Interview by Suzette Glénadel
Suzette Glénadel - Why a film on the Mahaleo ?
Raymond Rajaonarivelo - I’m from the same generation as Mahaleo. Back then, like all Malagasy teenagers, I was brought up on their music. We used to play it at our moonlit get-togethers. Each time our lives went through an important phase, their lyrics and tunes were on our lips. Later, I got to know Bekoto, who introduced me to the rest of the group. The meeting was a dream come true with all the pride that goes with it—I changed from a simple fan into a friend. This film was a way of sharing all the humanity of their activities and the sheer poetry of their songs. What’s more, the Malagasy consider Dadah is one of the country’s greatest poets. So, this film is also the story of a friendship.
Marie-Clémence Paes - They were the first to write and sing an urban-style pop music in Malagasy. They find words that can reach the deepest part of the Malagasy soul. Mahaleo’s lyrics constantly mix the emotions that they live in their everyday jobs with what they want to say or shout to their audiences. It’s a mixture of knowledge and feelings. I don’t know if songs or films can change people, but they can give them another view of things. Things that we see so often in daily life, that we end up not seeing them. Through their texts, Mahaleo force people to look at reality differently.
Cesar Paes - For us, Mahaleo brings to light the Malagasy identity. Audiences of all ages sing along with their songs. They have made the lyrics their own and when they sing them, the words sound right. They are the ones who address the politicians, the army, whose chests are “scratched by love”, who tell of the pains of childbirth… they help us to see Madagascar with other eyes.
Cesar Paes - Since our first film, Angano… angano… Nouvelles de Madagascar, which recounts Madagascar through the country’s tales and myths, we have been interested in oral transmission, handed down through the generations — “The Ears’ Inheritance”, as Malagasy people say. Whether it’s a tale, a verbal joust or a proverb, the spoken or sung word is at the heart of our filmmaking. Like in Saudade do Futuro, where street poets sing about Sao Paulo in improvised rhyme, the oral aspect is always what is most important and given expression on the soundtrack. Mahaleo naturally follows this same approach to the mise en scène of the spoken word. Mahaleo also write their songs “with their ears”, as Dama says. They don’t know how to write music scores and their lyrics are more often than not transcribed by their fans. In our film, we talk about Madagascar today using Mahaleo’s words and poetry. It seemed an obvious thing to do, as their songs are real chronicles of Malagasy everyday life. We haven’t added a single text or line of commentary to the film. What we did, was to relate their words to documentary images containing the narrative of how we saw things. The camera is always “apparent”; it doesn’t pretend not to be there. It is close to the people we film, usually through close-ups in order to better read the life that the faces hold, like true landscapes of the soul. The two?? melt into one another and suggest a new dimension of perception.
Marie-Clémence Paes - This gives different levels for reading into the film and that is exactly what we’re trying to do: have the spectators make this new dimension of the story their own. Some will see the energy, others the problems of water, others extraordinary men, others will just listen to the music… And there will be as many stories as there are spectators. That’s what’s magic in documentary film; each person can see things in their own way, depending on their individual experience.
Cesar Paes - Their concrete experiences in the field are what nourishes their songs and inspire their words. Where are the ideals they sing about, what guides their activities ? Commitment is perhaps the key word when talking about the Mahaleo. This commitment is the underlying theme of our film. How far should one go ? As far as entering politics ?
Marie-Clémence Paes - What’s particular about Madagascar is that it has experienced all possible kinds of government imaginable. The Malagasy people went from the Imerina kingdoms to unrestrained liberalism, via French colonisation, a republic and so-called democratic socialism. And yet the daily existence of the Malagasy peasants, who represent 80% of the population, has not changed. The governments change but the same issues remain. Mahaleo’s songs are about this state of affairs.
Raymond Rajaonarivelo - At first, they could say everything in their songs, and then little by little the net closed in. Some songs were not allowed on the air: Bemolanga, Politika and Rainvoanjo, for example.
Cesar Paes - In the seventies, a secret intelligence officer was even appointed to keep track of the movements – and above all the words – of the group’s members. But very quickly he became their greatest fan and struck up a friendship with them. He wrote some heavy tomes on them, in which are found not only intelligence reports on the seven musicians, but also their lyrics, the concerts where they were sung, by whom, the number of spectators, the discography and the history of the group. Today, these “bibles” are especially useful for Mahaleo, as often they have kept no track of the many songs they have written or the recordings they have made.
Cesar Paes - Marie-Clémence and I have always worked together. Even if we have different credits in our film, we have always done the writing and editing together. For Mahaleo, we were also with Raymond. We agreed beforehand on our wish to make a joint film. For the editing, we discussed at length; with the same “words”, we sometimes felt we wanted to write different stories. But in the end, the film’s story is one we both wanted to tell. Like two ways of seeing things: one from the inside and the other more distant. Our relationship was very complementary.
Raymond Rajaonarivelo - I direct fiction films and this is my first documentary. I was not really sure of the final result. Was I to make a film on songs? On a country? With musicians? We filmed the group in their daily life and on stage. Of course, we were aware of what we were shooting, but I didn’t have any preconception of the finished film. And then during editing, thanks to the discussions with Cesar, I realised and I felt that, with this film, rather than try and make it conform to a fixed structure – like in fiction – I had first to see how it developed naturally before going into the cutting. Because of this, the film became more alive, a little like a heart that is beating.
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