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Sarraounia, Burkina-Faso, France 1986.

Posted by keith1942 on August 26, 2017

This was the third feature by Med Hondo presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. I was slightly disappointed as it only had one screening and I was planning to chivvy friends and colleagues who missed that one to come along to a second. It is also a shame as this is a magnificent example of African cinema and one that adheres to the maxims of Franz Fanon, ‘a fighting film, a revolutionary film and a national film’. Though with the latter concept we are talking about a Pan-African art.

The film was introduced by the director Med Hondo. He explained how the story is taken from historical events in ‘African resistance’. The scenario is adapted from a book by Abdoulaye Mamani which chronicles how Sarraounia Mangou, a chief/priestess of the Azna subgroup of the Hausa, fought French colonial troops in 1899. [Wikipedia has pages on this]. The film sets this in the context of the French imperial drive to bring unity to the colonial possessions in West Africa. The majority of tribal leaders either submitted to the French army or co-operated with them.

In an interview in the Festival Catalogue Med Hondo explained:

“I wanted to illustrate historical facts to show that the African continent was not easily colonised and had a history of resistance to colonialism. There were a number of African women involved in the fight against colonialism. Queen Sarraounia in Niger, Jinga in Angola, Ranavalona in Madagascar, Beatrice of the Congo, to name a few. We never speak of the role of African women in history but they headed kingdoms and had an important status in matriarchal societies.”

Hondo also recounted the problems associated with the production. It took several years to raise the finance, about one million Francs, not a large sum for the period. Then permission to film in Niger was withdrawn. It was then that Burkina Faso came to the rescue with some funding and locations and extras. But the travails were not ended. When the film premiered it Paris it had a very limited release, possibly [but unprovable] political pressure. Fellow African filmmakers like Ousmane Sembène and Souleymane Cissé protested on behalf of the film, as did progressive European filmmakers like Constantin Costa-Gavras and Bertrand Tavernier. But the film did not receive the wide distribution of the audiences it deserved though it was honoured at Fespaco [Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou]. I think it only had a few screenings in Britain and when Channel Four aired the film [in a season of African films] it was cropped from widescreen to Aacademy ratio.

Unlike most of his other films this title has a linear narrative, is presented in broadly dramatic terms and has much less of a sardonic tone. This follows from its function as a celebration of a people’s story: whilst Sarraounia is the leading character in the film this is very much a drama about the conflict between Africans and colonising Europeans. The film does use editing not only to draw parallels and contrasts but to point up themes and contradictions in the situations.

In a sense the film offers a number of worlds that are participants in a fundamental cultural and military conflict. The leading characters are to a degree psychologically drawn but they also function as ‘types’ and this is the main focus on the large array of supporting characters. Quite a few listings [IMDB for one] do not include all of the actors playing African characters.

At the centre of the film is Queen Sarraounia (Aï Keïta), chief of the Azna tribe. We meet her first as a young girl when we follow her education in the indigenous culture by the older teacher, Dawa (Tagara Yacouba Traore). He instructs her in military matters, medicinal and herbal recipes and importantly in the characteristics needed by a Queen.

“don’t confine your beauty. No selfish man will ever control you” [English subtitles].

This is demonstrated when we encounter Sarraounia as an adult and Queen. An early scene shows her consort, a skilled general, Baka (Aboubacar Traore or Ben Idriss Traore) angry and leaving the city because of her insistence on autonomy. This is also a sequence where we witness her status among her people,. After a display of wrestling a singer [griot] offers the song,

“Sweet Sarraounia”.

At various stages of the film we see Sarraounia organising and leading the resistance to the colonial army. She is a skilled strategist and also an inspirational leader. Importantly her forces are increased when the estranged Baka returns with his warriors, And, against the grain of other rulers, Dan Zarki (Jean-François Ouedraogo) , a young prince, brings his Moslem men to fight with the Aznas. After the military defeat but a successful resistance she celebrates the diversity but common interests of the people.

Other scenes present the various leaders of other tribes. It is clear that there is a common antagonism to Sarraounia, described as a ‘witch’. But almost uniformly these tribal leaders are suborned by the French or in some cases act as active collaborators. A prime example if the Emir of Sokoto (Sekou Tall), who with his advisers advocates,

“let the Europeans crush the devil witch”.

And there are Tuareg slave-traders, benefitting from French actions whilst not overtly co-operative: and apparently an addition to the story presented in the original novel.

We also see the ordinary Africans including the members of the Aznas tribe who fight under Sarraounia. And we see the sufferings of other villages unable to resist the colonial firepower. This includes the Fulani tribe, traditional enemies of the Aznas. There is a violent scene where the French and their colonial troops massacre an entire village, even after the leaders pleaded for mercy.

The French invaders are central to the story. The leaders are a group of white officers led by Captain Voulet (Jean-Roger Milo) and a large number of African troops, tirailleurs. The officer are full of racist disdain for the Africans. Voulet is an imperious leader, who increwasingly suffers from hubris as the expedition continues. An important element in the story is his increasing contempt and differences with his command, sited back in Timbuktu.

The ordinary soldiers are under direct supervision of an Arab aide. To a degree they are dominated by the colonial ideology, thus as one point they sing

“We are children of France”.

But their main motivation is material acquisition. So after battles or massacres they are allowed to loot and pillage, and captured women are available for rape. There is also an element of fear. Late in the film  one officer remarks,

“If they find out we are men like them …..!”

The film constantly cuts [usually in parallel edits] between the various forces. However, the prime focus of the story is between Sarraounia and her people and the French invaders. The film spends an amount of time in the development within the French army. Captain Voulet’s leadership leads to increasing and brutal violence: it also leads to increasing dissensions. Whilst the French are able to defeat Sarraounia and her army in pitched battle the guerrilla warfare that follows is harder for them to handle. And the dissensions within the army lead to a breakdown in the dominance that the French officers exercise over the African mercenaries. Finally, the French h army is destroyed by psychotic leadership and sectarianism. Vices usually assigned to the African enemy.

The film also contrasts the culture of the invaders with that of the indigenous people. So even when the French Officers dine in the open-air they ‘enjoy’ all the accoutrements of the affluent European mealtimes. There are some telling cuts between the cloth covered dining table of the Officers and the cooking pots and wood fires of the soldiery. Whilst the Officers obviously regard the Africans with contempt at the same time they also sexually exploit the African women. Their often inappropriate military behaviour and arrangements are exemplified when a storm strikes the camp and they struggle to maintain order amidst the chaos.

The contrast is the city and the people ruled by Sarraounia, a community composed of several tribes.. Here the Queen exhorts her people to respect each other’s cultures, beliefs and mores. Their cultures are exhibited the film through activities like the wrestling, through their clothing, precious objects and their rituals Fine production design by Jacques d’Ovidio and supporting craft people in costumes and props. Most importantly they are presented through the ‘griots’, the traditional story-tellers and singers. At key points they record and celebrate the deeds of the Queen and the people. In the final song of the film they praise ‘our signers’.

” What great deeds would survive without our songs.”

The film was shot on Fuji colour stock and in Techovision; the cinematography is excellent. The colour and widescreen give full range to the epic scope of the story. The battle scenes and massacres are violent but less so than the historical reality. Whilst the key characters are individualised in performances the film devotes as much attention to groupings: both the dominated tirailleurs and the indigenous people who fight with Sarraounia. And the editing and cross-cutting draw forth parallels and contrasts in a way that brings illuminations beyond the central story. The continuing relevance of the events and character is drawn out in the final contemporary shot that closes the film.

We enjoyed a good 35mm print from Havard Film Archive with English sub-titles. In fact, there is a mix of languages in the film. Med Hondo, in an interview in the Monthly Film Bulletin (January 1988) explained.

“Language is a very big question, a contradictory and complex question. It’s a historical reality that, in various countries, because we were colonised, we speak French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and so on. Of course, language is not neutral. But also language is not be itself revolutionary. …

In Sarraounia, there are three African languages; each group speaks its own language. The Queen and the people speak Djoula, the Emir of Sokoto speaks Peuhl, and the Tuareg speaks Tamashek. They speak exactly the language that would have been spoken in that area at that time. Of course, there is also French. And pidgin French, petit nègre (little nigger). And when i was shooting, I said no, it’s not petit nègre, it’s petit blanc.”

Hondo also stressed how the production had a parallel coming together and variety that is presented in the film.

“I tried to involve people from many countries. First, to learn, because it was the first CinemaScope film from Africa south of the Sahara. Second, to show and educate people in the realities of the cinema. The writer of the book is from Niger; I worked with another Mauritanian, whom I’m training in filming; the editing woman [Marie-Thérèse Boiché) was from Cameroon; the set was built by people from Benin; the music was made by people from Burkina and Gabon (Pierre Akendengué, Abdoulaye Cissé and Issouf Compaore). “

James Leahy, in his Monthly Film Bulletin Review praised the film as

“a landmark in the history of African cinema … [and suggested] It would be nice to think it might become a landmark in world cinema.”

Hopefully The Film Foundation’s World Cinema project will quickly move on to a restoration and distribution of this film so it can achieve that objective,

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