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London River

Actor Sotigui Kouyate talks about his involvement in London River

Sotigui Kouyate

What was it about Rachid’s screenplay that convinced you to do the film?
'The theme of the film doesn’t just concern Africa, but
the whole of society. That is, it is about the crisis of communication and the problem of identity. This is particularly relevant to Africa. I believe that every African has a duty towards Africa, since every African carries Africa within him. But Africa is terribly misunderstood –
by others and by itself: the word ‘Africa’, itself is such a superficial term, given the diversity of nations and peoples. African is 3 million metres squared – that’s the size of Europe, the States, China and Argentina all together! We can’t talk of it as if it were a single entity, there’s more to it than that. One of the interesting things about Rachid’s film is that he shows an older African travelling abroad to find out what Africans
abroad are like, what motivates them. Many films show African-Americans going back to the old continent to discover their roots, but this film shows the reverse of that. This, for me, is the first time I’ve seen that on film.'

'But while I am African, and always will be, what matters most to me is humanity. In any story, if the human being is not at its heart then it doesn’t interest me. London River is about the problems that life poses for mankind. It has to do with the attacks of 7/7, and it also talks of Islam, but these subjects are not at its heart. Rather, it wants to show the difficulties people have in accepting one another, the fear they feel.'

'It is a film about how we react to things, and this is what interests me. It teaches us that when you meet the other, don’t be scared to look them in the eye; for if you are brave enough to do so, you will finish by seeing yourself more clearly.'

'There’s an African proverb: “Take me back to yesterday” – which supposes, of course, that yesterday was something good. My first experience of working with Rachid was exactly that. We have so much in common, in terms of history and of humanity. And such openness, such respect for others, as Rachid has is rarely seen. When we were working on Little Senegal he would ask me to read the script and offer my thoughts and criticisms: this is very rare in a director. But more extraordinary still is that subsequently he’d adapt the script taking my thoughts into account. Such consideration creates a very positive tone from the outset.'

'So when, after Little Senegal , Rachid told me he wanted to work with me again, in my deepest soul I wanted nothing more. It took time – 8 years – but of course when he proposed London Riverto me I said yes straight away. And the instant we started shooting in London, I realised that I had never before felt such harmony on a shoot; there were no clashes or disagreements at all. We had our little difficulties – the weather was bad, some of the local residents were unhappy about the filming – but the whole team, from the runners to the producers, worked together so well... it was a real love story. And shooting in France, too, I had the same feeling. This is the Rachid’s great gift, that he is able to create a great complicity on set. I’ve rarely seen such complicity! You might say that it was like being part of a family. And because of this, the film came almost of its own accord. It delivered itself – but thanks to him.'

Like your characters, you and Brenda come from very different backgrounds. How did you find working together?
'After I’d said yes to doing the film, Rachid showed me this film that Brenda had been in, ‘Secrets & Lies , and we both agreed immediately that she should play the part of the English woman. However, we couldn’t find a time when both Brenda and I were free to film. I had no English, and she had very little French, but we had met, and we knew that we would work well together. So Rachid kept waiting. He knows what he wants –how to choose his stories, who he needs for the part – and he knows how to wait for it. It’s always a labour of love for Rachid. He’s very gentle, but also very determined.'

'Finally we found the right moment, and once we started shooting, thanks to Rachid the differences in background – not just between me and Brenda, but between all the crew – mattered little. Irrespective of race, nationality, and so forth we were all together in the adventure for the time of making the film. And in this atmosphere, it felt like Brenda and I had known each other for years. We were like partners. In Africa, we say that “what makes a beautiful bouquet is the variety of colours”. It’s in difference that one finds harmony.'

You bring your background as a musician and a griot, to the part for the parting song you console Jane’s mother with?
'Throughout the filming, Rachid had allowed us to improvise – he was constantly asking for our suggestions – so the work opened itself up to us. This scene, where the two characters say goodbye to one another – had to be a very powerful one. In the screenplay it was written that my character tells Brenda’s to be brave, and wishes her well before we part. Then we had the idea of a song, but the problem was that in such an atmosphere, singing might be somehow diminutive, banal; that it wouldn’t bring anything to the scene. In the end, we just decided to let the moment arrive, and the song that you see and hear in the film was what came to me. It is a very, very, very, old song, which my mother, (who was one of the great Malian chanteuses) used to sing to me as an infant, and which she continued to sing to me until the day she died. The words translate as something like:'

"In life, no one knows their destiny. Life is like that. You can say I’ve never had that, but that doesn’t mean you won’t ever have it. No one knows what the future holds. So every moment, every instant, you must live."

'It means, no one knows where we’ll end up. I might die in the forest; I might die in the City. Take Pascal Terry, the French motorcyclist killed during this year’s Paris-Dakar series. The organisers moved the race to Argentina because it was deemed too dangerous to retain the original route, but he died all the same. It’s the same with the character of my son in the film, and so this is the song that came to me, the song that I sang. I didn’t want to play at singing – I needed to feel it. It couldn’t be an intellectual thing. If I make a film, it’s not to be rich – evidently! – but because I love it. Rachid understands that.'

London River is available to buy on DVD now.


Win a copy of London River on DVD

Interview with Brenda Bleythn

Interview with Rachid Bouchareb

Interview with Sotigui Koyate

London River

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