Is Duparc’s humour ambiguous?

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Laughter masks the tears until you cry with laughter… Caricature can produce a completely serious counter-discourse. Ambiguous? It is all a question of perception, of course.

The audience roars with laughter and seems to want more. Henri Duparc, the Ivoirian director’s latest film, Une couleur café, has elicited general waves of laughter from Ouagadougou, to Abidjan, Dakar and the Western festivals. And yet, certain critical voices have attacked this mirth seen as too crude to be sincere, a « Lepenist » laughter that reinforces the cliches already well entrenched in the collective imagination.
Who, what are we laughing at?
Nicknamed ‘Doctor’ by his fellow residents at the Montreuil-sous-Bois hostel rebaptized Montreuil-sous-Bamako, a married, childless immigrant worker who works as a waiter in a Paris hospital, decides to get married a second time when he is on holiday in Africa. But the French Embassy refuses his new wife a visa, polygamy being tolerated but not authorized in France. Doctor manages to falsify the papers, therefore, and Kada’s legal status is transformed from second wife to daughter. Back in France, where she still goes to school, she falls pregnant. Who is the father? The law gets involved, and Doctor finds himself accused of incest…
A derisive tragi-comedy
The subject is in fact serious: « I wonder if there is a place for immigrants in French culture!« , Henri Duparc has one of his characters say as the film ends in deportation. So serious that, in spite of the undeniable success of Duparc’s films, it met with trepidation on the part of African cinema’s usual institutional financiers. Duparc finally managed to shoot the film, however, thanks to a South-South production, and completed post-production work in a Moroccan laboratory.
As Gérard Genette has written, « comedy is none other than tragedy seen from behind » (Palimpsestes, la littérature au second degré, Le Seuil 1982). A disenchanted view of a troubled society often hides behind the black forms of humour’s mocking of traditional conservatism. Laughter and tears go together well. Excision in L’Herbe sauvage, polygamy in Bal Poussière (1988), AIDS in Rue Princesse (1993)… Duparc has attacked the key subjects in a derisory style.
But is it not Africa’s past and present History that makes its laughter more tragic than other people’s? And which makes it all the more necessary? And yet, pathos is brushed aside with a flip of the tongue. Duparc intentionally misappropriates phrases to enhance the satire: « I have tempted the devil so often that he’s ended up my bedfellow« , Doctor exclaims, when his bitterness finally pierces his comic veneer.
There is no shortage of examples in African film. At the height of tension, humour is often used to diffuse the threatening pathos. Sangaré, the brutal governor in Finye (Souleymane Cissé, Mali 1982), who is planning to destroy the old Kansayé’s home and reduce him to poverty, concludes: « Even the toothless will laugh at him! » Distance is reestablished, serving to demystify. After the funeral of Nanyuma’s husband in Finzan (Cheikh Oumar Sissoko, Mali 1989), an old man jokes: « a grave digger with an erection has the widow on his mind! » Laughter averts tragedy: the « witch doctor » in the street party in Macadam Tribu (José Laplaine, Zaïre 1996) asks a young woman in the audience to put a condom on the erect penis of a traditional statue, encouraging the urban crowd to have a laugh about the risks of AIDS. Even during an initiation ceremony, pastiche accompanies the message « The termite will put pay to the unfaithful man’s penis« , warns the old sage in Laada (Drissa Touré, Burkina Faso 1991).
Derision has no taboos. It is not a question of censuring on the pretext that one needs to be serious: « I turn drama into derision », Duparc declares, « to give it the least importance possible, as the only drama which exists on earth for the individual is death. Other than that, the rest is nothing more than human comedy! »
And that is precisely what triggers the laughter: the ridiculous contradictions that arise from a dual level of apprehension. Une couleur café denounces the realities of immigration whilst at the same time caricaturing the cliches of the image of the Black: it mixes the real and the caricature, the tragic and the extravagant. As it exaggerates the caricature to the extreme, the film produces a counter-discourse, denouncing intolerance and stupidity.
Therapeutic self-mockery
It is a perilous exercise, as the mockery can be taken badly. More than one African has felt personally insulted when Doctor enjoys the dog food his wives serve him on one occasion… The obligatory passage via the stereotype risks cynicism: by taking caricature to the extreme, there is a risk of using, to the extent of abusing, the Other, just like in the contemptuous ironizing that goes on all day long on European television shows where show-bizz stars spend their time getting audiences to laugh by mocking other personalities or by taking the poor innocent guests as their target…
But isn’t the ambiguity dispelled when all one risks mocking is oneself? « If I use caricature », Duparc declares in our interview, « it is in order to have the courage to look ourselves right in the face, as we are, so that we can improve ourselves, otherwise we will always be burying our heads in the sand like ostriches! ». Everyone can identify with that. It is not the Other that we are laughing at, but at ourselves and our own culture in a form of self-mockery that recalls the humour of modernity defined by Baudelaire: « the ability to step rapidly outside one’s self and to look on at the phenomena of the self as a disinterested spectator ». (De l’essence du rire, Pléiade tome III).
It is the king who has no clothes on: laughter exorcises stupidity’s failings, thus taking on a therapeutic value. We are close to the catharsis of the « theatre of cruelty »: evil is treated with evil, madness with madness. Caricature will not cure evil or madness but, by shaking the spectators, will force them out of their inertia, forcing them to look themselves in the face. We clearly sense that Duparc not only denounces the treatment African immigrants suffer in Europe, but also the contradictions of that immigration: « I do not deal with inter-African immigration because I find that absolutely normal« , he answers Jean-Servais Bakyono. « I prefer to deal with immigration in the European countries, on the other hand, because it is a form of immigration which I do not particularly agree with » (Ecrans d’Afrique nº 20). In short, as Sony Labou Tansi wrote in L’Etat honteux, « Let’s stop messing around wanting to sell Europe’s hide until we have killed it« !
A strategy of resistance
This involves what Labou Tansi called the « tropics« : a parody in the excesses of language not excluding a certain poetry: « I love you because you are natural like a yoghurt!« , Doctor declares to his « trade union » (his white mistress). A cliche of African naivety? Only as naïve as it is to let your children believe in Father Christmas! For, the force of African humour pierces through in these tropics which might otherwise seem exotic: « Crying-Laughter is a homage to this humour which gives the force to live« , declared Henri Lopès. « Humour is a philosophy I have drawn from the culture of our peoples. The whole oral tradition, from the tales, to the « curbside-radio », to songs are peppered with it. »
Derision thus appears to be a strategy, a strategy of insurrection. Out of pain, the African has developed a profound consciousness of the self from which he/she draws the protest, indiscipline, indocility which forms his/her capacity for resistance. Whilst, for the Westerner, to imagine first of all consists of denying reality, of detaching oneself from it, escaping into the unreal to avoid the shackles of existence, the African turns this reality into derision to appropriate it, to subvert it, to better bear its weight.
Thus, rather than encouraging escape or the projection of its own difficulties onto another social group or people, black forms of humour offer a real form of responsibility. It is like an ironic nudge and a wink at the person they are addressing, inviting them into a complicity which in return also engenders the comical and laughter. If we are willing, in Une couleur café, as in other successful comic films, to go beyond the exotic seduction of a reading guided by the projection of our own failings onto the Other, on the one hand, and to accept parody’s exaggerations as an honest critique of the self capable of opening up the way to questioning, on the other, we can at last relax into enjoying a frank and welcomed laugh.

///Article N° : 5317


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