• Industry

Pamela Diop – Heroes and Monsters in African Cinema

Dakar-based Pamela Diop holds a Master’s degree in film and television production and management, she worked with director Jean Luc Herbulot, who is also the CCO of the company, to create Saloum. In the film’s opening scene three Africans with guns are escaping with a white man. Usually, the story would follow the white man. Saloum’s genius is that it follows the Africans. If you want to be entertained you’ll go along for the ride. Diop coaxed Congolese director Jean Luc Herbulot promising he would be inspired to make a film after experiencing the region. The result is Africa captured through the lens of those who live it. The large expanses of sepia scenes without a filter, random wildlife appearing out of nowhere (and no one reaching for a cell to capture it because, in Africa, that’s just what happens), and the consequences of unspeakable acts that pop up as a brief bit on the news in developed nations, and then are banished from the news cycle and our awareness. But what happens after the lens has turned away from the horror brought into our living rooms? This is the tale that interested Diop, CEO of LACME Studios, whose next project, titled Zero, was shot during the pandemic. Ms. Diop spoke to us from Dakar, generously speaking in her second language, English, instead of French.


The West doesn’t focus on Africa stories, you demonstrate African stories can be told in a commercial way. Talk about your motivation to come on board.

Exactly how you express it. I want African stories to be exposed commercially and to give African talent a chance to get a return for their work. When I was first involved with Saloum, I wanted a strong African character as the protagonist, not in the margins. We are not focusing on bad things in Africa. We can also have heroes. African cinema can have heroes and monsters, too.


An African friend recently said she doesn’t see herself represented on the screen. African stories are not told, so there are no heroes/heroines to emulate and follow. How important is it to have for Africans to look up to?

It’s important to see ourselves on the screen. In Senegal, we currently work with many European craftspeople, and we have a mixed and complicated history with Europe and France. A lot of people here in Senegal have mixed blood. My mother is French, and my father is from Senegal. So, I know the mix of the two cultures very well, and it is important that we are proud of ourselves.

Amongst the leads you incorporate is a mute woman, speak of that significance.

I love Awa’s character in the film, brilliantly played by the powerful African actress and filmmaker Evelyne Ily Juhen. She cannot hear or talk. She is a symbolic representation of women in a patriarchal society. She wants to be a part of it but feels frustrated that she cannot be part of the group. Yet she is powerful and strong-willed and does not give up. We came up with the concept when I was in exactly the same situation. I had just produced my first film and it was a true challenge for me to find my place. She represents where I was three years ago. A woman who works hard and ultimately makes her own place in a male industry. Saloum is actually is the first part of a planned trilogy, and we have some very interesting plans for Evelyne’s character in the extended storyline.

You are a female from Africa, producing an African project, how did you find your path? You started a studio. You are the CEO of LACME. You are producing and really leaning in on so many levels.

I’ve been an entrepreneur for many years. I started my first company twenty years ago, I’m almost 40 now. I’ve had many challenges because people think I’m not French enough, I’m not Senegalese enough. So, I decided to create my own opportunities. When I started to make my own films, I was offered films about women who are poor or weak. I didn’t want that. I waited for better projects with a better message. I have created ten companies in the last twenty years. When I am stopped from achieving my goals, I don’t give up, I always look for another way. That’s why I moved from France to Senegal.

What gave you the incentive to be a self-starter?

My parents are two ‘free’ people. They are very brave. My mother works in communication and my father makes documentaries. He made the first free radio in Senegal 60 years ago, with no money and nothing. (Laughs.) I have this fire in me and always try. Sometimes I fail but I never give up. Never.

The first moment you realized you wanted to work in film?

I had worked in film production before. It was always a part-time job because I thought it was a dream. It didn’t qualify as a real job. The first time I thought, ‘I must do this’, is when I changed my life. I moved to Gabon and made a television show. I realized I want to do this every day for all my years. I want to create opportunities for others. Here at LACME Studios, we are always seeking underrepresented voices to work within all aspects of filmmaking.

The light and beauty of Africa are captured in a different way than a Westerner sees Africa. The film is so beautiful.

We shot in my mother’s region – she lives on an island without a car. When I met Jean Luc eight years ago, I said, “When you come to Saloum, Senegal, you definitely have to make a movie. When we got to my mother’s house, we were inspired to write the story. My spiritual self is attached to Senegal. I’m very attached and feel connected.  In Saloum, you have water and desert. It can be paradise and hell at the same time.

As you move across Africa there is different folklore traditional to different regions. It’s an untapped resource that Hollywood is almost ignorant about. Touch on incorporating mysticism into this cowboy-horror movie.

Mysticism is everywhere in Senegal, not just on-screen. It’s behind the screen too. When we started shooting, we went to a local spiritual leader to ask authorization to shoot. It’s not just in the story, it’s around us throughout the process. It’s important to showcase that. The mysticism we have in Africa is a treasure for the world. I grew up in France, apart from these influences. Now I really feel them. I want to share the magic with those who don’t have it around them.

We recently spoke to the director of Between Mountains, Vineesha Arora Sarin, she mentioned that she had to interrupt directing an emotional scene to make sure her children could go to the bathroom. Men are never asked about the impact of being a father on their careers. So, is it relevant to mention being a mother and a CEO of a studio?

It is difficult for a mother to be the boss. We always feel the pull. I’m so thankful for my husband. We have talked about it and all the people around me have wives who take care of kids and everything. Me, I’m trying to find balance. When we shot our second movie a few months ago, I had just had my baby six weeks earlier. My husband took pictures of me breastfeeding my baby while on my computer and also on the phone managing the film’s production. We don’t have to say it is easy.  It is very difficult to be a mother and produce a movie and to be a CEO of a company. I recently had an appointment with another producer who mentioned, ‘My wife is on vacation. It’s so difficult when she is not there.’ (Laughs.) I said, ‘Do you mean I’m a superhero because I do both?’ (Laughs.) He was very surprised. It is a surprise for me because I thought the film industry would be more open. It is actually very hard. Harder than I imagined. My partner is a male and when we have a meeting, they always address him, and he has to say, ‘She is the producer.’ In the beginning, we always have to fight for a place for legitimacy, with family too. I’m lucky to have my husband who is supportive.

You are the President of African Women Action, an organization that trains women to work in the African film industry. This is so important and overlooked. If a woman has skills she can earn; money provides options. If she has a job, she has a degree of independence. Why was that important for you and how are you passing the baton to the next generation?

When I see women in Africa, they are so brave and courageous. They deal with all situations. African women are the first entrepreneurs. They always sell something and have a job and deal with family. It’s a big task, and they deal with everything. When they are 22 or 23, they must marry and career goals often end. I have had other companies that have helped women in bad situations, but with the film industry, we have an opportunity to educate and train people in filmmaking. I always work with women; this ensures they have the opportunity to learn and work so we will have more and more opportunities for big African films.

This is a commercial film, yet it deals with huge social topics like the exploitation of resources and minerals, child soldiers, and brides. You incorporate them seamlessly. It’s topics the West isn’t covering socially, nor in entertainment.

Yes, it’s in the subtext. We don’t want to say: Africa is paradise. We live here. When I leave my house in Dakar there are poor children in the street. That’s the truth. We want to make heroes, but we don’t want to hide these other issues. The people here are traumatized, it’s difficult for people to express themselves. They have so much to deal with constantly. A lot of countries took advantage of the situation here. You feel the injustice. We as a country are not allowed to travel, we are not allowed freedom, but you can exploit us. You can take something from us. I am very fortunate because I have a French passport. It’s crazy to grow up with people who cannot travel to the USA, not even to visit or travel, or to get a visa to go to France. It’s very difficult because they are African. People have taken something from you and yet don’t share it. It’s our mission with cinema to show how people live and work. We are the same humans as everybody. We are in a situation here where some people deal with a lot of violence. Even if it’s not a war, poverty is violence. For women, it is worse.

The cast is fantastic. There’s the idea that you have to cast Americans, but the pool of talent in Africa is rich.

The director Jean Luc Herbulot is responsible for this. He has worked with many of our cast before, and others were very happy to participate.