What images mean

Interview with Youssef El Ftouh, by Olivier Barlet

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As we are talking about images, what do you think of Africultures’ first cover photo?
Images always have hidden meanings and connotations that need to be pointed out. The cover photo shows a child. The African continent is often represented through images of children, which is another way of implying it is an immature continent. People often say that Africans are like children. Children can naturally be educated, can be turned into civilized humans.
The child in the photo is wearing sports clothes. Black people are either dancer-musicians, or sporty. His t-shirt is stripy. Michel Pastoureau’s L’etoffe du diable [the Devil’s Cloth]traces the history of the stripe and its usage back to the Bible which advises not to wear clothes made out of two pieces of fabric. The stripe has thus become associated with infamy, with the clothing worn by slaves, prostitutes, mad people, circus folk, later becoming a mark of exoticism. The photo’s horizon-less, high angled frame down at the « natural » ground implies that Africans are intrinsically linked to the earth, that they haven’t really evolved beyond that. That’s the impression both the photographer and the person who chose the photo convey, even if unconsciously so. The only active element is the fact that the child is holding a megaphone: he’s got things to say.
How do colonial schemas find their way into contemporary representations?
Photography and the cinema have taken their inspiration from the literature, painting, and press that already existed concerning Africa. We need to understand that images have a genealogy. Although images are sometimes deliberately reproduced, reproduction is often automatic and unconscious. Africans are almost systematically positioned on the right of the frame. In the Bible, the faithful are situated on God’s right hand side, which corresponds with the left side of an image. Sinners are situated on the left, which means on the right side of the image. Baddies in Westerns, who are usually destined to die, often enter the right side of the frame. The right side is the negative part of the frame reserved for Blacks, Arabs, Others. They are depicted en masse, as opposed to the European individual, and framed in profile or in close-up, their eyes popping out like snooker balls. All of this visual « vocabulary » indicates that we are dealing with a shady character, which is a role unto itself. Africans’ screen presence today is also related to certain exclusive themes like famine, war, and disease…
Did the emergence of the « Black Generation » in Europe in the 1980s mark a change in how Black people are represented?
No, I think this movement was simply a reinterpretation, a displacement of the same representations and the same power relations. A real evolution in the image of the Other would be to leave him/her in peace, to take him/her as he/she is, like anybody else. Anti-racist movements’ call for the right to be different in the Eighties was a trap. It is the right to indifference that is important. Negrophiles are no better than Negrophobes: both are based on the same premise of the difference of the Other. To paraphrase Edward Said, it is the word ‘negro’ that is common to both these terms.
What do you think generated these representations? Western economic hegemony, cultural hegemony, or the sense that the Other has something that we do not?
Probably a bit of all three. What is striking, needless to say, is that our images of Africa and its peoples are in no way based on reality: they are a figment of the imagination of the people who produce the images. Europe projects the elements of its image it would like to rid itself of onto Africa as if it were a mirror. My work clearly indicates that the images representing Africa are produced almost exclusively by Europeans. In terms of quantity, there are far less African images of Africa. African images of Europe are practically nonexistent. Did the Lumière Brothers’ camera operators shoot their images objectively at the end of the last century? Of course not. In The Call of the Muezzin, a man is seen prostrating a dozen times as he pretends to pray. It would be just as funny if we saw a Christian receiving the Host a dozen times during Holy Communion… The gaze itself is clearly already a fabricated image.
The images we see are a permanent record of our imagination vis-a-vis the immigrant populations living in our societies, therefore…
Effectively yes, and are always in a state of repetition and reinterpretation. The images that date back to the beginning of the century are easier to read than today’s images, which we’ll be able to interpret better in 50 years’ time. Some remarks are already possible, however. Africans, and North Africans in particular, are generally absent from France’s television screens, apart from when they represent disease, crime, or depressed housing projects… This constitutes a real exclusion. When television game shows invite Africans, the shows are presented as competitions between foreigners. In some television guides, multicultural programmes are even billed as foreign programmes. Africans interviewed in TV reports are almost systematically designated by their first name, whilst social workers interview afterwards are signalled by their full names. This is a throwback to the faithful Alis and Ahmeds in colonial film credits. Foreigners, the Other, are automatically and unquestioningly framed on the right side of the image. Filmmakers and camera operators are often completely amazed when you point this out to them.
Your film « Les Noirs des Blancs » [White People’s Blacks] highlights how consistent representations of Africans are. Have these representations evolved today?
The film was designed to be a journey through France’s Africa archives, including its fiction films, newsreels, and adverts. I can safely say that the representations have not improved, they have been displaced. I tried to compare and juxtapose images made decades apart to prove it. Advertising is full of good examples. Advertising has always associated Black people with the colour black, which is contrasted with, or used to evoke the supposed country of origin of the product being advertised, as is the case with chocolate, coffee, boot polish, washing powders, soap, or rum… This tendency is still clear with the Monsieur Propre (Mr Clean) cleaning product in France, Monsieur Propre being depicted as a eunuch with a shaved head and an earring, thus evoking the image of the slave. It is worth specifying that the American Mr Clean the French product is based on does not have the same Negroid features. There are some even more extreme examples. One advert for Omo washing powder shows a family of chimpanzees eating disgustingly, speaking pidgin and referring to « all the tribe ». If you think about the comparison often made between Black people and monkeys, or of how Josephine Baker was filmed eating like an animal and climbing the furniture in the Sirène des Tropiques, the Omo ad is a kind of slip of the tongue, a boomerang image that has come bouncing back with a vengeance.
The situation will only change by the people (mis)represented by these images, not those who make them. I recently made a documentary on how North Africa is represented in French film* in which I interviewed the script-writer director Farida Belyazid. She cited the case of the Moroccan actress Naïma Mécharki who was offered a role in the French director Roger Hanin’s film Soleil. She was delighted at the prospect of appearing in this film, but when she read the script, she refused the role, in spite of the attractive salary they were offering. The role basically boiled down to being an extra, and not just any extra at that. They were asking her to play Sophia Loren’s Fatma, her Moroccan maid, part of the local scenery. Whenever I see Habib Benglia, who played the Black characters in North and Black African colonial films from Yasmina in 1926 to Tamango in 1957, I always wonder if he was aware of the role they were making him play.
Are African films different in this respect?
African directors have received their filmmaking training in Europe. They sometimes repeat the same schema without realizing it, particularly when it comes to the visual, which is not as easy to apprehend as a text. Furthermore, their films are often predominantly financed by French and European institutions, which can have a filtering effect during the different stages of the filmmaking process (the script, productions, distribution, etc.). I was confronted with this kind of filtering when I made my film on France’s North Africa archives. French films representing North Africa in the colonial period are colonial propaganda films and were made under the auspices of the army who often appeared in the films. René Vautier learnt this the hard way when he tried to film without their approval. We are therefore dealing with films made in occupied countries, which is why I chose the subtitle Regard sur un cinéma d’occupation [Portrait of a Cinema of Occupation.] The subtitle was refused by the broadcaster on the pretext that it would offend the Germans as the term occupation is exclusively taken to mean German occupation in France. We finally agreed on the more academic title, in the negative sense of the term, Le Maghreb au regard du cinéma français [North Africa Through the Eyes of French Film]…
What is your film about?
The film looks at how North Africa has been represented from the Lumière Films up until the Sixties, in an effort to deconstruct the cliches that constitute and give North Africa its unenviable image, including the role of religion, the image of the ‘naturally bellicose’ Arab or Berber, the mulatto woman, the wars referred to as ‘appeasement missions or events’, the ‘treacherous’ Arab, etc. It also shows some rare images like the Tunisian filmmaker Albert Samama’s first fiction films, the only two remaining copies of which we managed to save in extremis when we were carrying out our research with the French C.N.C Film Archives.
You are part of an increasingly prominent critical movement involved in analyzing the colonial imagination and the permanence of its representations today.
I was involved in the analytical research and documentation carried out by the group ACHAC**, where it was often said that the French public was not ready to hear certain conclusions yet, and that consequently, it wasn’t the time to publish them. In my view, the ACHAC was behaving exactly like this supposed « French public ». It struck me that this research, which claimed, I cite, to be « scientific, academic…« , was in reality being carried out under control, under influence. By setting up an imaginary barrier called the « French public », and by simultaneously trying to monopolize all discourse relating to these themes, they were containing all critical thought. It was a self-preservation measure that involved opening the safety valve just as much as was strictly necessary in order to claim that things were advancing. It reminds me of René Vautier’s experience with his film Afrique 50, the first French film to criticize colonization, which was banned and got Vautier imprisoned. The censors finally gave the film its exploitation visa in 1987. Since then, French embassies have acquired copies that are now shown all around the world, so that they can claim that it was possible to critique the official colonization discourse during the colonial era. It is pure manipulation.
The Papon trial has posed the same problem as certain right-wing factions have tried to undermine the key issues at stake in the trial…
There is a consensus in French attitudes, whether on the right or the left, which constitutes a refusal of the truth. People still see colonization as a civilizing mission, not an aggression. The Papon trial has thrown light on what happened on 17 October 1961 in Paris, which was one of the colonial era’s most terrible episodes. There are many more such episodes, all of which have been more or less covered up. Madame Trautmann, the Minister of Culture’s decision to open up the archives on this event is a courageous one and marks a turning point. Let’s just hope that all the relevant archives really are made available.
Images of Black people and Arabs seem to be very different.
Unlike Black people, Arabs are quite simply visually absent, except when they are relegated to zones of exclusion. The same negation can be identified in history. Arabs clearly scare people. Like the images of Black people, however, the images of North African immigration are far removed from the actual realities of immigration. People produce and broadcast the images they want. The recent image of an Algerian mother crying over her dead children reproduced by all the French media is highly symptomatic of a certain way of seeing things. The newspapers’ decision to print it on practically all their covers was first and foremost symptomatic of their desire to produce a Christian image (the representation of the Virgin Mary) of suffering people can identify with.

* Ciné colonial: le Maghreb au regard du cinéma français.
** Association connaissance de l’histoire de l’Afrique contemporaine.
Youssef El Ftouh is a journalist and a researcher. He was in charge of setting up a programme to analyze, catalogue, and restore France’s colonial archives. This research was carried out in association with the French C.N.C Film Archives and the group 21 bis cinéma et histoire, and led to the setting up of numerous events and the making of two documentary films.
///Article N° : 5289


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