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In Cinema, Sound is the Key

December 15, 2017

Alumnus Vlad Dima (PhD 2010) discusses life as an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he researches French and francophone cinema and crafts unique courses, such as one that explores the representations of the undead in literature and film. His new book offers the first comprehensive study in English of films by Djibril Diop Mambety, and argues that the Senegalese auteur uses soundscapes to generate alternate narrative planes.

What brought you to the University of Minnesota?

I wanted to earn a doctorate in French studies, and my options were Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Iowa. The director of graduate studies [at the University of Minnesota] at the time, Judith Preckshot, was the only one who called me, and I was sold on the program thanks to this personal touch. I started out as a Quebec studies specialist, but then moved towards cinema after taking a fascinating class on the New Wave with Alan Smith.

What do you love about what you do?

In my current job at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I love that I get to focus on both teaching and intense research. As part of a prestigious French program, I have to maintain an active research agenda in French and francophone cinemas. However, I also get the opportunity to create and teach fun classes, such as Life after Life, a course that explores representations of the undead—vampires, ghosts, and zombies—in literature and film.

What fond memories do you have from your time as a UMN graduate student?

My fondest memories are connected to the many brilliant people—colleagues, friends, professors—I met while at UMN, and with whom I'm still friends with today. Superficially, though, I miss being a Vikings fan in Minneapolis (as opposed to Madison). I also miss places like Annie's, Manning's, and Fasika. So… I miss the food.

How has your intellectual life evolved since you graduated?

Since leaving UMN, I have continued to improve both as a teacher and as a researcher. I briefly taught at the College of William & Mary, then at Union College, before settling in Madison at the University of Wisconsin where I became tenured with merit in 2017. Besides my book, I've published over forty articles, mainly on French and francophone cinemas, but also on francophone literature, comics, American cinema, and television.

What can you tell us about your most recent book?

My book Sonic Space in Djibril Diop Mambety's Films (Indiana University Press, January 2017) proposes, in short, that the films of the Senegalese auteur rely on sound—as noise, voice, and music—to generate alternate narrative planes. Sound generates its own stories and sonic spaces, which lead to a deterritorialization of the visual and its primacy. The use of sound is key to the director’s originality and contribution to world cinema, and subsequently, the secondary goal of the book is to offer the first comprehensive study in English of Mambety's films which, with the exception of Touki Bouki (1974), have been largely ignored in academic writings.

What got you interested in Senegalese cinema?

When I was in college at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, I did an off-campus program in Dakar. We went to see the premiere of Ousmane Sembène's Faat Kiné (2000) and the film made a lasting impression on me. A few years later, while at UMN, I took a course in the English department on African cinema taught by Charles Sugnet. It was the combination of these two events that jump-started my interest in Senegalese cinema.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently working on essays on Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo, on issues of trauma in postcolonial theater, and on representations of the undead (that is, vampires) in nineteenth-century French literature and francophone film, as well as on a second book project, The Beautiful Skin: Clothing, Football and Fantasy in West African cinema, 1964-2014.

What advice do you have for current graduate students in your field?

Read my book. Just kidding. First, publish. Second, find ways to keep yourself excited about what you're doing: read something unrelated to your field, learn about an obscure director, or write on an unorthodox pairing of authors.

Ever since I recruited Vlad for our PhD program, I have been one of Vlad’s enthusiastic supporters. Once on campus, Vlad proved my intuition right by moving through the program quickly, all the while finding time for his creative outlets, which included fiction writing and film-making. His creativity, personable nature, and incredible organization and self-discipline have served him well as he has advanced in his career.”

–Judith Preckshot, associate professor emerita

“Vlad Dima was one of the most highly-motivated graduate students in the French and Italian Department, always on track, always looking for a new challenge. His ground-breaking scholarship on film, in which he questions the dominance of the visual in French and Senegalese cinema in order to highlight the ever-greater role of sound, is now internationally known, as is his brilliant shifting of the notion of the flaneur to the wandering eye of the camera itself. Clearly it is his scholarship, as well as his fine teaching, that accounts for Vlad’s highly successful career as a professor and researcher, but it is his character that makes him an invaluable colleague.”

Eileen Sivert, associate professor emerita