The Sahel revealed: A story of Niger's Envoy of God awarded at Aswan Int'l Women Film Fest

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 21 May 2024

The up-and-coming filmmaker Amina Abdoulaye Mamani talks about The Envoy of God, a film that looks deep into the heart of terrorism in Niger. The film won the Best Short Film award at Aswan International Women Film Festival last month.

The Envoy of God


It is not often that one leaves the movie theatre deeply shaken, and even more rarely by a short film. One such experience comes with The Envoy of God (L’Envoyée de Dieu), a 2023 film by Burkina Faso-based Nigerien filmmaker Amina Abdoulaye Mamani.

The Envoy of God was screened at the eighth Aswan International Women Film Festival (20-25 April), where it won the Best Short Film award, one of over 20 prizes it has won at international festivals. It was also screened in dozens other festivals including the African Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival in 2023.

The film follows the story of a 12-year-old girl, Fatima (Salamatou Hassane), kidnapped by jihadists. They send her with an explosive belt to the market, where she spots her mother. Through 23 minutes, we look deep into the heart of terrorism in Niger, including the rites of employing a victim to carry out a mission to kill the “enemies of God”.

Salamatou Hassane, a powerful actress despite her youth, cuts into our souls with her eyes as she is told she will be accomplishing a “divine mission.” The very few sentences with which she tries to reason against her fate fall on deaf ears, yet they are etched deep in our consciousness. The film shows Fatima’s pride, her fear battered by hopelessness, and her longing for her mother…

Mamani explained to me the background to the film: “It talks about jihadism — terrorism, with regard to the security context in which we have been living for several years in the Sahel,” that is Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. “It is not  hardcore jihadism however where you see blood and killing; it is the story of a little girl kidnapped, and one day randomly chosen to accomplish the jihadists’ mission.”

As much as the film is difficult for the audience, it is also emotionally demanding for the young actress, who captures the character’s innocence and pain in a heart-wrenching manner, not once counting on the viewer’s pity. Undeniably, Salamatou Hassane is one of the fundamental pillars of the film’s success. As Mamani explains, the young girl is her own niece who lives with her in Niger. The filmmaker explains that, prior to choosing her, she undertook extensive casting in Ouagadougou where the film was shot.

“It was very complicated. I couldn’t find the young girl that really fit the role and the character that I had in mind. And since it is a story of jihadism, many parents were very reluctant to put their child through this experience. In brief, I then thought of Salamatou and there she is. She proved that I wasn’t wrong, and portrayed the character brilliantly.” Mamani proudly points to the two awards that the girl received for best female performance, at the 2023 International Film Festival “Vues d’Afrique” (Montreal, Canada) and at the 2023 Dakar Short Film Festival (Senegal).

Throughout the 10 minutes that count down the explosive belt, second by second, we follow the girl’s inner journey from present to past and vice versa. As she moves towards the market to kill the supposed “enemies of God” she recalls her mother who sells goods at the same market… And as we see her thoughts, watch her steps and count the seconds, a myriad of emotions run through our heads, provoked by the many questions asked by the director. The choice of the girl in the film’s final seconds underscore only her humanity and innocence at a time when she is trapped in a situation with no exit.

“In the name of which God do those people act?” Mamani asks, referring to the jihadists. “Why do they send innocent people, other people’s children, to commit such a crime? Why don’t they send their own children? Those questions were always bothering me; they have no answers, and they are behind my decision to make this film.”

The multi-award-winning short is not Mamani’s first experience of being moved by questions. For her, cinema is “a way of expressing myself, because I have many things to say, to tell, to explore, to discover, to denounce, to share.”

This passion to discover and communicate, which carries therapeutic value for Mamani, was also at the heart of the 2019 feature-length documentary she wrote and directed, titled In the Footsteps of Mamani Abdoulaye (Sur les traces de Mamani Abdoulaye). The film traces the life of Abdoulaye Mamani (1932-1993), the filmmaker’s father, a politically engaged Nigerien author and journalist, and one an important figure in the decolonisation movement of Africa.

Mamani the father died in a car accident, leaving his 10-year-old daughter with far fewer memories of him than she would have liked. “I ask myself a lot of questions about him, because I didn’t know him well enough. So that pushed me to make this film which was, for me, a kind of quest, therapy, and mourning.”

It is hard not to notice how, in a similar way to her father, Mamani sheds light on human truth, except that she does it through cinema in different times. She laughs at being compared to hear her father: “My father’s journey was enormous, I cannot continue his journey, but I am instead thinking of making my own journey in my own way, but without forgetting that I am his daughter. It is important.”

And her journey as a Nigerien filmmaker is not always easy.

“It's true, I live in Ouagadougou,” in Burkina Faso. “I don’t allow myself to meddle too much with the cinema situation in Burkina Faso, I just observe everything. I don’t do too much cinema here, but I can say that it’s going rather well in comparison to my home in Niger, where nothing happens."

"There is three of us, Aicha Macky,” filmmaker and sociologist, “Amina Weira,” filmmaker, “and myself — we fight to make films, travel to international festivals. We do not have funds dedicated to cinema. To make our films we have to look for funds internationally. It's a shame.” she explains.

“The future of Nigerien cinema, whether near or far, is only possible through financing, training at all levels (directing, camera, sound, editing, production, etc.). Our institutions and authorities must understand that cinema can be an industry. Nigeria has understood this, but Niger still lags behind.”

Mamani moved to Burkina Faso a few years ago. "As an artist I like to travel, and discover other places; it gives me inspiration."

Also, it is in Ouagadougou that the Diam Production, a production company created by Michel K. Zongo and Moumouni Jupiter Sodre, is located. It is with the Diam Production that Mamani made In the Footsteps of Mamani Abdoulaye. The film toured the international festival circle and receiced a few awards for best documentary.

“We had decided that I would come so that we could collaborate. Diam Production has also produced another short fiction film that I directed.”

Operating from Ouagadougou for the time being, Mamani is now working on her next feature film and a TV series. Her hopes however go beyond cinema. “Given everything we are going through, politics, terrorism, etc., we must arm ourselves with courage, determination and patience and above all resilience because the road is long and the fight is very tough. Obviously it’s not going to be easy or simple, so we have a duty to believe and have confidence in our authorities and to support them positively. I hope that peace will return to the Sahel.”


* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: