Living and Building in Chad
“The road to development depends on the development of the road,” has become a much-used slogan of the Chadian government. This could be Ethiopia, Namibia, Tanzania or almost any other African country. An asphalt road being constructed through a desert. Foreign construction managers, local workers, villagers and pastoralists living side by side in a microcosm. Opportunities and hopes being crafted and traditional lives and livelihoods challenged.
But this is Eastern Chad and the worksite for the construction of the road leading from N’Djamena to the city of Abeche near the Sudanese border. And this is diverse society portrayed by French filmmaker and visual artist Clémence Ancelin in her new documentary called Living/Building. Shot largely with a handheld camera and using ambient sound, Clémence stunningly and impartially depicts the worlds of the French expats, the African managers and the skilled workers living in three adjacent base camps along with the local villagers, the merchants and the nomads who all have different hopes and expectations to the “development” the road is brining along.
We asked Clémence about the intentions behind Living/Building and the challenges she faced in the Chadian miniature world.
Was it an explicit objective of yours not to portray the conflicts but instead the ties between the construction workers, villagers and pastoralists?
That was indeed an important challenge of the film to show that it is not a question of who has taken the road for development as opposed to the others, because in Chad, they’re not in that type of binary configuration. For example, at the beginning of the film when we pass from the visit of the nomad camp to the road works in the desert with the workers who kill the goat to prepare the meal, our idea was precisely to show that these workers, the artisans of development dressed in blue and fluorescent yellow, are also people who know how to live in the desert, that is to kill, to gut and cut up a goat, and to cook it on a fire of brush wood they have gathered there, exactly as the nomads and villagers do. I wanted to present this complex situation.
What surprised you most in the relations between the different cultures gathered around the work site?
When I arrived on the worksite for the first time and started to explore the area, I discovered that in the space of a few square miles in the middle of the Sahel Desert, there were all sorts of extremely different people living side by side, with lifestyles that illustrated the North-South relations in a nutshell. That surprised me a lot !
It seems the pastoralists, the villagers, the workers and the managers all have different expectations to the outcome of the road as well as different perceptions of what ‘’development’’ means. Do you see any common denominator at all across these groups?
The common denominator is that for everybody this new road is considered as means. Means of doing many different things, of fulfilling many different plans, but means for all of them.
Road construction through the desert, disruption of lives and livelihoods of pastoralists, the creating of new opportunities, these are themes relevant across the African continent in these years (although in many places the construction projects are led by the Chinese, not the Europeans). Would you say there are any specific Chadian features of the context, location or interaction in the film?
In that film I wasn’t looking for Chadian specificities but for common destiny. I have been deeply interested to meet Chadian culture, and to film specific Chadian cooking, building, weaving or crushing the millet gestures, but for me the film could have been made in any other African bush where an asphalted road arrives.
Filmmakers doing documentaries in Africa often face challenges, especially when treating potentially sensitive issues such as prestigious infrastructure projects. What were the biggest challenges for you?
One of the two most important challenges of the film was to start from a totography, a description, a kind of contemplative walk on these maybe five square miles, to get ahead building a topology of this place, proposing a statement of the issues of the situation. The other challenge was not to isolate the questions, not to treat them separately, but together, in the aggregate. Show that things are linked together, that you cannot really talk about the specificities of Chadian lifestyle in the bush without talking about multinational companies.
Living/Building was selected for this year’s Berlinale. Since the Berlinale, the film has been screened in many different festivals in the past few months around Europe and in South America. It will be screened at CPH:DOX (Copenhagen International Documentary Festival) this week, then at the IDFA (Amsterdam) in november (20 and 21), and then in Paris and suburb (24/11 at the “Forum des images” - 4/12 at “Le Luxy” cinema of Ivry/Seine - 8/12 at “Les Ecrans Documentaires” Film festival of Gentilly).
All photos: Clémence Ancelin