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September 22 – October 1, 2017

The McMillan-Stewart Fellowship:
A Tribute to Moustapha Alassane

It is no exaggeration to declare Moustapha Alassane (1942-2015) a truly foundational figure in African cinema. As a young boy growing up in the small town of Ayorou in Niger, he dreamed of moving images and invented his own form of shadow puppets. By the late 1950s, he was an illustrator associated with the Niamey Museum, where he met Jean Rouch, who recognized the young man’s talent and urged him to turn toward cinema.

Like so many newly independent nations in Africa in the third quarter of the twentieth century, Niger took pride in its nascent national cinema, although the level of state support was weak there compared to Senegal or Guinea-Bissau, for example. Two years after Niger became independent in 1960, Alassane made the first Nigerien film, Aoure, a narrative short, while beginning to experiment with animation. After travels to France and Canada, Alassane returned to Niger to make his most ambitious film yet, The Return of an Adventurer. Deeply influential in western Africa and indeed across the continent, it announced the arrival of a new kind of African filmmaking: one that was aware of cinema elsewhere but maintained its aesthetic independence.

Alassane went on to make two feature films, F.V.V.A. and Toula, that each, in very different ways, sought to acknowledge the emergence of a modern Niger and its difficult negotiation of traditional ways in a world dominated by consumer capitalism. In these films and in his animated shorts, Alassane continued a subtle and sly critique of the political and economic powers that be in contemporary Africa, but, as the initial wave of enthusiasm and resources supporting Nigerien cinema waned, so did his output.
Alassane became a distributor and an exhibitor by the end of the 1970s, eventually establishing his own animation studio in Niger, where he experimented with animation software and stop-motion filmmaking until the end of his life.

The jury for the McMillan-Stewart Fellowship had decided to award him the 2016 fellowship just before his death was announced. Now that the Institut Français has assembled a near-complete retrospective of his films, the HFA, Harvard’s Film Study Center and the McMillan-Stewart Foundation can present this tribute to Alassane as part of the fellowship’s mission to promote awareness and research about his work. We hope to be able to add copies of his work to the McMillan-Stewart collection at the Archive and to support future preservation and restoration of Alassane’s legacy. – David Pendleton

Original program organized by Josh Siegel (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Amélie Garin-Davet (Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York). All film prints courtesy Institut Français.

Special thanks: Mati Diop; Lucien Castaing-Taylor—Film Study Center, Harvard; Mathieu Fournet—Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York; Véronique Joo'Aisenberg—Institut Français.

Film descriptions by David Pendleton.





Friday September 22 at 7pm

The Return of an Adventurer (Le retour d’un aventurier)

Directed by Moustapha Alassane. With Ibrahim Yacouba, Zalika Souley, Abdou Nani
Niger 1966, 16mm, color, 34 min. French and Hausa with English subtitles

This audacious film captures the exuberance of youth with the tale of a young man who returns to his small Nigerien home town from a trip to the US bearing a suitcase full of costumes fit for a Western. In no time, he and his friends are using both town and countryside as the set for their own Wild West adventure, but as their destructive abandon grows, the village elders take an increasingly dim view of their romps. The syncretism between tradition and modernity, Africa and beyond, implicitly proposed by Alassane proved to be influential to other African filmmakers, including Djibril Diop Mambety; this film would be a major inspiration on Touki Bouki.


Directed by Moustapha Alassane
Niger 1962, 16mm, color, 20 min. French and Hausa with English subtitles

Poles away from the rambunctiousness of The Return of an Adventurer is the evocative gentleness of Aoure, the elegantly simple tale of the courtship and marriage of a young couple in a Djerma village on the banks of the Niger. Alassane stages his narrative through episodes of everyday life as well as traditional Muslim celebrations.



The Cowboys are Black
(Les cowboys sont noirs)

Directed by Serge Moati
France 1966, 16mm, color, 16 min. French and Hausa with English subtitles

This making-of companion to The Return of an Adventurer revels in the high spirits that accompanied the creative chaos onscreen. It was directed by Serge Moati, one of Alassane’s compatriots in the early days of Nigerien cinema.



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Saturday September 23 at 7pm

Toula (Toula ou le genie des eaux)

Directed by Moustapha Alassane. With Sotigui Kouyate, Damouré Zika, Solange Delanne
Niger 1973, digital video, color, 76 min. French and Hausa with English subtitles

In the second of Alassane’s two mid-1970s feature films, he gives one of his beloved legends a broad canvas on which to play. When drought strikes a village, all pray to a mysterious and enormous serpent that promises to bring rain—if the king’s niece will be sacrificed to it. This mythic narrative serves as an allegorical cover for Alassane’s concerns about a Niger whose political class had grown increasingly cautious, passive and corrupt. The tale provides the filmmaker ample room to explore the landscape of a country he clearly loves.

Preceded by


Directed by Moustapha Alassane
Niger 1973, 16mm, color, 25 min. French and Hausa with English subtitles

Shaki is a region of Niger where traditional systems of governance and belief have survived centuries of migration and colonization. Though more recent religions such as Islam and Protestantism thrive there, they must make way for far older rites and beliefs. This film is Alassane’s ethnographic portrait of the region on the occasion of the coronation of a new tribal leader.

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Sunday September 24 at 5pm

Tall Tales and Short Films

This program focusing on Alassane’s animation begins the charming Bon Voyage Sim, an early and brief example of cel animation about a kingdom for frogs that nevertheless has a word of warning for political leaders. Next is an early live-action short, The Ring of King Koda, that reveals Alassane’s love for the traditional tales of the region. The program concludes with two stop-motion animated films that were among Alassane’s last. Samba le Grand is another legendary tale of love and adventure, while Kokoa is Alassane’s hearty tribute to traditional wrestling.

Bon Voyage Sim

Directed by Moustapha Alassane
Niger 1966, 16mm, b/w, 5 min


The Ring of King Koda (La bague du Roi Koda)

Directed by Moustapha Alassane
Niger 1962, 16mm, color, 24 min. French with English subtitles


Samba le Grand

Directed by Moustapha Alassane
Niger 1977, 16mm, color, 14 min. French with English subtitles



Directed by Moustapha Alassane
Niger 1973, 35mm, color, 25 min. French and Hausa with English subtitles


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Friday September 29 at 7pm


Directed by Moustapha Alassane. With Zalika Souley, Djingareye Maiga, Sotigui Kouyate
Niger 1972, 16mm, color, 73 min. French and Hausa with English subtitles

“F.V.V.A.” stands for femme, voiture, villa, argent, or ”wife, car, house, money,” the attributes necessary to show you’ve got it made in Niger’s nascent professional class circa 1972. The film begins as a touching portrait of a pair of urban newlyweds (perhaps the city cousins to the rural young lovers of Aoure) before switching into cautionary mode, as the two are caught between Niger’s persistent underdevelopment and the inflated expectations of modern consumerism. Alassane’s retreat from feature filmmaking after F.V.V.A. and Toula signaled also a retreat from social critique at a time when his prominent status could have made such gestures dangerous.

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Sunday October 1 at 4:30pm

Moustapha Alassane, Cineaste of the Possible (Moustapha Alassane, cineaste du possible)

Directed by Christian Lelong and
Maria Silvia Bazzoli
France 2008, digital video, color, 93 min. French with English subtitles

This portrait of Moustapha Alassane’s life and work dates from near the end of his life. It includes his and his contemporaries’ reminiscences and clips from all his work. It also includes precious footage of Alassane in his studio, long after his filmic output had slowed to a trickle, which shows him experimenting with new technology and hoping to continue his legacy by teaching new generations. It is not hard to see how the trajectory of Alassane’s career parallels with African cinema as a whole: a triumphant early period followed by long years of defiant subsistence.

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