OM: With this conversation in a train between two very different figures of contemporary Senegalese society – the activist rapper Fou Malade and the economist Felwine Sarr – I get the impression you are trying to intimate future lines, future perspectives that are both situated and global, at times divergent, but which converge at least in the desire to break the repetition of history.
VM: Yes, the scene in the train is set right at the start of the film. We return to it from time to time throughout the film through the point-of-view shots. It’s a parallel path that takes us from the centre to the periphery. In the final scene, the spectator can clearly perceive the entanglement of the different threads – those linking Senegal’s past and recent insurrections – and thereby question the counter-revolutionary threat, the meaning of the commons, the modalities of reinventing tradition, rampant neo-colonialism, the importance of cultural infrastructures in raising the awareness of generations robbed of their history, China as the projection of the past and present… The issue shifts in each of the films, from the legitimacy – or not – of recourse to violence in politics in Godard’s very long sequence, to the impossibility of a political democracy without both distributive and restorative justice in my film. Which perhaps brings us to the society you mentioned, and that I also imagine as one that any film can dream: a society of spectators who have themselves become actors – or, in other words, mobile – a society of free electrons shaped by the traces and the differences that both separate them from and connect them to their history. A society in which inheriting becomes an active affirmation, a politics of memory that eventually takes precedence over history, a discipline that dissimilates its recourse to narrative procedures, and thus to fiction.
OM: Coming back to this idea of specific knowledge – and of memory, notably – which is based on an awareness of danger, I’d like to suggest a different point of departure to Benjamin. For the knowledge I was trying to suggest is, in my view, a specific “sensing” that relates to specific bodies and is connected to them. It’s the least shareable element of difference because it goes beyond the simple principle of knowing, in the sense of information; it is the knowing-body, an archive-body, in which a part of the history of violence is inscribed. Referring to the USA’s Black minorities, the African-American theorist Fred Moten describes this as something that triggers a permanent anticipation of the risk of death. This knowledge has an impact right down to one’s way of standing, of walking in the street, of talking or keeping quiet, of laughing. It’s not an immediately collective knowledge, a however heterogenous “we”; it is first and foremost something that produces a distance, in which to breathe, to simply live, and a defensive attentiveness – Elsa Dorlin talks about “negative care” from a feminist self-defence perspective. This risk creates a tension, a state of alertness that Sharpe rightly describes as an awakened state, playing on the consonance between in the wake/awake – at the same time in mourning and alert. It’s a relentless simultaneous feeling of life and of death, one that is literally breath-taking. I think that, here, the request for autonomy – what I called “distance” a minute ago – is not contrary to equality, then, but that it is in fact a strategic condition of it. Relationality, and perhaps alliance, have no chance of a satisfactory outcome if we don’t take the asymmetries we have inherited between the Global North and South into account, and thus if we don’t take into account a necessary space in which to breath, to retreat, and this way of reaching a commons via a path on which death is a risk overhanging life.
This thus poses the question of forms of justice, and it seems to me that no form is complete or conclusive. No form – whether a trial or a film – brings complete reparation. There have to be other rituals too that play on other realms of representation, which need to initially break away from the confessional realm and go and speak elsewhere. These other realms are necessary, and I get the impression that it is on the basis of this cumulative and unexclusive perception that we literally manage to do justice, to compose a “we” who owns no specific law or player. So, there is perhaps something here that forges society if no operation dominates, but we still need to find a place for all these realms to come together. As I’ve said in other situations, these realms and this place cannot be in film, but film can allow us to perceive precisely what it cannot represent, to perceive that something exists “outside”, elsewhere.
VM: Justice appeases but it cannot entirely repair, as you say. Earlier, I mentioned justice in its distributive dimension too, which is its other pole or role – that of apportioning. As for force, for recourse to violence, although it might well be necessary to enforce the laws that humans create, it is also contrary to justice. Justice thus has the dual objective of repairing wrongs and redistributing goods. Historically, it’s the very foundation of the principle of equality and makes humans obey it, if needs be by force. That’s its intrinsic paradox. What is more, universal administrative justice – that of courts and tribunals – has perpetuated its denial of racial bias in many places around the world. Recent cases of police violence, which have sometimes ended in death in the USA, have in France, and here too in Belgium, brought to the fore the social injustice, pain, and profound anger of the families and loved ones of many cases filed with no further action, which are in fact highly comparable to that of Omar, who most probably died from blows inflicted by the police called in as back-up by the regular jailers. We can mention the case of Sanda Dia here too, a Belgian student of Senegalese descent who died during a student hazing. This affair is emblematic for us in Belgium in that a desire to integrate the elite was punished with deadly abuse. When you refer to forms of justice, I understand that you are drawing my attention to the truncated neutrality of the justice system: class justice, incarceration rates according to origin and skin colour, double penalties, etc. In our societies, the judicial depends on laws created by the executive and the legislative; it’s the tool of power. The justice system thus still needs to be decolonized to bring about what Denise Ferreira da Silva calls a global justice. Contexts can be very different from one country to another but, yes, beyond a judicial truth is a sentiment of justice or injustice, which makes it necessary to resort to other rituals, to gestures necessary to those victim to a “wrong”. In my film, the scene with Omar’s three brothers gathered together around a fire perhaps brings out this risk of injustice, which will descend on the family like a dark night when the judge removed from his functions at the time, the prison guard, and last witness alive pass away… and yet, despite this inevitable ending, one of the brothers concludes that, “if it’s not us, it will be our children, or our grandchildren, but sooner or later light will be shed, with or without the help of the State authorities, for, however long the night, the sun always ends up rising.” Only the horizon of justice can break the tragic cycle, but it may be that reparation takes divers and multiple forms. There is perhaps a tragic Omar in the sense that Walter Benjamin meant it; that is, a hero committed to justice, aspiring to a sovereign life, freed from the yoke of the arbitrary. In inventing a character, the film condemns itself to betraying the person. But that is preferrable to a second death, that inflicted by the authorities and the official version of history.
One moment is still to come, that of the reception of the film in Senegal and in Africa. I am curious to see and hear what will be said behind the scenes, in other words, in the movie theatres or open-air cinemas of Dakar and elsewhere.