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Mentors' Talk : Mamadou Dia : ‘‘A character is something you have to be able to follow’’

"Scripting and character building". This is the theme around which Senegalese filmmaker Mamadou Dia discussed with the 2022 talents of the Durban FilmMart. The online meeting took place on Friday 1 July 2022. The discussion, which is part of the sharing of experiences of film celebrities with emerging African directors, producers and critics, was an opportunity to talk, essentially, about the importance of character and character development in a film.

Character(s) and film story are linked

A film is always the story of a character'', said Mamadou Dia. To prove this, he first invited each of the participants in the session to summarise one of their favourite films in one or two sentences. In a second step, he used an excerpt from his feature film Nafi's Father (2019) to ask the participants to identify the important character and the elements that favour this identification. For the mentor, these two exercises help to realise that a film tells all or part of the life of a main character. The main character can take many forms. The main character can be a person, a group of people or an object.

In all cases, it must be possible to define him, that is to say, to characterise him by saying who he is and what he wants (or needs, the goal he is trying to achieve). In addition to these two crucial elements, there is his path to reach his goal and the result he achieves in the end (did he reach his goal or not ?). All these components are indispensable, he argued. Besides the central character, there are others with whom he interacts. The scriptwriter must also develop them carefully.

Develop the character(s) and the story

Once the character(s) have been defined, the story of the character(s) must be told, in other words, the story of the film. For this stage, Mamadou Dia recalled the importance of the three-act structure of a film : exposition, confrontation and resolution. According to him, mastering these three keys makes it possible to give the reasons that explain the characters' ways of being, acting and reacting. The evocation of his past is then useful to help build him up and make him credible, he added. It allows you to follow and understand his evolution: ''A character is something you have to be able to follow. You have to see his evolution and the changes he undergoes or not. Because a character can change at the end of the story or remain the same as in the case of the hero of the film Usual Suspect (by Bryan Singer, 1995)'', said the director.

Mamadou Dia also said that the scriptwriter and director are always faced with choices. One of the most important ones is how to introduce the hero in the film. In this respect, he used two extracts from two other films, namely Saving Private Ryan by Steven Spielberg (USA, 1998) and The Mandate by Sembène Ousmane (Senegal, 1968). He explained that the former introduces his hero through his evocation by other people ; while the latter shows his from the first images and remains attached to him.

For Mamado Dia, there are several choices for the main character's 'entrance into the scene'. And this determines the audience's support for the film. He took the example of the Senegalese director Moussa Sène Absa, who draws a lot of inspiration from African tales to introduce his hero, and showed how relevant it is to find original ways to do so.

Advice, encouragement and the mentor's journey

During the session, Mamadou Dia answered questions from the talents and gave them advice and encouragement. He suggested that they should not stop writing stories. To build their characters, he advised them to draw inspiration from the people around them. The mentor asked them to dare to give themselves up in their films like Djibril Diop Mambéty did in his film Hyènes (1992); because, he concluded, ''The more personal your film is, the better it is.

Mamadou Dia started out as a journalist before becoming interested in cinema as a scriptwriter, director and director of photography. With a master's degree in directing from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, he has directed several short films including Samedi Cinéma (2016). His first feature film, Le Père de Nafi (2019) received several awards, including Best Feature Fiction of the UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union) at the FESPACO 2021 as well as Best First Film and Golden Leopard in the ''Cinéastes du présent'' section of the Locarno Film Festival (Switzerland) in 2019.