Rahmatu Keita was born in Niamey, Niger. She is a mixture of Fulani, Songhoy and Mandingo which according to her makes her the true essence of the Sahel. She has lived most of her life in Paris , France beefing her portfolio and winning awards. She spoke with Emmanuel Bello on her experience.
How was growing up like in Niger and what are the things you learnt that shaped your world view?
I grew up in Tilaberi on the Niger River close to Mali, the Songhai part. I' m Fulani, my mother is a fulani from the famous songhia empire. I had a very very nice childhood. My parent lived in Niame the Nation's capital was I grew up. At holidays, we go to the village to see our uncles and grandmother and I remembered a time when I had to go out with the herds for grassing and it was interesting. Later in life we moved to the Hausa speaking areas in my country because 50% of my families are Hausa's. That was how I knew places like Kano, Maiduguri, Bauchi. We later went to Lagos for holidays. So, I feel at home here in Nigeria because we share the same culture and often come here.
How was schooling like in Niger?
It was the French style of school we learnt French stories, that French are the best (Laughing). Those schools are very dangerous for us because they teach us that they are better off than us. But I was lucky because after the independence, the government thought us our history and literature and I was fortunate to learn from Wole Soyinka and Chinue Achebe in school. Niger is a country with a strong culture and is proud to say I grew up in a country with a strong traditional heritage and I really love it. When people say, you're proud, I say I'm not proud of myself but am proud of what I do. Like my last film in Berlin and others with the awards they brought. I can't say am proud (for being born) a Mandingo because I didn't do anything to born there. I was born, but fortunately, I like it because you might not like what you are and you are free to either like or not like what you are. Like in Europe for example, a child is free to either like or not like his parents or where he/she came from, but in Africa, our culture expects us to honor our parents. Am not saying we are better, but I just like it my way.
What is it about Fulani or Mandingo that you are happy about? What's really unique about them?
Being a Mandingo, I'm a Keita from the dynasty of Suujata Kaita, so I have more than one thousand historical heritage. For one thousand years, our culture says, "be careful you' are Kaita, there are things you can't do". As a Fulani, I like their culture, their beauty. Mandingo, I like the strength, the way they live in harmony with animals, the Nomads, I like the way they always move around from place to place. There was an Aunty of mine who went out to look for her brother and ended up in Central Africa because she found another uncle there and started working there. I also have an uncle who never travels in a car. He moves from country to country on his horse and when he is coming back people go to welcome him to our house with singing and praises, but later on, we never had from him again and it was assumed he died on one of his journeys. I have no Hausa in my blood, but my father's sisters married Hausa aristocrats in the East of Niger.
Am planning on shooting my next movie in Zindar, in the old town which was built in the 12th century with a very beautiful house architecture and a fortress and it's a love story.
You still speak Fulani?
No, I don't. My mother never spoke Fulani to us when we were growing up, but I studied Fulani, so I can read and write in Fulani.
What about Mandingo?
Like yesterday, you know, I gave a speech. If I had to write it in English to be able to give the speech, if not, I can not do it. So, I can only read Fulani. I speak a little of Mandingo as well as Hausa but it's like am losing my Hausa gradually because I live in France. I'm not fluent in English language but I can at least communicate. My spoken English gets better when I travel to an English speaking country for may be a week. I noticed that whenever I start speaking Hausa, I get lost easily. May be because I have not spoken for a long time and it's not my first language. My first language in songhay.
You speak that too?
Yes of course.
Yeah, it's my language.
And then, you speak very good French too?
Let's talk about France. What happened; how did you move to Paris?
I actually go to school like everybody and I said I would stay just one year but I've been there now like forever and want to come back home. So I went to study philosophy, linguistic and journalism in Radio and Television, I was working and at the same time studying Racism was not in the constitution but it is in everything. So, I was the first minority in France to be shown on Television.
Yeah, the biggest then. At the end of the programme, all the whites are shown except me. So I said I was not going to fight anybody because I've got some books to write and one or two movies to make…
(Cuts in) So, you had to stay alive?
Yeah! So, I continued with my job of writing and producing films. I never went to any film school, I was just lucky I wasn't formal then, but now; I can go to any school because I have my own style and there is always a need to learn. Due to exclusion and racism, I had to stop my job of working with the television. I noticed that I had two materials (talents) and could write more and shoot.
It was from Television that you learnt the cinema thing?
Yes, even the television thing, as well as the journalism thing I never learnt any of them. I only studied linguistics and philosophy in the University, but I know I have stories to tell. Like when I first went to work for the Television I wanted to tell a story and they asked if I had worked for the television before and I said, yes (laughing) never! I called some of my friends who had some experience in television before and asked for help; that I have been asked to do something on television and I have not done it before. So they gave me a clue that I should tell them to do it this way and that way because what you have to say is more important tan the technique. If you have nothing to say and you are perfect in technique then it's as good as nothing at all and you can't go anywhere.
Exactly. So that is how you stumbled into cinema?
Let's talk about the movie, the pioneers of African Cinema. What was on your mind?
And did you left France for Niger for the movie.
I live in France and shuttle Niger frequently and I'm always in Africa. I didn't know what happened but for years, I have been thinking about these groups. Like were are they now? They have all been forgotten. So, I decided to do the movie to pay tribute to them as it is done in our African tradition.
Was the movie western?
Yes, one of it was western?
What was it all about?
It was all about somebody who came from Europe and gave his western clothing to his friend in Africa. The people did not like the way some of our Fulani brothers don't like sending their children to western school because they are afraid the western culture will influence them; just like things fall apart.
How do you compare what we do in Nollywood with what you are doing?
Unlike in nollywood movie is sold and the returns are used to produce new once. Our is just for the cinemas. They are not marketed because we don't have marketers. We don't even have an industry like you do here. Am not a marketer. so I just write and produce. So we don't generate money
But it's now an international film. Has it not generated money?
Presently it's been distributed in the US, but the money generated has to be used to produce more. It is at the end of the whole thing that we would sit down to know if there is gain and see how we can share it.
But it brought you a lot of recommendation?
Yes it did. I'm chairman of this ZUMA festival and it is because of the success of my work.
Apart from this work, which other work have you done before, in terms of movies?
I did something about malaria, another feature on a meeting of psychoanalysts, I was happy because it was interesting shooting about people that read people's mind. I also did a shot with a French television and femme Africa (woman from African)-a 26 series movie.
And it was all about African women?
It was with an international television.
Lets talks about Nollywood. Have you been keeping in touch with Nollywwod?
I was invited to screen a movie in Lagos by the Nigeria film institute, a programme they did with the French embassy some time ago.
In my next movie, my producer who is from the US said we might make to do with a little cooperation from Nollywood. The film will be shot in Nigeria. I have my own production crew in Niger but I think it will be nice to spice it up with something from Nollywood. The fact is that Nollywood is now number one. Hollywood and Bollywood are laging behind.
What is the motivation, the drive that makes you to wanting to make movies since you don't make money from it like we do here in Nigeria?
Definitely, I would like to make money but I think my motivation comes from my passion to share my story, money can come afterwards. Naturally, am not good in business and can not sell anything but right now, I'm angry because I need money to make other movies.
It is said that movie making is also big business like tourism?
Yes, it is, that is why it is an industry. I just produce. I don't market unlike in Nigeria where you already have marketers and if I must market, I will need a license.
In Nigeria, movies are produced and people (marketers) come and buy it from the producers to sell. I know it is the same for Bollywood and Hollywood.
Bollywood is the same but Hollywood is not, because they have cinemas. I only write and produce.
But am sure you will be taking it to the next level i.e. commercializing it?
No, because it's not my duty to do this, that is why I had to look for a partners in the US to help do it.
Lets come back to Africa, in Ghana, there is a thriving movie industry called Gollywood, and in the Northern part of Nigeria, we have Kaniwood. Is this extending to Niger?
We have tried out something before but it didn't work due to lack of funds. I' m planning on going back again to give it a try once more.
Are you worried about what is happening in your century Niger?
Yes, I do.
What kind of movie does the average Nigerian watch?
They watch your movies, the Hausa films and sometime even the English and Yoruba films.
Don't you have other private hands coming in to Niger to save the situation?
For now, no, but we pray they come. For me right now, all I want to do is to continue producing movies and this time, I will like to make money so that I can continue producing movies.
The film you are going to make in this fortress, is it political or just a love story?
It's a love story:
Finally, are you coming back home, if yes, where are you going to stay? Nigeria or Niger?
I think if I come back home,I am going to stay in my home Teliberi in my Village. I did emigrate once and don't want to do it any more. People travel out and say I will go back home and don't go back home but for me I want to go back home.
So, why don't they go back home?
Because they are living their lives and forget to go back home and time goes by. I didn't know that I will stay more than a year in France.
And you've been there for over?
I will not tell you (laughing). I am ashamed, but more than 15 years, but I think I will be an exception. I will come back.