Grad student Vlad Dima makes connections between French and African cinema
By Vlad Dima, Ph.D. candidate
In 2004, after completing a master's degree at the University of Minnesota with an emphasis on feminist Quebecois writing, I found myself at an academic crossroads. While I still had more to understand about feminine identity in Quebecois writing, my interest in film was continuing to grow. I had taken film courses in college and graduate school, but my interest in film was sparked by a stay in Dakar, Senegal.
During the few months I spent in Dakar, I had the great good fortune to attend the premiere of Faat Kiné, directed by Ousmane Sembene, one of Africa's most influential filmmakers. Little did I know at the time that out of a personal and emotional attachment to Senegal would grow an entire dissertation chapter about Sembene's film. Being a Romanian who studies French and francophone cinema in the United States, I found in Senegal my perfect "third space." While I was in Dakar I felt more at home than anywhere else in the world. Its cinema and its marginalized characters resounded within me. It was only natural that I should want to unveil more of that place and its cinema to this side of the world.
Courses on Western African film and on Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave, together with the exciting opportunity to teach my own version of an introductory film course, intensified my interest in cinema. Alongside my studies, I have tried my hand at actual filmmaking, as a way to put in practice the theories I was studying, and I managed to write and shoot two projects, Still Life (2005) and At the Gates of Levant (2007), both of which had very successful screenings on campus.
My current research brings together two fields, French New Wave and Senegalese cinema, which have never been analyzed in relation to one another. The critical issue I am exploring through my dissertation research is how film can help us understand the idea of modernity and its effects. My dissertation aligns the films of three pairs of Senegalese and French directors. Jean-Luc Godard and Djibril-Diop Mambety, for instance, directed films that play out the struggle between image and meaning, as their films turn in upon themselves to create, recreate, and permutate the stories they tell. Ousmane Sembene and François Truffaut make modernity visible by casting an indirect gaze upon characters who dwell in marginality. These characters recall the flâneur depicted by the 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire. For Baudelaire, the flâneur, or stroller, was the epitome of modernity, a person who moved through the city and through life propelled by idleness and curiosity, always detached and alone. Agnès Varda and Safi Faye create female characters who emerge from marginality, struggling to assert their own voices and undermine the primacy of the male subject in cinema on the level of image and sound. The work of all six directors explores modernity thematically but also technically, through their fascinating characters but also through the wandering, witnessing work of the camera.
As I begin my last year of graduate school, I plan to complete my dissertation and begin the next chapter in my intellectual adventure and academic life. My passion for film will continue, and I look forward to developing it further in my research and sharing it in the classroom.