Malian Photographer’s Story Debuts in US

The director of the documentary about Malick Sidibé talks to us about the artist's influential work.

Portrait d une Femme Attougee, 1969, by Malick Sidibé, courtesy of the New York African Film Festival

But now you can’t have parties, and it’s not the Malians — it’s people coming into Mali and imposing, like al-Qaida. They’re cutting the hands off of musicians and other terrible things, and slowly, that’s spreading toward the capital. Now is a really difficult time for Mali, and my heart sinks at the thought.

TR: I noticed you only interviewed men, with the exception of one man’s wife. Was it tough to find the people Sidibé shot in the 1960s and 1970s?

CS: Yes, through photographs, I wanted to show Mali’s postcolonial history by reconnecting Malick with some of the characters in his pictures who are interviewed in the film. We were looking back at photos of topless women and people having kind of a Western fun by going to discos and dancing in the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s. But the women didn’t want to be interviewed because now they must wear a veil.

TR: What did you learn about relationships in Mali through your documentary?

CS: Dolce made me see a new perspective, like how a man can have four wives and present it all openly. I felt very nonjudgmental while filming because Malick seemed like a great man, full of compassion and generosity.

He was explaining that he had taken these wives because he was helping them financially, giving them a sense of security and trying to be very fair, though to us, polygamy was just extraordinary. The whole idea was totally different — he had 15 children and, like, 60 grandchildren, so that’s a huge extended family.

TR: What do you hope the viewers take away from Dolce Vita Africana, since it is being screened for the first time in America?

CS: I hope they take away what has happened in Mali since the French left in 1960, as well as the sense of history and how things have changed. If you listen to the film’s soundtrack, you realize the society was really looking west in the 1960s and 1970s, but in the 1980s and 1990s it began looking toward Arab societies, and it made me wonder why.

When I went into Mali in 1996 as a young student, I was surprised by how tolerant an Islamic society it was. It was about social responsibility and helping extending families, but when I returned in 2008, it was slowly becoming less about tolerance and social obligation and social responsibility and more about respecting certain laws, just in the space of 10 years. But I love how art can show you so much about a society through its traditions. Malick’s photographs, the music of the time and the people’s customs from the ’60s to the present day all show the journey of the country and what it has experienced.

Dolce Vita Africana premieres on April 4 at 6 p.m. at the 20th New York African Film Festival and will be shown again on April 9. For a complete festival schedule, click here.

Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.