Cyrielle Raingou wins award for portrayal of childhood in the shadow of Boko Haram

Set close to where Cameronian Cyrielle Raingou was brought up in the northern part of the country, Le spectre de Boko Haram (The Ghost of Boko Haram) demonstrates the social and economic effects of living in a warzone where the national army is fighting terrorist organisation Boko Haram.

‘Eyes of innocents’

Winning the Rotterdam International Film Festival’s top Tiger award, Raingou’s debut film, shot from a child’s perspective, was described by the jury as “a story that centres on its filmmakers’ patient and honest gaze on the hovering presence of violence, seen through the eyes of innocents”.

Le spectre de Boko Haram calmly portrays daily life in a poor, remote village, far away from the capital and from the headlines of international media outlets. The children’s point of view includes fear, trauma, debate, regret, memory and hope.

Raingou has worked in NGOs since 2015, allowing her to travel to different villages in an effort to screen films, and encourage debate and discussions among residents of the war-torn and poverty-stricken areas where Boko Haram was heavily operating. In 2016, she left that work with the idea to make a film about how civilians are resisting the militant group.

“Firstly I wanted to make a film about a construction worker who lost his family in a strike [by Boko Haram] in an attack of retaliation against him as he was trying to build a weapon to help the government,” she tells The Africa Report during the Rotterdam Film Festival.

“I felt I was going to endanger the life of this person if I made this film, so stopped this idea,” she says.

She returned in 2018, and dove into village life. She met Ibrahim and Mohamed, the two protagonists of her film, showing the conflict from their eyes and their discussions.

“Their conversations are not filtered. They say what they feel,” Raingou says. Between 2018 and 2022, she would travel three or four times a year to further comprehend the dynamics of rural living, something she is not foreign to.

“If I didn’t grow up in a village, I wouldn’t be able to see things the way I saw them when I was making this film,” she says.

‘Code of the village’

Raingou’s teams had to abide by what she called “the code of the village” regarding addressing male elders, shooting in a warzone, passing security checkpoints, and limiting bureaucratic glitches. Living in Paris, Raingou would code-switch, changing her style to modest African print clothing with a hair cover.

“I didn’t want to make them feel that I am coming to change the way they live. In some cases, you must know your place as a woman,” she says, laughing.

“However, once I started to use my camera, for them I was not like any other woman in the village. I was the woman with the camera and I had a skill that made them trust and respect me.”

The children play and go to school in the film as shots are heard from adjacent areas in the distance. It is the soundtrack for many of these villages.

“I was there in places where Boko Haram was striking,” she says, describing their attacks as desperate.

“The fight is no longer ideological, as these terrorists are hungry in the mountains and climb down to steal food or cattle from the villagers, and the military is not telling everything to the population.”

The director stresses that the safety of her small team was a priority, which included a camera assistant, sound engineer, and driver. Coordinating with local government officials in Yaoundé and nearby districts to have the necessary papers and permits was key.

“Every time we headed to the village we told them, We come in peace. We are not there to disturb anything.” Most of the security services her team interacted with were trained military soldiers who sealed off the village each day from 5 PM to 7 AM to prevent infiltrators.

Recipe for making a film in Africa

Despite her law graduate savviness, Raingou faced challenges in trying to get the project funded.

The film crew struggled with funding. The project received support primarily from western francophone organisations. “They didn’t seem connected with the project,” Raingou says, adding that she doesn’t believe her film satisfies what she calls a recipe for African filmmaking that is screened in the west.

The documentary, unlike most of the footage covering Africa and jihadist insurgencies, does not play the card of portraying poor and victimised Africans. The village is indeed in a dilapidated state, but her film shows daily life and conversations that could take place anywhere in the world.

Two problems limiting African filmmakers today include the lack of a strong mainstream African film industry and dependency on foreign funders.

“I am a filmmaker because I want to change the narrative, the way my people, Africans, are being portrayed since cinema was invented,” she asserts, adding that citizens of Africa are more complex than how they have been traditionally portrayed.

The expectation of a political angle also comes into play. “That just knocks you into a box that prevents you from being innovative,” she says, adding that her film is already a political statement.

She equates this recipe to an extension of some colonial ideas. “You will see a certain pattern in different former colonised countries. There is a certain way of portraying the African. You cannot escape this box.”

She plans to privately screen her film in the village. “I won’t screen it publicly because it’s still a dangerous place for the main characters. I didn’t do anything that will harm them, and I was aware of that, but it would still be cool for them to watch.”

Audiences will screen Le Spectre de Boko Haram later this month, where it is featured as a documentary entry in the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Fespaco) in Burkina Faso.

Raingou’s journey with Cameroon continues, as does her interest in the communities touched by Boko Haram. Her next project, I am coming for you is a long feature film about a woman whose economic conditions push her to collaborate with the militants. The main character, banished by her community, attempts to return in order to get her daughter back.

“My dream is that all 54 countries in Africa will see my film. I don’t care if it’s in cinema clubs in tiny villages. I want all the people of Africa to watch the film because I make my films for them,” Raingou adds.

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