Professor Cherif Keita’s new film is the story of his late father’s commitment to education

"Namballa Keïta: A Soldier and His Village" premieres on Monday, April 8, from 7-9 p.m. in the Weitz Cinema.

Leander Cohen '22 Apr. 1, 2019

Cherif Keita

French version/Version française

The latest film by Chérif Keïta, the William H. Laird Professor of French and the Liberal Arts, premieres on Monday, April 8, from 7–9 p.m. in the Weitz Cinema. The film, "Namballa Keïta: A Soldier and His Village," is the story of Keïta’s late father Namballa, a World War II veteran who, without having had formal education, opened with his own money the first independently-funded public school in Mali in 1960, the year of the country's independence from France. Here’s what Professor Keïta shared with us about his upcoming film.

How did you decide to make this film?

CK: I wanted to pay tribute to my father because, if I am teaching at one of the best educational institutions in the U.S. and in the world today, it is because of my late father's lifelong commitment to education, not only for his own kids but for all the kids of Mali and Africa. I understand now better than ever the saying that “we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.”

How does your father’s story help to create a greater understanding of the role of WWII soldiers from West Africa?

CK: My father belongs to a generation that paid a heavy price to improve the political conditions of their fellow colonial subjects, but they are often looked down upon and their contribution often dismissed by the "intellectuals" and the better-educated younger nationalist politicians of the independence movements (1945 and after) because they were generally not educated.

My father's story shows that these humble soldiers, most of whom were village boys, came back from the two wars with a lot of misunderstood traumas, for which people and popular culture mocked them; but they came back also with a vision for the future of their communities. In the case of my father, he came from a village where the people lacked education (there was no school 20-30 miles around) and most of them lost their eyesight to river blindness, a disease caused by drinking shallow surface waters. Having gained a bit of literacy during the war, at a very high cost, he was determined to bring education and modern medicine closer to his community and to the youth of his village.

Often, the focus of historians and post-colonial politicians in the past 15 years has been on the ungratefulness of France toward those colonial soldiers who fought to free her people from the grips of fascism. This is a fact, but the resulting narrative about these veterans is that they spent the rest of their lives desperately waiting for a recognition that never came and died a pitiful death in their villages and their communities. The truth is far from that: people like my father had an agency and a power of initiative that they used for social change.

A couple of years ago, in a team-taught class on Faces of Imperialism, and just this past winter break during my trip to Senegal, I looked at the role of "tirailleurs sénégalais" as important early mediators between the colonizer and the colonized. With the 13 students who traveled with me, we went on the footsteps of my father as a young man who used to be a farm laborer in Senegal before enlisting in the French army in 1940.

The story of African war veterans under colonial rule in Africa parallels the story of the African-Americans who left Jim Crow to go liberate Europe and returned to face the appalling racism they had left behind. They also became agents of change and champions of civil rights in the U.S. Recently a feature film by Ava DuVernay, "Mudbound,” shed light on this painful chapter.

What were some of the challenges of making this film?

CK: I started thinking about this film in 2006, when my family handed me the papers left by my father. Going through them, I got a glimpse into his fascinating life, and these archives started speaking to me. By then, I knew enough of colonial history through my own research and teaching to place my father's life in a global context. I saw a chance to connect my father's story to History with a capital H.

What impact did exploring your father’s story have on you? What impact do you expect it to have on audiences?

CK: The challenge was that this story and its topic were too close to me and too emotional. To buy time, I finished two other films as I was working on it. In hindsight, I see that those other stories I took up were preparing me to better tell my father's story. I had to become a better storyteller and it will be for the audience to decide if I have succeeded in weaving the personal and the collective stories of WWII from a West African point of view.

The premiere of "Namballa Keïta: A Soldier and His Village" is part of the International Film Forum, which presents weekly films from all around the world. The International Film Forum is a group dedicated to the viewing and studying of foreign films, developed through a partnership between the Carleton departments of arts, cinema and media studies, and languages. The screenings are often preceded by a presentation — by the director of the film, a Carleton professor, or a knowledgeable guest — and followed by a short discussion session. International Film Forum screenings are free and open to the public.