The Tunisian filmmaker Ferid Boughedir, who is best known for his two films Halfaouine and Un éte à la Goulette, and who is one of the rare African directors to have become a film critic and theoretician, discusses the North-South divide and the contributions of Black African film.
What is the Tunisians’ perception of Africanness?
I think my Tunisian compatriots’ continental perceptions are dominated by both old and new factors. The most recent factor contributing to a real sense of African unity is not the OAU, which means nothing to the general public, but football and the African Nations Cup! Tunisia reached the finals in Johannesburg, after all. In the Fifties, everybody had heard of Nkwame N’Krumah who, like Modibo Keïta, visited Tunisia. There was a general feeling that we were going to shake off the colonial yoke and that Black Africans were just as involved as the Arabs. That feeling of fraternity remained unshaken in the filmmaking world from 1966 onwards thanks to the Carthage Film Festival, which Tahar Cheriaa launched just when African filmmaking first started to develop. The festival’s focus on Black and Arab African filmmaking and filmmaking from the Middle East affirmed Tunisia’s dual Arabic and African cultural and geographic dimension. The very first prize was awarded to Africa’s first feature film, Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl, which was screened at during the Semaine de la Critique the same year at the Cannes Film Festival.
Wasn’t there a certain rupture later on?
This was more related to the rise of Middle Eastern Arab nationalism than the Arab public’s assimilation of the Egyptian star system, as some people claim. The Tunisian public are keen movie-goers: Tunisia had more film clubs in 1949 than anywhere else in Africa, and Tunisians were very interested in films from Black Africa. Audiences continue to flock to the movie theatres during the Carthage Festival, proving that they support the event, rather than going to see the films outside the festival. Certain films have often received standing ovations at Carthage, and then been a flop elsewhere. After the 1973 war, films and audiences inevitably became politicized. In 1974, for example, the jury refused to award the Tanit d’or to Abdellatif Ben Ammar’s Sejnane, in spite of the fact that it painted a profoundly moving, artistically beautiful and, above all, a more mature reflection on the events surrounding the independence era, exploring « how the workers made all the sacrifices so that the bourgeoisie could take over from the French ».
Moreover, there was what can only be described as a boycott that year by an over-politicized jury who also refused to award the Tanit de bronze to the Senegalese film Njangaan by Johnson Traroé (screened at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs at Cannes), which clearly deserved an award, but wasn’t considered political enough. This was taken to be a real affront by a whole section of the Black African delegation who refused to attend the Carthage closing ceremony. It was the first year I felt a divide, a schism. The Tanit d’or was jointly awarded to two highly political films that year: Kafr Kassem, by the Lebanese filmmaker Borhane Alaouié, and Les Bicots nègres vos voisins by Med Hondo, whom, I subsequently learnt, his sub-Saharan colleagues present at the festival did not consider to be a Black African.
What was really behind the division?
It has to be said that some of the civil servants later appointed to run the festival knew little about Black Africa and preferred the commercial Egyptian cinema touted by the media and worshipped by an already conditioned public. Tahar Cheriaa commented: « many Maghrebi mistakenly think that they are more cinematographically advanced and that Black Africa ought to follow their example, whilst exactly the opposite is true: they are the ones who need Black Africa… »
For a long time, the image of the Arab slave trader perpetrated by the Americans was prevalent in Black Africa. In addition to that was the ideological difference between Carthage, which accepts African and Arabic films, including those from Asia Minor, and Ouagadougou, where Arabic films have to come from the African continent.
At Carthage, many of the Middle Eastern countries sent unsubtitled films thinking, we’re all Arab countries, there’s no reason to use French sub-titles, we’re not colonized anymore! The African delegations felt excluded by this. In the Seventies, the opening and closing ceremonies were also conducted in Arabic alone as a result of an exaggerated nationalist sentiment, partly exacerbated by a series of defeats from 1967 up until the Gulf War, which were perceived as signalling the collapse, or a total fragmentation of the Arab nation, which has the impression that it has been forced to bear Europe’s own guilt over the Holocaust…
Does that effect relations with the Black African world?
Let’s say that the Black African world has been pushed to one side. The centre of the world has become an Arab problem, Islam versus the West, and America in particular, as it has become its scapegoat. This situation generates a profound sense of humiliation, which is why expressing this suffering, this humiliation, in Arabic started to become the driving force at Carthage, to the detriment of the original interest in Black African culture and values, in Africa’s multiculturalism.
Fortunately football has caught up and is making up for what was lost in film. That is what’s happening at the moment.
Is Tunisian society racist towards Black people?
It’s less a feeling of racism than of difference, just as Jews are seen as different in Maghrebi society. At the same time, however, as Blacks are often Muslim, this difference sometimes disappears completely. There is no apartheid style division. The Black singer Slah Mousbah is hugely popular, for example. Marriages between Blacks and Arabs are not taboo: they are not always very well accepted by some families, but the same prejudices exist between the different regions…
Does the same kind of fascination for Black people, for the Black body, exist as in Europe?
No, not at all. In the slavery era, Black people were servants who were brought to the royal courts, but there were also a lot of captives who were not black. Many became favorites, and rose up the hierarchy, becoming integrated in society in the space of a few generations.
The notion of colour is probably less marked than in Europe as there are also « degrees of colour » in North African society. Black Tunisians are considered to be Tunisian rather than African, just as the Tunisian Jews were firstly seen as Tunisians, then as Jews. In Tunisia there tends to be a harmonious coexistence, which erases differences and focuses instead on common points of references in a kind of profound respect for the Other. Hamadi Essid made a very interesting film Tunisie, terre d’Afrique, in 1966, on the survival and development of black cultures in Tunisia from slavery to the migrations from the Niger region, etc. These influences can also be identified in music, for example in the stamabli, which mixes Sudanese sounds and African instruments (drums, etc.). There also used to be the character called Boussaâdia, the diviner, in Tunisia, who wore a black leather mask covered in animal skins and who danced in the streets with castanets and maracas to scare children!
Tunisian culture tends to synthesize influences, to « Tunisiafy » them, transforming them in a « nice », happy, moderated way. It is a culture that « smooths off the sharp edges »… Blacks, Jews, Maltese and Sicilians have all been accepted in Tunisia. Other cultures’ different culinary or linguistic influences can all be identified in Tunisian customs.
There is no black problem in Tunisia then?
Non, there is no racism. There are of course prejudices, but these are more often social than racial (Blacks were often poorer). I don’t deny that an inferior image is at times conferred on Black people. There is also sometimes what I consider to be the paternalistic notion that Blacks bring good luck. Blacks often have names linked to luck: Saad means luck, Messaoud, the lucky one, Barka, the one who incarnates baraqua… but Blacks are not associated with fantasies of Otherness, the devil, Satan, or even blackness.
How is the continental dimension of Maghrebi culture expressed? In what way is the Maghreb rooted in Black Africa?
The two have always been related. Although many people claim that the essence of Maghrebi culture stems from its Arabic influences for nationalist reasons, I think that the Maghreb’s richness comes from a number of elements, like, for example maraboutism which exists both in Black and North Africa. There were many similarities between the first sub-Saharan and North African films. The thing that helped me see the connection was the cinematographic shock several Black African films, and notably Black Girl, provoked, which, for me, opened new perspectives on filmmaking, giving me a new perspective and more freedom. As I had discovered filmmaking in the French-style film clubs where we learnt to revere the great masters of the Seventh Art like Bergman, Jean Renoir, Hitchcock, Elia Kazan or Rossellini, I was suffering from an inferiority complex. Good cinema, artistic cinema, could only come from the West, unlike the – essentially Egyptian, melodramatic, belly-dancing – Arab cinema that was artistically weak, repetitive and overacted.
What did Black Girl represent for you?
An incredibly powerfully moving, beautiful, dignified, humane, intelligent, and honorable film! At the same time, it was shot in a new way: the space, the rhythm, the density was new. I sensed that I was before another culture that taught me a lot, freed me, relieved me: we too could do something different, could invent another cinema. When I then saw Youssef Chanine’s major Arab ‘auteur’ film Bab al Hadid – which is more classic as it is strongly marked by the cinema of John Ford, Hitchcock, and other great American masters – I realized that we could also do it in Egypt!
Filmmakers like Oumarou Ganda – who has been somewhat forgotten today – also brought me a great deal. Saïtane was a revelation when I saw it at Ouagadougou. And Touki Bouki, our unique and deeply missed Djibril’s extraordinary film…
Which film made the most impact on you?
The film that influenced me directly when I was working on Halfaouine was Gaston Kabore’s Wend Kuuni. The film developed certain things that had already struck me in Saïtane, notably the deceptive simplicity, the deceptive innocence. A very mysterious simplicity, as Serge Daney put it, with a strong sense of the understated and an almost unique way of going straight to the essential with a purity of approach that gave me a sense of distance from the European hotchpotch and the Parisian way of complicating everything (laughter). It taught me to weed out the things that aren’t necessary in a film and to try to recover a certain gesticulation-free essence – free of shots that go upstairs, come back down, go round, and catch up with the character from the left, from the right, as Westerners are so fond of doing. When you leave the camera still, it is what is inside the fixed fame that counts: the movements, space and framing. I learnt that from Black Africa’s films. Malicious tongues insist Black African films don’t use tracking, or complicated crane shots because they don’t have the means, that they were forced to find emotion and depth in apparently simple ways. But it’s too easy to say that.
When Gaston Kabore films Wend Kuuni, holding his close-up shot of the boy longer than is normally accepted in the rules of classic montage, something magic suddenly happens at that precise moment. It was a great lesson for me! He had the necessary perception to cut the shot later, and those few « extra » seconds generate an emotion that I had never seen before.
Did one find the same thing in Maghrebi films at that time?
It was completely different! If you take a film I really admire like Abdellatif Ben Ammar’s Sejnane, there are some moments of grace, emotion and poetry, but they are more influenced by Mediterranean culture. They were closer to what I had seen in Italian film, for example. What I saw in Wend Kuuni, Black Girl or Touki Bouki, however, was completely new. They were forbidden windows.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to work as assistant director to two non-classical French directors, Alain Robe-Grillet and Arabal, who, as adventurous and avant-garde writers, pushed « non-cinema », the « non-academic, non-classical approach » to its extreme limit. I was extremely lucky to receive these lessons in permanent freedom, but I cannot say that their films themselves influenced me.
Do today’s Black African films still generate such a sense of freedom?
I haven’t experienced the same kind of shock for a long time – pleasure yes, but no shock. Unfortunately, fashion has entered into things and there is a new excess in the opposite direction: people take poor films that – it has to be said – are very sketchy (I know I’m being harsh!), partly through snobbery, as they seek out that famous alterity, or famous alternative vision, in a completely artificial manner. This kind of fad existed at Cannes. I cannot say that African film has opened new windows for me over the last few years, apart from a few rare exceptions like the films by the Malian-based Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako. Today’s African filmmakers no longer impose their own vision, they too often see their films only in terms of being selected in the competitions… Hence the bitterness of the filmmakers at Cannes this year who made technically better films than those selected before, but who were overlooked because the trend has passed, like Moussa Touré and his film TGV (1998), for example.
A while ago, there were some very unequal African films at Cannes. What I didn’t appreciate – it was practically a sign of contempt – was the way the directors were introduced en bloc, simply because they were Black. It would have been the same if a Norwegian and a Portuguese were introduced together under the banner of White cinema! I have always vehemently opposed this globalization, which is a real form of implicit racism that can also be detected in the work of Europeans who analyze Black African cinema. There are often vast differences between filmmakers, even within one country. You cannot compare Johnson Traoré with Djibril Diop Mambety, for example, even thought they are both Senegalese. I don’t understand how people make sweeping statements, like « Black people film like this », or « That makes Black people laugh », or « Such and such a kind of comedian is popular in Africa »… I shall not cite any names, but it is most regrettable! People call themselves ‘ethnologists’ and dare to make sweeping statements because it is easier to simplify things based on a few superficial observations. They would never dare do this with « developed » cinemas, like Scandinavian cinema, for example. Black African cinema has had the misfortune and the fortune of being regrouped: the fortune because the Fepaci (Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers) could have only seen the light of day on this continent. The critical tendency to homogenize has certainly done more harm than good to perceptions of the immense wealth and immense diversity and potential of Africa’s cinemas.
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