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Soleil Ȏ / Oh, Sun, Mauritania 1970.

Posted by keith1942 on July 25, 2017

This key film and the filmmaker Med Hondo featured at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. The film has been restored as part of the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. As is their practice the new version has been restored from existing 35mm and 16mm prints and made available on a DCP in the original French and Arabic with English sub-tittles. The digital version is presumably to aid distribution though whilst I have seen a number of their restorations at Festivals they do not seem to reach ordinary exhibition in the British/Irish territory.

The filmmaker Med Hondo was also invited to the Festival and we also had the opportunity to see two of his other films. He received a warm reception and was visibly moved by this. He also retained and voiced the passionate political commitment which is apparent in his films.

Hondo’s film work is experimental, didactic and sardonic. His tone is exemplified by the opening of Les Bricot Negres in which a smiling black African man, in close-up, addresses the camera directly:

“So you have come to the cinema —But certainly we all love the cinema very much, don’t we? … the camera, the film, the projectors, the techniques, who invented all this? Not us certainly. —

So, to provide us with entertainment – and also to take from us a little dough – sorry, a little money – the “Toubabs” [Westerners] have built theatres for us, they installed their machines,, and we, curious as we are went to see the CI-NE-MA.” (Prologue printed in ‘Framework’ Spring 1978).

It is clear that Hondo’s film provide a directly oppositional cinema to that kindly provided by the benefactors from Europe and North America.

1970 was the release date of this film when it played at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Hondo, who wrote the story and directed the film, had commenced it in 1965 and completed it by 1967. But finding distribution was as difficult as it had been earlier to find funding. Hondo and his collaborators basically made the film on their own for about $30,000. Much of the money was raised buy Hondo who worked dubbing US films into French. Hondo later wrote of the production:

“it was purely by chance that we ended up being artists ‘of colour’ as the term usually used. In Paris together for basically the same reasons, Bachir, Touré, Robert [Liensol] and I found ourselves right in the middle of a country, a city, where we had to get by, for lack of better words, where we had to work: being an actor, a musician, a singer. And where we realized immediately the doors were closed […]. As a solution we thought of creating a theater group and, in the meantime, we all made Soleil Ȏ.” ( Med Hondo in 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The film is best conceived as agit-prop. Whilst the narrative is fictional, it is expresses the experiences of black Africans in Paris and is predominately shot in actual locations. The film weaves of complex tapestry of characters, settings, scenes and actions and discussions. These are not presented in a linear fashion; the film constantly cuts between separate scenes, many of which we return to several times. The basic form of the film is montage in the sense developed by the Soviet pioneers. So not only does the film constantly cut between separate characters and settings bit it is full of discontinuities. Equally the sound follows the manifesto produced by Sergey Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigori Aleksandrov,; whilst dialogue scenes mainly used synchronisation the soundtrack frequently features dialogue, music and noise that appears asynchronous. This is especially so as the film moves towards its climax.

The film opens with ma pre-credit sequence of Africans playing and communing by a river followed by a cut and film of Africans in Paris. This sets up the contradiction between Africans own cultures and their experiences under colonial domination, be it at home in Africa or when they sits the ‘mother-country’.

After the credits there is an animated section. Then film set in Africa with a dramatised but symbolic treatment of the oppression of Africans by European cultural forms. Africans are shown dominated by European religion: they are accorded identities through baptism and naming with European names. This is followed by  a procession with wooden crosses. In a sardonic move the crosses are inverted and Africans become soldiers/servants in military service: a service that involves fighting amongst themselves. This is pure agit-prop and sets up the cultural dominance that the film portrays.

We then move to a large city, Paris where an African migrant arrives, The rest of the film is a series of dramatised sequences but shot in actual locations and, at times, using actual footage both of the white French natives and the visiting Africans. These separate sequences are constantly intercut and for most of the time a particular action or discussion is not completed, but returned to later in the film.

So we have an African seeking a place to live: mainly suffering racist rejection.. An African seeking work: and suffering racist responses that range from outright rejection to paternalistic employment. The latter is represented by a factory class for African recruits where the white teachers assume that these ‘foreign’ workers re naïve and possibly illiterate. There is a recurring discussion between an African man and a an employer where the latter appears at times sympathetic but take position that such exploitation is necessary.

Later in the film we examples of African workers being housed in Gerry-built buildings, in excessive numbers and the profits that exploiting landlord can make. There are also scenes where sexual exploitation is addressed. There is a sardonic episode where a visiting African President, clearly corrupted by the colonial situation, uses a white French prostitute.

There are signs of solidarity. At a garage regarding a vacancy the proletarian working there advised and assists the African. But later another sardonic episode shows the competing left groupings, basically sectarian, offering rhetoric rather than actual support for African fighting racism.

Actual solidarity occurs in a sequences where we see African socialising together. There are several set in a restaurant where the Africans eat, drink and socialise. There is also a singer there: note, not all the lyrics are translated. One is ‘Soleil Ȏ’, a song from slaves in the West |Indies, which provides the title of the film.

The film develops a crushing weight of racism, discrimination and oppression alongside the exploitation which is the norm in a capitalist society. As we watch the end of the film the protagonist runs through a series of settings, desolate waste land, railways, motorways and more desolation in a forest. Flames appear on the screen and images are superimposed on the frame, of Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Mehdi Ben Barka and Patrice Lumumba. The protagonist grasps and armalite rifle. This is accompanied by increasingly strident screams, drums and percussive noises. The film ends with the onscreen title ‘To Be Continued’.

That continuation could be seen in the other titles screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Soleil Ȏ set up a radical discourse that continued in West Indies (1979) and Sarraounia (1986). The film shares a common influence from the ideas and writings of Franz Fanon found in other African directors, for example Ousmane Sembène. There is also the influence of Soviet montage, Neo-realism and European Cinéma vérité. All are combined in a distinctly radical cinematic expression.

Hondo later critically commented, in an article ‘The Cinema of Exile’ (in ‘Film & Politics in the Third World’, edited by John D. H. Downing, Automedia 1987).

The approach in Soleil Ȏ had been constructed from a very elaborate script, and improvisations had remained limited and always under constraint.”

He comments more generally,

“Were I to make a film in Mauritania tomorrow, my film language would not be the same.”

And developments can be seen in his later films screened at the Il Cinema Ritrovato. So Soleil Ȏ is a film of a certain time and place. But it is also a key film in developing an African and African Diaspora cinema. The good work of the World Cinema Project is welcome: let us hope the film is widely seen and discussed.

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