A divided America

Interview with Rachid Bouchareb, director of "Little Senegal", by Olivier Barlet

Paris, December 2001
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You noticed a considerable degree of racism and violence in the exchanges between the African and African-American communities when you were doing the preliminary research for your film. What do you think the reasons for this are?
I can only speak about what I encountered. In the trade off, African-Americans are not Africans; they are above all American. There are no references to Africa on their walls or in their discourses. I really heard the sentence « Africa, that’s where they kill Americans » in my film. I’m referring to the African-American population at the bottom of the social ladder here, i.e. America’s most oppressed population. The African community’s arrival with its mosques and shops in a neighbourhood like Harlem sparks the same tensions as in our suburbs. You don’t hear anyone saying, « Here come our African brothers »! People don’t automatically evoke slavery. They don’t want to bring up this painful past, even if racist attacks sometimes force them to. African-American tourists in Africa are from the wealthy milieus that often cultivate a certain folklore. Their vision of Africa is often limited, due to the fact that America is so insular. It’s often a safari-type vision!
I wonder, listening to you, whether the emergence of an African community that socially reconstructs the village is perceived as a thorn in the foot by the African-Americans who don’t really want to see their slave past resurface. Is this the cause of rejection?
Absolutely. It’s a still unhealed wound that generates a feeling of shame. That’s why I worked various members of a broken family into my film. You come across a lot of single women raising their children on their own. Is this a hangover from the days of slavery when families were separated? America is also tragically divided into compartmentalised neighbourhoods. People rarely mix, which stops them from debating their history! In France, we aren’t used to paying so much attention to skin colour, to what you can or can’t say. Our codes and attitudes are different.
Your film clearly shows both the feeling of integration that comes from all being American and the deep division caused by segregation. Are the newly arrived Africans perceived as a foreign scourge?
Yes, especially since 11th September. That goes for all foreigners. But what’s striking in America is its ability to swing in opposite directions. Normality returns pretty quickly after moments of excess.
The Alloune character played by Sotigui Kouyaté is quite the opposite of the archetypal immigrant.
I felt that that would have been the wrong track. It was better to take someone who expects nothing from America, who conserves that freedom. That’s what gives him his strength. This character gave me a view of both communities, without him being too tied to social situations.
Did you ever envisage using an African-American actor?
We had some problems with the actors’ union. We had to explain, to insist that the African extras really be African. There was only one African actor in the union, who didn’t fit the role, and two African extras. It took months to get them to accept the fact that the film’s phrasing wouldn’t be right if we didn’t use Africans in the African roles. We settled on a 50-50 quota – as many union as non-union extras. But I was able to keep my choice of actors.
The unions have that power?
Absolutely. I had to hire a lawyer! What was typical was that the union man responsible for checking the shoot was an African-American. A black inspector for a black subject!
That brings us on to the question of your legitimacy in treating this subject.
I come from Africa, even if it is North Africa. That’s all the legitimacy I need. The subjects I feel comfortable with deal with origins, roots and my films have always been quests. I had just made a film in Asia on mixed-race children. Peter Brook uses actors of all origins. They are quite simply men and women on stage. The Arab slave past is also present in Algeria. When I grew up in western Algeria, my father’s cousins were as black as Sotigui. Talking about this now reminds me in fact that part of my family descended from black Africa. Perhaps that’s why I am interested in such subjects.
Ida and Alloune’s relationship can be taken to suggest that this is the way for the two communities to come together.
All but one of the mixed couples I met were under great tension. American and African women have different positions in society! Having an American wife was quite traumatic for the African men! They don’t control them! The Ida character is a typical example.
African immigrants in the States are mainly illegal, and thus mainly male.
Yes, but there are more and more women! Women emigrate too. There’s a residence permit lottery in the States. They allocate a quota of 50 000 residence permits this way every year and guarantee that your name and address will not be given to the immigration services! Africans enter the lottery, just like everyone else, but 50% of the permits are reserved for Europeans. It’s true that people leave you alone unless you commit a serious offence. There are no identity checks in the street. This means that Africans can be taxi drivers, for example. Not having a visa does not stop you getting an identity card if you can manage to get a certain number of documents together. It’s the same for opening a bank account. The difficulty is that you can’t come back into the country if you ever leave. So you can’t go home if you don’t have a residence permit.
You depict Harlem as a pleasant neighbourhood, which doesn’t fit our image of the ghetto.
That’s because it is a nice neighbourhood! It’s true that it has been renovated and that more and more people from Manhattan are buying houses. It’s a lot more calm and pleasant than downtown! I sensed a continuity between the tone here and that in Africa and I therefore wanted to respect this African village atmosphere. In any case, it’s not the New York of the movies.
How have New York’s black communities reacted to your film?
I organised a free screening at the Apollo Theater, right in the heart of Harlem. 1000 people came! The Africans identified with the film. The African-Americans were more reserved, but the film has been widely shown on the African film festival circuit. It’s due to be released in 2002.

///Article N° : 5269


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