Thierno Souleymane Diallo - The Cemetery of Cinema
Credit: L’image d’après
by Esmé Holden Featured Film

The Cemetery of Cinema — Thierno Souleymane Diallo [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 22, 2023

The idea that cinema is dying, or perhaps already died, is certainly popular in a time when digital spectacle has all but consumed any other kind of moviegoing; during the age of the MCU. But The Cemetery of Cinema, Thierno Souleymane Diallo’s debut documentary feature about the state of cinema in his native Guinea, makes those cries seem hysterical and petty. Here, digital has killed cinemas in a very literal way: people now only see movies on television and bootleg DVDs; a middle-aged man wonders if his child even knows what a cinema is. As Diallo travels across the country in search of Mamadou Touré Mouramani (1953), the first film made in Guinea and the whole of French-speaking Africa, he visits theaters and cinematheques that were once on par with their European counterparts, all of which have turned totally to ruin. Like Touré’s film, this history has been lost, long since decayed beyond the point of any potential restoration, like a reel of film turned totally by vinegar syndrome. 

A village elder talks about digital as a corrupting force, as a debasing and vulgar replacement to the wholesome center of the cinema. But Diallo — or perhaps his character — starts the movie a little resistant to a political reading. He asks many of his interview subjects if they think Mouramani is a myth, but almost all of them laugh it off with some variation on “of course not.” Mouramani does have a relationship to myth: The film is said to be about the titular great patriarch who founded the Muslim kingdom of Batè, the pre-colonial predecessor to Guinea. But, moreover, something more concrete than a people’s myth has been lost: their history. The consequences of this are quite shockingly expressed by a French writer who says that “if Mouramani isn’t considered the first African film, it’s because it had no cultural impact.” Afrique-sur-Seine (1955) fits more comfortably into a historical narrative – and was shot in France, the colonizer of its native Sénégal and Guinea – and so has for many become the first African film, the start of African cinema, despite being made two years after Mouramani.

The Guinean cinematheque didn’t have the means to store their collection well, so most of the films degraded. There was an idea of cooperating with France to save what was left, but nothing came of it and everything was thrown into a hole in the ground and burnt. Mouramani was on the list of that collection, though whether or not it had rotted by that time is unclear. A former cinema owner calls the people who did this criminals, asserting that they attacked their own history, while others seem to have faith that France would have taken better care of it. Diallo soon finds that not to be the case — they can barely keep their own film culture alive. He visits La Clef — the occupied cinema which had stayed open since 2019 despite the banking firm owners selling off the property — where a worker argues that without the collective viewing experience, which is so tied to and is given so much value by material film over digital, then film has all but died. Not too long after this scene was filmed, in March of 2022, the cinema was raided and the collective who democratically ran it were evicted. 

If that’s how France’s own films are treated, then you can only imagine how the culture of a former colony would fare. La Monde’s review of Mouramani not only calls it “less a film than a clumsy, naïve attempt,” but most patronizingly, most pointedly, concludes that it’s “not devoid of charm.” It’s a moment that hit this writer particularly hard; it makes one conscious of the role of the critic, and how the idea of a “review,” a judgment on how “successful” and “well-made” a film is, can be a crushing colonial force — it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that this review of Mouramani meaningfully contributes to the perception of a lack of “cultural impact” that lead to it probably being lost forever. Diallo doesn’t find Mouramani in France; of course he doesn’t. Diallo is searching for the film not because it’s great, but also not because it isn’t. He’s trying to reckon with a part of history.

And so, The Cemetery of Cinema’s final scenes, where Diallo tries to recreate Mouramani, might seem strange, even a contradiction. But as a woman from one of the French cinematheques points out, “the material [film] has a life cycle […] like us, the films ultimately die.” There is no way to hold onto this history, any history, forever, even if, as in this case, it was destroyed by political forces both internal and external. If film only has value as preservation, then it only has limited value. When teaching a class of students who can only name a handful of Guinean directors, following from an exercise by Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens, Diallo hands each student a cut-out of a camera and tells them to go make a film. Like The Cemetery of Cinema itself, where a second camera always films Diallo as he films his journey, it draws the process into focus, making that process the essential subject. Some of the students give quite beautiful descriptions of their films because cinema is a means of looking, more than any material that’s recorded: it’s an act of engaging and interpreting the world and history for oneself. And so, the final shot that reveals Diallo is filming his version of Mouramani on a fake camera isn’t an image of loss at all — it’s a call to action. When the camera turns to look at us, he hopes we look back.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 7.5.