As a young boy, Mamadou Dia often slipped into the private lives of his neighbors as they dictated letters to him.
He was only 9 years old, but Dia was one of the few in his town in northern Senegal, in West Africa, who could read and write and who spoke both Fula and French.
“At the time, the literacy rate was low so people would call me to dictate their letters,” Dia said. He admits his first letters were not sophisticated.
“I surely made mistakes in writing them,” he said. But he was paid for his service.
“I was the richest kid in my neighborhood,” he said.
He wrote and directed an award-winning film based on that childhood experience, “Samedi Cinema,” which is about two young boys who write letters for their neighbors to get enough money to go to the movies. The film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival.
Now, Dia is on the University of Kansas campus for a week as the first visiting interdisciplinary scholar at KU’s Hall Center for the Humanities, helping scholars turn their research into visual narratives.
Sarah Bishop, associate director of the Hall Center, said the center selected Dia to be its first visiting scholar because of the way he brings together a variety of humanities departments — film and media, Francophone studies, African and African-American studies and digital humanities.
“What makes Mamadou such a strong first scholar is his excellent storytelling that touches every discipline,” Bishop said.
Sharing what he saw
Dia, 35, got some experience in relaying his neighbors’ stories during his youth, but it was when he first arrived in Dakar for his university studies that he found his calling as a visual storyteller.
“Dakar was a very visual place. I had never been in a city that big and I wanted to share everything I was seeing,” Dia said. “I think that’s what brought me into journalism.”
He particularly liked the amount of information that could be conveyed in a video — using fewer words but still giving viewers the whole story.
After graduating, he worked as a journalist under contract and independently for French-speaking TV5. He also worked for the Associated Press across the African continent, he said.
By 2014, he had been accepted into the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where he earned his MFA in filmmaking in 2017. He worked briefly in New York before moving to Charlottesville, Va., where his wife has a teaching position at the University of Virginia.
‘My real story’
On Thursday, Dia conducted a digital storytelling workshop for faculty and students from a variety of disciplines.
“This is a great way to connect the scholars and disciplines across the departments and give them the training they wouldn’t have,” said Brian Rosenblum, co-director of the Institute for Digital Research in Humanities.
Ray Pierotti, associate professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, said he thought the workshop would be helpful in his work, digitizing the narratives he collects.
And Amanda Miller, a doctoral student in special education, said she came to the workshop because she uses photography in her work and was interested in learning how to use digital storytelling with her photography.
During the workshop, Dia told the group about the strong oral tradition in Senegal. Every night, he said, his grandmother would tell him a story.
He explained that these stories were often myths, not real experiences, but they carried valuable life lessons.
He also elaborated on his letter-writing experiences — his earliest brushes with journalism. He was taking the spoken word and putting it on paper, but when his neighbors received replies, they would also have Dia read those letters to them.
“It was heavy stuff,” Dia said. Sometimes, he was writing to someone’s relative asking for money for prescriptions. One person was having an affair and wanted him to write a love letter.
“At 9, it’s not easy keeping a secret,” he said.
But that experience evolved into his storytelling today — including “Samedi Cinema.”
“This is my real story,” he said.
‘Samedi Cinema’ screening
A screening of “Samedi Cinema” and a conversation with Dia are scheduled at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Hall Center for the Humanities Conference Hall, 900 Sunnyside Ave., on the KU campus. The event is free and open to the public.