École du soir: Six Films, from Rwanda and Beyond – Week #3: Philbert Aimé Mbabazi Sharangabo, Keza Lyn | École du soir: Six Films, from Rwanda and Beyond – Week #3
Wednesday, May 13–Tuesday, May 19, 2020
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Philbert Aimé Mbabazi Sharangabo, Keza Lyn (still), 2017.

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Philbert Aimé Mbabazi Sharangabo’s Keza Lyn (2017), on view from Wednesday, May 13 through Tuesday, May 19, 2020.

“Good evening dear listeners! As on every evening, this is your favorite host Karira Ka Rugano, with the hottest info from Le Pâquis neighborhood.” So announces the eponymous Keza Lyn on her fictional radio show based on secretly recorded conversations of the patrons of Fenomeno—the café where she works as a waitress. The café is located in Les Pâquis, a neighborhood of Geneva harboring shops and businesses run by ethnic minorities. Described by the filmmaker as lonely and desired, Keza— much like her environment—invents a life for herself made up of a thousand lives, and as artist and theorist Kodwo Eshun would say, finds herself drawn to a thinker whose thoughts are transformed by a reality that might comprehend her own.

Keza Lyn is presented here alongside an interview with the filmmaker by Aïcha Diallo​. The film and interview are the third installment of École du soir: Six Films, from Rwanda and Beyond, a program of films, video works, and interviews convened by artist Christian Nyampeta, and inaugurating Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

École du soir will run from April 29 through June 9, 2020, with each film running for one week and featuring an interview with the filmmaker by an invited guest.

Philbert Aimé Mbabazi Sharangabo in conversation with Aïcha Diallo​
Edited by Christian Nyampeta

Aïcha Diallo (AD):
The first question I have relates to the references in your filmmaking. Are there aspects in your childhood that inform your current artistic expression, in film, in image-making?

Philbert Aimé Mbabazi Sharangabo (PAMS):
Not really! I mean, I used to make drawings when I was growing up. Maybe I developed this artistic tendency because I wasn’t a very good student. When the teacher was speaking in the classroom, I would be drawing. Even when I started making films, everyone around me assumed I was making cartoons and animations, because I had been drawing a lot. But I am jumping ahead of myself. I used to draw a lot during the first three of six years of high school. Then, in the following three years, I became a member of a journalism club, for which I produced articles and organized weekly events where we held presentations in front of the entire school.

AD:
How then, did you come into filmmaking?

PAMS:
That only came about towards the end of high school. I was studying IT, and it dawned on me that I wouldn’t like to pursue working in IT. Instead, I wanted to make a choice about my studies that was not only related to the available options, but as a response to what I actually wanted to do once I had left school. I analyzed how I had spent the last three years of high school watching so many movies. As an IT student, I had unlimited access to computers, and I would sit in the back of the classroom, in the last row, and watch movies. I ended up spending the best part of those three years watching movies while my classmates studied. So, I started to wonder if I really wanted to hide this aspect of my life. What if film became my career? The journey to filmmaking started with these little questions and ideas. But also, as you mentioned, perhaps all this started much earlier, because I remember many childhood afternoons when I just sat there, feeling lonely. Somehow, for me, cinema connects with that lonely time, in ways that I don’t yet fully understand.

AD:
So, for you, cinema is an expression of lonely time… Speaking of which, I could relate to Keza, the protagonist of Keza Lynn. In fact, the film brought me back to my own childhood. As a teenager, I grew up very shy and closed off to my peers, and to people in the outside world. I spent a lot of time on my own, going through extended lonely periods. My parents are from Guinea, but I grew up in Berlin where I still live. I went to a French school. Altogether, like Keza, I cultivated the habit of carefully observing strangers and peers alike from a far. I would watch their every movement and gesture and secretly eavesdrop on their conversations. This gave me a sensation of being endowed with a certain kind of power, I felt like a detective. It was my only way of connecting with the external world at the time, and of getting closer to my peers. But in your case, I am curious to know: How and why did you develop the character of Keza Lyn?

PAMS:
The main characters of all the films I made in Geneva (while studying at the Cinema Department of HEAD—Genève) are based on my own experiences. For example, it is mostly my voice you hear in the recordings that Keza Lyn makes. At some point, I was trying to make a movie in Geneva but the people I wanted to work with did not want to be filmed. I resolved instead to use sound, a lot of sound, and I would sometimes record secretly in a grocery store as the staff and customers talked about politics and memories from their countries of birth. This mostly happened at Congolese grocery stores in the neighborhood I frequented. Recording in this way became a door to something else. And when I met actress Martine Munyaneza, the character of Keza Lyn emerged and I started writing. I pieced together aspects of my life in Geneva, and also hers. In fact, Martine works at the bar where the film is set, although, obviously, she doesn’t record the patrons! Apart from this fact, the film is fictionalized from bits of my own Geneva experiences and from Martine’s. And the whole exercise was a way of trying to give her a window, beyond working at a bar, a window to other experiences, by longing for and belonging to the stories of others.

AD:
Interestingly enough, you speak of “longing,” “door,” and “window” in relation to this film, while you also play a character, Dudu, who holds a remarkable place in the film. He speaks Kinyarwanda, makes references to a grandmother who could be either Dudu’s or Keza’s, or both of theirs, and he travels, in an imaginary sense, through another door depicted as a water well, yet finds himself physically grounded in a box. Would it be accurate to read Dudu as a dédoublement, a splitting of Keza Lyn, as if Dudu reflects an aspect of Keza’s life and world? 

PAMS:
Actually, I was not immediately conscious of these aspects when I was writing and making the film. But looking back now, I realize that, although Dudu is merely Keza Lyn’s cousin, he is indeed her other side, a part of her life which gravitates more towards her home, her origins, her language, her memories, and their grandmother. Dudu’s past does seem a bit troubled, suggesting that Keza Lyn’s past might also be troubled. But above all, Dudu is the embodiment of those primary aspects of Keza Lyn. But in contrast to Dudu, Keza Lyn seeks adventures, she is keen to have encounters that might lead to her own self-realization, while Dudu is restrained. He stays at home and looks somewhat backwards. In that sense, Dudu is the antithesis or an alter ego of what Keza Lyn is trying to become.

AD:
Maybe this distinction is pictured in the scene that takes place around the water well when most of Dudu’s body is covered in mud and is thus colored by his environment. There, he becomes one with the soil, he has absorbed the place. Putting that aside, could you speak again about how you used to record sound and the conversations inside Congolese grocery stores?

PAMS:
I started to do this when I was making The Liberators, my first movie, made for my studies. It is set in a grocery store. It’s a story about Colonel, a character who, at every occasion, recounts his past as a freedom fighter in the liberation struggles of Congo and Mozambique to attain independence from the colonial powers at the time. The character of Colonel did not really exist, it just developed through listening to the bits and pieces of the recorded conversations I had made. Once I created this character, I cast one of the older customers in the role of Colonel, and I wanted the film to take place in a particular grocery store. Still, most of those I approached did not immediately want to be part of the film. They didn’t trust me given I was a young student who had just arrived to Geneva only a month prior. They didn’t want me to film them. But, because I had access to the school’s sound equipment, I would bring it there, as I had noticed that my desired protagonists felt less threatened by sound recording. Thus, I could record at ease, and I came up with ways to avoid confrontation, such as how I would pretend that it was the end of my working day and I would put down the equipment while still recording the ambient sounds. Remarkably, whoever I approached for sound recording would respond in a friendly way, completely unlike how they would to the camera. This led me to the process of engaging with sound first, and in turn this same process informed the conception and production of Keza Lyn.

AD:
So, in a way, Keza Lyn is a continuation of The Liberators, but this time the new film focuses on your own times in Geneva. In that sense, how do the characters in the film reflect that of the wider African communities who live in Geneva? How do the depictions and the soundscapes in the bar and the spaces that Keza Lyn navigates correspond to the wider African diaspora living in the Les Pâquis neighborhood?

PAMS:
When I arrived in Geneva, Les Pâquis quickly became my home, in part because of the Congolese grocery stores I mentioned, even though I myself did not live in that neighborhood. As you might know, Congo and Rwanda are neighbors, so being in Les Pâquis was as close to being in Rwanda as I could get. There, I could talk to my new Congolese friends about common issues, our memories that are not very different, the politics of our countries, and so on. Gradually, I discovered a whole world around the grocery stores, such as the fact that Geneva’s red-light district is in Les Pâquis. The entire neighborhood itself is home to more than 180 nationalities, in just about five streets. In a way, this neighborhood is the embodiment of Geneva, an international city in its own right. To cut a long story short, I initially went to that neighborhood for the purposes of doing some grocery shopping, and then I started to discover the life around the stores. Even the feature film I am writing now headlines characters like Keza Lyn, and other characters based on people I met there.

AD:
And how does the character Antho fit into this location and this community? Keza Lyn embarks on a mission to look for and connect with Antho and a tender encounter ensues, when Antho says: “I am all of these people.” What does she represent for you?

PAMS:
Antho is not defined by one word or one name. When Keza Lyn meets this character, she is meeting someone new, and in fact had not known of the existence of Antho until that moment. And in that same instance, Antho comes to be. The character could have been any woman on the street, probably a prostitute, because that is the nature of the neighborhood. She only becomes Antho because Keza Lyn is looking for Antho, and this is how their story begins. I was looking for an encounter in which a connection emerges regardless of who each person turns out to be.

AD:
Indeed, Antho declares that she is a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, a mistress, a prostitute. It all depends on who is looking at her, as she says. Antho becomes whatever or whoever the person that is looking at her wants her to be. What does this mean?

PAMS:
The character of Antho refuses to be reduced to a singular subject. In my own experiences in Geneva, I have been approached by strangers who wanted to buy weed off me. None of these strangers would ever assume that I am just a student. Antho embodies extraordinary attributes: in an instant she can randomly become something or someone she is asked to be, without necessarily losing what she “really” is. Antho could be somebody who has a degree and yet chooses to work on the streets. I wanted a character who can embody what could be a negation or an affirmation. Antho is an idea that I am also developing further in the feature I am writing now. 

AD:
Why are you pursuing this character further? 

PAMS:
In part, it’s in order to give more room and time for the characters to develop. But also, it is so I can explore the meaning of a “Black community.” Sometimes, much like now, I am asked if any of my films are about the Black community in Geneva. But I tend to reply that I don’t know if there really is such a community at all. Because, for example, not all those who would belong to it go to the same school, go to the same churches or prayer houses, nor are they in any common association. Sometimes, I sense that this description results from an external urge to put rather different people in one single box, and to force upon them one same destiny. I don’t always agree with this. Blacks in Geneva are as diverse as they come. Nobody there is talking about the White community. There is an implicit acceptance that there is so much variety among Whites that one can hardly call them a community. But when it comes to describing Black people in Geneva, whether they come from Brazil, The Dominican Republic, or elsewhere, then a tendency to call them a community emerges. This need for diversity is perhaps what Antho represents as a character. Ultimately, her character is a rejection of being reduced to one immutable thing.

AD:
That’s a good point. I myself asked you the same question about the African diaspora there, and I recognize the importance of not idealizing such a concept, and the need to search for ways of making its understanding more complex. To go back to the character of Dudu, why is he in a box inside his bedroom?

PAMS:
At the center of Dudu’s character, there is restraint and aversion characterized by not leaving the house on the one hand, and on the other hand by an attempt to preserve himself at all costs. There is an invisible box around his existence, around his past, as he seems unwilling to allow himself to meet the world in which he finds himself. If the idea of integration holds any weight, Dudu is the opposite of any such integration. He simply wants to stay as he is. He keeps close to his memories and to what he knows from his past. He has no need to add any more, he doesn’t want to open up. 

AD:
Funnily enough, this characteristic makes me think of the present moment, of the global pandemic, in which the contrast between interior life and its exterior dimension have been separated. Wearing a protective mask could be symbolic of this separation. It goes without saying that the lockdown has been a complex situation that can hardly be compared to much else. In addition to what most of us might be experiencing, I have felt that this period is a moment of confrontation with myself, a moment of learning to listen to myself with more compassion, to somehow find a greater sense of connection to myself and ultimately, to others. What does such “listening” mean for the protagonists in Keza Lyn, and for you as a filmmaker, under the current conditions of relative confinement?

PAMS:
In general, the lockdown affects me in the same way it affects everyone else. Even if I am used to being alone, as a large part of my work consists of writing, the issue of listening remains a complex one. My feeling is that it is easier to talk than it is to listen. On top of this, what is different now is that I get the feeling as though my usual time alone with myself has actually diminished. Now I may spend such time on YouTube, then on Netflix, and before I know it a whole day is gone. Already, during “normal times,” we tend to avoid listening to ourselves. Maybe listening to oneself becomes harder during these times of confinement, because it is confrontational to sit and listen to oneself all the time. We would rather try and fill our time with activities—and we have so many options! So much that I am not sure if a lockdown truly changes this tendency. Nevertheless, you may be right: this period does offer some other possibilities of connecting with oneself.

AD:
Speaking of connections, earlier you mentioned that you live and work between Geneva, Zurich, and Kigali. How do you maintain relationships with those around you, across these different cities?

PAMS:
Usually, just as now, I speak to a lot to friends and relatives particularly in Kigali, through WhatsApp groups and so on. Fortunately, the pandemic situation there is not as severe as it has been in Italy or in New York, in terms of positive cases and casualties. But economically, the situation is very fragile.

Paradoxically, though, the lockdown has also created unexpected opportunities, at least for most of my family members, to be together. My sister works in a different province than where my parents live, and for most of the year, my younger brother is away from home because he attends a boarding school. As bad as this lockdown is, it has also allowed them to reconnect and to spend time together. Equally, in a strange way, the lockdown has helped me to re-center and to reconnect, as I had been running around with a long to-do list right before this.

AD:
One other question I have is about the last scene of Keza Lyn, about the singer whose song really moved me. Could you speak more about this instance, when Keza Lyn receives this dedication from her admirer?

PAMS:
The song is “Izuba rirarenze,” (The Sun Is Setting)—an old Rwandan song. Actually, throughout the film, similar old Rwandan songs are playing during the bar scenes, in the background. But yes, I wanted to have a scene like this one at the end of the film, but in a way that would make enough sense for the song not to feel pushed onto the story. Anyway, the song in question is a sad one about the end of the day. It is about the moment when most workers are going back home, while the singer himself is unable to return. The song spoke to me at the time, as I was feeling this sentiment, and I imagined that Keza Lyn was also feeling the same way.

The suggestion is that Keza Lyn is not from where she lives. In the film, the song is performed by Samuel Ishime, a friend and fellow filmmaker, who in fact won a Silver Bear at the Berlinale in 2018. We started making films together, first in Rwanda, then we studied together in Geneva. Now our paths are diverging, even though we are both working on our first feature films. He returned to Rwanda after his studies, although now he is in lockdown in Paris, at the Cinéfondation at a writing residency.

AD:
To finish our dialogue, I am thinking about the synopsis of the film which describes Keza Lyn as “lonely and desired.” What does that mean?

PAMS:
In the film, Keza Lyn spends most of her time with the sounds of music and her own recordings, but she doesn’t seem to have much human presence. This means that, in a way she has virtual connections more so than personal encounters, and that she feels some sort of loneliness. But this changes when she encounters Antho. Then, she experiences a closeness, a tenderness, a different presence, different from the music and the voices of her recordings. 

The desired component of her character comes across in her relationship with one of the patrons of the bar, a regular who wishes to talk to her and even dedicates a song to her—the song we just talked about. But, Keza Lyn is not particularly interested, and so desire is not necessarily love, though one day it might become love.

-
Philbert Aimé Mbabazi Sharangabo’s short film I Got My Things And Left won the Grand Prize of the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival in 2019 and the Best Short Film prize of the Prague Short Film Festival 2020, and has screened in more than 25 film festivals including IFF Rotterdam, FIFF Namur, Go Short Nijmegen, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, Indie Lisboa, and ISFF Hamburg to name a few. Mbabazi Sharangabo graduated from the Haute École d’Art et de Design (HÉAD) cinema department in Geneva in 2017. His short films The Liberators and Versus, made while studying, screened in festivals such as Vision du Réel Nyon, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, Uppsala, Tampere, and the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival. He was selected as part of the Locarno Filmmakers Academy in 2019 and the Berlinale Talents in 2020. He is currently developing his first feature film Spectrum, set in Geneva, which has been selected as part of the Torino Script Lab 2020. Mbabazi Sharangabo lives between Switzerland and Rwanda where he is also developing Minimals in a Titanic World, a feature film set in Kigali. He runs Imitana Productions, a Rwanda-based production company, that produces his work and that of the vibrant young filmmakers scene in Kigali.

Researcher Aïcha Diallo has developed transcultural ideas and formats in arts and cultures, education, activism, academia, philanthropy, civil society, case management, and project design—particularly within the context of marginalized populations and perspectives. Her research, curatorial, and teaching interests include postcolonial critique, trauma studies, critical pedagogy, human rights, and the cultural productions from African and Afro-diasporic perspectives. www.aichadiallo.com

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

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