Against Ethnic Absolutism: The Hybrid Cinema of Med Hondo

November 29, 2021   •   By Giovanni Vimercati

[T]he most exciting potential of women of color formations resides in the possibility of politicizing this identity — basing the identity on politics rather than the politics on identity.

— Angela Davis

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“I WAS BORN on the border of ‘white’ and ‘black’ Africa — but for me, those concepts are meaningless,” Med Hondo candidly admitted to Guy Hennebelle in a 1970 interview for Cinéma. Born of a Senegalese father and a Mauritanian mother (his grandfather was from Mali), filmmaker Abid Mohamed Medoun “Med” Hondo incarnated a radical, anticolonial in-betweenness. He choreographed a liberated form of cinema that responded to his lived experience, demonstrating that filmmaking is not (only) an art, but a struggle that can only be won collectively. “I don’t get the use of the word ‘independent’,” he once pondered. “In reality, I depend on others, I couldn’t make films by myself.”

Hondo made his living as a dubbing artist for French cinema and television, so that he could make films on his own financial and political terms. No producer ever intruded on his creative process, which meant it often took years for his ideas to materialize in film form. It is quite remarkable that a director who formally innovated the cinema of multiple continents, that traveled physically and artistically from Africa to Europe, from the West Indies to socialist Eastern Europe, has received so little critical praise in life. It is only now, roughly two years after his death in March 2019, that the first book-length study of his work in the English language is published.

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

The various interviews Hondo gave over the course of his career offer a precious entryway not only into his cinema but also into the life that directly and militantly informed it. His first film, Soleil Ô (1970), which anti-heroically fictionalizes the vexations of African immigrants in France, is in fact a very personal film; Hondo himself had migrated from his native Mauritania to France, by boat, worked as a cook, first in Marseille, later Paris, all the while cultivating his interest in the theater and cinema.

Theoretical abstraction had no place in his artistic practice simply because it stemmed from an urgency, not a fancy. “We’ve got to rid ourselves of all inhibition and to infuse all forms of expression with our presence,” was his antagonistic exhortation. He decolonized cinematic modernity by refusing to limit his filmmaking to the naturalistic realism the Western film establishment demanded from its so-called Third World imports. His cinema, from the very beginning, is characterized by formal refinement and an intellectual acumen firmly rooted in reality’s material aspects.

Emblematic in this respect was his decision to build the set of West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty (1979), a slave ship, inside a disused factory, a symbolically charged choice meant to emphasize and denounce the economic function of slavery. “It’s not just a matter of aesthetics,” Hondo elaborated, “it is also because the product derived from the plunder of African raw material, namely man, ends up today as he did yesterday, albeit in other forms, in factories.” The film, a musical no less, is an exact and rousing dissection of the political economy of slavery, of the social relations that both determine it and derive from it.

West Indies does not merely criticize the greed and brutality of the white man but dismantles the whole colonial edifice by baring its whole structure — a structure that relies on what the director himself referred to as “the African comprador bourgeoisie,” a collaborationist class that made its fortune by colluding with colonial powers. As Astrid Kusser Ferreira notes in her essay, the film upends narrative conventions as “no individual drama motivates the plot, no love story or conflict is being resolved in melodramatic fashion.”

Hondo’s cinema was rooted in rigorous, near-academic research, in its efforts to innovate new cinematic discourse through experimental forms, refuting the paternalistic axiom that frames the “underdeveloped” Global South as historically behind Europe. Africa, for one, has been a fertile testing ground to investigate, to the tune of colonial occupation and expropriation, new modes of social organization and control. “The slave ship in the empty factory hall,” Kusser Ferreira points out, “represents a simultaneity in which the so-called periphery is not at all lagging behind in development but historically often prefigured changes in the modes of production that were most violently first deployed in the periphery.”

Hondo reverses this exploitative relation by creating a modernist cinema that doesn’t copy a Eurocentric model but, rather, deconstructs the West’s supposed superiority, be it narrative, aesthetic, or technological.

Seen through the prism of political economy, colonialism and racism are reconducted to their material, rather than (im)moral, roots. “We are not racist with just anyone,” Hondo observed, “we’re racist with the poor, so it’s not a problem of nationality or of race, but rather of class.” To him, what mattered was the fight against racism, not a pietistic fetishization of race. “There are white Negroes and Negro Whites. Skin color isn’t fundamental.” He thus framed the plunder of Africa as an economic rather than an ethical issue. “If Senegal grows peanuts, the sale price is decided in Paris or Washington. The movie industry, peanuts, copper and iron are the same thing.” It wasn’t hyperbole: “Africa has to purchase old reels of movies which have circulated twenty or thirty times and even buys these at higher prices.”

The cinematographic colonization of Africa is one of the issues Hondo deals with in his 1974 Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins (“Arabs and Niggers, Your Neighbours”). Tahar Cheriaa, the founder of the film festival Journées cinématographiques de Carthage in 1966, has a small cameo in it and his thought permeates the film’s outlook. Cheriaa, a leftist pan-Africanist, wrote Ecrans d’abondance, ou, Cinemas de liberation en Afrique in the late 1960s, a book that serves as a militant indictment of the hegemonic role of film distribution throughout Africa and the Arab World. When US majors and distributors flooded with their products, it effectively put a stranglehold on the productive potential of local film industries, and Hondo’s film persuasively links these macro-phenomena to the daily realities of immigrants in a way that never veers into didacticism. Hondo’s cinema demonstrates that political and aesthetic experimentation are indeed indivisible, but that popular appeal need not necessarily be sacrificed. Though severely impaired by distribution circuits that relied on guaranteed box office formulas, Hondo’s films did find audiences across the world — and continue to do so — even if the term “popular” must be understood more in its political acceptation than its financial gain. His films have been watched across continents, by different audiences who could relate to them beyond their individual identity; West Indies is at once a film with and about African slaves, Caribbean creoles, European leftists, and indigenous despots.

The Mauritanian director upturned “historical legacies immersed in the brackish confines of one-sided stories,” Shaheen Merali writes in her essay. “[He] works beyond these fixed historical accounts […] locat[ing] a clearance, often in ‘off-grid histories’ that makes his work important.” Merali’s point is crucial: Hondo never addresses the dominant viewpoint by showing a counterpoint. In other words, he refuses to even take racist commonplaces and stereotypes into account. His films do not attempt to redress negative representations with positive images; if anything, they undermine the whole rhetorical structure upon which those negative representations rest. Rather than focus on “educating” Western audiences, Hondo’s films seek to connect with those that have been written out of history: African, Arabs, Asians, the oppressed and exploited. As Jean-Pierre Bekolo notes in his essay, “given than the whole world imagines Africa, it is imperative that Africa performs this act of repossessing the world.” This is just what Hondo’s cinema achieves — not so much a counternarrative as an autonomous one, one that reestablishes a connection with what has been repressed, often in blood.

Yet nothing in the films of Med Hondo suggests or evokes resentment, nationalism, or ethnic pride. Rarely has internationalism found in the seventh art a more compelling articulation than in his films, whose conception of injustice is never identitarian but sociohistorical and, most importantly, reversible. At a time when individualist identity politics have subsumed revolutionary causes, depriving movements of the collective “we” that historically guided them, to rediscover the work of Med Hondo is to reconnect with the multitudinal forces of the oppressed and exploited, with their determination to be part of history and not mere victims of it. “The struggle is a better answer than mutual self-pity,” Hondo once remarked. His cinema and words are a testament to the regenerative beauty of the fight against injustice, a fight as implacable as it is inclusive, and one, for Hondo and his generation, fought through collective organizing.

The second volume, dedicated to Hondo, contains touching recollections from his comrades in arms, one piece by film archivist and author June Givanni is even accompanied by a beautiful series of photos of Hondo at FESPACO, Burkina Faso’s biannual film festival of Pan-African cinema. Boudjemaa Karèche reminisces about Hondo’s relationship with the cinémathèque algérienne and his frequent visits throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The Mauritanian did not visit Algiers just to present his own films and engage with spectators, but also to cultivate militant connections that exceeded the rectangular borders of the big screen. It was in Algeria that Hondo collaborated with Daniel Boukman, whose play Les négriers (1971) eventually served as the basis for West Indies. Karèche recalls,

Med would regularly visit political leaders of liberation movements based in Algiers […] he spent entire afternoons conversing with ANC fighters (South Africa), and those from FRELIMO (Mozambique), PAIGC (Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde), MPLA (Angola), PLO (Palestine) and POLISARIO (Western Sahara).

These multitudes in revolt against colonial exploitation populate his films poetically, his cinema traversed by a collective possibility for another, less miserable world. Hondo’s work envisions a world where oppression was to be wiped out, not charitably catered to, a world Hondo did not stop fighting for until the very end.

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