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Simon Coulibaly Gillard • Director of Aya

"I can leave a trace of what was there, before everything disappears"


- CANNES 2021: The young director discusses his unusual fiction film about a young girl hailing from an island off the Ivory Coast who is forced to abandon her region

Simon Coulibaly Gillard  • Director of Aya
(© Aurore Engelen)

Cineuropa met with the young director Simon Coulibaly Gillard whose first feature film Aya [+see also:
film review
interview: Simon Coulibaly Gillard
film profile
was screened within the ACID line-up of the 74th Cannes Film Festival.

Cineuropa: How did this project come about?
Simon Coulibaly Gillard:
I’ve been shooting in the Gulf of Guinea countries - Senegal, Mali, the Ivory Coast, Benin - for around ten years now. I’ve made 4 films in the region: two shorts and two medium-length works. I wanted to make a film on the African coast, but I didn’t know where. I bought a car when I arrived on the Ivory Coast with lots of kilometres on the clock. It broke down within a few hours, which changed all of my plans, given that I couldn’t go very far. It was then that I set foot in Lahou for the first time. When I learned about all the dramatic issues affecting the island, I realised that there was no need for me to travel any further, everything I needed was right there.

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Your previous films were documentaries; did you already have an interest in making a fiction film before you arrived on the island?
Yes, absolutely. Michigan Films were looking for a documentary-maker who wanted to make a fiction film in order to register a project for a new call for submissions: the CCA-FWB’s aid for light-weight productions. They needed someone who wouldn’t need much on account of his or her documentarian method, and who wanted to use it for something more scripted. Originally, I was supposed to shoot a fiction film in Belgium, but I realised that it wasn’t working. That was also a story about a young girl and her mum, but I ended up transposing it elsewhere.

How do you move from one story to another?
It was a major change of scene - I went from the world of motorcycle racing in Hainaut to the island of Lahou! But I stuck with the idea of telling the tale of a young girl and her single mother, it’s a situation which resonates with me. And I knew that, over there, I could make films quickly, in my own way, and also rekindle my desire to make films, which only happens for me over there. Especially since, in those particular regions of Africa, there’s a shortage of images and representations. And I was travelling over there to deliver on a promise, of sorts, which was to make a language heard, to show landscapes and a culture. There’s a real need to share these realities, and to defend identities, which are often endangered. There are now only 30,000 people in the whole world who still speak Avikam and this is the first fiction film to be produced in this language. I can’t push back the sea, but I can share their story, leave a trace of what was there, before it all disappears.

So, a classic coming-of-age tale in a very specific context and a location not often seen in films?
What’s interesting with fiction is that it “hides” the subject-matter. This film is very simple and, ultimately, very commonplace. It’s a theme – adolescence – which appears in something like 50% of films! I think Aya actually resembles my little sister and reminds me of her. The film’s subject-matter seems to be the loss of a territory, but it’s actually a film about the loss of childhood. And the metaphor of the disintegrating sandscape was perfect in that sense, to discuss the disappearing physical space of childhood.

How was the film written? Was the story yet to be penned when you arrived on the island?
The writing process depends on mutual trust. Personally, I can trust Marie-Josée Kokora, who plays Aya, because she is very generous and sharing, and she trusts me because I took the time to get to know her. The writing took place on a daily basis, instantaneously. We shot for 6 months, we edited for 6 months, which is very long for a feature film but it was necessary. Then, we had to translate everything and add subtitles, which was also very laborious. But it was worth it in order to offer up such an unprecedented experience.

The ocean is also a character in the film. How did you decide to portray it?
What I like about the character of the sea is that it’s both a protagonist and an antagonist, everything comes about because of the sea, and in spite of the sea. This multi-form character who changes, and is sometimes smooth and sometimes exclamatory, was a godsend for my obsession. It had a presence in my earlier films, but this was the first time that I could lend it a voice.

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(Translated from French)

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