A run-down film lab and a strong smell of vinegar, the tell-tale sign of decaying film reels, were among the first impressions that met Per Fly on a visit to Mali's Film Institute (CNCM) in 2009. The Danish director, best known for his societal trilogy "The Bench", "Inheritance" and "Manslaughter", was shocked to see the poor working conditions of the Malian film professionals and decided then and there that something had to be done.
Visit to Denmark
The experience became the starting point for a Malian-Danish alliance led by Per Fly, Zentropa producer Anne Juul and head of the Danish film archives Jacob Trock, to help boost the Malian film industry and save its national film heritage from disintegration.
First step was a visit in February 2010 to Copenhagen by a delegation counting Moussa Ouane, CEO of the CNCM, film director Sidy Diabaté and staff members Assane Kouyate and Sidi Becaye Traore. An opportunity for a unique cultural exchange, the trip also had two distinct purposes.
One was to teach the Malian film professionals how to digitize the most valuable films among the 1700 reels in the archives of the CNCM. "It's essential that we learn how to preserve those films, because this means that we will be able to safeguard an important part of our country's history," head of CNCM Moussa Ouane said at the time.
Post-production facilities in Bamako
The other main purpose of the visit was to explore the possibilities of post-producing Diabaté's "Da Monson" in Denmark, a work that was finally undertaken by Zentropa and Nordisk Film ShortCut.
The decaying film archives were, in fact, not the only impression that Per Fly took home from his first trip to Mali. What he also saw was lots of energy, talent and dedication in the country's film community.
"The artistic level in Mali is high," producer Anne Juul consents. "People there have a unique way of telling their stories, and no doubt Mali can make an impact on the African film world in the future." But the need for further education, especially in the field of post production, is essential.
"The situation right now is that the Malians can edit their films, but when it comes to grading, audio post production and visual effects, they lack the proper experience and equipment," says Anne Juul who, together with Per Fly, is looking into the possibilities of establising a post-production facility at the CNCM in Bamako as well as an apprenticeship programme where Malian filmmakers with skills in imaging, audio and visual effects can team up with Danish mentors. The apprentice will be offered training both on CNCM's own productions and travel to Denmark to follow their mentor working on Danish projects.
"We hope that this might help them become independent in film production, so that they don't have to go to Europe to achieve an international standard. It would be fantastic if we could help the Malians tell their stories the way they want to without others interfering."
UNDER THE STARS. "It was no doubt the funniest opening night I've ever been to. We were out there in this tiny village under the stars together with thousands of Malians who were laughing and yelling all the way through. There's lot's of rumbling and roaring going on in the film, so the kids, especially, were excited and had a hard time sitting still," says Anne Juul, who was in the audience alongside Per Fly and part of the Danish post-production team. Photo: Lene Johansen
A special evening
"Da Monson" enjoyed its international premiere a few weeks back at Fespaco, the largest film festival in Africa which takes place every two years in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Here Sidy Diabaté's historical drama, described by Anne Juul as "a classical Shakespearean story with some added Malian magic and voodoo", was honoured with a UEMOA award which distinguishes works that contribute to the economic and cultural growth of the West African region.
The first milestone, though, was set in September last year, when "Da Monson", the first Malian-produced film in 17 years, was presented to the audience of Ségou Koro, a small fishing village at the end of a dusty dirt road, where the film was originally shot. A special evening in more than one respect, as Mali on the same occasion could celebrate 50 years of independence from France.
Mali is still one of the poorest countries in the world, and celebrations on this historic gala night were not accompanied by champagne nor red carpets, but the opening of one of the three mobile cinemas donated by the Danish Film Institute on the occasion of the anniversary. And in a country of 14 million people and only one cinema, they will no doubt come in handy.
This article is a revised version of the Danish article "Dansk filmhjælp bærer frugt i Mali" by Louise Skov Andersen.