Diary of the Shoot

Somena, Mali, June 9, 1998, Location Scouting

Mohammed takes us to his home village on a hill over the Niger near Djenné. We have strenuous days behind us, talking to experts in the capital and visiting cattle breeders, herdsmen and farmers in the country. Now, Mohammed, our guide and translator, wants to introduce us to his family, especially to his grandfather Boubacar. Boubacar is the Marabout (Eldest of the village) of Somena.
It is oppressively hot in this Peul-village of about 50 quadrilateral houses, built with dirt bricks. In no time, the whole clan is gathered around us. We get chairs, while the locals squat on the mats on the clean swept floor. Nobody speaks French and we look at each other like cows. One of Mohammed's aunts steps out of the house with a calabash full of milk. It's the most important gift that can be offered to a guest. But I know and smell that the milk is sour, like it is in every African village. I muster up my courage and decline, pointing helplessly to my stomach. I am aware that I am committing an affront, and am curious as to how my hosts will react.
In a few seconds, their confusion is over. Their faces brighten with the realization that what may seem very ordinary to them, may appear strange to the foreigners. (One year later, when Hamadoun, Ly and Mohammed came to Switzerland, they refused as if it were the most natural thing to do, to eat cheese and several vegetables - things they don't eat in Mali.)


Practice in Patience
Dori, Burkina Faso, November 20, 1998, start of the shooting.
We are driving from the capital Ouagadougou 300 km (186.41 mi) north to Dori, the beginning of the shooting and as well towards a lesson in problem solving the African way. Dori is a small town out in the wilds, but there is the Hotel Oasis du Sahel. The modern Motel style for businessmen is a bad investment - only few businessmen seem to travel the region - but we were thankful for it reko-Arbeiten in June.
Aboudramane Ouedraogo, the hotel manager, is sitting in his blue Boubou in the reception and enjoys his special clientele. He reserved de luxe rooms for us and confirmed this by fax, designing writing paper with the hotel logo just for the correspondence with Switzerland. But now, the air-conditioning systems in the reserved rooms are broken!
Aboudramane Ouedraogo handles the calamity better than we do, trying this switch, turning this button, and finally shrugs. He is startled when we ask him why on earth he didn't check the systems before our arrival. Silence. Then Aboudramane Ouedraogo says with finality: "There is no point in running after the problems, because they come to meet you."

Knowledge is Power
Dori, Burkina Faos, End of November 2998, Ly and the APESS.
We came to Dori because Dr. Boubacar Sadou Ly's "Association for the Promotion and Breeding in the Sahel and the savanna" (APESS) is holding its yearly assembly. Ly is problem the center, certainly at the beginning of our project. He is the founder of APESS, which is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The goal of APESS is to represent the interests of the cattle breeders in the Sahel and to guarantee the exchange of experience among them. But Ly has bigger plans for the association. We met the veterinary, who had studied in Paris, as a fascinating gespr"chspartener, who tells a fascinating story about every animal of the region. Now we get to know an ambiguous side of his character.
The assembly lasts one week and is divided into a <Counsel of the Elders> and a <World Counsel of cattle breeders>. The speakers, especially Ly himself, step often and with pleasure into the circle.


We are shooting, but when Mohammed is translating, we hear clichés that sound increasingly empty: They swear to the <revolutionary unity of the cattle breeders> whose goal it is to breed the <positive planetary cow> (vache positive planétaire), some sort of an ideal cow, and the secret of the cattle breeders of the Sahel to be shared with the people of the north. Then there is the rhetoric about the relationship between <men and cow> und the <cow as God's expression>. Our role becomes more and more questionable. Speakers push forward when we are handling the camera. It is difficult for us to judge the farmers and cattle breeders from Burkina Faso and Mali, but on the other hand the invited white people from Europe are transparent: Some of them are alternative farmers who believe to be one with Africa. Are we filming a productive exchange of ideas or are we preventing it? Is Ly trying to use us to promote his career?

During the discussions he becomes transformed. While he interrupts us often in our conversations, correcting our "arguments of a white person" with indications of African and traditions and wisdom, he does exactly the contrary with his people: He rebukes them, showing off his extensive knowledge. Ly is a Guru in both worlds and proud of it. Finally, we break off the shooting and wait for November 30th, the day of the assembly, when the rounds of conversation will be stopped and the normal agenda of the APESS general assembly takes over.

Difficulties with the Authorities
Diafarabé, Mali December 5, 1998, African version of an "Alpaufzug" (Taking the cows to the alps for the summer)
In Diafarabé, when the Niger lies deep in its bed, it is now the season to begin the river crossings. The cattle owners of the region drive their animals to the river and, at a previously set day across the waters. On the shore across there are peninsulas, which are used as grazing land during the dry winter months. The river also cleans the animals.
It is early morning and we are at the river where thousands of animals are crowded together. The cattle is restless; we hear the herdsmen shout, driving the animals back to the herd. We position the camera, and I make a mistake: I ask a herdsman who will fire the gun for the start for the crossing. The man calls another and consults with him, and he then walks away. I have no idea what is going on. We wait together with the animals - one hour, two hours. Finally we try to find Monsieur Kader, who had been introduced to us as the adjunct chief of the village. We find him looking feverishly for a gun. We now are told that the order to cross the river is normally given silently. But my question about a starter's gun was taken as a wish for a more dramatic effect. We put Monsieur Kader under considerable stress, but we ask him to forget the gun. We don't want to influence the way of doing things. But we cannot stop Kader from o telling an old man to position himself at the bank and shout so that the "order" we wished for happens at least in this way.


It is not the first time that we upset the hierarchical order through our requests. But a week before it happened in Diafarabé, we upset thing in Gountouré in Burkina Faso, in the neighborhood of Dori. We wanted to speak to the women, who play an important role in the household economics of the cattle breeders: they milk the cows, watch over the milk and use it in the kitchen. But our assistant director, Fatoumata Diallo, herself a self-confident urban women from Ouagadougou, tells us that by the Peul "the women are not allowed to speak". By the way, neither are men younger than 40.

An African in Bern
Bern, Switzerland, August 1999 and Bobo Dioulasso, Mali, September 1999.
Of the two cattle breeders we invited from Mali, Amadou Dicko is the more unassuming, traditional cattle breeder. The trip to Europe is his first and nearly everything is strange for him, but he never looses face. Once, while we were looking at material in our production rooms in Bern, we asked Amadou to smoke his "Gauloise Bleue" (French cigarette make) outside. "You go down the stairs to the bottom and go out into the street" I tell him, and show him the staircase. Ten minutes later he is back, looking a little confused. But he tells us only later that he couldn't find the front door because he went way down into the cellar. When I explained what the cellars are for he shook his head: "This doesn't exist where I come from."


Hamadoun Dicko is totally different. Rich, folding one thousand franc notes and putting them into his pocked as if they were post it notes, he is a real farmer but also an entrepreneur and politician, who shows that he is a well traveled man through his European clothes. We have one problem with him: He incurs in expenses. The director of the three star hotel where we put him and Amadou up, warns us that he ran up a phone bill of 400 francs on his first day. I buy him a handy and explain that he has to pay for his phone conversations. In the next days he is non-stop on the phone: in the car, during the breaks, and heaven knows how much in his hotel room. He directs his business in Bobo Dioulasso, deals with business partners, and keeps his family informed. Ten days later, his phone bill is up to 2,700 francs. Then there is a medical bill for a routine check ("Let's see what your medicine men are capable of", says Hamadoun Dicko). He avoids a conversation about the money question and makes it clear that the subject his beneath his dignity. Until the last shooting days. In the meantime we are back in Burkina Faos, in Hamadoun's Bobo Dioulasso. We filmed him during work in the cowshed. Hamadoun is wearing a white Boubou and a gold chain. "We need to talk about something before we say good bye, "I tell him. I sit down in his office and show him the receipts. "Hamadoun, you owe me 3,600 Swiss francs. Silence. Then Hamadoun explains that he won't pay. "You know," he says, "normally I fly business class, but I flew coach for you. Normally, I stay in five star hotels - I checked out the Bellevue in Bern, and under normal circumstances that's where I would have stayed - but for you I stayed in a small inn. I accept that, it's OK, but this, "showing the receipts, "that is my compensation." He only accepts to pay the phone bill of 400 francs form the first day in the hotel.

Encounter with a "Cow Philosopher"
Montezillon, Switzerland, August 25th, 1999, Ly visits Hurter's bio farm

Apart from Hamadoun Dicko and Amadou Dicko, Boubacar Ly, the veterinary from Burkina Faso is also visiting Switzerland. But he is here in a quasi-official mission, as participant in the congress of the Conseil Mondial des Eleveurs. But Ly also takes part in our film. The "pairing" we have in mind is easier than with the other two. We put Hamadoun Dicko together with Hanspeter Heimberg, a big farmer from the lower land, and Amadou Dicko is together with a cheese manufacturer in Gstaad. Boubacar Sadou Ly will meet Ueli Hurter, biodynamic farmer in the Neuenburg. (Canton in Switzerland) The difference between the others and Ly and Hurter is in their heads. Ly is the Africanist, who studied in France. His "V.P.P." - "Vache Positive Planétaire", the ideal cow, is his symbiosis of traditional cattle breeding and the reminiscence of the 1968 world revolution. Hurter is an anthroposophist, an open and practical entrepreneur, who is not afraid of finding gaps in the market and using them.
We didn't prepare anything and simply introduce Hurter and Ly to each other. That is enough. In the cowshed a lively debate begins, only to be continued at lunch in the restaurant. Hurter and Ly are at the same time close and also very distant. For both of them, the cow has a connection with the cosmos, but while Hurter considers the cow a species and concedes individuality only to mankind, Ly comes from a culture, where men is not above nature but one with nature. Therefore Ly believes that a Peul can understand the "language" of the cow, and he doesn't want to exclude the possibility that it can also think.


Amadou goes home
Barabaoulé, Burkina Faso, first week in September 1999.
Our cameraman has a problem. We understood very quickly that the scenes with the Amadou's stories, as the great traveler returning from Switzerland and surrounded by curious neighbors might become the most impressive pictures of our film. But where should the focus of the camera be? Amadou's favorite anecdote about the Swiss is "that they all bathe in milk because that's the custom". (Indeed, during the festival in the cheese factory on the alp in Gstaad, there were to local tourist taking a bath in the whey, which would otherwise have been discarded.) Should the camera be focused on Amadou, showing how he tells and invents stories, or should we film the public in the circle, listening intently, sometimes laughing aloud? We have no idea what they say. Mohammed, the interpreter is standing next to us. But he doesn't have the time to translate. He concentrates on what is being said and lets us know with thumbs up that the dialogue meets with his approval.

Bern und Mopti, Mali April 2000
Mohammed is dead. In November 1999, Mohammed, 35, came to Switzerland for a second time in order to, where necessary, translate the soundtrack of the finished film. In January he wrote he was sick. We organize some lab tests in Bamako. The results indicate Hepatitis type B. On April 12th, he dies, of cancer, they say.


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