Cahier africain: A glimpse into people’s lives that’s full of dignity
by Giorgia Del Don
- LOCARNO 2016: Heidi Specogna embraces the camera to stand strong with those whose only weapon is courage, the courage to keep hoping in a possible future
Following her instincts, where have often led her to broach thorny issues, throwing light on a kind of violence that has become almost commonplace, and seems so far removed from our everyday lives that it’s somewhat surreal, Swiss documentary maker Heidi Specogna once again gets her hands dirty with Cahier africain [+see also:
film profile], which was screened in Critics’ Week at the 69th Locarno Film Festival and is terrifyingly beautiful. The first words uttered in the film through a serious and calm voiceover pretty much sum up the entire film. When asked to translate the title of her documentary into English, the director answered that the ‘cahier africain’ (African notebook) referred to could be defined as an “empty book you feel instead of fill”. A play on words that shows us the extent to which the book itself becomes a character in the film, an imperfect and trembling being that encapsulates the pain of an entire people.
Cahier africain starts with (the director) finding a small notebook full of the incredibly brave accounts of 300 men and women from the Central African Republic who describe the violence they were subjected to by Congolese mercenaries during the armed conflict of 2008. An incredible collection of testimonies, born from the visceral desire of those who survived a nameless rampage to shout about their rage. A document, which, as the director herself says, she couldn’t just forget about. Due to the instability of an unpredictable and cruel country, the ‘notebook’ never reached its intended destination: the European Court of Human Rights (which it should have been presented to). It was therefore up to the director to give a voice, but above all form, to this document trembling with compassion, strewn with unexpected and powerful crumbs of dignity. Cahier africain is all the more important when we think that just when the victims of these many atrocities thought they had finally overcome the hell with the end of the armed conflict, yet another war broke out, bringing the same anguish as always out into the open. If these people can’t physically have peace in an angry land gone mad, all they can do is try to find it in their hearts. Hope is the only weapon they have left.
Heidi Specogna’s latest film literally speaks through images (the tracking shots of the faces of the victims echo those of the faces of the soldiers, who are all united in a desperation that leaves no room for humanity), about a sad and hopeless beauty. Without ever toppling over into pity, the director portrays the everyday reality of her protagonists with dashes of hope (the colours of their clothing, a stolen smile, the way in which the victims stroke the photos in the ‘cahier’). Because life goes on in spite of everything, and there is deep-rooted pain in the eyes of those who have experienced it. Like the fragile shelter we see at the end of the film, ready for a sudden storm, the characters in the film miraculously manage to ride the storms of life. Cahier africain restores their identity, a dignity that too often seems to get watered down in the rolling sea of information we receive from the media. Tragedies that fill us with outrage but which we experience like faraway hells, horrors that are conveniently muffled by our television screens. Heidi Specogna breaks this screen down to make us understand to what extent life has the same value everywhere. A terrible and poetic film it takes extreme courage to watch.
Rushlake Media holds the international rights to the film.
(Translated from Italian)