Aya is a young Ivorian teenager who lives in Lahou-Kpanda, a peninsula located in the southeast of Côte d’Ivoire, a few kilometers from the economic capital, Abidjan. Her small town has been engulfed by the sea for years, due to global warming. Her mother is worried about Aya, much to the young woman’s annoyance that she seems to apply only one rule: CArpe Diem (enjoying the present moment). Ayah, the first fiction feature film by Belgian filmmaker Simon Coulibaly Gillard, with its blue and pink tones, with the sweetness of innocence. And from a dream from which we always end up waking up. Marie-Josée Degny Kokora, who plays Aya, gives the teenager unerring composure. The young she thus seems indifferent, disconnected and combative. The viewer effortlessly follows Aya’s adventures in a collapsing world. Interview with Simon Coulibaly Gillard, the director Governess.
What brought you to Lahou, this peninsula located in the Ivory Coast, where the fate of your heroine is at stake?
All of my work as a filmmaker took place in West Africa, particularly Burkina Faso. I’ve been making films in the subregion for about ten years. But I thought it would be time to make a film at home, in Belgium, but I couldn’t. Out of spite, I took a break by going to West Africa to see some friends, my assistant with whom I made all my films, Lassina Coulibaly, who is from Burkina Faso. Her stories took me to the Ivory Coast, a country I had never visited. I bought with him, in Abidjan [la capitale économique]a car in the hope of doing a grand tour of the Ivory Coast.
But after just over 200 km, the car broke down in front of the pier leading to Lahou-Kpanda Island. The first few days he was mad trying to fix this car. And so, I ended up accepting the situation and got on a boat. I arrived in Lahou one afternoon around 6 pm, it was sunset on the island. People lay on the sand, lit by candlelight, and there were coconut palms everywhere. The sand was fine, people were singing, and I was like, “Wow,” it’s paradise! He had a smile that scratched my ears…
I slept there and the next morning I went to meet the village chief who showed me around the island. He took me through the cemetery and I didn’t understand what he was seeing: men breaking up graves in broad daylight. They finally explained it to me. The village chief took me to the shore and there I saw the tombstones being washed away by the low waves. Then I understood that the paradise I had hoped for the day before was no more. That unspeakable and inadmissible thing, having to dig up and bury again the dead themselves, go through a second duel, I had to bear witness to it in the film and that’s why I didn’t leave. I stayed for a little less than a year with all the people on the island to try to make this film with them.
Oh It is presented as a docu-fiction. The film has something of a documentary that is reinforced by this very natural presence of Marie-Josée Degny Kokora who plays Aya. How do you let people live while you direct them, especially in a first feature film?
In fact, it is my first feature film, where I more easily accept fiction. It is above all a contract of honesty in front of Marie-Josée and her mother. In my films there is always a documentary background. Within Oh, everything is true: I did not write a script in Belgium to go and apply it in the Ivory Coast. In fact, it is the stories of this town that are filmed. However, Aya and Marie-Josée are two different people. Marie-Josée plays the role of Aya and much more. The fiction is that the script is written by several hands. An uncle, a neighbor or even a grandmother tells a story and I want to see it on film. And the only way to achieve that is to bring to life my heroine Aya, who then becomes the spokesperson for this island. This is how fiction is woven. I worked with people who all come from the town and who had never made a film, both the technicians and those I filmed, and suddenly it requires a lot of patience. We educate each other. I educated them on the camera and they educated me on how to integrate this camera into their world. That is why filming lasts almost a year, while in traditional feature films five weeks of filming are more than enough.
You explain that the choice of Marie-Josée Degny Kokora was obvious. Why ?
When I auditioned Marie-Josée, I really liked her posture, her way of speaking: she didn’t go to school much and therefore she didn’t address me as you do. Humanly, I liked the person. Marie-Josée said yes right away when I asked her if she wanted to do a movie with me. But I immediately warned her that she also needed the opinion of the camera. We shot a little test scene where I asked her to argue with her little sister, who she was making little bundles with in the woods, until the latter burst into tears and ran away crying. And Marie-Josée succeeded. I like to tell this story, which may seem cruel, but it makes one very important thing explicit: being an actor means admitting that the camera is above everything else. Marie-Josée understood immediately, just like her being in the service of Aya’s character.
And with her, it’s her whole family, especially her mother who you’ve also chosen. How did you work with them?
The staging is very discreet and allows Marie-Josée and her mother, when necessary, to take refuge in concrete actions, such as eating a fish. [une scène du film]. It is also improvisation in its language. [avikam] around topics that I proposed to them such as the absence of the father or money problems… At that time, I don’t know what was said. I have to trust them because I don’t know until I have the translation from the exchange.
The world around Aya is collapsing, but it doesn’t seem to hold her. It is this frivolity that her mother reproaches him for. What is the ID of this character?
I wanted a stubborn character and I met a young woman who really was. Which reinforced my desire to develop this character who firmly believes that her destiny is not her destiny, along the lines of tragedy. I also learned a lot about the relationship that this girl has with her mother. Once they were auditioned, 80% of the film was done. This mother who is worried about her daughter and this daughter who doesn’t want to see the problem immediately creates tension and suffering.
Your film is about an island victim of global warming. However, the story of this teenager, which is intimately linked to this landslide, very quickly overshadows the environmental issue…
As a filmmaker, what interests me in this story is the destiny of men. For me, Oh it is above all an intimate story about the end of childhood. The disappearance of this island is just a metaphor for childhood passing away under Aya’s feet. It’s the movie she wanted to make, but that doesn’t mean it’s the movie people watch. Everything is possible.
It looks like a blue and pink movie when you watch Governess. How did you work on the photo?
Photography is done entirely in natural light and therefore has its limits when it comes to color. He knew that he wanted to make a film in two chapters, between the naturalness of this island and the superficiality of Abidjan, the economic capital. The film has two completely opposite aesthetics. The image is initially extremely soft, pastel, unsaturated and then the colors are electric: it’s neon, fluorescent… it’s harder. The film is also blue and pink because we chose a loincloth for Aya where there is a pattern, a kind of flower, blue and pink. The loincloths he wears are mostly in these shades.