About A Conversation on Paulin Vieyra

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In this virtual conversation moderated by IU Cinema Director Alicia Kozma, former Black Film Center & Archive Director Terri Francis and IU Associate Professor of Francophone Studies Vincent Bouchard will discuss the career of Paulin Vieyra and the donation of his papers to the Black Film Center & Archive by his son, Stéphane Vieyra.

Paulin Vieyra’s multidisciplinary career as a filmmaker, producer, and scholar is central to West African film history. In 1955, Vieyra directed the first substantial film by a French-speaking sub-Saharan African, Afrique sur Seine. This 21-minute, 16mm film with Marpessa Dawn, star of Black Orpheus (1959), was co-directed by aspiring filmmakers Jacques Melo Kane and Mamadou Sarr and shot by Robert Caristan. This quartet became known as The African Cinema Group. The film’s ironic title highlights the incongruous locations of Africa and the Seine River in Paris, where Vieyra was the first African admitted to study at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC, now known as La Fémis). Vieyra went on to serve as a mentor and production manager for Senegalese filmmakers, including Ousmane Sembène and Ababacar Samb Makaram, and he was a founding member of film institutions that have an enduring impact today, particularly The Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and the PanAfrican Film Festival (FESPACO). Vieyra organized equipment and personnel for Sembène’s Borom Sarret (1963), the first of many transformative films by Sembène, and he wrote Sembène into film history with Sembène Ousmane cinéaste: première période, 1962-1971 and Le cinéma au Sénégal.

In the late 1950s, officially invited by Léopold Sédar Senghor, Vieyra settled in Dakar, Senegal, staying through the 1960s, where he took on a supervisory role at the Actualités Sénégalaises. Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of independent Senegal, had appointed Vieyra as the first director of the Senegalese Office for Radio Broadcasting and Television and the Science and Information Technology Research Centre. In this role, he was tasked with organizing the media office in charge of news production, educational movie screenings, and state funding of film production and education. Vieyra’s position was crucial because, under colonialism, many European powers perceived cinema as a threat, leading them to impose strict limits on the production and distribution of African films, such as the Laval Decree of 1934 which effectively forced the creation of Afrique sur Seine in Paris. The British and French administrations had both developed systems of screening films in the colonized nations, often for propaganda purposes, and the lieutenant governor had to authorize filming in the area. In reality this meant that Africans were barred from filming in Africa.

In the process of decolonization, Vieyra worked to reclaim and nurture African cinema through his governmental role, his personal filmmaking, and his doctoral work as well as through his support of other African filmmakers and African film in general. As Senegalese television developed, he took a leadership role which he retained until his departure in 1975 from his position in the government. He continued to make films, including his only feature-length film, En residénce surveillée (Under House Arrest), which he filmed while working on his dissertation on African cinema. He promoted African film through his published criticism, and he often collaborated with the notable cultural magazine and publisher Présence Africaine. In 1975, Vieyra published one of the first histories of African cinema, Le cinéma africain, des origines à 1973. He received his doctorate from Université de Paris I in 1982.

Terri Francis directed the Black Film Center & Archive from 2017 to 2021, and she secured Stéphane Vieyra’s donation of Paulin Soumanou Vieyra’s papers to Indiana University. Dr. Francis is now Associate Professor of Cinematic Arts and Associate Dean for Inclusive and Critical Publics in the School of Communication at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. She is the author of Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism (Indiana University Press, 2021) and has published her research in Film History, Feminist Media Histories, and Film Quarterly, where she is a contributing editor. In addition to providing commentary for Salon and NPR, she has curated the film series Race Swap, Black Sun/White Moon, and Love! I’m in Love! Classic Black Cinema of the 1970s at IU Cinema and hosted several Jorgensen Guest Filmmakers, including Julie Dash, Ja’Tovia Gary, Stefani Saintonge, and Cheryl Dunye. In 2021, she co-edited an art catalogue with Betsy Stirratt, director of the Grunwald Gallery, exploring their installation Rough and Unequal: A Film by Kevin Jerome Everson, distributed by Indiana University Press and available from and other booksellers.

Vincent Bouchard is Associate Professor of Francophone Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. His publications include the book, Pour un cinéma léger et synchrone à Montréal! (Septentrion University Press, 2012), "Cinomade and the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Burkina Faso" (2017), and "European design of propaganda when confronted with Colonial African realities" (2020). He currently works on the various forms of cinematographic practices developed in West Africa since the 1960s, including the conditions experienced by early filmmakers, the popular reception of films, and the practices of educational screenings and their impact on African cinema. A book on the reception of colonial screenings in West Africa is in the editing process with Ottawa University Press.

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