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Med Hondo: Alter-Modernist

A consideration of the films and career of Med Hondo, in light of the recent resurgence of his work.
Celluloid Liberation Front
He who feeds you, controls you.”
Thomas Sankara
To be ahead of your times is a debatable notion, if only for the simple reason that historical time is not linear. Progress in (film) history is hardly consecutive and cultural taste is, to a discernible degree, an emanation of the dominant clique to which we often adhere for fear of being left out. Which is why the logics and dynamics of retrospective rehabilitation tell us always more about the present than they do about the rediscovered past. Outliers and renegades are generally celebrated posthumously, for their canonization always requires a certain amount of institutional acceptability which, by definition, they tend not to enjoy in life. Be that as it may, Med Hondo’s recent resurgence in the collective memory and consciousness of world cinema couldn’t be timelier, the politics of (individual) identity having proved their insufficiency in probing the contradictions of our crumbling societies. For years his films could not be ascribed to the aesthetic stereotypes and narrative clichés of “African cinema” and the sweeping generalizations that this label comes with. Hondo’s work confrontationally shattered the paternalistic tropes African cinema is often reduced to, subverted assumptions and went after the economic edifice of racial oppression instead of appealing to white liberal guilt. Flamboyant and anti-clerical, modernistic and anti-colonial, folkloristic and experimental, his films resist categorization and bear testament to the possibilities of the medium. This might in part explain the poor consideration his films enjoyed until recently among Western critics, the gatekeepers of cinematic taste globally, inevitably blinded by their own enlightenment.
Born Mohamed Abid “Med” Hondo in 1936 into the Haratin community, one of Mauritania’s largest ethnic groups and largely composed of former slaves, the director was greatly impacted by his maternal grandfather growing up. His grandfather was a slave. “He enjoyed a certain independence but had to obey his masters and kiss their hands. That’s something that profoundly shocked me at that young age,” he told Ibrahima Signaté in a book-length interview first published in 1994, “Med Hondo, Un Cinéaste Rebelle” (Présence Africaine, Paris). Growing up under French rule, the director remembered the disdain with which the colonial administration looked upon the Koranic school he attended as a kid. He then went to Morocco to train as a chef and moved to France in 1959 where he worked in the restaurant business for a decade circa (“in a way, it’s through the belly that I got in touch with Western civilization”). Racism in France didn’t come as a total surprise: a Senegalese uncle of his who had fought in WWII had told him that he’d seen people in France “denouncing Jews for a liter of oil” during the war. His living knowledge of the immigrant experience came to dramatic life in his first feature film, Soleil Ô (1970), one of the most dazzling debuts in the history of cinema. A work of erudite formalism and incendiary refinement, Hondo’s opera prima sublimates the constitutive bond that has historically linked racial inequality to capitalism. Possibly due to its autobiographical nature, the film is devoid of any schematism and is empathically open to the militant prospects of internationalism. It vibrates with a political immediacy that’s almost musical, never didactic.
Hondo’s induction in the business we call show was less than pleasant: his producer never bothered to sell or distribute the picture though it was selected for the Critics’ Week in Cannes and the Journées Cinématographiques de Carthagein Tunis. The director would attempt to self-distribute the film but to no significant avail. Le cinéma, it turned out, was no different from the rest of society. His disappointment was channeled into a politicized investigation on the structural injustice on which cinema, like any other enterprise, is built. Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins (1974) edits together two parallel but interlocking reflections, one exploring the brutal living conditions migrant workers in France are forced into by starvation wages, the other pondering on the neo-colonial nature of film production and distribution in Africa (and its impact of the continent’s imagination). The latter is lifted and paraphrased from one of the true masterpieces of (political) film criticism: Écrans d'abondance ou cinémas de libération en Afrique? by Tahar Cheriaa. Published in Tunisia in 1968, where students and workers had rioted in March anticipating thus the fabled Parisian May, the book is a rigorous inquiry into the monopolistic practices majors and international distributors adopted throughout Africa and the Arab world (the volume’s self-explanatory subtitle was “à propos de l'importation-distribution des films en Afrique et dans le monde arabe et de la nécessité de sa nationalization,” or “On film distribution in African and the Arab World and the need to nationalize it”). Cheriaa has a small cameo in the film but his thought permeates every frame of it, far removed from the onanism typical of certain political cinema of the 60s and 70s. The question of cinema, its political potential and reach is dissected with both acumen and irony, delivered in a compelling way that doesn’t make it sound superfluous.
The meta-cinematographic examination of the political intersection of form and content in the cinema of Med Hondo is a constant—rarely has it been addressed with such clarity of purpose and lack of rhetorical bombast. His 1979 big budget masterpiece West Indies is emblematic in this respect. Born from the desire “to free the very concept of musical comedy from its American trade mark,” the film is an immaculately staged musical entirely set on a slave ship. The director appropriates and overturns the tropes of the genre to craft a musical epic on the cultural and economic logics of the slave trade. Lucidly, Med Hondo in West Indies dissects the business of slavery in all its components, from genocidal greed to collaborationism, all the while choreographing an immaculate spectacle worthy of Busby Berkeley. To explain the film’s astonishing obscurity one can only adduce the ingrained prejudice that cannot possibly contemplate formal audacity and precision coming from “the third world.” A prejudice that has historically guided the canonization of “African cinema” and its systematic reduction to primitive naturalism. A virtuoso of cinematic genres, Hondo was the living proof that style is not a cultural uniform but synergic dynamism. In Lumière noire (1994), the “first African polar” in the words of the director, one of the quintessential fetishes of French cinematic culture, the noir, is taken over and color-graded. Adapted from a novel by Didier Daeninckx who also co-wrote the screenplay, the film tells the story of a man whose friend has been shot in cold blood by two cops as he tries to track down the only eyewitness, who’s been deported to Mali. Through the investigation the director exposed the xenophobic nerves of French society and its institutional commitment to racism.
Aside from the above-mentioned titles and the historical epic Sarraounia (1986), about the eponymous anti-colonial feminist hero shot in Burkina Faso under the auspices and solidarity of Thomas Sankara, Hondo’s films are hard to come by. Not only has the Mauritanian director experienced in life all sort of difficulties in realizing his films, from both French institutions and neo-colonial regimes in the Global South, but his legacy is at risk of being forgotten. Which is why the restoration of Soleil Ô by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and its subsequent publication on home video is a welcomed and long overdue recognition of a true luminary of world cinema. Hondo is in fact a director whose importance is not limited to history but speaks, in surprisingly relevant ways, to the contradictions that are violently traversing our present.

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