Cinema: back to the future

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Black responses to the silence of the West’s screens, but what is there left to show of the slave trade? And what if the real subject was memory itself…

History stutters
How many films have been made about the World Wars, Napoleon, or the Three Musketeers? And how many about colonization or the Algerian war? Pet themes exist, as do the taboos. Prolix when it comes to many subjects, the cinema has not found a way of broaching the question of the slave trade. Like everybody else, film is, no doubt, ashamed of « the thing »…
In France, there’s a void. In Les Caprices d’un fleuve (1996), Bernard Giraudeau attempts to explore his fascination for Africa, depicting himself as the lover of a pretty slave, but fails to avoid the clichés and a too polished image. In La Côte des esclaves (1994), Elio Suhamy examines the social traces of the slave trade with the descendants of the people who played an active role in it in Benin. Christian Richard also deals with the theme of slavery in Africa in Le Courage des autres (1987), starring Sotigui Kouyaté. Made when he was a teacher at the Inafec, the former Ouagadougou film school, and produced by the similarly defunct Cinafric, this silent film depicts a group of slaves’ revolt against their African masters. Screened at the opening of the 8th Fespaco, the film triggered a virulent controversy: did showing Black on Black slavery boil down to justifying the slave trade?
If we leave the question of identity to the West Indians, that’s all there is from the French, apart from La Montagne verte, a 1951 film by Jean Leherissey, starring Michel Vitold, which won the Jean Vigo prize for its documentation of the abolition struggle, and the transportation of Schoelcher’s ashes to the Panthéon…
In any case, what can be shown? What have Black filmmakers chosen to depict? The very powerful Asientos (1995) by Cameroonian François Woukoache precisely begins with the question of the image: a TV screen, set at an unstable diagonal angle, shows Western photographers snapping away at the horrors of genocide in Rwanda. History stutters: « it is starting again« . The filmmaker surfs to find the right image, to avoid the pitfalls of a discourse of wretchedness, of the eternal vision of subservience and passivity. « Why doesn’t the sea throw up these bodies? » Nothing is left to see of slavery, nothing to show. The camera clings to the bare walls of Gorée. Only the rumbling of the sea can evoke the groans of the enchained slaves. A child runs, accompanied by the words of Césaire: « My memory is full of holes. My memory has its string of corpses… »
The memory of revolt
The first response is to restore History. Let’s speak about History as no one else does! The Mauritanian Med Hondo re-narrates the history of the slave trade in the West Indies in West Indies: Les Nègres marrons de la liberté (1979), daring « a musical tragi-comedy », set entirely in a ship decor. The directoral choice of a theatrical choreography in the form of a radical chronicle, based on the play by the Martinican playwright Daniel Boukman, is interesting, if not disconcerting in filmic terms. It is about re-establishing the truth about the economic interests, about citing the abominations, about deconstructing the myths. Forever upsetting the boat, the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene refuses to flinch from showing the slaves in African society in his ode to resistance, the magnificent film Ceddo (1977), and even has them branded with a red-hot iron, definitively inscribing their condition as slaves in their flesh. The Ethiopian Haile Gerima calls upon the spirits of the past in Sankofa (1993) to invert Hollywoodian presentations of History. Instead of being filmed as a subjugated, passive crowd, the slaves in Sankofa are beings with desires, who love and hate. Rather than insisting on just their corporal and spiritual alienation, the film turns them into the contradictory, dynamic players in the fight for freedom.
The inversion is significant: when the West Indian Guy Deslauriers set out to make his docu-fiction Passage du milieu this year, he adopted the point of view of the lower-decks, rather than the bridge, to depict a slave ship’s crossing, with its share of epidemics, deaths, storms and lulls, the latter causing the captain to sacrifice the weakest slaves as his supplies of foodstuff and water dwindle… And this is also the viewpoint of the slaves’ uprising against the executions to which they are subjected.
Indeed, the very essence of the memory lies here: it was thanks to their resistance that the slaves survived. It was their revolts that finally led to abolition. In an effort to contribute to Black people’s affirmation of a positive self-image, Black filmmakers are making more and more historical films about runaway slaves. In Boni, the Haitian Elsie Haas thus films a group of eighteenth-century runaway slaves of different origins, who, on the border between Suriname and French Guyana, constituted what could have become the first independent country in the West Indies before Haiti if they had have been able to hold out longer against the Dutch soldiers sent to crush them.
The aim is to reconstitute a disjointed past, and reappropriate cultural codes. This is precisely what the trilogy on Afro-Brazilian resistance by the Brazilian Carlos Diegues does. Ganga Zumba (1963) focuses on a runaway slave who discovers that he is the grandson of the king of Palmares, the self-sufficient slave Republic, which managed to hold out for a century (from 1595 to 1695) against the repeated attacks of the Dutch and the Portuguese, and which had 20 000 members at its apogee in a territory the size of a third of Portugal. Xica da Silva (1976) and Quilombo (1984), also on Palmares, are constructed as samba enredos (an intrigue built like a samba school: songs, dance, costumes and words forming a coherent popular narrative), which brings them to the verge of falling into decorative exoticism. This is also the case with Chico Rei (1982), by Walter Lima Jr., a Germano-Brazilian co-production about an enslaved African king who buys his freedom, and who, by successfully exploiting a mine called Encardideira, becomes king of his region again whilst continuing to conserve his non-violent African methods.
The Black Cuban Sergio Giral also made a trilogy in which he attempts to give an internal reading of slavery in Cuba: El Otro Francisco (1975), El Rancheador (1976) and Maluala (1979). In an interview with Africultures, he explained how he inverted the viewpoint of the author of the novel his first film is based on: « In camera terms, Suárez y Romero, who comes from a family of slave-owning planters, positioned the camera from his angle as the master, directing it at the protagonists of his story, and ignoring the other slaves on the plantation. My film turns the camera to them, looking at the same story through the eyes of those who appear to have no identity, but whose story it is in fact. »
In the West Indies, in 1980, Christian Lara made the first West Indian historical portrait Vivre libre ou mourir, basing it on his grandfather’s research, who was the son of a slave freed in 1848. In it, he condenses Guadaloupean history into a court room, in which French colonization is put on trial, and the heroes of Guadaloupean independence defended. In Sucre amer (1997), he addresses the theme of revolt again in the form of a fiction. The question remains pertinent, for, as the Ivoirian Diabi Lanciné affirms in L’Africaine d’Amérique (1991), « the circumstances which have turned you into a prey are not different« . The film, which is a somewhat excessively didactic mediation on the claiming of African roots, places the accent on the notion of rupture: « All peoples despise us because of our slave past« .
Exorcising the memory
That says it all. When the Ivoirian Kitia Touré questions a descendant of slave traders from Nantes in Les anneaux de la mémoire (1994), he is shocked to find « neither remorse, nor compassion« . The film, which constitutes an edifying anthology of the instruments of the slave trade, looks at the astonishing avoidance of this slave-trading port’s memory. For, ultimately, the subject is not the slave trade, but memory. And looking at memory is a way of reviving the present. Colbert’s Code Noir continues to inflict its ravages, the Guadaloupean Tony Coco-Viloin declares in Le Cri des Neg Mawon (1993), an impressionist nightmare of a member of the Black diaspora. « The runaway slave is still running in our country« , and will be for as long as he/she continues to be afraid of his/her History, as long as it has not been exorcised – which will only be possible when it is told from within, rather than from the outside. A contradiction arises: « The paradox« , Coco-Viloin says, « has it that when you’re part of the yolk, you’re not aware of the egg. »
What is need, therefore, is to accept introspection, whilst at the same time conserving the question of origins. In short, to play on a return to the future, as the admirable Daughters of the Dust (1991), by the African-American Julie Dash does. Marking a radical rupture with the Hollywood aesthetic (incarnated in Amistad), which translates its belief in the continuity of progress into a temporal linearity, the film translates an oral tradition based on a cyclical conception of time onto the screen. The characters’ identities emerge from the rhythm of the close-up shots of faces, the general shots of landscapes, and an image which systematically links the community to its surrounding space: the Gullah islands off Southern Carolina, which was a slave trading centre. Julie Dash thus moves away from the Italian neo-realist type aesthetic developed at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), which transposed the colonization of Black American people to the urban ghetto (cf Bush Mama by Haile Gerima), situating the film on Ibo-Island, where the former slaves developed a community and their own culture. It is in this space that the Black women articulate their relation to Africa, their survival, and their way of life in the United States. Dramatic confrontations highlight the tensions facing Black people in America, before finally coming down in favour of a multiple identity, which incorporates History’s complexity. In a syncretic ritual involving a Bible and the mojo of the ancestors, the members of the family reconcile their different cultural influences, be they from the past or the future. The aesthetic of this essential film thus well and truly depicts an ethic of cultural resistance, and, without ever showing slaves, tackles the slave question in relation to the present.
This requires that we look the past in the face. In the words of Asientos, « To stop speaking, he says, to listen to the silence, to learn to look to see the unspeakable again. »

///Article N° : 5302


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