Abiba Coulibaly writes on Bouba Touré and Raphaël Grisey’s Xaraasi Xanne (Crossing Voices) and how the film positions of Sub-Saharan Africa across time, space and politics, as part of a series of essays commissioned on new films in this year’s festival programme.
Shortly into Crossing Voices, Bouba Touré, the film’s narrator and co-director, recounts meeting a European World War I veteran who recognises him from their days together in the battlefield. During both world wars those from France’s African colonies fought alongside the Allied forces as second-class soldiers, in an infantry unit known as the Senegalese Tirailleurs. This contingent had an additional battle to be won – that of their own independence, which was anticipated in exchange for military service. Touré remarks on the strong affinity he felt with this man, but, having been born in 1948, he is too young to have participated in the war. Confronted with the man’s probing regarding his supposed long-lost comrade’s youthful appearance, Touré remains silent: “I didn’t answer, I’m not sure he’d have understood”.
While a vague and cryptic statement, Crossing Voices proceeds to assiduously weave together the multiple generations and geographies which elucidate this impossible recognition. The film opens with the words “My life began many centuries ago. I am not the only one. I can’t tell my own story without talking about the character I embody.” This character is not singular or self-contained, but rather ancestral and collective. A character shaped over centuries by the geography of the Senegal River, refigured more recently by the desertification of this landscape and reverberations from the new hostile urban and oceanic ones with which it has become inextricably and often tragically entangled, via contemporary migratory patterns. Profoundly attuned to this heritage, Touré understands that the retired soldier sees his predecessors in him, present not only in the architecture of his face, but via his spirit too. By way of introducing himself, Touré tells us: “I left and I came back. All the others died. I was lucky to be able to come back.” This passage could apply equally to the multiple exoduses out of his birth region – the Transatlantic slave trade, enlistment overseas, the aiding of France’s post-war reconstruction, and present-day Mediterranean crossings – as well as a more metaphysical notion of return, such as the encounter with the army veteran. The viewer is uncertain which instance is being alluded to, and Touré may well be referring to multiple at once.
This acute sensibility towards a connectivity that spans generations, spiritual spheres, and geographic dispersal, is what allowed Touré to identify the links between the Sahel drought of 1973, and the predatory housing and labour practices affecting the region’s diaspora in Paris. In response, he was proactive in building and implementing a robust plan of action, prioritising ecological preservation along the banks of the Senegal River as a viable means of livelihood, in a period in which both ‘climate change’ and ‘climate refugee’ were barely recognised terms.
Films by directors from the region which screened in last year’s edition of Open City – The Blue House by Hamedine Kane, and Joël Richmond Mathieu Akafou’s After the Crossing – offered keen observations of the dominant account and perception of Europe as the intended final destination for those migrating out of Africa. Perhaps the most radical aspect of Touré’s filmmaking, life trajectory, and philosophy, was his positioning of Sub-Saharan Africa as a desirable, worthy, and permanent destination; his framing and cultivation of the region as one of abundance. Succeeding generations propelled away via the forces of colonialism, conflict, and capitalism, he created a new visual and embodied narrative, reversing the trajectories of, and achieving a shared triumph for, the tirailleur, and many others incarnate within him.
Abiba Coulibaly is an Anglo-Ivorian film programmer with a background in critical geography, interested in exploring the intersection between ethics and aesthetics.