``That's the big problem,'' sighs Mamadou Kaba, director of Mali's National Center for Cinematographic Production. ``They often say here that, in a country where people are going hungry, there just isn't any time to make movies.'' People have, in fact, been hungry off and on for more than a decade in this West African nation, and yet a small group of determined Malians has managed to turn out a dozen feature-length films during the same period. They are hardly a full-fledged movie industry, but they do represent a determined attempt to maintain a national cultural life amid widespread poverty and famine.
They also vigorously defend against suggestions that the money for their films could be put to better use. Souleymane Ciss'e, the most famous of Mali's filmmakers, insists that his movies are not a ``luxury'' but a ``tool.''
``There are a lot of problems that are urgent [in Mali]. But I think that, no matter what the problem, culture must be the underpinning of a society,'' he says.
It has been a long and difficult task. The Malian government created a national film agency soon after its independence from France in 1960, but the agency produced almost exclusively newsreels and documentaries with titles like ``Songs and Dances of Mali,'' and ``Timbuktu, the Mysterious.''
At the same time, however, a few young Malians took an interest in filmmaking as an art, and some set off to study it full time at schools in Paris and Moscow. Once back in Mali, they began with attempts at short fictional pieces, and in 1976 Mali's first full-length feature appeared on screen. ``Mogho Dakan'' (``Destiny''), by Sega Coulibaly, tells the story of a teacher from the city who moves to a small village and gets one of his students pregnant.
Two years later, Mr. Ciss'e's first film, ``Den Muso'' (``The Girl'') was released. It recounts how a businessman disowns his daughter when she falls in love with one of his employees. The films are largely produced in Bambara -- the language of Mali's largest tribe -- with French subtitles, and they are distributed throughout West Africa and in France.
Ciss'e's most successful film was ``Finy'e'' (``The Wind''), which appeared in 1979. It is the tale of a young boy and girl who fall in love during a student rebellion in an African capital, and it was shown at the film festivals of New York and Cannes, as well as on French television. In February, Ciss'e himself was made an Officer of Arts and Letters by the French government.
These few successes notwithstanding, Malian moviemakers face tremendous obstacles. Even at home their films do not always have an easy time. Theaters in Mali are located only in the largest cities, which means that just a fraction of the country's 7.5 million people can see these Malian works. The films also must compete with the flood of popular foreign products, usually Indian or ``karate'' movies. ``Rambo II: First Blood'' was a great success in Mali.
``It is going to be very difficult to change the habits of an African public that is more used to a foreign cinema than a national cinema that doesn't really exist yet,'' admits Mr. Kaba.
An even bigger challenge is finding the money to make the films. The government film agency, now called the National Center for Cinematographic Production, has produced only three feature-length films. While the government gives it money for office expenses, the center relies on foreign subsidies or bank loans for the productions themselves.
The French government has often supported Malian film projects. For a long time Yugoslavia provided facilities to develop Malian films free, and now offers discounts on the work. Some producers work independently, relying on money from past work or seeking their own grants -- with varying degrees of success.
Ciss'e started his current film, ``Yeelen'' (``The Light''), two years ago, with only one-fourth of the financing assured. He has spent $970,000 so far, and says he needs to find another $1.2 million to finish it. His actors are all amateurs; he finds many of them on the streets of Bamako. But he must rent equipment and hire technicians in France, and that drives up costs considerably. Dramatically and technically, the results are sometimes rough, but the exploration of African themes and culture can be fascinating to Western viewers.
Despite the difficulties, Ciss'e and his colleagues persist. They see it, in part, as a struggle to give their relatively young nation a cultural identity beyond its preoccupation with hunger.
``No matter what the emergency, we must prepare for the future,'' Ciss'e says.
And his vision goes even further, to a film industry that draws on African culture and projects it around the world.
``The others invaded us and it is our duty to invade them,'' he says.