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The Hamdallaye Studios: Animated Films by Villagers

An article by Aline Moens describing her involvement with an animated project in a rural African village in conjunction with Belgium's Atelier Graphoui, an animation studio that works on pro-social projects.

Image courtesy of Graphoui.

Belgium. Leaving, taking off, the plane tearing away from earth. I stop after a great inspiration, a daze, then a sensation of the whole. It's the beginning. Sailing on a sea of clouds. The snowy earth is a broken mirror of the sky. Each break holds a trace of man. But we're going somewhere else. To a village named Hamdallaye, where both Senegalese and Rwandans lived, in a savannah that extends from Casamance to Senegal.

Three artists from the Graphoui Studio, as well as six Belgian artists, have been invited by the Senegalese association "Eight Facets - Interaction," to work with a few artists from Dakar, the capital, and a non-governmental organization (NGO) called "Vredeseilanden."

Interview with Seydou Wane

The NGO team is Senegalese and has been at Kolda for many years, working with the villagers of the region. They have been helping them take charge of their own development. Their proactive approach finds its vigor by including aspects of creativity and culture in socio-economic projects.

Seydou Wane, the head of Vredeseilanden at Kolda, commented:

"This cultural project at Hamdallaye resulted from a need expressed by the people of the village. In fact, it's become a tradition and every village expresses the same desire: `This year let's organize a cultural festival! We'll speak of our culture and our ancestors, in order to make our village known.' It's a human need to be recognized. The Hamdallaye village knew that there was an artistic project supported by Vredeseilanden that was bringing artists to the area. They wanted to invite them to their village specifically.

"Our first reaction was, `How do you create a link between the Belgian and Senegalese artists (some of whom are very distinguished artists indeed) from an urban milieu and the rural villagers?'

"However, there were Senegalese artists, I'm thinking of Fode Camara and Kan Si, who were very motivated and enraptured with the idea of an artistic studio. Progressively the idea became richer, and so Graphoui and the Rwandans joined the project.

"Once we had arrived at Kolda, we had many apprehensions and questions. These people from all around ... what were they going to get out of the studio?"

Image courtesy of Graphoui.

Our First Days

We were welcomed to Hamdallaye. The day of our arrival, the villagers placed new roofs on the huts. A dozen earthen huts with straw roofs, constructed by their hands, were built to receive the ten Senegalese artists and the ten Belgian artists. It was a colossal investment for a village of 200 inhabitants, a creative gesture at the same time humble and princely, just as the villagers were.

There we were that first night, illuminated only by the moon, cradled by the litanies of welcome addressed to us by the chiefs and elders of the village. We were there to meet the villagers, and this mutual discovery would be the springboard for the creations that we wanted to share with them.

From the very first day, some of the young people from the village got in contact with us in order to join in. We set up the animation studio in a hut in the middle of the village. After a brief introduction to the studio, the young people got busy on a film project right away.

Their First Film

The theme of inter-ethnic conflict and understanding was immediately taken up and shared among them. Senegal has a long history of different ethnic groups living together. Kinship between ethnic groups, and an open way of speaking about it are also customary. In a meeting with the two Rwandis in the village, the young people expressed this point of view from their experience and the vision of life that they would draw from that.

And thus, the subject matter for the animated film they made was chosen. This film, Message to Our Rwandan Brothers, is a Wolof proverb to send to the Rwandan people.

There is no misunderstanding, There is only a lack of working together.

Vivid in a decor made of termite-nest towers, the characters, which are chairs, quarrel, but end up cooperating around a table. [Editor's Note: This was filmed using stop-motion object animation and the chairs were made by the villagers, using natural elements like earth, straw and other various materials.] This little film, animated by them frame by frame, is accompanied by a chant that says, "Friend from Rwanda, if I could get a ticket to go visit you and comfort your troubles, I would come right away..." African speech is full of stories and tales. Here, we are in a culture where the spoken word holds an essential place, and where listening lets the profundity of these words resonate.

Following is the dialogue of the film. Between a young boy and a Rwandan musician whose country is at war:

We here, in our studio, we have chosen a proverb To send to the Rwandan people, so that peace may return. We made up this proverb, Which we count on expressing through chairs. These chairs represent the people. At first there is misunderstanding. For us, there isn't misunderstanding, Only a lack of cooperation. I'm taking the example of the Rwandan: If among them they don't avoid words, There will never be war. As far as the Rwandans Who are now in Senegal, I can tell you my point of view: It's just the cooperation, It's good, and we've tried it too. Once you're together Around the same table There's what is said, But there's really what is thought. When someone doesn't tell the truth, When someone doesn't really say what he thinks, There the cooperation fails. And there, a terrible war begins again, Despite the negotiations. And that's what happened to the Rwandans.

The young villager: What I can add in reference to the word Is that if you cooperate, work together, At least you have to speak the truth. So everyone respects what you say, and senses at the depths of himself the truth that is said.

Wane described this film's production process:

"Things went very quickly. The first day when we started working on the material, the women were still looking for a television set. They went towards the refrigerator to ask if it was there. A week later you could see women and children in the process of editing a film. What an extraordinary leap between just recognizing the equipment and being able to use it in order to make a film!"

Image courtesy of Graphoui.

Contagious Filmmaking

Some of the women also made their own animated films. The lives of women in the villages are woven by ceaseless daily work: they draw the water, they till the garden crops, they cook, they feed and bring up the children. Despite this, some of the women from the village and neighboring villages did participate in the project. I was the only white woman in the village. They laughed the first time I went to the well, these women who draw water from the belly of the earth. Then for three afternoons, six of the women ventured into the animation studio. Film, video and television images were all unknown to them. I did not speak their language, but gestures were enough to explain. Quite simply, a woman put her hand on the camera and she appeared on the screen. I showed how one shoots film, and they each tried it out. It was an intense session, but enjoyment and communication were very much evident.

The lights peopled the narrow walls of the hut with our shadows. We filmed our shadows, then we drew, colored and filmed this fresco frame by frame. Some of the women wanted to get together again, they said, to do a project. They proposed a song called, "Put on Your Belt!" This is what they say to each other as they are preparing to go outside to work. The act of gathering together their robes works as a metaphor as they gather their strength up to face their daily tasks. In the same manner, they wanted to get together and work for the development of their village. This energy propelled them to become involved with experimenting in a new expressive form, the animated film.

The Outcome

In conclusion, Wane said:

"I never stopped asking questions during all of these sessions in the studios, but it was only towards the end, at the cultural festival, that I understood the reaction of the people. The citizens of Hamdallaye showed a certain pride that these artists representing national and international dedication, that these famous people, had accepted the chance to come and share their daily life. However, there was also a pride that I had saw among the artists, who were very proud to be returning to their roots. They are city dwellers who all came back to the country, to the land of their grandparents. It's the pride of returning to their roots and having been accepted. On both sides, each is proud of the other.

"It is a sort of reconciliation between the city and the country. I find it a relapse: each wants to go toward the other. Now for the people of Hamdallaye the village is practically a monument. And in Dakar, all those artists want to return to Hamdallaye. One has to feel something very profound here.

"The animator Bari confided in me that Hamdallaye would never be the same again. The villagers told him, `Bari, on Friday we're going to pray especially for you, because of what you did for the village.' Bari continued on to say to me, `What I consider extraordinary is that I have experienced construction projects and the creation of health centers here, and the people have never been so satisfied as they have been with this project and it is all because it is a cultural project.'

"It's a need, and I use the Wolof term, that if I translate it literally, it says, 'It's important that a person senses that I exist.' To sense the existence of someone, in the Wolof and Pulaar philosophy, is the most important thing that one can do for someone. It's to visit their home, to eat and drink in their home, it's to live with them. They say that that's priceless. They felt the media aimed at their little village and that gave them a pride that could make socio-economic projects go quite quickly if they were begun now. This is a people who have swelled with pride and who now have a start..."

Aline Moens is one of Atelier Graphoui's directors and is in charge of children's workshops.

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