The hybrid cinema from Med Hondo

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[T]he most exciting potential of women with colored formations lies in the possibility of politicizing this identity – basing identity on politics rather than identity.

– Angela Davis

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“I WAS born on the border of ‘white’ and ‘black’ Africa – but these concepts are meaningless to me,” Med Hondo openly admitted in a 1970 interview with Guy Hennebelle movie theater. The filmmaker Abid Mohamed Medoun “Med” Hondo, born to a Senegalese father and a Mauritanian mother (his grandfather was from Mali), embodied a radical, anti-colonial in-between. He choreographed a liberated form of cinema that reacted to his lived experiences and showed that filmmaking is not (just) an art, but a fight that can only be won together. “I don’t understand the word ‘independent’,” he pondered once. “In reality, I am dependent on others, I couldn’t make films on my own.”

Hondo made a living as a voice actor for French cinema and television, making films on his own financial and political terms. No producer has ever intervened in his creative process, so it often took years for his ideas to become reality in film form. It is noteworthy that a director who formally renewed cinema on several continents, who traveled physically and artistically from Africa to Europe, from the West Indies to socialist Eastern Europe, received so little critical praise in life. Only now, around two years after his death in March 2019, has the first English-language study of his work been published.

In December 2020, Archive Books published three volumes dedicated to the Mauritanian director, one with interviews (translated by John Barrett, Simon Beaver, Julia Schell and Melissa Thackway) spanning nearly five decades; another of essays by critics and scholars; and the last, published only as an e-book, with interviews and essays in the original language (French and German).

The various interviews that Hondo gave in the course of his career offer a valuable introduction not only to his cinema, but also to the life that shaped it directly and militantly. His first film, Soleil (1970), which anti-heroically fictionalized the anger of African immigrants in France, is indeed a very personal film; Hondo himself had emigrated to France by ship from his home country of Mauritania, worked first in Marseille and later in Paris as a cook, cultivating his interest in theater and cinema.

Theoretical abstraction had no place in his artistic practice just because it sprang from an urgency, not a fantasy. “We have to get rid of all inhibitions and permeate all forms of expression with our presence,” was his hostile warning. He decolonized cinematic modernism by refusing to limit his filmmaking to the naturalistic realism that the Western film establishment demanded of its so-called Third World imports. Right from the start, his cinema is characterized by formal sophistication and intellectual acumen that is firmly anchored in the material aspects of reality.

Emblematic in this respect was his decision to choose the set of West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Freedom (1979), a slave ship in a disused factory, a symbolically charged choice designed to highlight and denounce the economic function of slavery. “It’s not just a question of aesthetics,” explains Hondo, “but also because the product obtained from the plundering of the African raw material human ends up in factories today as it was yesterday, albeit in a different form.” The film, not less than a musical, it is a precise and stirring analysis of the political economy of slavery, the social conditions that both determine it and derive from it.

West Indies not only criticizes the greed and brutality of the white man, but dismantles the entire colonial building by exposing its entire structure – a structure that relies on what the director himself referred to as “the African comprador bourgeoisie”, a collaboration class who made their fortune through collusion with the colonial powers. As Astrid Kusser Ferreira states in her essay, the film turns narrative conventions on their head, since “no single drama motivates the plot, no love story or no conflict is melodramatically resolved”.

Hondo’s cinema is rooted in rigorous, almost academic research, in its efforts to renew new cinematic discourses through experimental forms and to refute the paternalistic axiom that frames the “underdeveloped” global south as historically behind Europe. Africa, for example, was a fertile test ground for examining new forms of social organization and control in harmony with colonial occupation and dispossession. “The slave ship in the empty factory hall”, emphasizes Kusser Ferreira, “represents a simultaneity in which the so-called periphery is by no means lagging behind in development, but rather anticipated historically often anticipated changes in the most violent modes of production.”

Hondo reverses this exploitative relationship by creating a modernist cinema that does not copy a Eurocentric model, but rather deconstructs the supposed superiority of the West, be it narrative, aesthetic or technological.

Viewed through the prism of political economy, colonialism and racism are traced back to their material and not to (un) moral roots. “We are not racist against anyone,” Hondo noted, “we are racist against the poor, so it is not a problem of nationality or race, but more of the class.” His concern was the fight against racism, not a pietistic one Racial fetishization. “There are white negroes and negro-white people. The color of the skin is not fundamental. ”He therefore described the plundering of Africa as an economic rather than an ethical problem. “When Senegal grows peanuts, the selling price is decided in Paris or Washington. The film industry, peanuts, copper and iron are the same. ”It was no exaggeration:“ Africa has to buy old rolls of film that have circulated twenty or thirty times, and even buy them at higher prices ”.

The cinematic colonization of Africa is one of the themes with which Hondo deals in his 1974 Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins (“Arabs and niggers, your neighbors”). Tahar Cheriaa, the founder of the film festival Journées cinématographiques de Carthage in 1966, makes a small cameo and his thoughts permeate the perspective of the film. Cheriaa, a leftist Pan-African, wrote Ecrans d’abondance, ou, Cinemas de liberation en Afrique Late 1960s, a book that serves as a militant indictment of the hegemonic role of film distribution across Africa and the Arab world. As US majors and distributors inundated their products, the productive potential of the local film industries was de facto in a stranglehold, and Hondo’s film convincingly combines these macro phenomena with the daily realities of immigrants in ways that never turn out to be didactic. Hondo’s cinema shows that while political and aesthetic experimentation are inseparable, popularity does not necessarily have to be sacrificed. Although Hondo’s films have been severely affected by sales circles relying on guaranteed box office prescriptions, they have found audiences around the world – and continue to do so – even if the term “popular” was understood more in terms of its political acceptance than its financial gain must become. His films were seen by different viewers across continents, who could identify with them beyond their individual identity; West Indies is also a film with and about African slaves, Caribbean Creoles, European leftists and indigenous despots.

The Mauritanian director revised “historical legacies, immersed in the brackish borders of one-sided stories”, writes Shaheen Merali in her essay. “[He] works beyond these fixed historical accounts […] locate[ing] a release, often in ‘off-grid histories’, that makes his work important. ”Merali’s point is crucial: Hondo never addresses the prevailing point of view by showing a counterpoint. In other words, he refuses to even consider racist platitudes and stereotypes. His films do not try to replace negative representations with positive images; if anything, they undermine the entire rhetorical structure on which these negative representations are based. Rather than focusing on “educating” Western audiences, Hondo’s films seek to connect with those made out of history: Africans, Arabs, Asians, the oppressed and exploited. As Jean-Pierre Bekolo states in his essay, “It is imperative that Africa undertakes this act of reconquering the world, since the whole world imagines Africa”. This is exactly what Hondo’s cinema does – less of a counter-narrative than an autonomous one that re-establishes a connection to the repressed, often in the blood.

Yet nothing in Med Hondo’s films suggests or evokes resentment, nationalism, or ethnic pride. Seldom has internationalism found a more convincing articulation in the seventh art than in its films, whose concept of injustice is never identitarian, but rather socio-historical and, above all, reversible. At a time when individualistic identity politics subsumes revolutionary causes and has robbed movements of the collective “we” that historically directed them, the rediscovery of the work of Med Hondo means reconnecting with the numerous forces of the oppressed and exploited, with theirs Determination to be part of history and not mere victim of it. “Fight is a better answer than mutual self-pity,” Hondo once remarked. His cinema and his words testify to the regenerative beauty of the struggle against injustice, a relentless and comprehensive struggle that, for Hondo and his generation, is waged through collective organizing.

The second volume, which is dedicated to Hondo, contains touching memories of his colleagues, a piece by the film archivist and author June Givanni is even accompanied by a wonderful photo series by Hondo at FESPACO, Burkina Faso’s biannual film festival of pan-African cinema. Boudjemaa Karèche recalls Hondo’s relationship with the Cinémathèque Algérienne and his frequent visits in the 1970s and 1980s. The Mauritanian traveled to Algiers not only to present his own films and to interact with viewers, but also to cultivate militant connections that went beyond the rectangular boundaries of the big screen. In Algeria, Hondo worked with Daniel Boukman, whose piece Les négriers (1971) ultimately served as the basis for West Indies. Karèche remembers

Med regularly visited political leaders of liberation movements in Algiers […] He spent whole afternoons talking to ANC fighters (South Africa) and those from FRELIMO (Mozambique), PAIGC (Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde), MPLA (Angola), PLO (Palestine) and POLISARIO (Western Sahara).

These masses, revolting against colonial exploitation, populate his films in a poetic way, his cinema pervaded by a collective possibility for another, less miserable world. Hondo’s work envisions a world in which oppression should be erased, not cared for, a world that Hondo did not stop fighting for until the very end.

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Giovanni Vimercati holds an MA in Media Studies from the American University of Beirut and is currently a PhD student in the Film & Media Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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