AI:African Intelligence, a documentary by Manthia Diawara

Manthia Diawara brought to the Berlinale this year his latest essay film which explores the contact zones between African occupation rituals within the traditional fishing villages of the Atlantic coast in Senegal and the emergence of new technological frontiers known as Artificial Intelligence; AI: African Intelligence is a different journey that viewers are invited to take through a multitude of different paths that are always encountered.

Diawara – an academic, writer and director himself – invites us to ask ourselves how to move from disembodied machines to a more human and spiritual control of algorithms, examining his question from the confluence of tradition and modernity.

And finally we are left to wonder, along with the creator, to what extent could Africa be the context for the emergence of such unlikely algorithms?

As in the World Human Forum we are firm believers of the importance to unite the 2 AI’s, Artificial and Ancestral Intelligence for the future of Humanity this film is yet another expression of the importance of this union.

In the context of the AI:African Intelligence screening Manthia Diawara talked about his idea in the interview below.

Interview Source:

rfi: How did you come up with the idea for this documentary, which combines two seemingly completely unrelated events, namely the possession rituals of a fishing village in Senegal and artificial intelligence technology?

Manthia Diawara: In 2017, I was invited to Austria to present an artistic point of view on artificial intelligence, inspired by the work of Édouard Glissant who said: “Nothing is true, everything is alive, the human*. I tried to make a presentation that asked people to pay attention to the living, not to replace humans with machines.”

Three months later, the European Union asked me: do you want to invite scientists, specialists in artificial intelligence? So I invited them to Dakar and they asked me to make a film about it. And I wanted to go beyond that, to do something that I myself did not understand, that is to say, the possession rites in the Lebu villages on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in Senegal. And these are really rituals that are hidden in plain sight: they’re there, they’re practised every day, but the people of the city, the townspeople, don’t pay attention.

-And did you know this fishing village?

All the villages on the coast from Ouakam to Dakar, through Sendou, Yenne, Toubab Dialao to Saly, all the villages practice this ritual every day. This ritual is practised in Mali under other names, in Benin, Burkina, Brazil, Haiti, it is practised everywhere, but also by Muslims, although it is forbidden. I am now in Abu Dhabi, they practice it but in secret. And when I was growing up, I was always advised not to go near these people, because it’s the devil’s dance.

-So can we describe these rituals? Because it looks like a trance…

So there is a priestess or a priest – they are not only women – there is a priestess who has been consulted because someone can’t sleep, someone has problems getting pregnant, someone has psychological problems… And so she analyses. She asks herself if it is necessary to simply give care and the person goes home, or if it is necessary to make this ritual of possession.

In my particular case, we did five days of dancing, three times a day, where people are possessed by the spirits, and once we sing the song of your clan you faint and then you see the spirits. Then you wake up, you are normal, everything is fine. They call it Ndeup. In Mali they call it the dance of the Djinns.

Is it because you spent many months, maybe years, watching that you were allowed to film?

I bought a house on the coast in Senegal, in Yenne. And since 2010, when I’m not teaching in New York, I go there, I work with the women who collect stones on the beach, the fishermen who come back, so we know each other, it has become my family. And so when they do these rituals, I’m part of those rituals. And when I was asked to make a film about artificial intelligence, I immediately wanted to put in relation – not to oppose but to put in relation – artificial intelligence and this possession rite.

-On the other hand, what you are opposing is the rational, Western mind, which was also imposed on Africa during colonisation, and these possession rituals where it is the invisible, where it is a matter of believing in spirits and believing in their power in any case…

Yes, this is really the proposal that can be made. Already with Islam, when I grew up, my parents told me: these people are the devil, they are unbelievers, pagans. With Western schooling, I left Mali in 1971, I went first to France, then to the United States, so I come back regularly, but whether I accept it or not, I am a Westerner, but in the sense of Édouard Glissant who says that the West is a project that looks at human rights, that looks at rationality. So this transparency, this logic, does everything it can to eliminate everything that is not understood. Then, I came back to Africa, to Senegal, and I saw these people who practise Ndeup every day, where you start to see invisible spirits, so I was immediately interested. Ndeup gives me the opportunity to look into this opacity and see how far it could take me. This spirituality can learn from another spirituality, that’s kind of my goal.

*Nothing is true, everything is alive’ is the title of the last public lecture that Édouard Glissant gave on 8 April 2010 at the Maison de l’Amérique Latine, at the close of the 2009-2010 seminar of the Institut de Tout-monde: ‘Les Transformations du vivant dans un monde en relation’.