A still from ‘Money, Freedom, a Story of CFA Franc’ of a smudge of ink and some photos.

‘Money, Freedom, a Story of CFA Franc’ explores the currency that still circulates in almost all of France’s former territories south of the Sahara.

Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.

Filmmaker Katy Léna N’diaye on the Currency of Heritage

The Senegalese French filmmaker started making a documentary about the CFA Franc, and ended up with a film about tradition and legacy.

“I made this for young people. It is a film I would have loved to see when I was 15 or 20,” Katy Léna N’diaye tells OkayAfrica. N’diaye, who currently divides her time between Senegal and Brussels, is attending the New York African Film Festival for the U.S. premiere of her latest feature, Money, Freedom, a Story of CFA Franc, a galvanizing documentary about the history and economic significance of the CFA Franc, the official currency and medium of exchange currently in use in at least 14 African countries.

Money, Freedom, a Story of CFA Franc is a balanced and thought-provoking documentary that sets out to break down the CFA’s storied history, particularly in francophone Africa while tracing its influence on the present. N’diaye sits down with key players in regional monetary and fiscal policy who have some connection to the currency and fortifies their submissions with rich archival material consisting of historical events. Rather than operate as a dense journalistic essay, N’diaye’s film floats with a personal cinematic voice, one that wraps up with a charge to young people to find homegrown solutions to Africa’s problems.

A veteran of three previous documentary features – Traces, Women’s Imprints (2003,) Awaiting for Men (2007) and Time is On Our Side (2019,) N’diaye is keen for as many young Africans, particularly those impacted by the restrictions on the CFA Franc, to see the film and be inspired to act. Next stop is the Sheffield DocFest in June, after which the film makes stops in Zanzibar, South Africa, and Rwanda, amongst other places. “It is an archive and I hope it is a starting point for whoever wants to go further with that story because my film is at the intersection of so many stories,” N’diaye adds.

OkayAfrica spoke to the Senegalese French filmmaker about her intentions for the film, and where her interest in the subject matter comes from.


The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

This film feels like the result of years of lived and professional experience. Can you talk a bit about the journey that led you to this film?

I am very happy that you say this. In this film, there is a lot of me; my history, a lot of questions that I have about Africa today, and our heritages, and it may represent the beginning of the answers for me. It is the sum of my years, but it is not only looking at the past; it is also in conversation with the present and thinking about the future.

I am asking, Who are we? Where are we coming from? Where are we now and where do we want to go from here? Also, what kind of relationship do we as Africans want to have with the world? At the beginning of the film, yes, it was about the CFA Franc. But then it expanded into these complex interrogations such that by the end of the experience – it took seven years of my life – what I had was a documentary about heritages.

It really is a sum of all those films that came before, and maybe it is the end of a chapter for me also. The link across all my films has always been about transmission; heritages, Senegal, and Africa today. After this, I will be opening another chapter of my work. As a Senegalese filmmaker who lives abroad, films are a way for me to connect with history and find my place within the larger story.

Your voice-over narration brings a personal angle to this complex web of geopolitics and money and economies…

To me, the CFA Franc for a long time reminded me of my childhood so when I began to discover what it was exactly, it was a shock to me. As a journalist and filmmaker, perhaps I was supposed to know what the currency represented but it was still a shock to me, finding out the way I did. And I am not the only adult who does not know this history. I had to figure out how to put my little story within this big story and find an emotional and intellectual connection. It is also a way of welcoming the viewer. Everyone has their first experience with money. By putting my biography, I am inviting you to stand in my shoes and find some connection with universal experiences, such as childhood or family, to show that we are all a part of this world of money and geopolitics.

And it makes sense because we are all affected by money – consciously or otherwise – from the moment we are conceived, even before then.

Yes. I wanted to tell the story as a fable because I believe that, in the end, our lives are fables. Fables are human constructions that have values, teachable lessons and explore how we deal with ourselves and the environment. We as humans constantly change, and I believe the CFA is something that has to change and can change so why are we not trying to do so?

One of the participants says that money is basically a piece of paper, worthless until someone or organized society places value on it. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms.

Human beings have incredible power to create how we choose to live together, but we generally assume that money is something that is so big and impossible to control as ordinary citizens and that isn’t true. There is a lot of belief, fear, I guess, behind how we think of money, and maybe this is similar to a kind of religion or dogma; that things cannot change and are set in stone.

By diving into this story, this film asks us to consider the idea of money as culture, as imagination, as history. And this goes back to who we are as a people, and the codes and values we choose for ourselves. They seem so abstract sometimes, and we don’t often link these things with money, which seems so concrete.

The film takes a closer look at the post-colonial founding fathers. While they won us independence, perhaps they were outmatched and outwitted when negotiating the specific terms of this independence. Do you think it was a fair deal that they got looking back?

Before making this film, I think my position regarding the founding fathers was to look for who did right or wrong. In going back to the past, however, I see things differently. They did what they did, but what can we do about what we have now? Can we reinvent ourselves without erasing the past? Now this involves some imagination, thinking about our past and present.

That is why I am very comfortable with what the film ended up becoming, which is a documentary about heritages. What do we want to leave for our children? What do we want to keep and what do we want to put behind us? And it isn’t something that was conscious when I started making the film, it came later on. I started with a query into this CFA Franc and arrived at a much more complex question of heritages which I came to love. What do we now do with this complex heritage?

The film is also a call to action.

Yes, it is not a film that says we are victims. It is a human story and that means a shared responsibility for our actions and inactions. The film talks about some of the difficulties facing Africa today but at the same time no one is going to do the hard work of saving ourselves for us, we must do it ourselves.

This is not a story of Africa versus France or Europe, and the solution is not exchanging one form of colonialism for another. I see some of our youth today saying we should expel the French and forge new alliances with Russia or Turkey, which is always the same story. It is not a matter of disconnecting from the world either, because we are the world. So, what is our agenda and what do we want for ourselves? It is a political fight but also a cultural one. Do we have the skills, the means, the range to imagine something else for ourselves and the world? I don’t have an answer for what that something else is but the quest for answers is its own journey.

Have you noticed a difference in the way that the film has been received in Africa and say France or Europe, even?

Definitely a difference. It was wonderful to experience the reception in Ouagadougou during Fespaco. The theater was full, and people were almost crying because it is their story. There was a guy, a former soldier, who approached me after the screening and he had never been in a theater, but he was moved by the film. Hearing someone with no link to cinema say that this documentary about money moved him so much was the perfect reward that was given to us.

In Amsterdam, the audience was amazed. I suppose it can be argued that it is their story as well even though the perception is that this is a French and African story. But in that audience, I saw the face of Africans, and for them, it was like a wave of recognition settling on their faces. Someone said to me they were seeing all their family members that came before them when they saw the film.