Third Cinema revisited

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West Indies, France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979.

Posted by keith1942 on August 5, 2017

The film was adapted by Med Hondo from a stage play by Daniel Boukman written in 1972, ‘The Slavers’. Boukman is a Martinique writer, apparently little known outside the Caribbean as it would seem is his play. He is noted for using a carnivalesque form, full of irony and parody, and aiming at ‘distance’ in the sense theorised by Bertold Brecht. Boukman receives a credit for dialogue in the film so it would seem that the film relies extensively on the theatrical original. To what degree the film also follows the staging of the play is unclear but certainly it also relies on a carnival atmosphere and on ironic detachment. It is suggested, [in ‘Daniel Boukman : A Poetics of ‘Detour’] that Boukman’s narration resembles the function of the ‘griot’ in African cultures. And that too applies to the film. Hondo had already staged the play in 1972 with the theatrical company he had co-founded before commencing work in film.

The screening at Il Cinema Ritrovato was introduced by Med Hondo himself. He advised us that this print ‘used the final cut’, which suggests that the filming suffered from restraints by producers or by censors. Th. Mpoyi-Buatu [in an article in ‘Film & Politics in the Third World’, edited by John D. H. Downing, 1987] writes that it took seven years to raise all the funding, including individual contributions from Africans. He also gives

‘The film’s full title is this: West Indies or the Nigger Maroons of Freedom.”

Attributing g the main title to the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén and explaining the term ‘maroon’ as

“a term used in Jamaica for slaves who ran away and founded their own independent villages and settlements in remote areas as far from the Europeans as possible.”

I did not note any reference to this sub-title at the screening but the film certainly refers to the phenomena cited by Mpoyi-Buatu.

The setting for this historical parable is a sailing ship, one that is of the type that carried the kidnapped Africans across the Atlantic to slavery. A colleague thought that Hondo had had this set created in the Gare d’Orsay where Orson Welles filmed much of his 1962 version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. 1978/9, the time of filming, was just before work started on converting the disused railway station  into what is now a prime art gallery, Musée d’Orsay.

“The ship’s different levels indicate rather well the strata of Caribbean society: the slaves, the people, in the old; the middle classes, the assimilated, on the lower bridge; the masters, the colonists, on the upper bridge.” (Th. Mpoyi-Buatu).

Like his earlier Soleil Ő this film relies on a form of montage, cutting between different sites and periods and with a tone that is both ironic and sardonic.  The film commences in the 1960s or early 1970s and on a Caribbean Island: not identified but clearly one of those colonised by the French [Guadalupe, Dominica, St Lucia, ….Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti are directly named in the commentary]. The narrative then moves back and forth to various stages in the development and exploitation of Africans kidnapped into slavery and transported to both the Caribbean and mainland Americas. Dates, names and places are indicated by titles onscreen. A narrative voice both provides information and comment. The chronology runs from 1640 with the arrival of the sugar cane crop on the Islands; the development of an enslaved labour force transported from Africa by the British, French, Dutch and Danish; the events following the Revolution of 1789; the subsequent uprisings, including the successful rebellion in Haiti; the re-imposition following the Napoleonic coup-d’etat; the gradual abolition of the trade and of slavery; and then the post second World War reverse movements up until the 1960s.

Whilst the cast act, speak, sing, dance and perform in various guises, they appear as ‘types’ rather in the style of early Soviet cinema. These song and dance sequences are vibrant and colourful, sometimes celebratory, sometimes dramatic. There are both crowd scenes and individual actors, though the latter are not psychologically individualised.

The opening of the film introduces the audience to a group of bourgeois Caribbean politicians and bureaucrats meeting in a large cabin below deck and this is intercut with footage of ordinary African slaves working on harvesting sugar cane. The bourgeois meeting is concerned to avoid economic problems by encouraging emigration from the Caribbean to metropolitan France: a reversal of the voyages of transportation that bought the Africans across the Atlantic. This is the basic premise of the film, an inversion of the original enslavement.

The upper bridge offers a succession of French colonial rulers and French settlers who lord over the central deck space. Here are the masses of the people, and here are presented the songs, dances, mimes and crowd actions. The dancers frequently used masks and the props vary but include both torches and at one point machetes. Below them,  in a stairwell, are a small group of radicals who constantly oppose the dominant politics above with lines of resistance. Their props include machetes and a candle; the extinguishing of the candle light is a sign of the triumph of the dominant values.

Intercut with the varied performances on the several decks are footage of the slaves transported across the oceans; and of ‘maroon’ settlements where some autonomy is possible., One particular ‘maroon’ is an old man seated by a tree; the tree has a particular resonance from African culture.

“The Ancestor, in West Indies, is the tribe’s legitimacy figure. He does not possess the secret of survival, but a least he demonstrates the positive existence of an opposition force.” (Th. Mpoye-Buatu).

This character uses ‘peasant Creole’, and the film also features ‘immigrant Creole’, ‘pidgin-English’ and French: the languages marking, along with other devices, the classes and strata presented in the film.

The time and spatial span of the film together with the intercutting between these settings makes for a more complex film than Soleil Ő. The film also enjoys higher production values, fruits of the long pre-production work . The staging, in the single and impressive set, is excellent. There is no credit for the choreography, and presumably this was also directed by Hondo.  François Catonné’s cinematography captures the vibrancy of the performance, both in the use of tracks and dollies and at certain points fluid long takes. The editing by Youcef Tobni is at times relatively fast but maintains a coherent if elliptical narrative line. The music offers composition by Georges Rabol and Frank Valmont whilst also using traditional and popular songs and music.

It is difficult to take in all the aspects of the film at one viewing: it is certainly a film that would/will repay further viewings, if and when possible. What it does do is draw together sets of social action of domination that, at a surface level, appear discrete but which are manifestations of the same underlying exploitation and oppression: the manner in which colonial relations have transformed into neo-colonial relations. Importantly the film is constructed to prompt viewers to reflect as they witness the drama unfold. Th. Mpoye-Buatu finally comments:

“So, then, the aesthetic intention is sustained by a critical process of a kind which neither mystifies that process, nor the spectacle presented, nor those to whom it is presented. It is for that reason that … West Indies is a film of ambition, both in its magnificent spirit and in its aesthetics: its corrosive quality only matched by the effectiveness of its strategy. The strategy itslef is simple: to know all the devices of slavery and to combat them by every means.”

The screening was a 35mm colour print running 110 minutes. this was the French version with English sub-titles from the Havard Film Archive.

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