By Dan Hassoun

Dan Hassoun is an archivist assistant at the BFC/A. He earned his Ph.D in Communication & Culture from Indiana University in 2019 and has instructed several courses on film and media theory, consumer culture, and globalization. He also works as a Crisis Intervention specialist with Middle Way House.

If you’re not familiar with Beninese/Senegalese director Paulin Vieyra (1925-1987), you are missing out on one of the key figures in African and world film history. One of the fathers of African cinema, Vieyra’s life and prolific work as a filmmaker, historian, and essayist track closely with the development of African filmmaking in the period of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. Vieyra’s trailblazing Afrique sur Seine (1955) was the first film directed by a French-speaking sub-Saharan African. As the first head of newly-independent Senegal’s Office for Radio Broadcasting and Television and the Sciences and Information Technology Research Centre, Vieyra cultivated one of the first national African film industries. In this role, he produced and promoted the works of luminaries like Ousmane Sembène, co-founded enduring organizations like the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FESPACI) and the Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO), and widely published on the challenges of establishing a post-colonial cinematic identity.  

Now, thanks to a generous donation to the BFC/A from his youngest son Stéphane, the scope of Paulin Vieyra’s accomplishments may now finally be accessible to researchers and historians around the world. The Paulin S. Vieyra Collection arrived at IU’s Auxiliary Library Facility (ALF) in June 2021 in seven large crates. These crates housed thousands of items and documents charting the story of Vieyra’s career and interests: films, home movies, interviews with other African directors, founding documents and mission statements for dozens of conferences and festivals, screenplays and synopses, rare photographs and posters, scholarly manuscripts, letters and correspondence between Vieyra and various cultural and political figures, and personal artifacts like cameras, awards, and Vieyra’s own typewriter. The materials arrived to the ALF carefully packaged in plastic-wrapped bundles that, though loosely grouped together by theme and material type, were largely disorganized.  

Over the course of a month, I helped to process and sort through these materials with BFC/A archivist Amber Bertin and archival assistant MarQuis Bullock. Together, we unwrapped, photographed, and reviewed each bundle in the crates to determine what each one contained. The bulk of the work involved assessing each item’s condition and preservation status: while most of these artifacts were in relatively good shape, many still bore signs of age (fading and discolored papers, rusting paperclips, degraded film reels, etc.). Most of the materials were written in French, leaving the specifics of their contents obscure to our English-speaking minds. 

As we determined general descriptions for each item, we recorded everything into an inventory spreadsheet before sorting the materials into archival file folders and boxes. Once the boxes were full, we would transfer them onto the massive shelves within the ALF’s secure and temperature-controlled vault.  

Much work remains to be done, and the BFC/A is already in the process of bringing aboard research fellows specializing in Francophone and African film history who will identify these materials more thoroughly. However, by initially inventorying the contents of this collection, we were able to house these treasures in conditions where they can remain accessible to interested researchers for hundreds of years. Particularly exciting is the collection’s hundreds of manuscripts, many of which have never been published or translated widely within the English-speaking world. We expect that further exploration of this collection will enrich our understandings of film history, Black filmmaking practices, and postcolonial cinemas. The collection has already attracted the interest of scholars from around the world. As it is further processed and studied by different eyes, I personally look forward to reading and hearing more about Mr. Vieyra in the years to come. 

From left to right: BFC/A Archivist Amber Bertin and Archival Assistants MarQuis Bullock and Dan Hassoun unpack and inventory materials from the Paulin S. Vieyra collection.

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