Thursday, March 20, 2008

La Sape

This is an oldie; I thought I should post this. Seven years ago, I and a close friend wanted to do a feature on la sape for a publication we worked on together. However, the world trade center tumbled down. A reality check to say the least. So I've decided to post a BBC 4 interview.

Director-producers Cosima Spender and George Amponsah talk about Papa Wemba and the cult of the cloth.

BBC Four: As your documentary shows, the members of La Sape are fiercely devoted to designer clothes. Could you elaborate on the symbolic importance of high fashion for the sapeur?
George: The Sape emerged from the chaos that was the Congo during the reign of Mobutu. It was really one way of coping with a society that had broken down. For a young person growing up at that time, there wasn't much to grasp hold of to help you feel better about yourself. Politics was out, so you found a lot of cargo cult religions in the Congo. The Sape is essentially one of these. The distinctive look of the sapeurs was also a rebellion against one of Mobutu's dictatorial decrees, which was that everyone was expected to dress in a very traditional, standard African costume - the abacost.
Cosima: The sapeurs in Paris and Brussels are using these European status symbols not to integrate into European society but to 'be someone' back home in the Congo. This separates them from European fashionistas. They aren't so much concerned with proving anything to the outside world but rather to one another, among their own community. These people have grown up with no kind of social structure to rely on. The Sape is a mini-state providing its own social strata: president, ministers, acolytes and so on.

BBC Four: At what stage in the production did you find out that Papa Wemba, the King or President of Sape, had been arrested for smuggling illegal immigrants into Europe for a profit?
Cosima: We had just got the money and were literally about to start shooting. We were petrified! It was lucky that we had already spent two years establishing a relationship with him because by the time he came out of jail he didn't want journalists around him. We wrote to him in jail and spoke to his manager on a regular basis so he trusted us and knew that we weren't sniffing after a scandal, rather that we wanted to make an in-depth documentary about his art and his position in the community.

BBC Four: It must have given you the opportunity to see first-hand how jail had changed him. The impression is that he grows from preaching the religion of the cloth to Christianity, which obviously alters the direction of the Sape and your film itself.
George: We were really capturing a transitory moment in the story of Papa Wemba and the Sape. We had it fixed in our heads that we were making a film about the cult of cloth, the cult of elegance. As you can see in the film's archive footage, this is a man who had declared clothing and fashion to be a religion. Then suddenly he was coming out preaching God, Christianity and the Bible. We were thinking, he's not supposed to be saying this! It was scripted that he should be saying something else. But that's what happens with documentaries. This is a film about real people and real life and as we know, people are changing constantly.

BBC Four: There's a lot of posturing among the sapeurs in the film.
George: That's part of the ideology of the Sape. It's all about self-aggrandisement, that's the sapeur way. What's interesting about these guys is that on the one hand they're very much about showing off and about being seen - it's the cult of appearance - but on the other hand there's a clandestine element too because there is so much going on that's on the margins of the law and of society. It's a constant dichotomy.
Cosima: That self-aggrandizement enables them to escape and feel good about themselves. It's serious positive thinking, you know? We came back from the shoot without having translated everything that we had filmed and it took us about a month to find the right translator who could understand all of their slang. When we did, there were whole new discoveries. Take Anti-Gigolo, who was always boasting that he was Papa Wemba's closest friend. It wasn't until we came back and translated the meeting between him and Papa Wemba that we realised that no, he was not Papa Wemba's favourite after all. The fact that we didn't speak Congolese might have hindered our access to the underground world but it also enabled us to film things they didn't think we'd be able to understand or wouldn't bother translating. So it protected us in a way.
George: When we showed Papa Wemba the first cut of the film he seemed genuinely taken aback by how far under the skin we had managed to get and by how, in a sense, he had come out a little bit naked. This is not what Papa Wemba or any of the sapeurs are really accustomed to.

BBC Four: Papa Wemba's musical performances in the film are extraordinary.
Cosima: We were lucky he was doing the new record because it revealed so much of the mechanics of how the sapeur world works and how the status of the sapeurs is defined. Those studio sessions became the magnet for all the sapeurs throughout Europe, who came to pay their respects to the king.
George: We really wanted to focus on that dynamic between the king and his court and establish that relationship from each perspective.

BBC Four: Watching the film I was struck by the similarities with the US hip hop scene, specifically the sapeurs' love for designer labels, the names they choose for themselves, the jet set lifestyle to which they aspire and especially the rivalry between sapeurs in Brussels and those in Paris.
George: We started the film with that as a focus point because there's actually a rivalry between Papa Wemba and another Congolese musician with his own group of supporters. We were told that comparisons could be made with the Biggie/Tupac relationship. It's true that there is an element of gang warfare to the Sape but the difference is that there is no bloodshed. It was explained to us by sapeurs themselves that resorting to violence just isn't elegant. If you can't let your clothes do the fighting then you're not even to be considered a sapeur.

(Thanks S. Johnson for the link)

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