When Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade decided to run for a controversial third term in 2012, millions of people decided they’d had enough of his unpopular, 12-year reign. Their protest movement, Y’en a Marre (“We’re fed up”), sparked by the rap-activist collective Keur Gui, swept across the countryside ahead of the 2012 elections, ultimately ousting Wade from power. The outsized role played by Keur Gui is the focus of “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised,” Mauritanian-Senegalese helmer Rama Thiaw’s powerful documentary about the popular uprising that reverberated across the region.
For Thiaw, who bowed the doc in the Forum section of the Berlinale this year, the movie was a personal journey into the heart of a revolution that, while televised, lacked a Senegalese voice as it unfolded on TV screens across the globe.
“The images that we got from Senegal…were just telling a story from the international point of view,” she says.
The seeds of “Revolution” were planted in 2009, when Thiaw decided to shoot a doc about Keur Gui, who had already established themselves as an important protest voice in Senegal. When that voice grew into an angry chorus in 2011, with the emergence of Y’en a Marre, Thiaw’s movie took on an added urgency.
But while “Revolution” is undoubtedly a political movie, it’s a personal one as well, with kinetic scenes of protesters fleeing riot police interspersed with footage of the rappers rehearsing in the studio and unwinding over video games.
It was a deliberate attempt, says Thiaw, to tell their story from an intimate point of view. “Even if you don’t know exactly the political situation…you can feel what it is to live a revolution,” she says. “Something universal will rise.”
For this, her second documentary, Thiaw was the driving force, training her young Senegalese crew and cutting the film herself. Partly she was motivated by her frustration with foreign editors who insisted on providing more historical and political context for the events that unfolded onscreen — a decision that she felt would have alienated Senegalese audiences.
“If I had done this, it wouldn’t have been the film I wanted,” she says. “It would have been a very good film for international audiences, but not for my audience.”
“Revolution” has still struck a chord with foreign audiences, winning the international critics’ Fipresci prize in Berlin. With her next pic, “Zion Music,” currently in development, Thiaw continues to forge ahead on a personal journey across the restless, turbulent, yet hopeful landscape of her continent.
The feature-length doc, which she plans to shoot in at least three countries, will examine the way the continent’s political history has been influenced by African reggae music. It’s a story told by a helmer who’s spent the past decade exploring the nexus between art, popular culture and politics, and the latest leg on what has become a spiritual quest.
“When you hold a camera…it’s almost mystical,” says Thiaw.