By Elsa Sichrovsky
Moustapha Alassane produced the first African animation in full color, Samba le Grand (Samba the Great), which follows the adventures of its hero, Sambagana, as he strives to ace a series of challenges in order to win the hand of his bride. In addition to directing over 30 films, Alassane has also worked as an actor and a scriptwriter. He was also head of the Cinema Department at Niamey University for over 15 years. In 2007, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour at the Cannes Film Festival. However, due to a lack of state funding and the growing preference for Hausa-language films from neighboring Nigeria, locally-produced Nigerien film has declined in popularity since the 1980s, so by the time of his death, he was relatively unknown to the Nigerien public.
Born in 1942 in N’Dougou, Niger, Alassane grew up drawing and making shadow puppet shows to entertain his friends, often using transparent cigarette packaging to make light shows. He even built his own film camera. Meeting a Frenchman who many call the father of Nigerien cinema, Jean Rouch, changed his life, prompting Alassane to give up his career as a mechanic and make film his life’s work. Jean Rouch nurtured Alassane’s talent by providing for his education in Canada where he learned animation.
In Alassane’s films, animation is not merely entertainment for children, but rather a medium for communicating culture and telling powerful stories. In one of his acclaimed animations, Kokoa (2001), frogs, iguanas, birds, and chameleons participate in Niger’s national sport, Kokowa wrestling. The film celebrates the sport while its animal characters depict the spirit of competition and domination ironically.
Frogs also appear in one of his earlier films, Bon Voyage Sim (1970), in which the president of a frog nation goes on a journey only to be tossed into the water by his fellow frogs on his return. These frog tales echoed political events in Niger and can be seen as Alassane’s subtle political commentary. He was known for having said that frogs were his favorite animal because they were funnier than humans4.
His dramas celebrate Nigerien tradition while also examining the effect of modernity on a changing society. His first feature film, Aoure (1962), depicted a young Zharma couple living on the banks of the Niger River. Shaki (1973) reflects on the mixture of religions in Nigerien culture with a story of the ascension of a Yoruban king. His 1972 dramatic film, F.V.V.A., (Femme, Villa, Voiture, Argent) (Women, Cars, Villas, Money), depicted how young Nigeriens handled newfound prosperity as Niger continued developing after independence.
Le Retour d’un Aventurier (The Return of an Adventurer) is one of his best-known portrayals of Western influence on Nigerien culture. In the film, a man returns from America to his Nigerien village with a suitcase full of cowboy clothes. His friends eagerly don the costumes and take on the persona of cowboys in a Western. They romp through their village getting into brawls and committing petty crimes, which earn the disapproval of the village elders. The film is a humorous reflection on the inevitable clash between cultures and generations that arises as young Nigeriens began having increased contact with foreign cultures5.
One of his dramas, Toula ou Le Genie des Eaux (Toula or the Water Spirit) retells a tribal tale about a nation cursed with drought, a situation all too real to Nigeriens. The holy man declares that a young maiden must be sacrificed. A young man’s love interest, Toula, is chosen to be sacrificed. He desperately searches for water to save his love, but despite having found water, he returns to find her gone.
Moustapha Alassane passed away in March 2015. His films and animations are a rich legacy that preserves Nigerien culture, while exploring its growth and evolution. By using new approaches to retell Nigerien legends and ancient tales, he made them accessible to the international community and honored his birth country.
You can watch some of Moustapha Alassane’s films here:
Toula ou Le genie des eaux
Le retour d’un aventurier
Samba Le Grand
Bon Voyage Sim
 Jolijn Geels, Niger: The Bradt Travel Guide. Bradt Travel Guides (2006)