From miscegenation phobia to ambivalence in film

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The French today continue to question whether or not it is possible to live together. Marked by a cultural blending that results from colonial History, France remains wary of intermixing, and thus of itself. The fear of losing its mythical integrity is most often portrayed in what the cinema is best at deep in its darkened movie theatres – the intimate. Films evoking colonial relations thus frequently depict sexual relationships. But cultural intermixing is shown to be a highly risky affair.

Persistent imagery
The colonised and their living conditions were never the subject of colonial cinema. But although such works were propaganda films, they rarely constituted perfect representations of the French colonial dream. They unquestionably constructed an imagery that still marks our imaginations today, but also unwittingly reflected the contradictions, dreams, and failures of the colonial relation. Film indeed often says more about the filmmaker than its subject. By crystallising the colonial myth in demonstrative fictions, by trying to legitimate territorial and cultural domination, colonial cinema reflected the colonialists’ fundamental contradictions and ultimately offers a fascinating radioscopy of the end of an empire.
In the L’Afrique au regard du cinema colonial exhibition at the Arab Institute in 1994 and Fespaco (Ouagadougou Pan-African Film and Television Festival) in 1995, Youssef El Ftouh and Manuel Pinto displayed a series of photograms classed according to criteria drawn up to analyse these colonial images after systematically studying more than 350 films. As the exhibition catalogue explained:
– Colonial subjects are filmed from behind to highlight their anonymity. If the subject is black and naked, such shots evoke force, animal strength, and hide the face, the symbol of the thinking being. Colonial subjects are also sometimes shot in profile, which also signifies anonymity in representation, echoing the anonymity of anthropomorphic studies.
– They are framed seated on the ground or seen from a high angle. Low-angle shots, which accentuate humanity and noblesse, are reserved for the colonialists. In Western iconographic symbolism, anything that descends from the sky is positive, whilst anything that rises out of the earth is negative. Colonial subjects filmed sitting on the ground are shown to be in their natural, animal state.
– Close-up shots of black faces heighten racial stereotypes by highlighting « Negroid features », which are presented as comical or frightening (bulging eyes, big lips and white teeth). The North African Semitic nose, gleaming face, and « craftiness » are highlighted.
– Colonised characters filmed alongside Europeans are often made to look smaller in order to accentuate European domination.
– Colonised characters are depicted in swarming, buzzing crowds in an allusion to the animal and insect worlds.
– Colonial subjects are often scarcely clad. The opposition between man’s cultured and natural state is translated by this use of clothing.
– Clothes are often striped. In Western codes, the stripe characterises immoral and inferior characters. It often characterises exoticism or a natural state. It points to infamy, the opposite of the honest man, and marks exclusion from social order.
– Accessories such as cigarettes, earrings, tattoos, knives, etc., systematically designate certain social and racial archetypes.
– Colonial subjects are almost systematically positioned on the right-hand side of the frame. In Judeo-Christian imagery, the good are seated to the right of God, and thus appear on the left-hand of the image, the positive, prestigious side.
This imagery is so deeply rooted that we would probably find a photo of Mandela framed to the left of De Klerk disturbing. Filmmakers have often quite unwittingly recreated and thus helped to perpetuate colonial order. (1)
Impossible couples
Josephine Baker sang « J’ai deux amours » (« I have two loves ») in Ounawa, a sketch set in the equatorial jungle with the leopard Chiquita. In it, she falls in love with a French settler who asks her to go back to France with him. She sings: « My savannah is beautiful. But there’s no point denying it. It’s Paris that enchants me. The whole of Paris. I have two loves: my country and Paris. » But her tribe stops her from going. Even though she sings: « Quietly I say. Take me », the marriage doesn’t happen. Why marry this childlike, naïve, backward, animalistic African that Josephine Baker incarnated in all her films from La Sirène des Tropiques (H. Etiévan and M. Nalpas, 1927), in which she is overtly monkey-like, to Princesse Tam Tam (Edmond Gréville, 1935), in which someone comments that she « eats with her fingers. She’s a savage, a cannibal ».
As soon as she started to dance the rumba to the sound of the drums, however, she became a black beauty again, an exotic savage, a fascinating attraction with whom the French fell in love. Her alleged closeness to nature, her so-called unbridled sexuality, made her the object of all fantasies. (2) But forming a couple was impossible. The Other was too different and miscegenation dangerous. (3) In Zou Zou (Marc Allegret, 1934), sailor Jean Gabin finally marries Claire (Germaine Aussey) despite his fascination for the Creole woman played by Josephine Baker. The camera contrasts Baker’s frenetic, savage dance with Jean and Claire’s perfectly harmonious duo.
Even though the indigenous woman offered transgression, sin, and pleasure, therefore, only the white woman could satisfy the white man’s real desires. If the indigenous woman was sexually exploited (as soldiers in the colonies were advised), it was better to behold the European woman. Colonial cinema worked numerous fictions around interracial attraction to point out the dangers and prove it impossible.
The marriage never took place, then, but it was certainly on the cards! Wasn’t colonisation meant to seal the « marriage between the East and the West »? In Itto (Jean-Benoît-Lévy and Marie Epstein, 1934), marriage is even depicted when the French commander takes a ring from his finger and puts it on a tribal chief in the Moroccan Atlas mountains, symbolising the new alliance sealed after a revolt led in particular by Itto, a woman.
Women became the artistic representation of the colonial subjects’ turbid alterity. Not just any old women, however, but singers, dancers, prostitutes, or vamps of unspecified origin. Such women needed civilising, but one also needs to be wary of falling into the trap of being seduced by them. Pierre Benoît’s novel L’Atlantide, a masterpiece in the genre, was adapted to the screen several times. Jacques Feyder’s 1921 version contains all the components of this type of relationship. Lovesick souls die heartbroken in the beautiful Antinéa’s palace in the middle of the desert (wasn’t colonisation about filling, populating, taming the void, the virgin, the inefficient?). When Captain Morhange refuses Antinéa’s love, she takes revenge by giving herself to his companion Saint-Avit, whom she asks to kill Morhange. He does so, led astray by his passion. He transgresses the limit, and dies for it, for, overstepping the limit marks the beginning of psychosis, the prelude to death.
The message clearly was to avoid getting one’s fingers burned when playing with beautiful native women (and thus with the colony itself, which women symbolically incarnate in these films). Racial mixing remained a taboo and miscegenation was forbidden for fear of upsetting the social order and – worse still – of threatening the integrity of the West. After all, the natives were incapable of adopting true colonial values. Equality was thus impossible.
In one extremely rare example, a mixed couple have a child when the Tunisian prostitute Safia marries a Frenchman in both versions of La Maison du Maltais (H. Fescourt, 1926 and P. Chenal, 1938). The « whore » thus becomes a « charming lady » who is perfectly adapted to Parisian life, her assimilation effacing the intermixing.
According to the official assimilation discourse, colonial subjects who evolved sufficiently could enter civilised circles. In reality, however, this was absolutely not so. The contradiction was glaring. Republican colonisation, which advocated assimilation in the name of equality and fraternity, constantly insisted on the incompatibility of the two cultures. Political, moral and cultural divergences made all close coexistence impossible. Numerous films even showed that love was incompatible with the rules of patriotic duty – a value that was only positive in colonial film when demonstrated by the French.
This miscegenation phobia, which can still be detected today, revealed the failure of colonial assimilation. In this respect, colonial cinema provides a revealing reflection of the impossibility of an adventure that could never be anything but tragic and which, before its time, in its very fictions, would lead to decolonisation.
French cinema’s tardy awakening
Next came an overwhelming silence. With the exception of a few rare films that were all censored in one way or another, Fifties and Sixties’ French cinema stopped depicting the colonial adventure, even though it was front-page news. René Vautier’s anti-colonialist film Afrique 50 was one exception. The film was banned. Chris Marker criticised European imperialism in Les Statues meurent aussi (1952), which was also censored. In Rendez-vous sur les quais (1953), Paul Carpita showed dockers in Marseilles refusing to load arms for Indochina. The film was banned. The controversy sparked by Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres-fous (1954), which focused on a ritual that depicted colonial relations, stopped the film from leaving the confines of the Musée de l’Homme. In 1960, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat was censored for denouncing torture in Algeria and only released in 1963.
Apart from a few timid references to Franco-Algerian relations in L’année dernière à Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961), Adieu Philippine (Jacques Rozier, 1963), and Muriel (Alain Resnais, 1963), decolonisation and the colonial wars were not addressed by French filmmakers, with the exception of Pierre Schoendorffer in La 317ème Section, a film about French soldiers’ heroism in Indochina. (3) It was an Italian, Gillo Pontecorvo, who took the bull by the horns with his film La Bataille d’Alger in 1966. A bomb attack was perpetrated against the Latin Quarter St Séverin cinema that screened the film. It was a doomed subject. Even in the Seventies, the rare films made had great difficulty in finding distributors, namely Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès (René Vautier, 1971), RAS (Yves Boisset, 1972), and La Question (Laurent Heynemann, 1976).
But it was nonetheless a signal. By the mid-Seventies, French cinema began cautiously to examine France’s colonial past. La Victoire en chantant (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1976) was set in Africa in 1916. Despite the film’s acerbic portrait of the colonial milieu, however, it still painted a caricatural portrait of the « natives ». Pierre Schoendorffer’s Le Crabe-tambour (1977) continued his vision of the French army’s heroism in the colonial wars. Le Coup de sirocco (Alexandre Arcady, 1978) focused on the trauma experienced by the « pied noir » community. L’Etat sauvage (Francis Girot, 1978) denounced both French and African corruption in an unspecified African country.
The Eighties and Nineties saw the direct evocation of the colonial syndrome. Filmmakers marked by the colonial experience in their youths used fiction to address the question. Others used film to depict the colonies as occupied territories in which relations between the coloniser and colonised were necessarily complex. Such films included Coup de torchon (Bernard Tavernier, 1981) and Chocolat (Claire Denis, 1988) in sub-Saharan Africa; Fort Saganne (Alain Corneau, 1984), Salut Frangin (Gérard Mordillat, 1989), Le Vent de la Toussaint (Gilles Béhat, 1991), Outremer (Brigitte Roüan, 1991), and La Guerre sans nom (Bertrand Tavernier, 1992) in Algeria; L’Amant (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1992), Indochine (Régis Wargnier, 1992), and Dien Bien Phu (Pierre Schoendoeffer, 1992) in Indochina.
These films were echoed by « beur films », such as Thé à la menthe (Abdelkrim Bahloul, 1984), or Le Thé au harem d’Archimède (Medhi Charef, 1985), which depicted North African immigrants lives in France for the first time. North African memory was later addressed in films such as Le Gone du Chaâba (Christophe Fuggia, 1998), based on the eponymous novel by Azouz Begag, or Vivre au paradis (Bourlem Guerdjou, 1998), which depicted life in the Parisian slums at the time of the Algerian war.
The films of the Mauritanian Med Hondo in particular, such as Soleil O (1970) or Les Bicots nègres nos voisins (1974), condemned neo-colonialism and painted the portrait of immigrant workers in France. In Watani (1997), Hondo denounced nocturnal attacks on black and Arabic people. From Afrique sur Seine (Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and Mamadou Sarr, 1957), the first film made by African directors, to, for example, the very fine Waalo Fendo (Mohamed Soudani, 1997), African filmmakers have striven directly to address immigrant conditions in Europe. (6)
Protée’s refusal
« Black and white people did not live together, but there was a kind of sensuality in the way in which they lived alongside one another. The film says that something was still possible between them without resorting to violence », Marie-France Pisier declared when discussing her film Le Bal du gouverneur (1984). She was evoking the so-called fraternity that supposedly governed colonial relations, a fraternity that film – like the familiarity of the France-Africa « Summits » – still manages to make us believe in as it carefully erases the reality of bloody repression and day-to-day exclusion. (5)
Some colonial or post-colonial films wallow in muted melancholy (L’Amant is one extreme example), their gaze nostalgically hovering between the two shores of civilisation without actually going anywhere. This suspension between two spaces, between a quest for other values and the distance maintained with the values of the Other, creates a metaphysical floating, an impossible surpassing, an existential suffering, a halt in time that the void alone prevents from collapsing.
The intrusion of the political set the records straight and made a fantastical vision of Africa more difficult. The political and the historical. The Africans knew this only too well, and the Empire struck back with historical fictions that inverted the relations portrayed in colonial cinema! In Sarraounia (1986), Med Hondo filmed the exactions committed by Voulet’s column in 1899 and the resistance led by the queen of the Niger Aznas. In Ceddo (1976), Senegalese Ousmane Sembene depicted a seventeenth-century African community’s fight against two foreign cultural forces – Islam (the imam), and Europe (the slave-trader and priest), who rival one another for power. His film Emitaï was set in a Casamance village in 1942 when the French requisitioned rice after having forcefully conscripted the young men sent to the Franco-German front. The film ends in tragedy.
Although rarely evoked in French cinema, the forced conscription of African soldiers is repeatedly evoked in African film. (7) Camp de Thiaroye (Ousmane Sembene, 1985) relates the bloody repression of a conscripts’ revolt for fair payment after the war. Sarzan (Momar Thiam, Senegal, 1963), based on a short story by Birago Diop, shows how a conscript goes mad when his European ways are rejected on his return home to his village.
The Empire indeed played an important role in liberating France in 1945 and paid a heavy price in the European wars. French cinema’s almost total lack of reference to such facts perpetuates the way in which the French army was « whitened » at the time of the Liberation when African soldiers were sidelined. The same goes for the way in which colonial violence is glossed over. Cinema attempts to be politically correct and thus plays its part in a movement led by the political world and the media, which insists on the close ties between France and Africa, on French as their common language, on France’s emancipating role. « These are all ways of evacuating History and the fight to make Franco-African relations overtly political, rather than pathetic and paternalistic« , recalls Mourlais. (8)
« Why is it impossible in this country to address this chapter of history lucidly? » (9) Colonisation was too closely tied to the contradictions of republican ideology for things to be straightforward. L’Algérie des chimères, François Luciani’s three-part television drama broadcast by ARTE in November 2001, had the merit of analysing the construction of this ideological relationship, a question that is rarely addressed. After being a factor of national cohesion for the Republic in the inter-war years, colonisation became this same Republic’s symbol of success. This was so true that many people experienced decolonisation as a trauma. Several contemporary phenomena are a direct result, notably the connection between colonisation and immigration, the existence of a racism directed specifically at people from the former colonies, France’s paternalistic relation to Africa, and the ghettoisation of the suburbs. (10)
French society therefore needs this kind of analysis. It is highly revealing that Chocolat‘s producers tried to convince Claire Denis to make her manservant character, Protée, sexually involved with Aimée, the mother of France, the appropriately named little girl who retells her experience of growing up in the colonies. « But Protée’s refusal was the whole point of the film! » insisted Claire Denis. (11) Although attracted to Aimée, his refusal is his way of avenging his degrading condition and demonstrating his freedom. (12) Protée and Aimée’s relationship indeed incarnates the entire colonial power relationship. What is new, however, is that Claire Denis’ film positions Protée as the main player in this relationship. Intermixing is not thwarted by republican ideology this time, but by the colonial subject’s refusal.
A mixed couple does form in J’ai pas sommeil, one of the filmmaker’s other films, this time set in the present. However, the conflict remains. The explosive Mona/Théo couple – a temperamental white woman and a taciturn black man – are united in pain. Their differences are not diluted, but taken as a richness to be shared.

(1) Cf. « What images mean », interview with Youssef El Ftouh, in The Perception of Others, Africultures n°3, Dec. 97.
(2) Cf. Nicolas Bancel, Pascal Blanchard, « De l’indigène à l’immigré : images, messages et réalités », in Hommes et Migrations n°1207, May-June 1997.
(3) Cf. Abdelkader Beanali, Le Cinéma colonial au Maghreb, Cerf 1998, notably pp. 271-279.
(4) Cf. Dina Sherzer (ed.), Cinema, Colonialism, Postcolonialism. Perspectives from the Francophone Worlds, University of Texas Press, USA 1996.
(5) Cf. Bernard Mouralis, République et Colonies, Présence Africaine 1999, p. 25.
(6) See list in Olivier Barlet, « Voix d’Afrique au cinema : un regard salutaire », in Migration, exil, creation, Ecarts d’identités n°86, Sept. 1998.
(7) Cf. Olivier Barlet, « The contradictory Tirailleur in African film », in Africa’s Colonial Conscripts, Africultures n°25, Feb. 2000.
(8) Mouralis, Ibid, p. 235.
(9) This is the question Nicolas Bancel and Pascal Blanchard ask in « Le colonisalism : un anneau dans le nez de la République », in L’héritage colonial : un trou de mémoire, Hommes et migrations n° 1128, Nov.-Dec. 2000.
(10) Ibid, p. 91.
(11) Sherzer, ibid, p. 84.
(12) Frédéric Darot, Représentations de Noirs dans le cinéma français contemporain, DEA in film studies, 1997.
///Article N° : 5262


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