Soleil O 1969
Med Hondo | Mauritania 1969 | 1h42m | French with English subtitles | 15
In West Africa, black men line up before a white priest for baptism and renaming. In France, colonial blacks, encouraged by propaganda, arrive to seek a better life. What they find is unemployment, unacceptable living conditions, blatant racism, and bureaucratic indifference. Searching for a new cinematic language, Mauritanian director Med Hondo eschewed conventional narrative forms in this experimental masterpiece. A scathing attack on colonialism, the film is also a shocking exposé of racism and a brutal indictment of Western capitalist values, as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.
The film first screened at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, and screened again at Cannes in 2017, after its restoration by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation at the Cineteca di Bologna. Soleil O is as important as Battle of Algiers in its anti-colonial urgency, and is rightly celebrated by scholars and critics as occupying a central place in the history of African film. After the recent restoration of the film, this is one of the first chances to view it in the UK.
This screening was part of AiM’s focus on Africa’s Lost Classics, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
Cineteca di Bologna
Via dell'Industria, 2
Tel: +39 051 6018607
Africa in Motion Film Festival | GFT, Glasgow | 29 Oct 2017
Afrika Eye Film Festival | Watershed, Bristol | 12 Nov 2017
Open Colour Film Festival | Bristol | screening date tbc
CLIP 1: Black men line up before a white priest for baptism and renaming. They ask forgiveness for speaking in their African language, outlawed by the French colonial regime.
CLIP 2: A mixed-race couple embraces on the Champs-Élysées. The reactions of onlookers show disgust at an interracial relationship. This interrogates racial taboo, and sarcastically overlays animal sounds over French reactions.
Searching for a new cinematic language, Mauritanian director Med Hondo eschewed conventional narrative forms in this experimental masterpiece. From the stylized and surreal opening sequences to the episodic adventures a particular man (the protagonist), the director presents a series of imaginative set pieces linked by voice-over. A scathing attack on colonialism, the film is also a shocking exposé of racism and a brutal indictment of Western capitalist values, as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.
Born in Mauritania, Med Hondo moved to France in the late 1950s and worked as a waiter in Marseille before moving to Paris in the 1960s, where he set up his own theatre group. During this period the emerging ‘poor cinema' or 'hungry cinema' movements sought to re-invent cinema, theory and practice. Hondo described the movement as ‘the irruption of the masses onto the screen, their taking the floor in order to denounce lies and hypocrisy, reveal the contradictions of society, and explore new paths.’ (Signaté 1994: 25 – in Williams book chapter)
This ‘politics of self-representation’ is something that would come to define Hondo’s filmmaking practice. He considers cinema as something much more than entertainment, something that can actively influence our view of the world. In particular, he seeks to challenge the way African people are perceived and understood. In this way he considers cinema as a driving force for cultural change.
In Soleil O, Hondo addresses the mass immigration of Africans into France in the post-colonial period. Colonial blacks, encouraged by propaganda, arrive to seek a better life. What they find is unemployment, unacceptable living conditions, blatant racism, and bureaucratic indifference. The ongoing forms of neo-colonialism essentially amount to an inverted form of the original colonial dynamic, with the economic exploitation and racial subjugation now taking place in France instead of Africa. The film considers these issues from the French perspective, revealing the nation’s inability to face up to its colonial legacy.
In 1968 Hondo finished writing the screenplay for Soleil O and started production. The film had no financing and at the time Hondo was an untrained director, working with untrained actors who got together mostly at weekends. He worked with a varied mix of film stock – some purchased, some donated and some out of date. The result is a collage of different film qualities and textures throughout. Indeed, the restoration of the film required the use of a 16mm reversal print, and both 16mm and 35mm dupe negatives which Hondo deposited at the Ciné-Archives, in Paris. (World Cinema project)
Although there is a single protagonist in each scene, the character is representative of the reality for many Africans. ‘I wanted to describe several people through one person instead of using a group of people.’ Fiction and documentary are seamlessly combined, sometimes in the same scene (see below) to create an unsettling and challenging film.
The disjointed narrative structure of the film was interpreted by some critics as an African version of the European model. Hondo rejects this analysis. He maintains that the structure comes from the African storytelling tradition. ‘In my country, when people talk about a specific issue, they may digress and come back to their initial topic. Black cultures have a syntax which has nothing to do with Cartesian logic or that of other civilizations.’ -- Med Hondo (World cinema project).
’Patrick Williams, Soleil O (Med Hondo, 1969): ‘they cannot represent themselves’ in ‘Africa’s Lost Classics: New Histories of African Cinema (Legenda Moving Image): Lizelle Bisschoff & David Murphy (eds.)
‘World Cinema Project.’ Accessed September 20, 2017. http://www.film-foundation.org/world-cinema?sortBy=title&sortOrder=1&page=3.
Sanogo, Aboubakar. ‘The Indocile Image: Cinema and History in Med Hondo’s Soleil O and Les Bicots-Nègres, Vos Voisins.’ Rethinking History 19, no. 4 (October 2, 2015): 548–68. doi:10.1080/13642529.2015.1063236.