“Africa needs a new self-awareness”

06.07.2011

The Berlin film maker Züli Aladaĝ is a Kurd born in Turkey. He is very familiar with the subject of integration. His 2005 drama Wut (anger) and the feature film Die Fremde (The foreigner) both deal with it. He has now written and directed a documentary and feature film on behalf of the save our nature foundation about the African continent and the Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) initiative. He describes how the project came about, the challenges he encountered and the lessons he has learnt from his work in Africa.

Mr. Aladaĝ, could you tell us first of all briefly how this project came about and what prompted you to do it.

Aladaĝ: About eighteen months ago I met Thilo Graf Rothkirch. He’s the chairman of save our nature and one of the most successful producers in Germany. He told me about his idea of producing a documentary and feature film on this subject — and before long we were talking about me as director. As a film maker I feel a commitment to entertainment but also to social issues. So this project was naturally very interesting for me. Africa has occupied us Europeans for a long time, and yet we still make lots of mistakes. We asked ourselves what kind of impact initiatives like Cotton made in Africa, which strengthen trade with Africa, can possibly have.

And what was the answer?

Aladağ: A huge one! I was surprised to discover how such a large network could have developed in such a short time. The initiative has only been in existence for six years but the system is already working. The local growers identify strongly with CmiA and are proud to be part of the initiative. Not surprising: they have been able to increase their harvests by an average of 40 per cent, payments come on time, and they receive training to increase their yields even more. They are part of a reliable system — and that motivates them.

Your documentary will also be about Cotton made in Africa.

Aladağ: Yes, the documentary explains the complex functioning of CmiA. The initiative takes a holistic approach: the cotton growers are given training in sustainable methods of cultivation and at the same time they have the possibility of selling their cotton on the world market through CmiA’s partners. Together with the partners in Africa, CmiA helps people to stand on their own two feet, use their potential and break out of the cycle of poverty. This is what we show in the documentary.

Where will the film be shown?

Aladaĝ: The film will be made available to schools together with accompanying material. Then it will be up to the teachers to make their pupils aware of topics like Africa and sustainable trade. We are currently in the final phase and I believe we have a very interesting film. I would also learn a lot from it — if I hadn’t made it myself!

Apart from the documentary you’re also working on a feature film on the same subject. Can you tell us something about it?

Aladaĝ: A little bit. The film tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy whose family lives from cotton growing. One day his father dies and it turns out that he wasn’t his biological father. The boy sets off on a journey to the big city to find his real father. In the meantime, bad harvests and rising prices cause difficulties for his mother. The film is about the dependence of people on agriculture.

And that’s where Cotton in Africa comes into the picture?

Aladaĝ: Yes. At some point the boy’s mother hears about an initiative to help cotton growers to help themselves. The principle behind Cotton made in Africa is explained. The film shows how the mother manages to use her potential to improve her situation herself. There are some small successes and the future looks hopeful. At the end, for example, the village school that had burnt down at the beginning of the film, is rebuilt.

And the boy?

Aladaĝ: He finds his feet in the city. He even lives for a while with Bushmen. At the end he returns to his roots in the village. And that’s all I’m going to tell you!

How did the idea for the film come about?

Aladaĝ: The basis for the screenplay was formed while we were travelling and filming the documentary. We spoke to lots of people in Benin and Zambia to get a feeling for their problems. We had a couple of ideas but it was not until a few weeks after our return that we were able to channel our impressions and develop the story.

You are an experienced film maker. What special challenges did this project present?

Aladaĝ: As Europeans we were faced with a key question from the outset: how could we talk credibly about Africa although we didn’t live there and didn’t have the same problems as the people there? We wanted to be truthful and not make a film about Africa through European eyes. That’s why the story is told by an African and there is no “white identifying figure”.

What impressions of Africa remain?

Aladağ: I was not surprised, but the optimism and the unassuming nature of the people are amazing. Their enjoyment of life, particularly the children, is inspiring. They were always the first to come up to us and pose before the camera. And they are also the key to Africa’s hope for a better future. Africa needs a new self-awareness so as to meet the rest of the world on equal terms — and education is the only way that they will be able to do so.

Finally, when can we expect to see the two films?

Aladaĝ: The documentary will be distributed to schools in early 2012. The feature film should be released two or three months later.