“Little country”: the novel by Gaël Faye adapted into a comic book

“Little country”: the novel by Gaël Faye adapted into a comic book

Slipping into the skin of another and trying to translate their feelings is the challenge taken up by Marzena Sowa and Sylvain Savoia in the comic strip published Friday by Dupuis editions. The story of a childhood hit hard by the repercussions of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.

These two have known each other for a long time and share a high, enthusiastic flow of words. They collaborated for a long time on the story of Marzena's childhood, in Poland, under communist rule, in the 80s and 90s. A story told over the course of the 7 volumes of the series Marzipublished by Dupuis.

“I had already stepped into someone else’s shoes with my previous album on the life of a great, forgotten American photographer” : Vivian Maier, chiaroscurocomic book published last January by Dargaud. “Here, the character exists. I know what he went through and I know his emotions. I had to become Gaël who writes the book, that I embody the character. It was a challenge and a huge gift to be able to work on this magnificently written text, a highly awarded and world-famous novel, translated into around forty languages. I even read it in Polish to make sure I didn't miss any information. Meeting Gaël and having his support was very important. It was our publisher who put the novel in our hands and offered us this project in 2016. As Marzi talks about childhood and the impact of History on a young life, it seemed obvious to him to entrust it to us. We knew nothing about Gaël: neither his music, nor his novel. He hadn’t yet had the Goncourt but we were already very excited” confide the two authors in unison.

We are not Burundians, we are not Rwandans, we have not experienced what Gaël went through so we needed his feelings.

So it all started with a meal “with Gaël, his wife and his editor. The idea was to see if we were compatible, if our sensitivities matched. It was a very nice meeting. We were on the same wavelength: desires and feelings. » The project dates back well before Eric Barbier's film, released in 2020. “Gaël knew that we would stay in touch, that he was not going to be dispossessed of his story, that he would follow all the steps. We wanted to have his approval, that he would like it since it is his story. It was important to have someone who would tell us if we weren't in the right tone… It was essential that he was there to support us. So there was a lot of pressure at the start when Marzena started writing and I started drawing to know how Gaël would appreciate our work. »

Marrying reality and personal emotion

The novel “Petit pays” by Gaël Faye has been transposed into a comic strip, published by Dupuis.

With the desire to be very close in drawing the physiognomy of the people of the musician-writer's family?

I have the particularity of changing styles quite easily from one album to another. I hesitated between several styles to know how to best tell this story while conveying emotion.explains Sylvain Savoia. In the end, we opted for a relatively realistic drawing while keeping a little distance through certain more allegorical scenes. We are not Burundians, we are not Rwandans, we have not experienced what Gaël went through so we needed his feelings. He lent us his family photos so that we could immerse ourselves in the Bujumbura of 1994: the streets, the buildings, the way of dressing, all these details that would make it real. » “Everything is in the details even if we leave a part to the imagination”specifies Marzena Sowa. “Knowing the climate, the vegetation, allows you to enrich the scenes and avoid being in caricature”continues Sylvain Savoia.

It all starts with the scenario. “Sometimes, the screenwriters make very precise and structured cuts, with explanations about the settings and the framing. With Marzena, we work in a very different way because we have great confidence in our feelings and our sensitivity. I like to be free enough to direct. Marzena has a literary background: she does not write panel by panel or panel by panel, she writes her scenarios in the form of short stories. It is a continuous and very lively text with a lot of information which allows you to get into the story well”, explains Sylvain Savoia. “ The real creativity happens there, when choosing the framing, the sequence of sequences and the position of the characters. »
Beyond the beauty of the images, we are struck by the rhythm of the story alternating close-ups and tiny details, scenes captured on half a page and looks or movements cut into a succession of boxes.

The screenwriter fueled her research by watching documentaries and films, reading newspaper articles for a year or a year and a half. “ It's half the job.”specifies Marzena, who also took care to dissect the novel and lay it out. By using a wall of post-its showing all the major scenes from the book in order to see how to reconstruct it, how to imagine a crescendo narrative structure. “In the novel, the character of Francis arrives late. I placed it from the start. Same with the books by Madame Economopoulos which I spoke about from the beginning. »

“The novel leaves more room for the imagination and allows you to go back and forth a lot, there are fewer constraints whereas as soon as you show an image, you freeze it and you can't do it constantly back and forth in the comic, if not, we lose the reader”specifies Sylvain Savoia.

Rediscovering the language and emotion of the novel

The objective was, of course, to keep certain phrases that struck the public. “ It's so well written that I couldn't do otherwise. Gaël has power in his words: it's so true and visceral. I tried not to betray him and to be as close as possible to his emotions: those of Gaby and all his characters.. For the rest, I went by feeling since we couldn't keep everything. I liked the challenge of trying to be someone else probably because I'm a bit oblivious. » She smiles. “For me, the most important thing in translating this novel into comics was to please Gaël, he was the one I had in mind. He was my first reader. »

If he said to himself “terribly distressed” When Eric Barbier's film, inspired by the novel, was released in 2020, his fears then dissipated. “ The script was finished and a good third of the album was already drawn. I was quickly relieved because the film was good but, above all, the director had taken a different bias than us, he had not focused on the same sequences. For example, we focused on the swimming pool scene which is not in the film. He kept the bike scene which we didn't retain. I came away from the screening feeling reassured. By telling myself that our album would be good too, but above all that it would be different…”

This swimming pool scene in “Petit pays”, the novel by Gaël Faye, symbolizes the time of carefree life for Gaby and her friends.

As for the tone of the comic, it was “imposed by Gaël’s story. Comics can be read from adolescence onwards: we imagine an audience of middle school students. »
Sylvain Savoia has set himself the limit of not offering images that are considered too controversial, in terms of naked bodies or excess violence, “ because it is a novel which is part of the reading lists of schools in France and the comic strip is likely to appear there too. I was vigilant on this question but, for the rest, we especially wanted to be as fair as possible in relation to the novel. The goal is not to traumatize the reader. My commitment as a comic book author is to give voice to those who have not necessarily had one in history. »

It is the idea of ​​transmission that motivates him as for the series Marzi or for The forgotten slaves of Tromelinhis album published in 2015 by Dupuis. “It seemed important to me to give another reading, another angle of view on the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda and to show how this can disrupt the development of a child. All the repercussions that this can have. » The collateral impact on witnesses, the boomerang effect being sometimes forgotten. “The entire human society suffers regardless of its proximity to events of this type. »

There is no release planned at the moment in Africa. but we hope that this can be done in a second phase, despite the difficulties specific to the distribution of comics, which remain expensive,” specify the two authors.

This story, of which we appreciate the pauses and accelerations, the attention to detail and the close-ups, but also the attention paid to silence, to amazement, to feelings of astonishment and helplessness, certainly deserves the widest distribution possible. wide…

Interview: Karin Tshidimba

★★★ Little country Of Marzena Sowa and Sylvain Savoia, Dupuis, 128 pp. Price 26€

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