Visual essay: La vie sur terre (continued)

Nana is at the tailor. Her image appears again framed by the tailor’s entrance as she is being measured for new clothes. A close up shows her smiling as she glances at the camera or potentially the photographer peering in from a long reverse shot. The image carries its own mystery. The viewer must decipher the meaning. Here again one could see the director’s stylistic method: He does not impose meaning and modes of representation upon what he came to film. He raises questions and promotes thought rather than give interpretations or answers. The scene features a rare close up that captures Nana’s beauty and seduction, maybe an answer to Césaire’s line, “to your hideous open wounds.”
Indeed, the director’s choice to privilege medium shots and wide angle shots as opposed to close ups is to respect a certain distance, not intruding upon the intimacy of the village life. Visually he observes from a distance and lets various movements (bikes, animals, people walking…) enter the camera’s field of vision. The photographer in the following shot is combing his hair and grooming, perhaps as a response to Nana’s smile or in preparation for his day’s work.
Women pass by tranquilly on donkeys from off screen followed by a lumbering man. The live sound of the village establishes the slow pace of the daily rhythm. Just as a man walking and listening to a radio on his shoulder, the sound of the radio transitions to….
…the radio station and presenter, who has a guest speaker that will later talk about the dilemma of birds eating the village crops. The guest speaker looks around slightly which brings the camera to a close up: a poster of the British royal family that seems out of place amongst old broken radios hanging on the wall. The sound of a plucking stringed instrument then leads to….
…. a high angle wide shot that moves from the radio station to the main village square. The shot is of a photographer and men sitting in the shade of a tree listening to the radio while farm animals are crossing by. This wide-angle shot and fixed image allows emphasis on the village’s movements. It shows the movements of Dramane ....

… and Nana who missed each other cycling through the village square. It shows movement of goats and cattle and some people, contrasting with the immobility of others: men sitting in the shade of an overhanging roof built of straw.

A temporal rhythm is set up for the film. The film progresses in close communion with people’s daily life in public space in the Malian village, dominated by a certain sense of drowsiness, yet also filled with the normal village movement and activities.
The following scene creates a whimsical atmosphere of comical misunderstanding: a man and the photographer are conversing holding a magazine and seem to comment on a “beautiful Japanese” woman .... .... which a close up reveals to be a car. Daily life provides the viewer with a bit of lighthearted comic relief.
In the next scene, the camera captures Dramane in an everyday routine, in an outside bathroom. He appears suddenly from behind the mud wall, shaving. Nana is riding her bike in a street of Sokolo. She is smiling and dressed in her new outfit. The scene is quite familiar; the viewer is now accustomed to seeing Nana on her bike riding in the village. But it is also slightly different for the mise en scène. She rides toward the camera, suggesting the idea of a destination in a rather narrow street.
Nana stops in front of Dramane who smiles as he sees her. Nana enters the frame. They initiate a conversation, first starting with traditional greetings and moving on to a more intimate interaction. The setting reinforces the sensuality of the scene: Dramane’s chest is both completely exposed and at the same time concealed. The disposition of the scene, a wall separating the two protagonists and concealing Dramane’s body, creates a sense of discrepancy but also opposition: Dramane is placed a little higher in the image and Nana is slightly below. Dramane is limited in his movements by the wall and shaving, whereas Nana on her bicycle is likely to depart at anytime; Nana is very well dressed and Dramane is half naked with his face covered in lather.

Under this coincidental and traditional mutual ceremony of greeting, a seduction scene is taking place. The dialogue also reflects ambivalence, as Nana does not want to reveal where she lives, nor is Dramane prepared to meet her somewhere.

A close up of the mirror gives a subjective sense to the scene: the camera takes Dramane’s point of view. However the exchange of looks is mediated by a mirror, in which the viewer can see Dramane’s reflection. The indirect camera-view of the actor-director, even if he is looking at Nana and not at the viewer, creates a layered and elaborate image of different perspectives that unfold in sobriety and simplicity.

Back at the post office, the phone rings, and the traditional soundtrack string music starts playing. A certain Marie is calling from Paris for Dramane. The postmaster asks her to call back in 10 minutes. Someone is buying a cigarette from the street merchant. The radio is on and the presenter informs the listener that he has to stop the program: “I have to end our program now. It’s time for me to return to my duties: chasing the birds.” This reveals that the presenter is a volunteer on the community radio, further emphasizing that it functions on limited and unstable resources.
After a few shots in the radio station, the next scene changes to a fixed shot of a little boy (seen previously at the post-office) playing soccer. Like the previous scene with Nana on her bike, the camera is fixed and the little boy is coming toward the camera. The traditional music from the radio plays, establishing continuity. The boy’s soccer ball is hitting Dramane’s father’s bed. The simplicity of the scene results in a coincidental action, that sets up a subplot between the characters. Such sobriety and sophistication within the setting, like the whole movie, are seemingly part of an intended formal simplicity, but these coincidental actions also create profound and elaborate layers of representations open to the viewers’ interpretations.
Back at the post office, the International French Radio broadcast announces that the new millennium will occur in 14 hours. The message on the radio and the images of daily activities in Sokolo create a disjunction between the peaceful village life and a distant Europe that is invisible yet omnipresent. The temporal tension (where are we going to be in 2000?) is subverted within itself. Inhabitants of Sokolo are not expecting great change at the passage of the millennium.

The camera tracks from men sitting listening to International French radio, to the photographer, to merchants by the tree, and finally to a donkey carriage and Dramane on his bike, as the radio continues to describe the celebrations of the millennium in Paris:

“In Paris, thousands are expected to attend local dances and fireworks displays. Huge crowds are expected at the Eiffel Tower. For 1000 days, it has been counting down to the year 2000.”

The only countdown in the village of Sokolo is a barrel falling off a donkey cart.


Men are drinking tea, listening to the radio. The recurring shot is from a slight and subtle variation of angle. Nana again passes by, creating curiosity as some of the men turn their heads to follow her ride. Dramane is at the post office and could not return his call to Marie in Paris. If news from Paris reaches the village, the return communication does not seem to function: “It’s hard to reach people. It’s a question of luck,” remarks the postmaster, as the film insists upon the coincidental aspect of communication.
In the next scene, the photographer is taking a picture of a woman and the soundtrack of traditional music begins. Dramane rides his bike in the background. The following shot is a frontal view of the women that corresponds to the photographer’s perspective. His camera, an old yellow model, can recall “the lumière box camera” evoking cinema’s origin [8]. [open notes in new window] The photographer’s old camera participates in the various plays on reflections, mirror images, and frames within frames that occur throughout the movie. .... ....These different layers of representations or mise en abîmes create an ambiguity and frustrate the idea of authenticity as they destabilize meanings of representations. Often these compositions underline the contrived aspect of visual representation. Like the radio, which chronicles the daily life of villages or capitals, the photographer also captures an image of the village reality: he participates in the mediation between reality and its reflection, and he contributes to the unstable genre of documentary fiction. [9]
In this shot, the mise en abîme reaches a third layer as the camera and photographer are filmed through the hairdresser’s mirror. The noise of the scissors accompanies the background music. .... .... As Nana passes on her bike, seen in the mirror, the camera turns to the hairdresser from where the noise of the scissors originates. The hairdresser is following her passing on the bike reinforcing again the men’s seductive curiosity towards Nana.
A villager voices in Bambara the problem of the birds eating the rice crop and political authorities’ indifference and lack of action. Men sitting by the wall listen to the broadcast as the shade decreases. Back at the radio, the presenter acknowledges the complaint. Back at the post office, communication is still not working. A man is trying to call a store.


The next scene is comprised of different shots in and around the village linked together by the stringed instrument as the sunlight declines. The repeated long shot of the men moving their chairs into the shade re-emphasizes the impression of slowness and progression of time. There is a tracking shot of Dramane on his bike, followed by a wide angle shot at the river outside the village. The successive images give a sense of harmony between the village and its surroundings. The space is harmonious and much goes on within it in an integral flow of activity. The constant movements and animals connect spaces within and outside the village. No areas seem inaccessible, protected or forbidden. Only the birds threatening the crops serve to counterbalance the harmony of the integrated landscape.