, it would not have been possible anywhere other than China. But 80 years ago, we posted signs in France where it was written: dogs and Italians prohibited. And we mistreated the Portuguese,… There was an evolution in Europe too, but it existed. I don't think that people have the particularity of being good or bad. In Europe, there is no rejection of another European country but racism still exists. »

Interview: Karin Tshidimba

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