“Making a film is a political act” — An Interview with CRC 1265 guest researcher Ata Messan KOFFI

19. April 2024

CRC 1265 research fellow Ata Messan KOFFI in conversation with Zoé Perko

Making a film is a political act. Writing and production play out in a political arena with diverging agendas. From production to the final outcome, films about irregular migration from West Africa are distorted to fit certain narratives and agencies. Ata Messan KOFFI, a Togolese researcher and film producer whom the CRC had the pleasure of welcoming as a guest researcher in December of 2023, illustrates this dynamic by shedding light on his conflictual field.

Zoé Perko: Good morning. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today within the framework of your fellowship at the CRC 1265. Firstly, I would like to ask you to introduce yourself. What topic are you working on and how do you approach it as a researcher and a producer?

Ata Messan Koffi: First of all, thank you for this opportunity. My name is Ata Messan KOFFI. I’m a Togolese who has been living in Senegal for 10 years. I have a university background ranging from law to political anthropology at the University of Lomé in Togo, and communication and performing arts at the Gaston-Berger University in Senegal, and then also in political science with a specialization in diplomacy and international relations at the Geneva School of Diplomacy Africa. Professionally, I work as a production and media manager at CBN Afrique, an American NGO in Dakar, Senegal. In my PhD in information and communication science at the University of Bordeaux-Montaigne in the MICA Laboratory (Mediation, Information, Art, and Communication), I am currently working on the political representation of illegal immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa in cinema and television.

In my field of research, I combine my roles as a researcher and director-producer. I have acquired more than 10 years of experience in the development of film stories. In my filmography, there is a film called “Campus Monde”, for which I was the producer and also did participative observation from the conceptualization of the film to its final version. I was like an insider producer and an outsider researcher. In short, the two complement each other. The experience I gained through the media allowed me to deepen my research and better answer my research questions. And the research allowed me to be more than a producer on the set.

Zoé Perko: Great. For your research, what kind of media and films are you analyzing? Are these Senegalese media?

Ata Messan Koffi: I’m not only looking at Senegalese films because the representation of illegal immigrants as such, in cinema or in television, is more likely to come from outside of Africa. So, the films that I choose in this research are by European directors and African directors. For African films, I make a distinction: Firstly, an African making a film with his own funds, which is what I call the “internal” view. Secondly, there’s the mixed point of view, where an African has written a film and looked for a local producer. That producer then gets in touch with an international producer, who finally looks for funding. It’s like a chain. So, you have the director, who has the view from within, and the international co-producer and the people funding them, who have another point of view. Then it raises the question of influence and power in representation. Thirdly, there are films made entirely from the point of view of European or foreign authors and producers. I choose the films according to these viewpoints.

Zoé Perko: And how would you say undocumented migrants are typically represented? What is the difference between these different viewpoints?

Ata Messan Koffi: I don’t want to draw conclusions too quickly (laughs). However, what I can say is that there is a difference because this representation is sometimes stereotyped. It is politicized based on socio-economic, geo-strategic, political and artistic factors. If we put them together, we can say that there is a politicization of this kind of representation. Also in the production chains with all the actors involved, from the idea of the film to the final product, there is a kind of contrasting overlay. The author wants to make the film in a certain way, the international producer wants to make it in another way, because he is aware that the production of the film needs funding, so the producer has to make it in a certain way. That’s the first part. Then, the producer goes to an international network and knows that in order to receive funds from, for instance, the CNC (National Cinema Center) in France, he will need the story to be adapted. When he then gets in contact with television, they say that the film is good, but they need further adaptations for their audience. And then the grants from the OIF (International Francophone Organization) or the JCF (Young Francophone Creation) can also ask for changes. Knowing that all these grants are supported by European(s) and sometimes African states, everything is a compromise. And in the process, there is this politicization of the construction of the image of the illegal immigrant. The author, Nathalie Negrel, said that when you switch on your camera and start filming, it is a political act. From my understanding, she is saying that making a film is political, and this also applies to the representation of illegal immigrants and the global impact that this topic has.

Zoé Perko: Thank you for explaining this dynamic. What would you say are the main aspects that are being politicized? What do you think is the most crucial misrepresentation or emphasis depicted in the media that doesn’t accurately represent the actual lives of undocumented migrants?

Ata Messan Koffi: When I was doing research on illegal immigrants, one day I found an article from a French magazine, “Zone interdite”. Two French journalists went to Libya and paid three Cameroonians to film them as they made their journey, crossing the sea and going to Spain and later to France. But then it came out that they were paid to make the trip because, actually, they were thinking of going back to their country of origin when they were in Libya. Sometimes it’s like a fictionalization or an instrumentalization. Also, nowadays governments want to reduce illegal immigration. Therefore, they put more funding into films that present illegal immigration as bad. For instance, the film I produced, at one point in the production, we were contacted by the “Public Sénat”, which is the TV chain of the French parliament. They asked to direct the film and to emphasize the illegal part of immigration, saying that they could look for a person who fakes documents for other people – in exchange for funding. They wanted to go deeper into the illegal part, to show that Africans are making fake passports, fake documents, and so on, to help people leave the continent. But the film director was not okay with it, so he refused. Furthermore, from the shooting to the editing, the TV co-producer can ask to remove some parts from the film to fit the audience better. We also observe that the point of view of the writer-director or producer is influenced by whether he or she is from the departure, transit, or arrival zone. There are many factors that lead me to say that there is a politicization.

Zoé Perko: This is very interesting. So the political agency that makes undocumented migration look bad is used to legitimize their politics.

Ata Messan Koffi: Yes, it’s an agenda of a public and private collaboration between African governments, European governments, the European Union, and so on. Another example is that in another film I was producing, the director and I didn’t receive any funding for many years because the topic wasn’t the main target. But then when the director decided to write a film on illegal migration, we quickly got some funding.

Zoé Perko: I see. And what would you say would be, from your perspective, the most accurate representation of undocumented migrants? Or what aspects would you like to see represented more in the media?

Ata Messan Koffi: Like I was saying, shooting, making a film is a political act. It is a choice to make the audience see what I want them to see. And there needs to be a minimum of ethics in your viewpoint. One should avoid, for example, paying people to act, because with documentaries we are not in fiction. Because we call documentaries the “cinema of the real”.So if you’re doing “cinema of the real, you can’t fictionalize it, it’s not respecting these ethical standards.

Zoé Perko: Thank you. And you already talked a little bit about spatialization. Could you tell us what is specifically spatial in your work or what spatial approach you have in your work?

Ata Messan Koffi: Durkheim says that the social imposes itself on individuals, whether they like it or not, and not the other way around. So, a social fact is rooted in a spatial and temporal reality. I have explained that the space of origin of an actor influences the original representation of the authors. Specifically, in my work, this notion of spatiality is linked to the points of view that I was talking about: the point of view of departure area, the zone of transit, and the arrival side. The space of provenance of the authors, of the producers, of the funding societies and so on, they have a real impact on the construction of the political image of the illegal immigrant.

Zoé Perko: Thank you. You arrived at the CRC a few weeks ago. How has your experience been so far and what have been the highlights?

Ata Messan Koffi: I really enjoyed your presentation from the project C01 on regional mobility and free movement and speaking with Dr Séverine Marguin and Daddy Dibinga from subproject C06 about spatial stories and production regimes of afronovelas. There, we have notions of spatiality in relation to immigration, and it’s very much linked to my work. During a workshop at the CRC or the screening of two of my films, I also received great feedback. That’s what I came for. I really like the way people work here. I was impressed when I went to some of the offices and saw a lot of the cartography that they are doing, for example. I learned a lot from it. I came with some ideas, with some skills, but I’m leaving with a lot more. I also discovered sociologist Martina Löw’s theory of space, according to which people not only create space, but can also be elements of what we assemble as space (Löw, 2015: 158). Specifically spacing, which concerns the arrangement, the placement of goods, and the synthesis that associates these goods and people with a process of perception, representation and recollection. This theory enabled me to better identify the process of construction of intra- and extra-diegetic filmic space at work in the making of films about the illegal immigrant, and to better understand how the actors involved construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct its representation.

Author Information:

Ata Messan KOFFI is a Togolese living in Senegal, where he is Director of Audiovisual and Media Production at CBN International, an NGO. He is also a researcher and PhD candidate at Bordeaux Montaigne University in the MICA (Mediation, Information, Communication and Art) laboratory, where he is working on his thesis „The Political Representation of Undocumented Immigrants from Sub-Saharan Francophone Africa in Cinema and Television Documentary-Reports“. Straddling anthropology, political science and media studies, his research revolves around the representation of immigrants in the media.

Zoé Perko is a research assistant at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She conducts research in the CRC subproject C01 “The Borders of the World II: Conflicts and Tensions in the Formation of Macro-Territorial Borders” on border and migration regimes in regional integration arrangements, focusing on conflicts in regional migration governance.