In Conversation: Senegalese Filmmaker Mamadou Dia on His Award-Winning Film 'Baamum Nafi'
Still from 'Baamum Nafi'

In Conversation: Senegalese Filmmaker Mamadou Dia on His Award-Winning Film 'Baamum Nafi'

The film is a piercing look at religious extremism in West Africa with shades of Trump's America.

In 2012, the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu was captured by Islamist extremists. During the months of violence and intimidation that followed, rebels destroyed large numbers of centuries-old cultural landmarks and artifacts including one of the sealed inner doors of the 15th-century Sidi Yahya Mosque, an act believed to bring on the end of the world.

In 2016, Mamadou Dia , a journalist who had covered the fall of Timbuktu, was studying film at NYU. He had been working on a script for a film set in his hometown, Matam, a small town in northern Senegal. Inspired by the neorealist work of directors such as Abderrahmane Sissako and Alain Gomis , Dia set out to write a film inspired by his own upbringing as the son and grandson of imams. But after Trump's election, Dia's attention shifted to the parallels he saw between the religious fundamentalism that plagued Timbuktu and the right-wing extremism that had captured the United States.

"The people bringing the ideas that you could call bad, whether they are religious or political, those people have something in common, they have charisma," Dia tells me over the phone from New York. "And that's the scary part of it."

Senegal has long been lauded as a model for religious harmony, which made it all the more compelling for Dia to set his story there. Could something like this happen to those who least expect it?

These ideas coalesced into his 2019 debut feature, Baamum Nafi , a piercing examination of how quickly a society can turn towards extremism through the lens of a family breaking down. In the film, two brothers in northern Senegal are fighting over control of their family and village. The fight centers around the impending wedding of one brother's daughter to the other brother's son (Baamum Nafi translates to "Nafi's Father" in Pulaar). But the tension of the internal struggle ultimately spills into the community as one brother, a beloved imam, fights to keep his town out of the influence of his newly-returned brother, a wealthy religious extremist with suspicious connections.

Mamadou Dia and Maba Ba. Photo courtesy of Joyedidi.

The film stars Alassane Sy ("Mediterranea") and Saikou Lo ("The Pirogue") as the two brothers, Thierno and Ousmane , alongside riveting performances by many first time actors including Aïcha Talla as Nafi , Thierno's intelligent and determined daughter. Baamum Nafi beautifully captures the confusing situation many affected by extremism find themselves in, where the principles and ideals we hold sacred are shaken, and often the destabilizing forces are much closer than we think.

The film pays close attention to imagery, painting the town with a beautiful simplicity and using color and shadow to build tension without relying on overwrought dialogue. Dia also makes use of humor in surprising moments, in one scene a budding extremist recklessly points a gun at his mentor while holding a piece of chicken in his other hand.

The film has been shown at several international film festivals, winning two awards at the prestigious Locarno Festival . Following Baamum Nafi's premiere in Dakar in February of 2020, I caught up with the director and the film's producer, Maba Ba (together they run the production company Joyedidi ) to discuss more about the filmmaking process and the realities of producing this film independently. Read on for our conversation.

* The New York premiere of Baamum Nafi was postponed due to Covid-19, you can stay updated on future screenings here *

Still from 'Baamum Nafi'

You've mentioned that the election of Donald Trump in 2016 partly inspired the film, can you describe what that time was like for you?

Mamadou: The Trump election happened while I was in the process of writing the script – I was completing my MFA in New York City at the time. New York can be a bubble in that you don't feel many of those things, but the shock was there. You could see the fear, the anger and the surprise on peoples' faces. In New York, I don't think anybody thought that Trump would win because of the way people think in that city, it's just a city of people made from everywhere. So the shock at that time was how do we elect a person that was willing to say not only things about Black people or Muslims but also about women and many other marginalized groups. So that idea of a community following such a leader, was one of the ideas I wanted to explore in the film.

There's a scene in the film in which a character who is being trained as an imam is comically stumbling through a recitation of the Koran. That kind of joke, of someone not knowing the basics of their job, reminded me of some of Donald Trump's most egregious moments – were you thinking of anyone specifically in that moment?

Mamadou: So that character, Bassa, is one type of those extremists, it could be political or religious. It could be Donald Trump, but it could also be many other people in the world who are trying to move quickly up a ladder without knowing anything. That's an interesting scene to point out as well because when I show the film in Europe or the US, people don't get it necessarily but for someone who grew up in our countries it's quite obvious. Bassa is trying to recite what is called Al-Fatiha, which is the opening verse of the Koran. It's so basic, it's like someone not knowing what economic growth is becoming the president of the United States. So all those stories are woven into the film, not based on a single person but based on a lot of people who don't know much about the roles they end up being placed in.

Still from 'Baamum Nafi'

When thinking about extremism and specifically the religious extremism depicted in the film, the easiest reference to make is the fundamentalism that has gripped certain areas in West Africa (Mali, Northern Nigeria, etc). Were you pulling at all from events that have taken place in neighboring countries?

Mamadou: I worked as a journalist before going to film school. I spent almost 10 years in Senegal, based in Dakar, working for the Associated Press . So I travelled a lot—I was in Timbuktu before and after the invasion and I also was in Burkina Faso and in Nigeria.

So I was aware of not just what was happening but how it happened as well. It's always the same people and the same kinds of communities. I know Malians very well, they are very peaceful people. So you wonder, how could that have happened there? But when you talk to them they always say the same thing, "There was a guy who was coming at night, organizing meetings. The city started changing. They were building very expensive buildings, etc." There are always signs and I used a lot of that in the film. Senegal hasn't been hit yet, and we cross our fingers that it will never happen, but I based [the story] on situations that I've seen traveling to those other places.

Though the film centers around a fight between two men, I was struck by how fully formed the female characters were. Was this especially important to you?

Mamadou: It was very important to me because I grew up in a family with a lot of women and women had power, they still have power. I'm still surprised when people talk about Africa and they only talk about women in a very negative way. For us, our mothers played a bigger role than others and we see women as being very present and very resilient. Their power is very discreet. They're not yelling at you or hitting you or showing you anything. They just know who they are and they know how to get what they want.

Of course there are still challenges linked to gender and social class but in my personal experience, women have been very powerful. Maba's mother told us of this figure from one of the first known novels in Senegal, L'Aventure Ambiguë by Cheikh Hamidou Kane, which also takes place in the northern region of Senegal. It has a female character called La Grande Royale. La Grande Royale is always a grandmother in the Fulaar society. Like the grandmother in the film, she's the one who decides, when she says something everybody else says yes. That's something that still exists. We don't talk a lot about it because it's not a harsh power like men sometimes have.

Still from 'Baamum Nafi'

Still from 'Baamum Nafi'

In recent years, there's been a push for different kinds of representation in the media, for example, not all black characters are thugs or gangsters, not all Muslims are terrorists. Did you worry in making a film about Muslims and religious extremism, that people might misread it as confirmation of an existing stereotype?

Mamadou: It was a very conscious choice to talk about religion. Most people in the US when they talk about Islam, they just think about extremism. They think always about the violence of it but the reality is that those religious extremists kill more Muslims than any other religion in the world. We are the first ones who are hit by extremism. So it was important for me to show that and to use the main character as a way to show that the majority of Muslims in the world just want to live a normal life. They don't care about hurting a fly. The movie is not about the violence, the movie is not an agenda for extremism, it's quite the opposite. It's showing that this is the way we live and this is the way we deal with it.

Have there been any challenges in getting the film to a wider audience?

Maba: Canal+ bought the rights to show the film on TV but it was very difficult to keep the film in Pulaar and not dub it. That was really important to both of us, to show our story through our lens, so keeping our language is huge. Pulaar is spoken by millions of people and to have to dub these films to have them be marketable or more successful is very similar to colonization. Especially because there is no data or no proof of it – look at Parasite. I hope the next set of filmmakers stand their ground even if it means losing a deal because I can't imagine watching this film with a French voice. Nothing is wrong with their language but it just doesn't match.