I AM A (WO)MAN
Transatlantic Perspectives on Political Struggles in the 1960s-1970s in Ginea-Bissau, Morocco, the USA and France
In the 1960s and 1970s, the world was shaken by anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles.
As early as the 1950s and 60s, filmmakers had mobilized the means of cinema to denounce the ravages of colonialism. Invented in 1895, only 10 years after the Berlin Conference that saw the continent of Africa divided between the great European powers, cinema was initially used as a tool to convey colonial ideology. The Laval Decree (1934–1960) forbade anyone to film without the authorization of the lieutenant governor of the French colony. In the films produced during that era, colonial violence is omitted and the local populations are never given a voice—until Independence, Africans could not represent themselves. However, a few French filmmakers took up the camera to fight colonialism and its violent effects: René Vautier's Afrique 50 (1950) was censored for 40 years. Also censored was the Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Ghislain Cloquet–directed pamphlet Les statues meurent aussi (1953). Their film denounced the lack of consideration for "Negro art,” which was shown in Paris at the ethnographic Musée de l'Homme, while art from Ancient Greece or Egypt was exhibited at the more prestigious Louvre. Other films that shed light on the colonial condition were made later, but were often directed by white people. French filmmaker Mario Marret (1920–2000), who alternated between radio operator, resistance fighter, polar explorer, militant filmmaker and psychoanalyst, joined Marker in the Medvedkine Groups, a militant documentary film collective. He participated in the collective production of À bientôt j'espère (1968), a documentary on the 1967 labour strike in a Besançon textile plant. In the 1960s, Marret travelled several times to Guinea-Bissau where he filmed Nossa Terra (1966), a film that captures the struggle in the midst of the guerrilla war for independence of the country.
The Years of Lead in Morocco from the 1960s to the1980s, during the politically oppressive rule of King Hassan II, saw the mobilization of students claiming their anger and organizing anti-colonial and pro-democracy demonstrations. In هارب (Wanted, 2011), Moroccan director Ali Essafi strives to reactivate some of Morocco's collective utopias through little-known archival and censored images, and uses film extracts from Moroccan cinematographic heritage to restore the political stakes of the student revolts in the 1970s. A former Marxist-Leninist activist incarcerated during this time explains the gap of missing images at the outset of the documentary: "There were few photos then," and "we avoided photos," to preserve the anonymity of the activists. It is with a formal freedom that Essafi manages decades later to represent and capture these years of repression and clandestinity in Morocco.
Solidarity was being established between workers’ unions and the film industry throughout the 1950s, mostly by white men, but with a few notable exceptions. Madeline Anderson directed Integration Report 1 in 1960, which is considered the first documentary film directed by an African-American woman. The 20-minute short filmed in Alabama, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C., is a vital record of the civil rights movement, incorporating footage by documentary filmmakers Albert Maysles and Ricky Leacock, protest songs by Maya Angelou, and a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. As an echo of the situation in the United States, 1960 was the year of independence for many African countries, and it also marked the birth of continental cinema. Director, editor and producer Madeline Anderson saw film as a means of expressing and telling the story of African Americans in a different, combative and committed way. In 1969, 400 low-paid Black women hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina, went on strike to demand recognition of their union and a pay raise, and were confronted by state troopers and the National Guardsmen. Madeline Anderson was contacted by the Drug, Hospital, and Health Care Employees Local 1199 union in New York, who asked her to document the strike. Featuring activists Andrew Young, Charles Abernathy and Coretta Scott King, I Am Somebody (1970) is a crucial document in the struggle for African American women workers' rights. The Devil is a Condition (1973) by Carlos de Jesus explores the housing conditions and needs of poor Puerto Rican and Black communities living side-by-side during the late ‘60s and ‘70s, set to a soundtrack of free jazz and poetry. To take a place like New York, where the destinies of the two communities feel inextricably tied, recounting that exchange/relationship is enduringly important. Jumping from Uptown to Brooklyn, and back to The Bronx, The Devil is a Condition is both a capsule of a burning New York, as well as a depiction of how some things have still failed to change. The documentary was timely then and remains so now in how it depicts the two communities relying on each other both artistically, as well as for social progress.
At the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, Med Hondo—a formative filmmaker in African cinema, as well as actor and voice actor—was filming the anti-racist struggles taking place in France in the 1960s. In Mes voisins (My Neighbours, 1971), he uses his camera to bring the experiences of African immigration in France to the screen. Part of a larger documentary project (Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins), the film gives voice to African immigrant workers who describe their daily lives and the racism they face in the labour and housing markets of Paris. The first witness, a worker at Renault, explains how he was moved from Flins to Billancourt—to a distant and unheated home—without being able to pay for a hotel to rest in. In addition to poor housing, he describes being coerced and subjected to racism by his foreman, who prevented him from exercising his rights. Recorded in a café, the first interview surprises with a radical formal choice: the refusal to dub the witness, and to let him speak to the end of his story before pausing, so that his voice may be better heard; only once he has finished speaking does the image stop scrolling to translate what has been said. The worker appears first and foremost as a human being with a voice, even before participating in the discourse of the film. Likewise, Hondo's neighbours are shown as who they are: proletariats facing the joint exploitation of capital and the colonial state. A short animated sequence concludes the film that depicts an alliance of Western leaders (Georges Pompidou and Richard Nixon) and African autocrats on the altar of the dollar. Counteracting exploitation happens through collective organizing, and always begins with the telling and sharing of experiences. To one of Hondo’s comrades who declares that he does not want to ask for more than what the French people have, a witness replies that the French are not at home either because one is never really “at home” as long as one is a worker.
And the Dogs Were Quiet (Et les chiens se taisaient, 1974), directed by and starring Sarah Maldoror, is based on a dramatic play of the same name written by the Martinique poet Aimé Césaire, and tells the story of a revolutionary as he dies in the midst of a great collective disaster. The man (Gabriel Glissant) relives his hesitations, his impulses, his dreams, his defeats, his victories: First, we witness the birth of the hero in the colonial setting, and his initiation into solitude amidst the contradictory solicitations of the spirit of life and amor fati; next, we see his spiritual struggle, grappling with forces of feeling and forces of the past; finally, in the third act, he confront death. Glissant and Maldoror perform the play inside the Musée de l'Homme, whose collections are devoted to Africa, integrating the spectators, silent witnesses, into their performance.
Racial and social inequalities are inextricably linked to an international geopolitical order. The Black Condition is immediately linked to the position of Africa in the order of international exchange (1) just as the coloniality of power is linked to the unfinished struggles for the emancipation of colonized peoples. The here is the there. While the legacies of anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles continue to be trampled on everywhere, the struggle is far from over.
A LUTA CONTINUA.
(1) Mireille Fanon, seminar Geopolitics, coloniality and liberation organized on 19/09.2020 by the CADTM
Farah Clémentine Dramani-Issifou
I AM A (WO)MAN screens Monday, May 8 at 7:15 PM at The Cinematheque. For tickets, Click Here
If you would prefer to watch I AM A (WO)MAN from home, you can also screen the program online from anywhere in Canada between May 15-24, 2023. For online tickets, Click Here