Dreams and elegant perseverance

Recently, news reached me of the death, last month, of Simon Pierre Bell, filmmaker, film festival organiser, eternal optimist and a friend.

‘Drop everything and make sure you get here.’ It was not exactly in those terms that he invited me to the first edition of “Images en Live”, a documentary festival that he and his friends had organised in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé but sure enough that is what he meant.

We had met two years previously at a jazz festival in the Senegalese town of Saint Louis and had kept in touch. Bell (which is how he signed off his emails and how everyone called him) was immersed in arts. Film especially, but his curiosity ensured he enjoyed many art forms, including music, hence the jazz festival meeting. And fashion, he had a marvellous knack for sartorial elegance.

“Images en Live” was his idea. ‘We are inundated by work about us, but not by us,’ he told me. ‘We have countless foreign filmmakers coming here to put together documentaries – about us. I think it would be ideal for us Africans to realise our own images.’

There were more layers to his initiative. Not only were these locally made films (including his own); they were also meant to showcase what the young of his city, his country were capable of. ‘People should have some confidence in us. We do what we say,’ he told me on the opening night of the first “Images en Live”. Was that the mildest of rebukes to a political class that talked a lot and had achieved next to nothing? Could be.

Because here’s another layer: creating your own images and showing them to the world is liberating in and of itself. But, insisted Bell, it also does something else: ‘As documentary makers we ask difficult questions to the society we live in and try to change people’s mentalities. You don’t achieve this by importing images.’ The first festival featured at times confrontational but also humoristic insights into life in what everyone (who doesn’t live there) thinks is a dangerous slum, government-mandated house demolitions, adoption, living with polio, story telling, changes in rural Cameroon and much more…

Donors were not that interested, initially. But that did not deter him, in two ways. First off, he, his family and friends managed to finance the entire first edition of “Images en Live” from their own pockets. It took place in December 2009. But second, he coolly went back to the donor community after the success of that first edition and found them more open to his ideas. Lesser mortals like myself would have told them to get lost forever but resentment versus healthy pragmatism? No contest.

Opening night, first "Images en Live", Yaoundé, 8 December 2009

Opening night, first “Images en Live”, Yaoundé, 8 December 2009. Picture by this blogger. 

Films about here, made here, by filmmakers from here required an audience from here. That posed a problem because the number of cinemas that could be used for that purpose in Yaoundé had dwindled to…zero. They had been turned into places of worship, supermarkets, warehouses. Was there a solution? Always.

The two foreign cultural centres in town, French and German, offered their projection halls. Fine for the expats and the local bon chic bon genre who frequent these places. ‘We cannot do without them,’ Bell insisted. ‘But we also have a traveling cinema. We are bringing film to the people! If we don’t do this they will think that film is just for the elites and that’s not true. They should be able to see these images as well, ask questions and contribute to the evolution of this society.’ It was not easy.

One night, behind a parking lot and watched by some disinterested shop owners, the organisers and a dwindling crowd of spectators waited until the crew showed up – hours late – with the projector and the mobile screen. The next night though, revenge was sweet as a much larger crowd of people showed up, watched the films, stayed on and discussed until late in the evening. Luckily, this was within walking distance of his own home, which he had generously converted into a B&B. For me.

 

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The festivals continued, every year, in December. I received an invitation for the second edition and never made it. Flying from Dakar to Yaoundé is insanely expensive and I was unable to cover even less than a quarter of the airfare. After “Images en Live” Second Edition, Bell sent me an email and said this time it had exceeded all expectations: full houses everywhere, projections all over town that had pulled large crowds. So, a visit to number three then? That was on the cards but the one airline that made this connection without taking me halfway around the world folded that year, 2011, thanks to the Ivorian political crisis. We stayed in touch through the internet, on the phone occasionally and kept on mentioning meeting up again, for his graduation earlier this year, for the next festival…

At the opening night of the very first “Images en Live”, I asked him where we would be in five years’ time. He was characteristically optimistic and predicted a festival in full bloom, a window on a centre of excellence in documentary making. None of us had the faintest idea that this next edition of “Images en Live”, five years after our conversation, would happen without him. It will be a tribute, it must be. Here’s to you, Simon Pierre Bell, to your life, your work and your dreams. They will surely live on and you will surely be part of them.

If anyone reading this is in Yaoundé, there is a special evening in his honour on October 14, at the Institut Français.

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