TIME IS FLUID
On shooting Sens Dessus Dessous in Libreville, Gabon
Matamba Kombila/ Filmmaker
I believe that the best way to learn, beyond a formal academic education if one has access to it, is to simply go ahead and actually practice whatever it is one wishes to master, this by studying from books or online resources, from internships obtained with the help of relatives, friends or acquaintances, from conversations with professionals or students in the field of interest, etc. I apply this philosophy to my life in general, especially when it comes to work and particularly to my filmmaking craft, a profession relatively new to me, that I trained myself to. Indeed, about 10 years ago, I knew I was nearing the end of the career I had been pursuing in the fashion industry in New York City. It had in fact become obvious that my ambitions did not match my demographics at all, and that the positions or wages I could pretend to thanks to my degrees and experience would never open up for me. After a period of deep soul-searching, I came to the realization that what I aspired to was telling stories, through films. I also decided to follow my heart desire and acquired many books on directing and screenwriting, attended various screenings with directors and/or crew in attendance, watched a lot of masterpieces with the directors comments, met people and built a network in the film industry, got an internship, … essentially trained myself the best I could on my own, until I attended practical workshops and started shooting my material.
I did manage countless productions in various parts of the world during my days in the fashion industry, but never in Africa. Markets on the continent were not ripe yet for the larger than life type of events I was producing then, to promote various luxury products or brands. I had never worked, let alone developed a personal project from conception to completion in my native country, Gabon, where I had set to shoot my mini series of 8 short films in Libreville from May 2016 on. Given the educational scope of the project, its small budget and Gabon’s extreme wealth, I was confident I could source 100% of the finances there and determined to start raising funds as soon as I arrived from New York City, where I had spent the year preceding the beginning of the production. Named Sens Dessus Dessous, the mini series is marketed towards national and pan-African TV channels. It tells the urban adventures of 4 hearing impaired teenagers — Anoushka, Livia, Chris Levy and Pierre Nova, when they rally to solve situations they are confronted with, from random street muggings to girlfriend’s pregnancy to parting from an abusive mother to involvement with sugar daddies, etc. I certainly had not anticipated what a rough crash course the experience would be.
I had planned to get the production started and wrapped before the presidential election scheduled for August of the same year. I had never been in the country during a presidential election before, a peak in the political life of a country, therefore wasn’t aware of how deeply politics permeate every single level of society and aspect of everyone’s lives. It may be so because of the very small population there, which at under 2 million people is even less than the Borough of Brooklyn where I am based in the USA. The country’s economy literally freezes. No new investment decisions are made, or very few. On top of that, to my great dismay, it also proved extremely difficult to raise funds for the social and economical benefits of cultural productions are historically overlooked by the institution, therefore of little to no interest for investors. Thus my pre-production, and subsequently my production, dragged on and ended up unfolding concurrently to the presidential election campaign, Libreville’s military-militia occupation, workers unions strikes, social unrest, ultimate militia-mercenary-republican guard-police repression, severe civil discontent, rupturing economy, rampant bankruptcies, escalating unemployment, students protests, public schools and colleges indefinite shut downs, civil servants strikes… Pinnacle of broken dreams and hopes? The tension remained constantly palpable. As I struggled emotionally and personally to keep my project going —juggling between improbable meetings with potential investors, forming the team, scouting locations, casting actors while producing institutional and narrative films, I cruised daily through atmospheres loaded with extremely dark energies.
After we wrapped the lengthy pre-production process, having raised funds that enabled the production to start, finally nailed all of our locations and a shooting schedule, I started worrying that the 17 days 12-hour/days shoot would be too demanding for our young heroes, and their best potential lessened. The kids inspire the project, and do carry it. I casted them in 2015 when filmmaker Nathalie Pontalier and myself conducted a filmmaking workshop at the National School for Hearing Impaired Children (ENEDA) where they study, which led to the production of the short Telesourd, pilot of the mini series we had shot over two days. A co-production with Gabon national center for cinema (IGIS, Institut Gabonais de l’Image et du Son), we hired about 80 people to complete Sens Dessus Dessous’s production: 43 actors, 25 crew, many extras, and a few assistants during the pre-production stages. Among the all cast, only 8 actors are professionals. I seriously wondered if I had not been too ambitious. Production per se was not a concern, but after all I had only directed 4 short films beforehand with small crews and casts. Once we embarked in the adventure, the months of preparation and rehearsals fully paid off. The four leads only confirmed their great ability to adapt and learn quickly, as well as their taste and natural talent for comedy.
Their spirits and minds somehow beautified the often-tense atmosphere on set. Indeed, in 2017 Gabon, the overbearing darkness inevitably permeates the professional spheres. It is undeniable that after almost 60 years of a dictatorship where lack of civicism has been cautiously fostered, where greed and corruption have become the prevalent societal models, where education and culture are forsaken, where infrastructure is failing, a common disability to place the general interest before the individual prevails, making team work very complicated. And a production at times nightmareish. To stay in line with the educational philosophy of the project, we hired students in all of the assistants’ positions, a strike of genius really. Indeed I realize retrospectively that the pool of assistants, together with a few members of the crew, generated a substantial driving force asserting the momentum on art, creation, learning and completion, which provided me the energy needed to cope with difficult situations. What turned out to be a 19 days shoot allowed Anouchka, Livia, Chris Levy and Pierre Nova, as well as the all crew and cast, mostly amateurs of all ages from all walks of life, to discover previously unknown worlds: deafness, sign language, scheduling, arts, costume design, set design, direction, lighting, photography, team playing, integration, respect, equality.
The absence of hearing increases the perceptivity of all of the other senses, making one very visual, observant and perceptive, leaving lots of space for character creation in film. The range of expression of the emotions comes naturally and is rarely overrated. The ability to get into character is unaffected. Working with and getting to know my heroes made me reflect on the conflicted impact of sound on the decision making process, as well as on interpretation and second-guessing. When the right learning environment is provided, the lines are quickly memorized. During pre-production, the school year stalled. ENEDA’s director still provided us with a classroom and assigned a teacher to the project, Mr. Ben Diawara Nziengui who is also sign language interpreter, for the kids to learn their parts, and to conduct our rehearsals. When we shot, our heroes knew all of their lines. Contrary to my fears, they were professional from the first to the last day, focused on their performance and growing from it, unmoved by the tensions in the crew, each one of them curious about various aspects of the production in which they were included whenever possible. Monique Cholo, our seasoned script-lady, believes that when the series is released, the kids will be offered parts in local productions. Towards the end of the shoot, the majority of the assistants took on their leads positions under their supervision, practical application of the teachings. The idea behind the project is definitely coming full circle. In fact, with Sens Dessus Dessous, we seek to create art while training the next generation, teaching the ropes of filmmaking to ostracized youth, youth from underserved communities and students, under the leadership of experienced professionals trained in the various skills needed.
I often wondered if I had not overestimated my ability to manage such a project and direct it. Still a rookie of sorts, I learned that directing the production or producing fellow directors work or commercial assignments, which had been my biggest film jobs at that point, was a completely different story than writing, directing and producing my own work. Setting my production standards for crew, adjusting my expectations to the personalities and capacities of technicians and actors, maintaining the cohesion of the team during the production all proved to be very challenging. Surely the concepts of schedule or time, professionalism and hierarchy, teamwork or the importance of communication within a team were very different than what I was used to. During the first week of filming the crew took hours every morning to be operational and there were still too many technical flaws over the first part of the second week, so the work plan proved too ambitious and nervous on set, too caught up in production issues, worried that our finances would run out and that we wouldn’t be able to complete the shoot. My focus on directing was therefore not optimal, to the detriment of the project.
I wanted the work in the collaborative spirit I favor, and had established it from the beginning. Executive producer Henri-Joseph Koumba saved the day, as well as the adaptability and leadership of production directors Pauline Mvélé and Alain Oyoué. They all worked with me hand in hand to alleviate the difficulties with the crew we started accumulating delays. I was consequently very stressed and which, under the influence of a few leaders who certainly had issues following the instruction of a young female 1st AD and a “mixed-race” directress, and beyond the technical difficulties they sometimes faced willfully delayed work not simply to assert a form of power only them can understand but also in order to increase shoot days and make more money. The production team broke down the cultural specificities for me to understand where I had set foot, and with time even managed to instill semblances of team playing among part of the crew and cast. I was then able to step back and detached myself from production, distanced myself from the crew, focusing essentially on directing.
I was faced with a cultural clash. With a culture I thought I knew, I mistook for granted, the culture of the country I grew up in but left so long ago. It was unexpected, violent and hurtful. I embarked on this adventure with an opened heart; a strong will despite my lack of experience, filled with illusions and dreams of self and collective realization. But time is fluid and like water you can let it slip between your fingers or hold it, thus delightfully quenching your thirst. Knowledge is power. Like water you can hold on to it and enjoy the benefits you gain from it; or spread it wisely to nurture and perpetuate life. I am all for letting water slip between my fingers, spreading it so life flourishes, unbridled. Since shooting Sens Dessus Dessous in Gabon, it has become for me the only way to keep my dreams thriving, my will intact, and my matured heart beating strong.
I am now in post-production. Veronique Doumbe is managing editing from New York City, with the help of yet another student assistant based in Libreville. I am including my 1st AD Sonia Angue in the all process, taking advantage of her summer break from school. I still have to raise funds to settle my debts including the fees of several actors and technicians finance post-production, create marketing tools. I am working on a crowdfunding campaign for finishing funds, while still reaching out to possible investors in Gabon, and preparing the series pre-sales to TV channels. I am ready for whatever comes next; after all, Africa they say is the future!
Writer, Director, Producer
New York, USA