“Inside/Outside” at Café Rose Nicaud and the Cinema of Joseph Gaï Ramaka

Subjective space, intuitive, ambivalent, willfully partisan.
Trace, cross out, trace again.
Glimpse a fragmented reading.
Trace, cross out, trace again.1
Joseph Gaï Ramaka

Filmmaker Joseph Gaï Ramaka, who was born in St. Louis, Senegal and lived for many years in Paris, moved to New Orleans, my hometown, in February 2008. He, like thousands of young people from across the United States, was drawn to New Orleans when television stations around the world showed the city under water in September 2005, after the levees broke in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and thousands of residents scattered, most of them poor and black. Reminiscent of the village of Golema Mmidi in Bessie Head’s 1969 novel, When Rain Clouds Gather, the “new” New Orleans would be held together, not by a shared historical past and extended kin, but because it seemed a place to start anew, to build something, even as its inequalities were as enormous, its resources as limited, as before the “neo-liberal” deluge.2 For Ramaka, it was surely also that New Orleans shared history and a French-African métisse culture with his hometown St. Louis, as with the island of Gorée off the coast of Dakar, and an always present river, in our case, the Mississippi.

It was both a privilege and rather daunting challenge to work with Ramaka on an initiative we called The New Orléans Afrikan Film and Arts Festival Project (NOAFEST), a non-profit tax-exempt arts organization. We were Co-Presidents of NOAFEST and Ramaka was, in addition, the Artistic Director. We had met in Dakar in 2002, when he invited his friend, my now deceased husband, Kalidou Sy, former Director of Senegal’s National School of Fine Arts, and myself to dinner at his home in Yoff, on the coast, some miles from downtown Dakar, near Léopold Sédar Senghor airport. 

Wanting to give something to the City that we were perhaps uniquely positioned to give, Ramaka and I launched NOAFEST with personal funds in July of 2008 as a monthly “celebration of film”: new films or recent ones that were not well known to New Orleanians, screened in the presence of filmmakers whenever possible, preceded typically by brief musical performances, followed by rather bountiful receptions, as is the New Orleans way, and lively exchange. As much as possible, we held these events in diverse neighborhoods in the City. Ultimately, we called this program “Cinéma Première.” It was not long before this idea crystallized: Africa and communities of African descent were not the limit of our horizon but, rather, a point of departure “from which we open ourselves to the world.” While our events may have had particular resonance for African American and other minority communities, we sought to build communication across the diverse communities of the city, connecting New Orleanians of all types to the world and one another. Our public was from the beginning multi-racial and multi-generational, including people of differing educational and socio-economic backgrounds, encompassing the diversity of New Orleans, yet united by the desire to enjoy powerful artistic experiences and committed to equality across the board. We were able to sustain this project through 2012. 

As in filmmaking, one of NOAFEST’s biggest challenges was the constant hustle for money. We did not charge admission. But thanks to a small, dedicated staff of volunteers, in-kind contributions from Whole Foods, participation by Molto, a chamber orchestra founded by Haitian composer and conductor Jean Montès, financial donations, and a range of grants over the years from the French General Consulate, the Arts Council of New Orleans, the Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the Mayor’s Office, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, the City Council-Harrah’s Community Partners Program, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, NOAFEST grew and developed a small annual film festival, very similar in its contours to Cinéma Première, and, ultimately, an annual award, the Toni Cade Bambara Award for Cultural Leadership, given to cultural or artistic workers in the city who helped promote artistic diversity, cultural memory and whose work was significant in building and transforming community.3 The Toni Cade Bambara Award highlighted the importance of social justice as a fundamental aspect of our project. Moreover, NOAFEST traditionally incorporated into the festival schedule one or more talks, interviews or roundtables focusing on questions of race, power, and social justice.

In 2010-11, we relocated Cinéma Première from its first home base, in uptown New Orleans at the Prytania theatre, to Café Rose Nicaud4 in the Marigny on Frenchmen Street, next door to the famous jazz nightclub, Snug Harbor. Ramaka scouted out locations as well as films, and this particular location struck a chord. It’s not clear whether he saw this coming or whether it came to him later, but he said to me one day with great enthusiasm, “we can project the film inside the Café and outdoors across the street.” 

It seemed like a good idea, but perhaps he himself did not realize at first what a good idea “Cinéma Première Inside/Outside,” as we called it, was. Inside, the Café Rose Nicaud was a small intimate space, cozy, ripe for discussion and intellectual exchange. Outside, on the wall across the street facing the café, the film was writ large. Passersby on Frenchmen, one of the most popular streets in New Orleans for young people and tourists, were going about their business, when all of sudden, out of nowhere, they were startled and then mesmerized by the images on the wall. They then sat down at café tables outdoors or on the sidewalk itself. Outside was spectacle in the modern (or post-modern) space of the city: the near-anonymity, the energy, sense of possibility, alternatives, and yearnings that we associate with urban space. Needless to say, the filmmakers who joined us monthly were thrilled to see their work as part of the cityscape, calling out to people who went by. 

This work was not unrelated to the content and the form of Ramaka’s work as a filmmaker. “Inside/Outside” is where Ramaka, in my view, situates himself. Straddling spaces, exploiting multiple options. Intimate and spectacular. All at once. So it was that Ramaka stood astride the worlds of New Orleans and Dakar, he went back and forth between documentary and narrative films, and he negotiated the tension between rêverie (a world of dream) and an often bruising real, in other words, beauty and the beast. Beauty–because every scene is poetic–even those that bring to life the ugly beast of power. 

Both documentary and narrative films under Ramaka’s pen and camera, then, share techniques and preoccupations. Both are marked, on the one hand, by a certain yearning, a lyricism and beauty in music, composition and images and, on the other, by an explicit or implicit social critique of the beast of arrogance and power–or its opposite, an exploration of love. An example among Ramaka’s documentaries is the beautiful short film, Plan Jaxaay! (The Jaxaay Plan, 2007), which denounces the false promises, manipulation, and inaction of the Senegalese government vis-à-vis flooded Dakar suburbs where residents use trash as filler upon which to build their homes. These same suburbs are marred by overcrowding, poverty, and inadequate sanitation. In Plan Jaxaay!, Ramaka strolls through these neighborhoods with a camera, observing and listening. 

Ramaka’s best known narrative film is the award-winning Karmen Gei (2001), inspired by the Bizet opera, Carmen (1875), itself an adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s Romantic novella (1845) of the same name. In Ramaka’s film the articulation of freedom has been reterritorialized in the magical and chaotic urbanity of Dakar and the island of Gorée. Karmen has a strong undercurrent of social critique but seems little concerned with correcting misrepresentations of Africa and asserting the “True” or the “Authentic.” 

Karmen’s intertextual origins, its many ambiguities, and musical métissage–a jazz score by David Murray, a requiem composed by Dakarois Julien Djouga and rehearsed under his direction by a Catholic choir, a Mouride chant sung by El Hadji Ndiaye, traditional drumming, a “praise song” to Karmen by Yandé Codou Sène and still other musical forms– signal the film’s distinction: its refusal of pieties, of status quo’s, of compartments, be they musical, narrative, religious, or gender. The musical and textual formal interweaving matches the heroine’s spirit of freedom, her refusal to be bound by convention. This resonates, of course, with what seems to me the complex graphic quality of the film, in which the sea–given the denunciation of a corrupt, bourgeois social order on land—represents a space of freedom, of play, of repose. Even in the women’s prison on the island of Gorée, effects of lighting, color and music transform a dark space—which could symbolize entrapment and psychological alienation–into a magical, intimate frame where women dance, love, are vigorous and powerful among themselves.5 

Fully committed to filmmaking, Ramaka has always seemed to be nonetheless a poet with a camera, who prefers the moment of full creative possibility which is writing to cinematic execution which entails a struggle with the constraints and limitations of reality. If, as he once put it, “cinema is a place where everything is possible. . . . where one can stop the sun from setting, if one wishes” (Martin 205), it is in fact more properly the space of writing itself where anything and everything is imaginable, where yearning and desire are free. In the actual filmmaking one is entangled materially, in the snares of time, equipment, money, weather, contracts, permits and personalities. 

In my view, it is this constant awareness of beauty, lyricism and desire, on the one hand, and beastliness and limits, on the other, that gives this cinema its potency, its capacity to draw spectators into the drama carried by music, sound and visuals and to provoke deep emotional responses even in Ramaka’s films of harsh social critique. 

So it is with Mbas mi (2020), a short film in Wolof with English subtitles that the New York African Film Festival has chosen to screen during this year’s online festival. The Senegalese actor Goo Mamadou Bâ chants in Wolof an excerpt from Albert Camus’s The Plague (La peste, 1947), the story of the Bubonic plague, set in mid-twentieth century, that comes mysteriously to life in the city of Oran (Algeria) and, eventually, departs just as mysteriously, leaving in its 

wake, along with the dead, metaphysical, existential questions about life. Produced some 2350 miles southwest of Oran, on the island of Gorée, Mbas mi is a film of its time, resonating deeply in these days of COVID-19. Ramaka manages a certain cinematic wizardry reminiscent of his claim that in cinema…”one can stop the sun from setting, if one wishes.” 

This brings us to his reflections on the creative process with which this article begins: The mobius strip in which inside and outside are one and the same reality. Sounding one’s intuition, engaging one’s uncertainties. Realizing that every reading is partial. Then beginning again…


Head, Bessie. When Rain Clouds Gather. Bantam Books. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968. 

Johnson, Cedric. Ed. The Neo-Liberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans (Minneapolis: U Minnesota Press, 2011). 

Maasilta, Mari. African Carmen: Trasnational Cinema as an Arena for Cultural Contradictions. Tampere, Finland: Tampere U Press, 2007. 

Martin, Michael T. “Joseph Gaï Ramaka: ‘I am not a filmmaker engagé. I am an ordinary citizen engagé.” Research in African Literatures 40.3 (2009): 204-217. 

Mitchell, Elvis. “Driving Men, and Women, Crazy.“ New York Times. April 2002. 

Prabhu, Anjali. The ‘Monumental’ Heroine: Female Agency in Joseph Gaï Ramaka’s Karmen Geï.“ Cinema Journal 51.4 (summer 2012): 66-86. 

Ramaka, Joseph Gaï. Karmen Geï. 2001. Distr. California Newsreel. 

_____. Plan Jaxaay! 2007. Liberté I. 


1 Personal communication, March 2011. My translation. 

2 For an insightful discussion of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath as an effect of neo-liberal policies, see Cedric Johnson, ed. The Neo-Liberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans

3 This annual award, including cash and a work of art, was named for the prolific writer, Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995), a practicing artist, educator, feminist and community activist. Author of The Salt Eaters (1980) and the posthumous Those Bones are not My Child (1999), Bambara once said that she never thought of herself as a writer but as a community person who “writes and does a few other things.” In 2010, NOAFEST honored two beloved yet unsung heroines, Vera Warren-Williams and Jennifer Turner, owner and manager of the Community Book Center, which had served the New Orleans community for 27 years. Toni Cade Bambara’s daughter presented the honorees with a sculpture by a Zimbabwean artist, Two Sisters, and a message of congratulations from Toni Morrison was read. An innovative chamber music ensemble offered their funky rendition of a classic by Nigerian musician, Fela Ransome-Kuti, and celebrated Nigerian poet and Professor of English at the University of New Orleans, Dr. Niyi Osundare, read a poem in honor of the 2010 awardees. In 2011, the second award, including the sculpture, Tree of Music, by Senegalese artist André Guibril Diop was presented to the legendary musician, teacher and entrepreneur, Harold Battiste, Jr. In 2012, the Toni Cade Bambara award was presented to the mesmerizing spoken word artist and activist, Sunni Patterson. 

4 According to the Café’s website: “In the early 1800’s Rose Nicaud became the first known coffee vendor in New Orleans. Rose, a slave, saw the opportunity to provide a service to French Market vendors, workers and shoppers by providing them with fresh, hot coffee. Rose created a portable cart which she pushed through the market on Sundays, selling “cafe noir ou cafe au lait”. Her entrepreneurial efforts were a quick success. One customer is quoted to have said, “Her coffee is like the benediction that follows after prayer”. 

It is likely that Rose provided the majority of her earnings from the day’s sales to her owner, as this was the typical arrangement. She saved the portion she was allowed to keep until she had enough to buy her freedom. Rose’s earliest customers stood next to her cart to drink their coffee. Later, she created a permanent stand in the Market, and her customers were provided with seating. Rose’s success inspired dozens of other women of color, who sold coffee from small portable stands. 

In the 19th and early 20th century, many resourceful women of color in New Orleans made their living and supported their families by selling coffee, pralines, calas and other food and drink in the French Market and on the streets of the city’s old neighborhoods. They were known as Les Vendeuses.” <www.caferosenicaud.com>

5 For further reading on Karmen Gei, see Mari Maasilta, Michael T. Martin, Elvis Mitchell, and Anjali Prabhu in the list of References.  

Featured Director

Joseph Gaï Ramaka

Joseph Gaï Ramaka was born in 1952 in St. Louis, Senegal. After completing studies in visual anthropology at the Paris School of Social Sciences and film studies at the IDHEC, Ramaka created the French production and distribution company, Les Ateliers de l’Arche, in 1990. The Senegalese branch of this company opened the Bell’Arte space in Senegal in 1999, a Dolby stereo-equipped screening facility. This in turn jump-started the creative work of the Arche Studios, West and Central Africa’s first 15,000 square meter sound stage with computerized lighting. Some of Ramaka's films include And What If Latif Was Right winner of Best Documentary Film Award at the Vues d'Afrique Festival - Montreal 2006, Karmen Geï (2000, Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals), Ainsi soit-il (1997, Short Film Prize at Vues d’Afrique), Nitt...N’doxx / Les Faiseurs de Pluie (1988), and Baaw-Naan / Rites de Pluie (1985). He established the New Orleans Afrikan Film Festival in 2007 and in 2013, he created Gorée Island Cinema, a space for encounters and cinematographic creations, which has presented the Gorée Cinema Festival since 2015.

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About the Author

Eileen Julien

Eileen Julien is director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Indiana University Bloomington (USA) and a professor of Comparative Literature, French and Italian, and African Studies. Her primary teaching and research interests are the literatures and cultures of Africa, the Americas, and France in their interrelationships. Among her publications, we find themes such as Josephine Baker's French films of the 1930s, the Présence Africaine conference held at the Sorbonne in 1956; gender and nationalism in the works of Wole Soyinka and Mariama Bâ; the romance of Africa in narratives by African American women; the art of making New Orleans gumbo, and the "extroverted" African novel. She is the author also of African Novels and the Question of Orality (1992), Travels with Mae: Scenes from a New Orleans Girlhood (2009), and co-editor of The Locations and Dislocations of African Literature: A Dialogue Between Humanities and Social Science Scholars (2016).  Recipient of Bunting Institute (Radcliffe College), Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, she was founding director (2003-05) of the West African Research Center (Dakar, Senegal), and co-founder of the New Orléans Afrikan Film and Arts Festival (2008-12). Learn More