“We say here that you should be aware that if you throw a ball against the wall, it will bounce back at you. Everything you throw at the sea it throws back at you.”
– Manthia Diawara
Manthia Diawara is making a new film for Back to Earth, emerging from conversations with the community in which he lives for part of the year, the seaside town of Yene, Senegal. Here he discusses the development of the film, the ways in which it records the community’s responses to climate change, and his own part as a filmmaker, in relation to the philosophical thinking of Édouard Glissant.
About the Project
Manthia Diawara: “I’d been living in the US for 40 years and came back to Africa looking for a home. As you know, Edouard Glissant said return is always a detour. After 40 years, home won’t be the same. Detours are always contaminated, errant dreams. Glissant was very interested in detour rather than return. I didn’t return to Mali. I came to Senegal and I bought a home, the home of the artist Souleymane Keita. From this home, I began to see all kinds of rubbish thrown on the beach by the ocean. What’s important about this is that nature began to speak to me and I began to rediscover it and rediscover my childhood in nature, like the ponds I used to swim in in my parents’ village. Then the ocean began to throw shapes at me: shoes, coke bottles. They began to look organic, like dead human beings or cut trees on the beach. I asked myself, do I take the US approach to the environment or do I talk to people here in a language they understand? How do I talk to the people I’m living with in this village, which includes a fisherman who said ‘Whatever you throw at the sea, it will throw it back’, and a woman who’s a pebble collector. I told her it destabilises the sea and she said many people have told her that. She said ‘Give me money and I’ll stop.’ These ideas began to work on me. That’s what started my conversation with the town of Yene.”
“When you do art, you may see something one day that changes your practice years later. You change the imaginary. In this village, I’m now working with the fisherman and the pebble collector and I’ve been seeing them for the last ten years. They’ve been changing me and I’ve been changing them. What I’ve become, I don’t know and what they’ll become I don’t know. At first, they were laughing at this Mali-American coming to Senegal. Sometimes they even called me white man as a joke. Philosophically we’ve been challenging each other, and the result is unpredictable. The idea for the film is to talk to them and investigate the question of dignity. The pebble collector was a fishmonger who can’t fish any more because it’s all big boats. She collects pebbles to sell. When I first spoke to her, she ignored me and now we talk and joke and she says she doesn’t have to collect pebbles – people can always do something else. So how do we change each other? We’re all changing each other. The result is unpredictable.”
“I don’t think my work would get anywhere without what I know about Mali, the roots, where I came from. What’s important to me is how to get the permission to change that rooted knowledge into something else. That’s why I was talking about detours and contaminations. Glissant says ‘Act from your location, but think from the world.’ The Indigenous person also needs to change the world, but if he only thinks inside his own location, he won’t affect the world. I find it very important to continuously transform.”
About Manthia Diawara
Manthia Diawara (b.1953) is a writer, filmmaker, cultural theorist, scholar and art historian. Diawara holds the title of University Professor at New York University, where he is Director of the Institute of African American Affairs.
Diawara was born in Bamako, Mali and received his early education in France. He later received a Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1985. Prior to teaching at NYU, Diawara taught at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Much of his research has been in the field of black cultural studies, though his work has differed from the traditional approach to such study formulated in Britain in the early 1980s. Along with other notable recent scholars, Diawara has sought to incorporate consideration of the material conditions of African Americans to provide a broader context for the study of African diasporic culture. An aspect of this formulation has been the privileging of “Blackness” in all its possible forms rather than as relevant to a single, perhaps monolithic definition of black culture.
Diawara has contributed significantly to the study of black film. In 1992, Indiana University Press published his African Cinema: Politics & Culture and in 1993, Routledge published a volume he edited titled Black American Cinema. A filmmaker himself, Diawara has written and directed a number of films.
His 1998 book In Search of Africa is an account of his return to his childhood home of Guinea and was published by Harvard University Press. Diawara is a founding editor of Black Renaissance Noire, a journal of arts, culture and politics dedicated to work that engages contemporary Black concerns. He serves on the advisory board of October, and is also on the editorial collective of Public Culture. In 2003, Diawara released We Won’t Budge: A Malaria Memoir, the title a tribute to Salif Keita’s anthemic protest song Nou Pas Bouger.