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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 Then permission to film in Niger was withdrawn.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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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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The Film Foundation World Cinema Project – 2017

Posted by keith1942 on July 9, 2017

Med Hondo introducing his film

The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project is now an established event at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Over a number of years we have enjoyed fine restorations of key films at this Festival. The Foundation has now embarked on a project to restore fifty key films from Africa: there are now eight features restored and available . So, as a real treat, we were able to see three films by Med Hondo. Born in Mauritania Hondo worked elsewhere in Africa and then in France. He took up acting and founded his own company in 1966. Then, working in television and film he moved into cinema. Like some other notable filmmakers he has funded his film direction by his work as an actor: he has done extensive work dubbing voices in films. Since 1967 he has been able to make nine films, seven features and two documentaries: like his fellow African film pioneer Ousmane Sembène his output has been limited by the commercial restraints in world cinema and especially in Africa.

The Foundation has produced a restoration of his first, Soleil Ȏ (Oh Sun, Mauritania, 1970 – DCP). Shot in black and white the film uses avant-garde techniques but it is better described as an ‘agit-prop’ documentary. Whilst it has a dramatised plot line the film presents the experiences of black people in Paris in this period.

“All the scenes were based on reality. Because racism isn’t invented, especially in film. It’s like a kind of cloak put on you, that you’re forced to live with.” (Med Hondo, 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

It is powerful document and stands up as relevant forty years on.

The programme also included two of Hondo’s later films in 35mm prints from the Harvard Film Archive. West Indies (France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979) could be described as a period musical. The film presents

“a giant slave ship that symbolizes the triangular relationship between Africa, Europe and the Caribbean – as it explores the parallels between the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade and the contemporary migration of Afro-Caribbean subjects to former colonial metropoles.” (Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue).

Sarraounia (Burkino Faso, Mauritania, France, 1986) dramatised the historical record and the successful resistance to a French colonial expedition in the late C19th led by Queen Sarraounia in the Niger. The film  had a more conventional linear narrative and was shot in colour and Techovision. Using African locations [but Burkino Faso not Niger], African songs, griots and cultural artefacts , the film celebrated both African culture and African resistance. It also inverted the stereotypes of mainstream cinema with the psychotic French commander reduced to brutal sectarian violence.

Med Hondo was present to his introduce his films. He was clearly moved by his reception and by the re-emergence of his cinema. Hondo also was passionate about his films and the radical political content. The writings of Franz Fanon would seem to be central to his standpoint whilst stylistically the films use montage, both visual and aural, to create their effect.

The Foundation, as is its custom, has produced the restorations on DCPs. I assume this is to assist in circulation. However, to date, there seems to have been few cinematic screenings in Britain. I think only Soleil Ȏ has been screened cinematically in the UK. Channel 4 screened the three films in its ‘Africa Film’ season in the 1980s, but Sarraounia was cropped to Academy ratio.

The Foundation also continued its work in restoring Cuban classics. This year we had Lucía (1968). The film, directed by Humberto Solás and also scripted  by him together with Julio Garcia Espinosa and Nelson Rodriguez, is a fairly epic work with three stories and running 160 minutes (DCP). The three tales present three women of the same name, from 1895, 1933 and in the present.

“Lucia is not a film about women, it’s a film about society. But within society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is more transcendentally affected at any given moment by contradictions and change. ” (Humberto Solás, quoted in the Catalogue).

There were also two films by Tomás Gutiérrez Aléa restored by the Academy Film Archive: Una pelea Cubana contra los demonios / A Cuban Fight Against Demons (1971 – DCP) and Los Sobrevivientes / The Survivors (1970). The latter film bears some comparison with films by Luis Bunuel, though without his visceral tone. Here a bourgeois family attempt to avoid the expropriations bought about by the 1959 revolution and retreat into their plantation. The results are as sardonic as many presented by Bunuel.

The programme was rounded off by a selection of ICAIC Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano (1960 – 1970): the complete series has been restored and digitised by ina.fr and is available on their website. This is clearly a welcome archival source: my main  reservation is that it seems that INA have bought and hold possession of the archive, which would be better retained and controlled in Cuba.

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