Soleil Ô (1967)

This week I’m theming my films around a rather intangible concept I’m calling the “Cinema of Resistance”, a title that’s been applied to a wide range of films in various film programmes over the years, but which I am defining as films either opposed to the forces of authoritarianism, fascism, white supremacy and colonialism, along with the other power structures used to oppress people and popular dissent, or films which elucidate those structures (and, generally, to understand the workings of systems of oppression is the first step towards dismantling them). Therefore a number of the films this week will deal with revolutionaries, or stories that derive from this position. These are themes that remain continually relevant, never more so than in 2020. I am hardly an authority on such things, so my recommendation (aside from the films I’m covering this week) is to educate yourself, read some books, and if you have money support those who are fighting for these causes.

Today’s film is by Mauretanian filmmaker Med Hondo, a number of whose works I’ve already covered, like the magisterial West Indies (1979) or the indigenous epic of resistance, Sarraounia (1986). However, Soleil Ô is probably his most recognised work, and one that continues to stay relevant over 50 years on. It is sadly not currently available to watch online, though hopefully it will get a proper release in time.


If you want to see what feels like the cinematic scream of an entire race of people against white European colonialist attitudes, then this is probably the film for you. That’s not to say it trades purely in anger, though. A lot of it is almost humorous, and it feels rather episodic in the way it builds up its narratives. Not unlike some of Med Hondo’s other work (e.g. Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins a few years later), it feels drawn to a variety of forms of expression, channelling something of the thrill of the New Wave in trying out not just formal innovations, but a variety of registers in conveying its clash between the liberal platitudes of post-revolutionary France and the reality of migration from their African colonies. A young African man (Robert Liensol) tries to find a job in a French city, only to run up against racism, abuse and (possibly even worse in some ways, certainly more humiliating) a thin veneer of acceptance from some white people. Some of the film’s methods can get a bit distracting, but Liensol is a fine screen presence and pulls the disparate film together, and it makes enough salient points about the contemptuousness and sheer suffocation provoked by colonialism that it is absolutely worth watching for anyone interested in the racism that is at the heart of ‘Western’ civilisation.

[NB I note that it’s listed as a 1967 production, but it looks from the film as if scenes were filmed later than that (I spotted a big calendar from 1969 in one background), so I wonder if the film wasn’t finished until a few years later? Certainly it feels like aspects of it draw from the events of May 68, and even if they don’t it certainly dovetails nicely into that period of revolutionary ferment.]

Soleil Ô film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Cinematographers François Catonne and Jean-Claude Rahanga; Starring Robert Liensol; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 3 December 2019.

Sarraounia (aka Sarraounia, une reine africaine, 1986)

Although my theme this week is building up to the release of 1917, this African epic isn’t strictly-speaking a war film (at least as far as its generic cues go), though it deals with a war between European colonisers and an African people who strongly resist.


A bold African epic about the titular queen who resists the French colonising armies in, I gather, what is present day Niger. In terms of the film, the queen (Aï Keïta) is more talked about and feared than actually seen, and in the end it is the white men who sort of do it to themselves, but the focus is on the moustachioed Captain Voulet (Jean-Roger Milo), not very far from some of the roles that Klaus Kinski would play for Herzog, as a power-addled self-destructive little dictator whose military rank makes him believe he is somehow beyond reproach. The film is really about the rot at the core of the colonialist mission, exemplified by this man, whose fixation on defeating queen Sarraounia becomes his undoing. It’s beautifully filmed in widescreen, with a score of traditional African percussion, along with some rousing acting from the non-professional (African) cast. It suggests not just the way that the 19th century European colonial project was resisted by Africans, but also some of the ways that African disunity allowed it to take hold in the first place, while also being celebratory of heroes like Sarraounia.

Sarraounia film posterCREDITS
Director Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Writers Hondo and Abdoulaye Mamani (based on a novel by Mamani); Cinematographer Guy Famechon; Starring Aï Keïta, Jean-Roger Milo; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 7 December 2019.

West Indies ou les nègres marrons de la liberté (West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty, 1979)

I’ve been doing themed weeks of films since restarting this blog, but as we come up to the end of the year, I want to dedicate a few weeks to reviews for films I’ve not yet managed to shoehorn into a themed week, which I regard as among the best I’ve seen this year. They won’t all be new films, though, so I’m starting with Med Hondo’s wonderful West Indies, a 1979 musical dedicated to anti-colonialism and laying bare the hypocrisy of the French state. It’s a lesson that could be applied to a number of former colonialist and imperialist countries, I suspect.


Historically speaking, African cinema doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on Western cinephilia (certainly the opportunities I had when I was younger to watch any on home media or TV were fairly sparse), and it feels like this has begun to change somewhat only in recent decades. Filmmakers like Scorsese and George Lucas have been putting money into restorations of African and other non-Western developing nations’ cinema (Il Cinema Ritrovato has been screening some great film restorations every year), but there are still so many gems that languish unrestored, and a few of those are by Mauritanian director Med Hondo (though his debut feature Soleil Ô did receive treatment recently).

Hondo’s 1979 film West Indies might be the best thing I’ve yet seen by him, and a truly sui generis work that fuses the radical political sensibility that a number of African filmmakers were channelling from the 60s onwards, in the spirit of pan-African post-colonialism (and which also reminds me a little of contemporary Caribbean filmmakers like Raoul Peck) with something of the avant-garde staging that you might get with Godard or Akerman (who also made her own modernist musical in the 80s).

Needless to say, this single-set musical about colonialism, empire, slavery, capitalism and hypocrisy is truly everything you could want: there are energetic dance numbers, and there’s anger about the West and its involvement in both Africa and the Caribbean. The film makes explicit links between the exploitation of workers in migrant economies with the economics of slavery itself (one notable sequence sees the parade of people getting flights to France, whipped up by the conniving of French businessmen and political leaders, overlap with an historical flashback to slaves in chains being led to the slave ships). The links between this historical violence and the suppression of revolts by riot police in modern French cities is also effectively done, and Hondo throughout deploys recurring visual motifs to link past and present, which all wheels by together on the same multi-layered set.

It’s a virtuoso exercise, but far from a hollow one, as it mercilessly mocks and derides White imperialism — whether economic, political or cultural (oh, the tourists) — and evinces anger at the circumstances of the African-Caribbean peoples. At the same time it mellifluously weaves in song and dance, the sound design as effective as any propagandist, but aimed instead at exploding the myths of Western neo-liberalism when it comes to exploitation and power. It’s a glorious pageant, and a truly inspiring film, which hasn’t dated or lost its relevance in 40 years (because these topics never truly seem to go away). I only hope it can continue to inspire in the future.

CREDITS
Director Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Writers Hondo and Daniel Boukman (from Boukman’s novel Les Negriers “The Slavers”); Cinematographer François Catonné; Starring Robert Liensol, Roland Bertin, Hélène Vincent; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 5 December 2019.

Les Bicots-nègres vos voisins (1974)

Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô (1967) received a recent restoration courtesy of Il Cinema Ritrovato and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Another film of his (not yet restored) screened in this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato and exemplifies a more confrontational attitude towards the colonialist past and the challenges of filmmaking on the continent.


With an undoubtedly confrontational title (there are several English renditions of it, but I’m not going to provide any of them here), this politically-engaged piece of post-68 anti-colonialist filmmaking from Med Hondo is very much interested in confronting a legacy of colonialism in Africa. After all, it starts with a lengthy address direct to camera on the necessity of finding a means for an African cinema freed from the demands of Western capital and cultural production. There follow a series of illustrative scenes that unveil the corruption wrought by capital, the methods of control exercised by the colonialist oppressors, a folky anti-racist song about one’s Black and Arab neighbours (which is, more or less, the meaning of the film’s title), a bit of Gilliamesque animation, dialogues with workers about socialism, a sequence highlighting the racism ingrained even in sex work, and some earnest lectures, complete with charts and graphics, on the economics of exploitation. It ends with a group of people in a room festooned with the posters of the kinds of African films that presumably Med Hondo would highlight as exemplars (including his own, even a poster for the one we’re watching), and now I want to see all of them. This isn’t always an easy watch — it’s hardly intended to be (and indeed there’s a longer three-hour cut apparently) — but it comes directly from a spirit of the times, recalling contemporary works like Argentina’s La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968).

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Cinematographers Jean Boffety and François Catonné; Length 100 minutes [French version].
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.