Interview with Filmmaker Yann Ollivier, Moïse Gomis, Judith Rueff (THE ROAD TO LIFE)

THE ROAD TO LIFE was the winner of BEST FILM at the November 2021 BLACK Feedback Film Festival.

1. What motivated you to make this film?

Yann Ollivier, producer: ​Actually, it’s an open call for documentary projects, financed by the European Union Delegation to Nigeria, that motivated us. They were giving out a grant to a production company who would produce a film in North Eastern Nigeria about refugees. The reason was that the EU is a big donor in the regions, and finances many development programmes in Borno State.

​So we set up a team, with Moise Gomis and Judith Rueff. Moise has been in Nigeria for over seven years now, and Judith is an experienced film maker who used to cover Western Africa from Abidjan. We were all very excited about this opportunity to film during several weeks in the region around Maiduguri, which is the epicentre of the insurgency movement of Boko Haram, more than a decade ago.

​Moïse Gomis: Covering breaking news in Nigeria since 2015, I was deeply motivated to work in “slow” project with a human angle. Also the opportunity to be part of team and to cowork with another director, all of that was really exciting. And last but not least, I was used to film in Maiduguri the state capital of Borno, which is a metropolis with high security. And in joining this film project, it was leaving my comfort zone by going to communities living in danger zone (Zabarmari) and almost war zone (Bama is very at the fringes of Sambisa Forrest the one of the headquarters of Boko Haram)

​Judith Rueff: I worked as a correspondent in West Africa for an french daily newspaper from 1999 to 2002, and the only country I couldn’t go to at that time was Nigeria, so I just could not miss the opportunity. I also did several short films about Boko Haram and Jihadism in Africa these last years, so I was aware of the issues in this part of the world. But the main motivation was the possibility to listen to the people who are living and struggling there and make their voices heard.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this film?

– Yann: We started brainstorming about it in May 2019, if I remember correctly. The preparation took more than a year, due to the pandemic. Finally, our first location and character scouting started in November 2020 ! And the team filmed during many weeks, returning regularly to the region. We started filming at the end of the rain season, and until late into the dry season. Finally, the film was ready in June 2021.

3. How would you describe your film in two words?

Yann : Hope and resilience. That’s what our story is about. These people have lost almost everything, but they are incredibly resilient and hopeful that the future can become better if you keep on working hard for it.

Moïse : Humanity. Anybody in our planet can relate with Mariam and her family, nanad to Bello and his family.

Life. The story is about life (dream, love, joy, smile, hope but also sorrow nad death). Definitely this movie has an impact on me as human. There is no single day that I am not thinking about Bama and Zabarmari

Judith : Courage and dignity. The way the two families, and people of Borno state generally, face the situation of violence is amazing. You feel admiration and empathy.

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

Yann : The uncertainties due to the pandemic, the security situation in Borno State which was very volatile. To give you a concrete example, Moise went to do a location scouting in Zabarmari by the end of November 2020. A few days later, we heard the news that 76 farm workers had just been slaughtered in a field next to Zabarmari by Boko Haram insurgents.

Moise and I had a very intense phone call after that…. And we realised that this was actually another good reason to keep on filming there, despite the danger.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking your film in the feedback video?

Yann : We felt immensely proud and happy that the audience had perfectly sensed the essence of what we wanted to say.

Moïse: Deeply happy to feel to be understood. We made some esthetic choice to bring an atmosphere in the movie, we chose to be very very close to our characters to allow the viewers to enter really in the life of Mariam and Bello. It was the first time for majority of the characters of the movie to be filmed. And all of them were very patient despite the repetitions of the takes. And also sometimes I was holding my lenses very very close to their face for minutes and nobody complained…

Judith : I felt we had achieved exactly what we wanted to do, especially the intimacy with our characters. I am so grateful I could watch this feedback video, it’s almost as if we had a conversation wtih the audience.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. When did you realize that you wanted to make films?

​Yann : When I first found myself on a film set. Doing a film is a teamwork.

Moïse : My background is more radio. Sometimes I can’t believe I am filming. I am a Spike Lee fan. I will say even die hard fan…

I was always thinking filmmaking was not accessible to me. And switching from radio to TV was massive step for me…

And Fact story and Yann gave me an incredible opportunity to stand as a film director. I feel blessed and grateful.

​Judith : After working as a newspaper journalist for 20 years, I realised I wanted to try a more “emotional” way of telling people’s stories. Documentary films can bring people to understand others through sharing a little bit of their lives. It’s like meeting someone.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

​Yann : North by Northwest by Alfred Hitchcock and Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino

Moïse : Clockers from Spike Lee

Black Mic Mac from Thomas Gilou

Judith : Les demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy), Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki)

8. What other elements of the festival experience can we and other festivals implement to satisfy you and help you further your filmmaking career?

Moïse : I am grateful because your platform gives us a voice and visibility.

Participation (and competition) in festivals is interesting because both professionals and mainstream people can view your film so it’s just amazing when I think to all that I was one the link between Mariam and Bello with the world.

That is just crazy…

Judith : Recognition of such a film by festivals can help us find funds for others and also proves the audience is open to a lot more than usually thought.

9. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway. How has your experiences been working on the festival platform site?

Good ! Very easy to submit films and get rewarding feedback.

10. What is your favorite meal?

Moïse : “Thieboudienne” (rice and fish, a meal from Senegal)


I love also “raclette” (cheese with different type of sausage and ham, meal from France)

Yann : Octopus salad and Thieboudienne

Judith : Difficult question… Oysters ? Pasta alle vongole ? (italian pasta wtih clams)

11. What is next for you? A new film?

Yann : many projects in Africa and in Northern Europe, among which a documentary on a XVIIth century wreckage.

Moïse : I am the permanent correspondent in Nigeria for France 24 and Radio France Internationale so I am covering breaking news.

No project of film for now but life is a so amazing journey so who knows…

Judith : Working on a project about how african artists are involved in the restitution of artefacts stolen during colonization


By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival

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