Passed by Cannes then by many festivals, Aïssa Maïga’s documentary “Marcher sur l’eau” takes us to the north of Niger, where global warming keeps parents and children away and directly threatens a way of life.
Walk on water
Directed by Aïssa Maïga – In theaters this week
Walking on Water was filmed in northern Niger between 2018 and 2020 and tells the story of the village of Tatiste, a victim of global warming, which is struggling to have access to water through the construction of a borehole. Every day, fourteen-year-old Houlaye, like other young girls, walks for miles to fetch water, essential to village life. This daily task prevents them, among other things, from being diligent at school. The lack of water also pushes adults to leave their families each year to seek beyond the borders the resources necessary for their survival. However, this region covers in its basement an aquifer lake of several thousand square kilometers. Under the impetus of the inhabitants and by the action of the NGO Amman Imman, a borehole would bring the much coveted water to the center of the village and would offer everyone a better life.
Documentaries linked to the environment often evoke nature, climatic impacts or the disappearance of species, with a “macro” vision. Your film, on the contrary, wishes to show the consequences of global warming on a village, with a “micro” and humanist vision.
Aïssa Maïga (director): Absolutely. I didn’t see myself making an expert film, with an explanatory voice-over and scientific or philosophical considerations. With Walk on water, I wanted to make a film with the people who are primarily concerned, namely the inhabitants of certain parts of the world, notably in West Africa.
West Africa is both the place where I was born, Senegal, and also the place where I went on vacation a lot to Mali with my father’s family. It is a region to which I am very attached, which for me is completely linked to the family question and the question of lack.
When I had the opportunity to make the film, I became interested in Azawak, this extremely arid area in this landlocked country that is Niger. What struck me was to discover that the Wodaabe Peuls who are originally nomads, and who were for the most part completely so until 25 years ago, were today jostled in their daily life and in their way of life by the lack of water due to global warming, which is at least 95% due to greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized countries.
There is therefore this extremely poignant fact, which is that children find themselves isolated in the villages. The men, the husbands, leave with their cattle herds and what remains of their herds further and further away, in increasingly dangerous areas to find pasture. Mothers and women go to the capitals of neighboring countries. And the children then find themselves isolated and precarious. This is due in large part to climate change.
It was something that overwhelmed me and I wanted to make a film at the level of being human. A film which shows how this young girl, Houlaye, who is 14 years old, who goes to school and who would like to be able to be diligent, finds herself at the head of her family. I wanted to show the condition of fathers, the condition of mothers, so that the spectator can identify with him. And I also wanted to talk about school: the way in which this teacher we see in the film has a passion for his profession and at the same time the way in which children are prevented from attending school because of water chores which are too numerous.
You talk about a film at the height of a human being, and that goes particularly through the form with the absence of voice-over to let the protagonists speak, or shots as close as possible to the children …
Yes, the form is really something I wondered about a lot at the start. I wanted to make a real film, a film for the big screen, a cinema film with a rather sophisticated aesthetic, but not for free. It’s not just to look good.
For me, the Sahel is first and foremost a part of the world that moves me. The landscapes move me. The lights touch me. And the faces, the postures, the relationships, the children: these are beings who are for me vehicles of emotions. Because that’s how I look at it, that’s how I experience it and that’s how I wanted to restore it to the image.
And then, apart from my personal point of view, for me it is also a question of restoring dignity because we are talking about people who are in great destitution, but who are not devoid of pride or dignity. And that, I wanted it to be seen in the image, because it simply corresponds to reality.
And so, I worked in this direction with my cinematographer Rousslan Dion to have a strong framework, to capture the lights, to have an aesthetic and narrative point of view that is built over the course of the film.
The dignity of these inhabitants is indeed extremely striking and moving. On these faces there is possibly a tear flowing, but rarely more. And we imagine that when we are in the field, behind the camera, these moments are overwhelming …
Yes, especially since these are moments that people agree to show. And that is only possible because we build a relationship of trust, because the people who are filmed feel that you want the camera to catch all of this so that the world can see.
These discussions that I had with the village chief, with the teacher, with the children, with the women, often led us to a place which was for the world to know what was going on. People need to know what mothers have to sacrifice in their presence with children in order to survive due to the harsh climate which is being disrupted by human activity in industrialized countries, again.
Because Niger is not a polluting country, Niger’s carbon footprint is quite low. Simply, it is a place close to the Sahara in which global warming is much faster than in our latitudes.
This question of emotions was difficult to handle because the Peuls, like many nomads in Africa or on other continents, are peoples who are exposed to climatic rigors and extreme conditions sometimes, and they are of a very great dignity. A code of honor, even, you could say. Pride.
And that, I did not want to betray him at any cost because that is also what was bequeathed to me. It was in this state of mind that I was brought up. And it’s not something that I often see in the cinema: the restitution of this Sahelian soul, which is really once again made of a lot of pride.
You shot the film between 2018 and 2020, we are almost in 2022, when the COP26 is being held and the forecasts are more and more alarming. Three years later, do you still have as much hope as when you started this documentary?
Sometimes I can be a little down, like any citizen. When we hear the news and every year in August, we are told that we have exhausted the reserves of this planet; that they tell us the list of species that are extinct or in the process of being so; when I see the extent of inequalities in general, but also in the face of the climate issue; when I hear that 2.2 billion people do not have access to drinking water; and when I also see a kind of inertia on these questions on the part of the public authorities, including the international bodies, yes, I can have moments of dejection.
But that said, I’m more of an optimist. It is not lightness. It really is a philosophy of life. I believe that we have a capacity for resilience, the ability to overcome our wounds and our blockages both at the private and collective level. And that gives me a lot of hope. What also gives me hope is to see how citizens, in more and more places in the world, are rising up, coming together, mobilizing to push leaders to make the right decisions.
And then, I believe that cinema, or art in general, has a role to play. It can be done in many ways. This film is a proposal. There are plenty of other things to do that can speed up the particles a bit and raise awareness. And I think we have the means to be inventive and creative to change the world for the better.
It is in this state of mind, moreover, that you co-signed the column published by Cyril Dion as part of the Cannes Film Festival last July, which questioned the role of the 7th Art in the face of ecological issues.
Yes, absolutely. I have a lot of admiration for Cyril Dion (director of tomorrow and Animal, Editor’s note). First, because he is a tireless activist for the climate and the environment. Then because he knows how to tell stories: he is an advocate for this cause who is eloquent on the subject, he does a very important groundwork and he manages to combine that with form.
And then, moreover, in relation to this selection of which our two films and five others were the subject of the Cannes Film Festival, he was able to bring us together. It is really under his personal impulse that this column was written, that this press conference of the seven films for the climate took place. He is someone who brings people together and who is very informed. He is a scholar of these matters, which I am not, and I feel I have a lot to learn from him.
Finally, I am very touched by the way in which he supports my approach and my film, which he also recently came to see in preview. I hope it will be a real traveling companion.
Your film, beyond Cannes, has had a lot of echoes since then in festivals, and in particular with young audiences. Did you expect this to affect a generation that may not necessarily be used to documentary format? And that what you filmed resonates with them?
Walk on water has really been designed, among other things, at the height of a child. I wanted multiple keys, multiple entry points. Telling lonely childhood is something that spoke to me. I was very privileged, I was very lucky in life, but I also had my parts of drama, of tragedy: I lost my father when I was 8 years old, I didn’t didn’t grow up with my mom and I really got to know her when I was 17. And so, childhood in the solitude of these wounds is one of the connections I have with Tatiste’s children. And I was keen to show that. To show how much for children it is to see parents move away regularly.
And then I did it too so that the children who watch the film can understand it. I wanted to make a family film, that is to say a film that could be seen by adults AND children, and that everyone would benefit from it in a certain way. With enough complexity but to keep things crystal clear for it to be audible to different audiences.
And the rewards we have had – notably at Mon Premier Festival with the Audience Prize and the Prize for the best music by Uèle Lamore who did an incredible job – these are prizes of which I am very proud and which foreshadow a interest of young people in our film. Moreover, there is an incredibly well done educational booklet that was produced by a teacher for teachers. And then the site proposes to go beyond the film through information and various actions for adults AND for children.
This approach is fully in line with what is called “impact cinema”, which is carried by the company Echo Studio and your producer Jean-François Camilleri.
Yes quite. It’s really the idea of making a film that can pose a problem, reveal a complexity of a sociological, environmental or other order, and that beyond the film, a positive change can take place in society.