Adama is Simon Rouby’s first animated feature, a coming-of-age tale to follow Adama, a West African boy, in his journey of redeeming his brother from a shattered by the First World War Europe.
During the tenth edition of Anim’est, where Adama also won the prize for the Best Animated Feature, I got the chance to discuss with director Simon Rouby over a cup of cherry tea the implications of his film and the long, laborious process of creating it.
How did the idea for the film occur to you? I know Julien Lilti, the scriptwriter, lived and worked in Africa as a researcher for some time – was this the trigger for the film?
Yes, it actually was. Julien was there in 1998 studying sociology – this is how he met the grandson of the last African foot soldier in WWI. Well, the last foot soldier alive at that time. Our government – Jacque Chirac was the president at that time – decided to give medals to every soldier who fought in WWI, including the ones from colonies. Looking if there’s anyone left, they found the last one. They were on the way to giving him a medal, but he died one day earlier. By meeting his grandson, Julien heard about his story. He thought that the image of the ambassador putting the medal on his fresh grave (as a muslim religious man he was buried right on the day of his death) was a very strong image. That’s how he started thinking about the story. But then it took him from 1998 to 2007, when we met, to think of it as an animation.
He had a treatment already called Adama, the story of a child looking for his brother in the war. But it wasn’t very defined. There were a lot of potential situations, but we had to start anew and work for a couple of years, from 2007, when we met, until the last version in 2012. When you start from a historical fact and you try to find a story in there, there are two million possibilities [to shape the story – Ed.], it’s about taking possibilities out and it takes time. We could have had as many different ways in which Africans were taken into the army. There were many options, we were taking things backwards, from the big story to the small story, we needed a lot of documentation.
Yesterday, in the Q&A, you said smothing abut Jean Rouch. Was he of great importance in this documentation process?
Well, we spent a lot of time looking for historical books and facts about the Black Force and army in the WWI. There was also this idea of constructing a village, we had to build a village – and you can find photos, but not footage. The oldest and the most useful and accurate we found was from Jean Rouch, even if it was later. We used to see how villages in West Africa looked like. That was starting point of watching Jean Rouch. He’s an amazing filmmaker, he was of great influence on the ceremony scenes in Adama – „Cemetery in the Cliff”, „The Circumcision” – shot in a straight documentarist way. Also reading etnography from the 30s helped, Marcel Griaule, for example – it was all very inspiring and made us use the cliffs setup. We could have put the village anywhere, but we decided to put it in the cliffs. And it was due to Jean Rouch, basically. So I got the influence from him. And, in Adama, you don’t really know what to expect – you’re surrounded at first by this African environment but, as you start going further, the landscape becomes more industrial, the first impression fades out.
This fading out, it also relates to the really nice depth of field you have in the film. How was the process of the animation itself, working with both 2D and sculptures?
I think the backbone of the graphic style is the same from script, we wanted a story told intensively from the point of view of the kid, we wanted to create a camera that would be very physiological – to see what he feels, see through his eyes. There’s this sense of depth of field created by the fact that, when the main characters are close to the screen, they are 3D, but the further they go from the camera they become 2D, and then the backgrounds are painted. This participates in seeing things through his eyes. For the style, we used sculptures, which are 3D, but the sculptures were scanned. When I was trying to find the right design, I ended up working in clay with a friend, a sculpturer. And once we were happy with the sculptures, instead of using them to redraw the characters, as a refference, we just scanned them and put them on the screen.
There’s a scene – Adama reaches Paris, a fluid camera-shot reveals him walking around a corner, but we only see a close-up of his face while walking, and then, from the other side, there’s this homogenous big group of women passing – which strongly reminded me of Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. Was it really a refference or it all happened in my head?
I’m glad you saw that [laughs]. But no, it was not on purpouse. Although, „Waltz with Bashir” is a very important film. When I was still looking for the graphic style of Adama, I’ve had the chance to talk with David Polonsky [Folman’s art director – Ed.]. How “Waltz with Bashir” helped me? In the first 5 minutes I didn’t like it, I didn’t like the style, but then I jumped into it. And visually, it made me realise you can push the limits, you can push the visuals kind of far. If it’s a feature, people will be stuck in their chair for at least half an hour, then leave or whatever. But they will give it a shot for the first half of hour. So you have this 5 minute frame to adapt to a style that wouldn’t be so easy. If they see you in cinema, you can bet on this 5 minutes time adaptation.
So that’s how you decided to experiment with sculptures.
Yes, and take up opportunities when they arrive. It’s research, and them something pops up and you decide to use it. Sculptures, they work best for me, cause they blur the lines between human beings and drawings. They have this kind of realistic anatomy, and all the little accidents on the surface. The goal was that, after you watch a while, you forget this is animation. Some people told me it worked for them. I like that.
“Adama” is a very socially-charged film, it’s also very realistic, almost photographic at times. It looks as if you tried to ring the social alarm, raise awareness.
Yes, that’s true. I mean, the trigger for the film is a historical fact, there’s a realistic sense in the story. I believe the use of Black Force during the war was an important symbol for the relationship between France and the African colonies. In the war, the colonised and the colonizers were, for the first time, equal. In the worst layer of society, that’s true, they were flesh for destruction, but they were still equal on the battlefield. I think it changed a lot the way they looked upon each other. I see it as the starting point for what happened the whole century afterwards – people coming from Africa, being used either for war or building the country. France is a multi-ethnical country, and this is just a way of looking at the starting point, of how it all happened.That’s why it has this realistic sense. Also, it fits with the migrations happening right now. We could have had Samba be forced to go to war. But we prefered having him tricked that he would have a citizenship and a job, play on the fact that he’s going for the same reasons young people from Africa still come to France.
The film has a multi-layered script, it targets both children and adult audiences, which is the message intended for each group of age?
Being an adventure, a coming of age story, Adama is indeed accesible from 7-8 years old, kids identify with the hero. As a message, I’d like them to be aware of those around – for example, if they have classroom mates coming from different ethnical backgrounds, they could understand why they’re here. There’s a majority of kids having these kinds of stories in their families, grand-grand-fathers who went through such things. For example, Azize Diabaté [the actor-voice of Adama – Ed.] told me „I didn’t know about this, now that i played in this movie I understand it, I recognise it, it all makes sense.” I’d like this to happen to kids. So, this would be more of an educational layer. Then, of course, there’s the metaphorical one – it’a film about identity, knowing your roots, your history. But I hope everyone gets something different out of it.
Have you ever thought about projecting it in Africa?
Yes, it’s on the way. I’m going there on the 27th of October, so it’s happenig this month. There’s a screening in Dakar, in Senegal, then open air screenings along River Senegal in January. We’re doing the maximum to get the film there. Although I don’t know what’s going to be the reaction.
Any other future projects you have in plan?
Right now, I’m just running after the film wherever it’s screened. I try to push it all the way, try to give birth to it and raise it. And then, I’m working on other smaller projects, where I do animation for theatre or dance companies, stuff like that. Because I’ve always been a multidisciplinary artist – I come from grafitti, I’ve done painting. I was always trying to have different things going on, to get inspiration rom different mediums. And then this project made me work only on animation for many years. So now I’ll just go get inspiration from other fields of art for a year or two maybe, before getting on a big journey like this one, of six, seven years. I’m not in a hurry to start again [laughs].