Chérif Keïta, film director and William H. Laird Professor of French and the Liberal Arts, stumbled into teaching and directing almost on accident.
His new film, Namballa Keïta: A Soldier and His Village, which premiered this past Monday, April 8, is Keïta’s third, and explores the life and legacy of his father as a lifelong supporter of education who received literacy education while fighting for France during World War II. For Keïta, this film is more personal than his past two films, which although have been well-received, do not come from Keïta’s personal history the same way his new one does.
Ahead of the film’s premiere Keïta sat down to discuss elements of his past that brought him to filmmaking and this film in particular.
“This is all more challenging because it’s more personal to me compared to my other films,” said Keïta. “I mean, all those films have been challenging in a way. But this one here is more emotional. With this film I’m rediscovering my father.”
Keïta’s path to filmmaking has been a long and winding one, beginning with his childhood in Mali, and his father’s commitment to education.
Keïta originally intended to pursue a career in archeology while living in his home nation of Mali. But when he received an acceptance to study English and Russian translation, he was whisked away to Belgium where he spent his undergraduate years immersed in the art of translation. However, when he finished his degree, Keïta faced a crossroads between returning home and forging his own path.
“When I finished my degree, around that time, I was supposed to go back to Mali to work for a Foreign Affairs Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but we had a military government and I didn’t want to go back,” Keïta explained. “So I decided well, I’m going to find another place to buy some time. So the U.S. became that place.”
Enticed by promises of funding and jobs as teacher’s assistants, Keïta began sending applications to U.S. universities in pursuit of studying translation. To his surprise, many departments encouraged him to apply to French departments, where they explained he might have more success. Keïta took this change as an opportunity to “broaden his horizons” and ended up at the University of Georgia. There, Keïta studied French and romance languages and completed a minor in African politics and history.
However, another element of his past would also draw Keïta to teaching, something he would only rediscover later.
“My nickname as a young boy was after a very holy man in the Muslim tradition, somebody from Guinea,” explained Keïta. “When you name your child after somebody important or even after your parents you cannot call them by their first name, you see so you call them by a title of respect. So teacher was this holy man’s title. And as a young boy, I was always called ‘Karamoko.’ It means teacher. So there is some work of destiny.”
Carleton was Keïta’s first teaching job in 1985 after completing his PhD, and he has been here ever since. Between 2000 and 2012 he led OCS programs to Mali, where he began to reacquaint himself with the work of his father, who died in 1999. The film marks the twentieth anniversary of Namballa Keïta’s death.
Keïta learned to be a filmmaker by necessity. He wanted a new way to present his research, and film provides a compelling way to share that research with others and allow it to circulate to audiences who otherwise may not get to hear about it. And for Keïta, one of the primary forces driving him to make films is precisely to allow his work to circulate more broadly and correct moments where marginalized people have been left out of history textbooks.
“I’m hoping that my film really will correct some things,” said Keïta. “This is really important. See that’s this personal story of my father, and I want to correct some mistakes or at least some wrongs in the telling of the collective history. My father was a representative of a whole generation whose place in history needs to be established, and they’ve got to get the recognition.”
Keïta is referring to the men in colonial French West Africa who spilled their blood for the French nation, often in return for literacy, which many were denied under the colonial government. This literacy the elder Keita received while fighting abroad served as the foundation for his belief in education.
“This little piece of writing that I found where my father has written, education is the foundation of a nation, so he built this in reality,” said Keïta. “He realized that there’s no independence for Mali without education.”
Namballa Keïta’s prophecy proved true, as he opened up a school in his village in Mali just two weeks after Malian independence. It would be the first independent school to open in the newly independent nation. Along with the challenges outlined in the film, the school eventually gave rise to a new generation and invigorated an entire community.
Keïta didn’t become aware of his father’s impact until after his death, at his father’s funeral, having left Mali at a young age for Belgium.
“As a teenager, you don’t appreciate your parents,” Keïta reiterated. But through return trips to Mali, he began to see a clearer painting of his father, which inspired the new film.
“He had a mission also to improve the condition of his community,” said Keïta. “So I mean, over the decades, I was gaining maturity. All this experience really made me appreciate him. I mean he was a man of vision, but I was just too young when I left.”
Keïta’s last two films have been critically acclaimed, finding their ways into international film festivals and earning Keïta interviews with places like NPR and BBC. But in Keïta’s mind, those projects prepared him for this one.
“If I’m here today, it’s not something I would take for granted,” said Keïta. “It’s the result of a long long journey, which can be enlightening to to you and others. My father has taught me that education should not be taken for granted. And that’s why I’m here.”