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Ladj Ly, the director of Cannes Jury prize-winning film Les Miserables, this week opened Africa’s first free film school – in the Senegalese capital Dakar.
The Ecole Kourtrajmé, named after the collective he founded in France, is offering young people from underprivileged areas an opportunity to learn skills in the audiovisual trade.
The Dakar school is the third in the Kourtrajmé family, after Montfermeil, in the Paris suburbs, along with another in the southern city of Marseille.
The concept is simple: any student can apply for the selection process, regardless of age or level of education.
Established in a former office building converted into a cultural centre, the school hosts 14 young Senegalese women and men – seven of each gender – chosen from hundreds of candidates.
The students began their first screenwriting class on Tuesday, in a course that will run for five months in partnership with the French audiovisual agency INA and the Agence Française de Développement (AFD).
Later in June, they’ll be joined by 18 apprentice film directors.
Ladj Ly and Kourtrajmé co-founder Toumani Sangaré admit they considered setting up their first pedagogical project in Mali, where their parents hail from, but security problems in the country are a stumbling block.
"Senegal has become a real hub for audiovisual production, in particular for series,” Sangaré told journalists.
The country has become a popular spot for international productions, he says, with access to "quality technicians", amazing locations and "it’s only five hours by plane from Paris".
Ly grew up in the poor, multicultural council housing areas of Monfermeil in the eastern suburbs of Paris, where the Kourtrajmé collective was set up in 1995. The name is French slang for court métrage, or short film.
One of his early projects was capturing the violent riots of 2005 on film, expressing the anger from the perspective of the young people living in the suburbs.
When he opened the first film school in Monfermeil in 2018, Ly was in the process of finalising the editing Les Misérables, which went on to win the Jury prize at Cannes in 2019. It was also nominated for the Oscars.
But setting up the school in Senegal hasn’t been an easy journey, Ly admits. First of all, there were many challenges from raising the money, to jumping through the administrative hoops. Then of course, there was the Covid outbreak, which brought its own complications.
Ly's celebrity status helped a little bit, he admits but “trying to open a school free of charge was really a struggle”.
There was also a run-in with the law back in February 2021, when the NGO managing the school was investigated over suspicions of money-laundering and breach of trust.
Ly and his brother were taken in for questioning by police. Ly says he was the victim of “sabotage” and the inquiry is now over, with a special court still deliberating on the final verdict.
“The important thing is the school exists and we’re going to open more of them,” he says, referring to a future project in Madrid.
Ly and Sangaré also have a number of other creative projects on the go across the continent, including in Côte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso.