« You must have the courage to look back at your past. And it’s urgent. »

Interview by Olivier Barlet with Jean-Marie Teno on the "Colonial Misunderstanding" and the suburb riots

Apt, November 2005
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The Colonial Misunderstanding is tremendously topical in the context of the suburb riots: the medias’ reaction, the incredible lack of thought on the continuing influences of the colonial fact, the lack of films on these questions, etc. It is really clear how necessary this film is today.

Yes, it’s what everybody tells me when I present the film. When I was trying to finance it here in France, I was told: « Ah! No, it’s not about us, it’s a German story! » But people tell me now: « It would be good to make a film like that about France ». In France, we have cultivated a sort of amnesia, a way not to face the past. But now it is catching up with us with books like « La Fracture Coloniale », with reports on colonization and above all with all these youths who have down everything they were asked. They’re French, they went to college and find themselves being outrageously discriminated against on the labor market, when they’re looking for accommodation, they’re constantly harassed by police forces that enjoy humiliating them.
Why, in your opinion?
Because France’s decolonization work remains undone. The racist thought that existed in the 60s has never been questioned. It has continued to spread in society and even in the institutions, which leads today to an institutional racism, causing huge tensions. All these youths who are not juvenile delinquents, who are studying, have graduated, cannot find a job and go back to the projects. The parents are desperate, and the other youths who did not go to college sometimes get by far better dealing or doings some small jobs! Is the famous French republican ideal still relevant nowadays? The question is not addressed. As long as it isn’t, I think the riots might well stop, but at the least spark, they will start again.
This side of the Republic which implemented colonialism does not really appear in your film.
Yes. The question was: how to talk about colonial History in France, in a country where people always tell me: « No, colonialism is over, we must look forward. » When I speak about discrimination, I am told: « No, it happens to others too, I know someone who’s graduated and who can’t find a job either. Don’t exaggerate; you tend to only see the dark side of things. » If I come back to the republican ideal, because of society’s refusal to question itself. When it is said that all the citizens of the Republic are supposed to be equals, and nevertheless physical differences are made, and that these racial differences are influenced by an entire past that has not been questioned, you can’t seriously say to the people: « Listen, stay put and suffer, be always excluded from everything. And stay in your projects. » Is the resignation that the missionaries taught us when we were kids still reigning in France today?
Immigrants’ children were indeed born here and have the same education.
Yes. How can they still be discriminated against with so much impunity? Committees are set up to fight discrimination. There is a phone number. But it’s not incentive enough, it’s not a strong enough message for the youths to feel like they count. The reflexes and attitude of the police, customs officials, whole administration still askance and humiliate Africans and French people of African origin. An opinion and an attitude that recall the colonial period. It’s a persistent discourse: when you’re black, you’re confronted with a whole stock of prejudices relating to your origins, to Africa. Not to mention the media, as we’re constantly in the era of humanitarian aid. As long as the Africans are poverty stricken, French people of African origin should live in slums. There is a direct correlation between colonial history, Africa’s situation, and the way French people of African origin are regarded.
The film refers to the expression « concentration camps » invented by the Germans during the genocide of Hereros in 1904-1907. We see the learning and the experimentation operated in the colonies of the paroxysm of violence reached in Europe during the world wars. Yet, it seems ignored, like a new topic.
For five centuries, the African was totally dehumanized in order to justify the slave trade and colonization. Then Europe organized the oversight, amnesia. Africa’s History was not seen as part of the History of humanity, apart from an ancient Africa. The aim of the film is to bring back Africa’s History to the heart of the History of Europe and humanity, to show what the relations between Europe and Africa are. And to show that in dehumanizing Africans, Europeans have dehumanized themselves. There is a historical continuity that cannot be ignored: in refusing to recognize the crimes of the past, of form of revisionism is emerging today. We keep the same mentality, with the February 23, 2005 law stating that the positive effects of French presence in Africa should be taught. It is a way of returning and legitimizing colonial discourse.
We often hear old colonialists in the debates insisting on the positive aspects of colonization.
Yes, I was blamed for not having showed them. But one of the reasons why I made this film, is that I noticed in the Israelo-Palestinian conflict for example, occulting Africa’s History they allow people to unrestrainedly apply words such as « colonization » to other situations. Yet, colonizing is one of the most serious crimes one could ever imagine: someone comes in your country, occupies your both physical and mental territory. It’s as if the relation with the reality of colonization wasn’t made, as if it were a neutral word, « settler »! In Europe, in France, there are still shops named « La Maison Coloniale ». It’s a sort of romanticism! It’s terrible! The Colonial Misunderstanding aims to participate in the Europeans’ decolonization. Because when you colonize, you start with colonizing yourself: it’s necessary in order to accept that you can go and impose yourself and subdue the others. If we look at France’s History, weren’t the regions colonized by the central power? But now, young French do not accept anymore colonial treatment being applied to their territory. I get the impression that the handling of the suburbs echoes the way the colonies were handled. Everytime they rise up, they must be beaten back down! That sets people apart, a bit excluded from everything. They’re being excluded without it having to be spelled out: mechanisms have been set up, they work by themselves. These youths won’t take it any longer! No one on either the right or left wing has understood the degree of the problems!
This colonization of minds that also affects the settlers is very clear in the film with those missionaries who bore a humanist message and yet became the instruments of dehumanization.
Exactly, that’s exactly why this situation was so fascinating. These people left with the desire to bring good, happiness, with the word of God. And in the end they connived in the worst unhappiness bringing submission and oppression. The Rhineland mission that carries out its self-criticism in the film thinks that in Germany, as a mission society, they can try to carry out the opposite task, that of informing the Germans of the wrong they caused elsewhere, to generate a better understanding. I think that in the dead end we are now in, missionaries have this responsibility. The Rhineland mission was one of the main lobbies in Germany in the fight against apartheid. And they urge the other missions to recognize their faults during the colonial period.
It is a film that ultimately questions all the good intentions and is therefore very topical!
Good intentions sometimes hide terrible things. As far as missionaries are concerned, behind an individual’s utopian commitment lies an organization or a group that uses them for inadmissible purposes. Who pulls the strings? Who manipulates? The system ultimately hijacked its good intentions. I have a serious problem with humanitarian aid because it lives on the colonial treatment. It’s a complete sham: the Africans who wanted a true independence did not succeed. Colonial contracts were therefore maintained, Africans were put into power or took power, and they never questioned these contracts and have continued to impoverish the continent. Their mission was therefore to keep the African peoples under the yoke of totalitarian and dictatorial systems, supported by important European companies that were making profits out of this situation. NGOs that claim they want to alleviate poverty are instrumentalized to give Europe a clear conscience while the looting of the continent goes on. And the system works, no holds barred. On the one hand, they loot, the exploitation goes on, debt strangles the countries, a debt contracted by terribly irresponsible and cynical people, the NGOs are here to plaster the crack and the system works. A little more help is given, some countries’ debt is cancelled and so it goes on. The African heritage continues to vanish. It’s a system where humanitarian aid completely has its place. The American humanitarians’ attitude is very interesting: instead of being given grants, they are given cereals. The NGOs themselves have to go on the international market to sell them in order to finance themselves. Poverty in Africa had better last so they can keep on operating!
Your films try to make people lucid, because ultimately, things are intricate and we end up getting a bit confused!
Since Africa, I Will Fleece You, I’ve always asked myself how to make things more readable. Working on something difficult, I had chosen a complex structure. I was told it didn’t make any sense and people completely forgot to get down to the actual issues of the film. For this film, I pursued an idea and I went straight to the point. It was a film about speech, completely minimalist, starting out from people who have something to say. The problem was to find the link that relates everything. It results in a film that may look very simple, but it took me a lot of time for the things to link together like a decoding, a deciphering. I don’t really know where it stands in my filmography.
It is indeed quite different from « Chief! or A Trip to the Country ». It is closer to the work of an historian. Your other films tried to capture a reality on the ground.
Yes, very different. I wanted to make associations of ideas in the different periods to show how in two centuries we have been trapped in this relationship with humanitarian aid. To talk about colonization showing how Africa’s History has been obscured from humanity’s History. I am actually thinking of pursuing this work, but the other way round this time, looking at what, since slavery, has linked the black world in artistic and aesthetic terms. It will be about finding a movement that makes sense in relation to the different forms of oppression. To see how these artistic expressions have spread in relation to other art forms. The film is very fascinating in this respect: the questions of African films finding a place in worldwide cinematography, of playing a role in analyzing African societies, of talking to African. It’s complex and it might be a long and exhausting job!
Did you work with historians or alone on the Colonial Misunderstanding?
I worked with historians, with archivists. I read a number of books, I attended lots of history conferences to find elements. I met many church people who informed me. I researched here and there. I did not have a specific historian guiding my reflection. I looked for elements that enabled me to talk about what seemed important to me.
The film comes at a time when the debate between historians about the colonial divide is quite virulent. Isn’t your film seen as troubling?
I was thinking of getting close to the ACHAC to see whether we could do some work about French colonial History. The problem is that it’s their exclusive domain, their territory. I find their amount of archives fascinating. I would like to look at the same things with them but from a different point of view. It’s now essential for France. Television debates are always appalling. As if it was enough to take the first black supposed to represent the suburbs, and to put him / her in front of people who have written, thought, reflected, and have a constructed discourse. They’re not looking for the excluded who might have a pretty much equivalent counter-speech. We always see the same specialists on Africa, often French, who promote a sort of consensus. It is high time they faced things, confronted the words used, methods and opinions. That’s why I hate the word « b.l.a.c.k.s. ». I think it’s pathetic that in France, a part of the population should be named like that. It is another way of excluding. If you can’t find an appropriate phrase to definite a part of yourself in your own language, then it’s critical, it means that de facto you’re excluding a part of yourself. We use foreign connotations. Why don’t we just say « les Noirs » or « les noirs français » ? To solve a problem, you must have the courage to face it, to face the present and to look back at your past. And it’s urgent.

Translated by Sutarni Riesenmey///Article N° : 6865


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