Aïssa Maïga/ Interview Alix Koffi

In SWAG high profiles #2 

« We are still very behind though. I refuse to be patient; I have been doing this job for twenty-five years, and for twenty-five years I have suffered a form of ostracism, of discrimination, while at the same time being privileged because I manage to make a living from my profession « .

– Aïssa Maïga 

Aïssa Maïga © Matthieu Lemaire-Courapied pour SWAG high profiles

Aïssa Maïga © Matthieu Lemaire-Courapied pour SWAG high profiles

She has worked with directors Michael Haneke, Claude Berri, Cédric Klapish, Abderahmane Sissako, Alain Gomis, Mickey Madoda Dube and, more recently, Chiwetel Ejiofor in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. In her twenty-five-year film, theatre and television career, Aïssa Maïga’s talent has placed her among the best-known French actresses. She is also the most easily identified actress in France: she is the only Black artist of her category cited by the general public. This is not an alibi; it is, rather, a combat that she has taken up to impose both greater racial and gender diversity in French cinema. Now, at the start of 2020, Aïssa Maïga is appearing in Quentin Delcourt’s documentary Pygmalionnes and in the Irish series, Taken Down. A conversation about what drives her: her roots and her work.

Anna-Alix Koffi : « Eleven inspirational women from contemporary French cinema testify in no uncertain terms about their experience in an industry that fascinates. A veritable reflection of an evolving society. » That’s the description of Pygmalionnes, a documentary about the situation of women in all levels of cinema. It was directed by Quentin Delcourt and released in France on 22 January. You star alongside Hafsia Herzi, Laurence Meunier, Stefi Celma, Nathalie Marchak, Isabelle Gibbal-Hardy, Elisabeth Tanner, Stéfi Celma, Naidra Ayadi, Alix Bénézech, Céline Bozon and Anne Richard. The collective strength is manifest. What did you yourself learn from participating in this film?

Aïssa Maïga : I first of all got to know some of those I hadn’t yet had the privilege to meet. We don’t often have the chance to hear certain professionals: camerawomen, for example, it’s rather in-house. To be able to hear Céline Bozon voice her doubts, in all her force, and her convictions too, gives a more specific idea of what her profession is, what she is confronted with, and you realize that we share similar experiences. Everyone speaks freely in this documentary, in all their singularity, because we all recount specific elements of our jobs. Such works allow us to deconstruct the things that hold us back, and that was what was missing for us women. You realize that those targeted aren’t guilty of a thing and that it’s the system that is dysfunctional. That’s what comes out in this film, and that of course resonates with our times. 

You are also the lead character in Taken Down, a 6 x 52-minute Irish series broadcast in France on Arte. The character you play is a combative woman. The screenplay is very powerful. It tells the story of Abeni, a woman who leaves Nigeria to come to Europe and who, due to the potluck of random administrative decisions, ends up in Western Europe and finally Ireland. Eight years later when the story starts, Abeni is still living in a temporary housing centre in Dublin, educating her two sons on her own. She is a mother courage who fights to give her children a worthy education, but ends up in the middle of a murder story when her neighbour, who is also a migrant, is assassinated. The point of view is really interesting in the screenplay; it’s written by Irish writers, the Irish themselves having been immigrants for a long time, notably in the USA; it’s a country built on exile, a country built too on the colonial domination that the British empire exerted over it. When you talk to the Irish about their history, the similarities with certain African countries are striking: colonization, the humiliation, immigration, the demographic loss that this immigration entails.

A lot of people identified with this heroine in Ireland, hence the success, and it’s now a country that has been experiencing immigration for ten or so years.

It’s interesting that this kind of series, told in this kind of way, does not exist in France, even though we have everything at our disposal to make such works, to recount daily life in detention centres or in housing shelters in France. It’s necessary to tell these stories, that we see the invisible who, today, are migrants.

Aïssa Maïga © Matthieu Lemaire-Courapied pour SWAG high profiles

Aïssa Maïga © Matthieu Lemaire-Courapied pour SWAG high profiles

You are of French culture, given that you arrived in France as a very young child. Your roots are in Senegal and Mali. What connections do you still have with Africa – with West Africa notably?  
My father’s family is from the north of Mali, a region that it’s currently very hard to visit for security reasons. I haven’t been able to return there for years. I have extremely strong ties there: when I was little, it was the place I went on holiday, when I was a teenager and an adult too; it’s the place I buried my paternal grandmother; my aunts, my uncles, my cousins live there. It’s my childhood memories of smells, of climates, of sensations. Going there in the near future is totally out of the question. I feel a sense of loss that I can’t take my husband or my children. The oldest went there too long ago to be able to remember. I feel like a lot of people, deprived, amputated of a part of myself. All the more so as no one can say when all that will end. There is the sense of something missing that is inherent to being an exile, the child of an exile; a rather secret form of nostalgia, because I am completely French too; it’s not something I can easily share with other people, this inner world that is connected to that daily, yetg without it showing.

Senegal is a little more distant; I wasn’t raised by my mother. I was born there, and grew up there until the age of 4 before coming to France. I didn’t go back until I was 25, to shoot a film, but I have regularly bee there since. It’s a personal history that’s still in the making. 

Bamako, Tey (Today), Comatose, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind… Your filmography comprises a number of feature films shot on the continent. I have worked in a lot of African countries. I worked in Mali for Bamako, in Senegal on Alain Gomis’ Tey. I have been there several times, to visit my family, of course, and also in the framework of Women In Africa [an international platform dedicated to the economic development and support of leading and high potential African women] two years ago. For me, it’s first a matter of shooting a film, with a director, with a character to play; that’s my job. After, there is that immediate happiness the minute you step off the plane; you feel in your motherland. And it’s a very great joy to me to discover the talent of actors, technicians, all the local crews who make up the films and to see that there is something that is growing and taking root.

I’m currently directing a documentary in Niger. It addresses the question of water and climate change in a Fulani village, through the eyes of a teenage girl. It’s called Marcher Sur l’Eau (Walking on Water). It’s due to be released next autumn, but I hope it will be finished in about April. 

Since the publication of the essay Noire n’est pas mon métier (Black Is Not My Job) in 2018, followed by its documentary version in 2019, people are now aware that being a Black woman is less an occupation for you, than a preoccupation. A preoccupation due to the inequalities suffered in both these respects in cinema. The book has had quite an incredible impact. The fifteen other coauthor actresses [Nadège Beausson-Diagne, Mata Gabin, Maïmouna Gueye, Eye Haïdara, Rachel Khan, Sara Martins, Marie-Philomène Nga, Sabine Pakora, Firmine Richard, Sonia Rolland, Magaajyia Silberfeld, Shirley Souagnon, Assa Sylla, Karidja Touré and France Zobda] and I felt the need to pool our testimonies and denounce what for us seemed an injustice in how things are in both film and in the rest of French society for people who are not white.

We had no clue what the reactions would be, and the book was met with unexpected enthusiasm on the part of the media. Via the social networks and the public events we held, we realized that, beyond the media, there was a huge public demand, starting with those who are discriminated against themselves, but also from people not confronted with this kind of concern and who discovered the practices happening in their country. This triggered something of the « Not In My Name » order, which translated into a very strong adhesion to the values we were defending.  

I didn’t expect this book to be a magic wand in the film world; changing mentalities takes a lot of work and a lot of time. 

The conversation started by the publication of Noire n’est pas mon métier was also born out of the action of a feminist group called “50-50”. Its members are imposing considerable progress on parity. Their second battle after parity is diversity, which I’m going to take part in. 50-50 have created what they call a « bonus » system, that is, allowing film crews to gain an additional 15 to 30% in  public CNC (National Cinema Centre) funding if some of the key posts in front and behind the camera are women. Some members of the profession don’t know exactly how to change habits. But the will is there, and so many seize on the proposals or solutions offered to them. There is also the « Over-50 Actress Tunnel Effect Commission » set up by actress Marina Tomé. Backed by studies, this commission shows that women literally disappear from the screen over 50; only a tiny proportion reappear again to play the role of grandmothers. The profession inflicts a whole host of constraints on women concerning their age, weight and physical appearance in general. Not to mention the case of minorities.

This is truly about intersectionality, because we aren’t just women. We are Black women, Asian women, disabled women. The notion of intersection is very important for me. I have never felt I belonged to a single group, whether that of women or Black people. Like many of us, I am multilayered. I am made up of lots of bits of different identities that constitute who I am.

We bear diversity in our very selves and, in terms of political combat, that has to be expressed through intersectionality. It is vital that we unite because it is in this sorority, in this common action, that we will succeed in being powerful. It’s a question that goes way beyond the French context. For the documentary, I met Black women from the UK, Brazil, the USA and Ireland.

Cannes 2019 saw the consecration of the Senegalese film Atlantique by Mati Diop and Les Misérables by Ladji Ly. Spike Lee will be the President of the next Cannes Jury. Are things changing? It would be somewhat presumptuous to say it’s thanks to the book! I think that Noire n’est pas mon métier is part of a more global movement, which is a general awakening. My responsibility is to continue to be present on these questions (…) find the full English and French version in SWAG high profiles issue#2.

Get the 192 pages.

in SWAG high profiles issue#2
remerciements : Joiaillerie Mellerio 
Maison Rabih Kayrouz
Imane Ayissi
Joan Costes / Hôtel Costes
                                                     Alix Koffi 

December 2019