Alain Gomis on His Immersive Thelonius Monk Portrait ‘Rewind and Play’

The cringe-inducing rushes comprising the documentary portrait “Rewind and Play,” carefully stitched together from a decades-old French TV interview with American jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, are supposed to make your skin crawl with discomfort.

And it’s supposed to not fit inside the neat little pre-packaged format box for consumer-ready documentaries. 

In his 65-minute film which forms part of the documentary slate at the 5th Joburg Film Festival, the 50-year-old French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis simultaneously does an exposition of Monk’s jazz genius while exposing a Paris media’s stereotyped coaxing of what it wanted – what it needed – a black interview subject to be and say in 1969.

For Gomis’ first foray into the documentary genre, he uses unseen outtakes to craft a celluloid mosaic carefully culled from the rolls of takes and retakes for a TV program that never aired.

The silence is often deafening as interviewer Henri Renaud unsuccessfully tries to solicit small talk and vocal filler from a recalcitrant Monk, who was staying in the French capital during a European tour.

“I was working on another project, another film on Thelonius Monk, and busy with research, when I asked the Archives Nationales to send us what they’ve got on him. They sent us packages of different TV show concerts. With that, was this package of footage recorded for a TV show in 1969. It was a big surprise,” Gomis tells Variety on how “Rewind and Play” came to be.

“They themselves didn’t even know, when I asked them, what this footage was. Usually, this kind of footage gets destroyed. It’s very rare to get access to it. We don’t know how it survived, but it was a big surprise to me and I immediately wanted to edit it and make a film about it.”

For Gomis, the most startling thing about the uncovered recordings stretching to two and a half hours, was how brilliant Monk was and “how it was the world around him that was not so cool with him and disconnected in a way.”

“The stereotypes and the way they treat him – it was uncomfortable to see,” he remarks. “I had here a really good example of this machine of creating stories – the media machine in action. Everything was there and we could see how difficult and uncomfortable it was at the time”.

Having the onlooker marinade in the uncomfortable silences of the raw footage with very little in the form of voice-over narrator, Gomis is adamant that “I’m not supposed to tell you what you have to think. It’s an immersive experience. You’re in the presence of Thelonius Monk for one hour.”

He adds: “I don’t have to explain. This is one of the problems with our way of producing films and TV shows nowadays. We’ve got formats, so we have to obey what these format ‘rules’ are. These formats kill us creatively because they don’t give us the space to be what we are. With ‘Rewind and Play’ I’ve tried to let the story happen and let you think what you want to think.”

As to the challenges facing the French-Senegalese film biz, Gomis says it is “trying to keep cinema alive.”

“It’s very difficult to get the opportunity to make a film and to make it live within the economic context. Today, a film has to be partly financed by Europe most of the time, and often they’re distributed outside of Senegal and Africa.

“So we’re talking about independency and dependency of what you’re able to say or can’t, and for who, and who’s giving you the green light to make your film. At the end of the day, I think that’s the same question for every filmmaker in the world: How will you be able to be free?”

Gomis says even despite using different languages and films coming from different countries, a lot of filmmakers all end up creating the same type of film.

“When it looks like an American movie it can come from anywhere, it will be accepted. The question is: Can we have a totally different picture, a different point of view, a different way to do films?”

It’s part of why he founded the Yennenga Centre in 2018 in Dakar, a film school to train a new generation of filmmaking talent in Senegal and Africa.

“In West Africa it’s difficult to make films – we don’t have the tools most of the times. To do film you need to have the tools and people able to use it. Yennenga is training a new generation to make films in West Africa and it’s very important.”

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