One of the biggest revelations at the 72nd Locarno film festival was a film made 40 years ago.
Playing as one of only two African films—the other being Ousmane Sembène
’s redoubtable La Noire de…
in a terrific “Black Light” retrospective curated for the festival by American Greg de Cuir Jr.—West Indies
directed by the late Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo has been infamously out of circulation for decades. This despite its landmark status as one of the most important films to ever come out of African cinema.
Adapted from a play, Les négriers (The Slavers) by Daniel Boukman and shot in Creole and French, the fate of West Indies was perhaps sealed back in 1979 when it landed on an unsuspecting French public and was received with a shrug. It would take another six years for the film to get an American release. Hondo’s epic, considered as his crowning achievement, reclaimed the American musical comedy and turned the genre on its head, redirecting it as an angry, comprehensive critique of the nature of the West’s historical and continuous engagement with African and West Indian nations. West Indies starts from the slave trade and juggles the colonial, post-colonial, and neocolonialist eras while heavily satirizing French imperialism.
Part history lesson and part state of affairs address, West Indies is a shockingly volatile and impressive piece of cinema that entertains as well as it advocates. For most of his career, Hondo was an activist filmmaker interested in placing African cinema within proper context. It was no surprise therefore that everything about West Indies was political from the onset. The lavish budget—1.35 million USD—was a record for African film. The financing process put together funds from private interests in Mauritania, Senegal, Algeria, and France, and the production was filmed on the decks of a reconstructed slave ship housed on the lot of a disused terminal station in Paris.
To see West Indies in 2019 is to be impressed by the depth and scale of Hondo’s achievement, to come to the profound realization that even though there is still talk today about fulfilling the promise of African cinema, Hondo scaled that Valhalla forty years ago. At once theatrical—in keeping with the oral storytelling traditions of African and Caribbean nations—and cinematic—the long takes, dazzling tracking shots, energetic dance sequences—West Indies reinvents the concept of creative utilization of space for the big screen. Its structure and style are proof that African cinema could be whatever the filmmaker wanted it to be, and not what was dictated by Western gatekeepers.
In one of those cruel twists of fate, despite its originality and refusal to conform—or perhaps because of them—West Indies failed to capture the zeitgeist or find a deserving audience. Worse still, the film appears, along with much of Hondo’s work to have been largely forgotten, restricted to appearances in film festivals and cinephile circles where it has since achieved cult status. It isn’t an outcome that Hondo was particularly pleased with, considering he spent a great deal of energies—on film and beyond—dismantling the trap of the single cinema, which he described as cinema created, produced, and programmed by Euro-America. Such filmmaking only considered the lives, cultures and stories of Africans and Arabs as they related to the rest of the world, as opposed to full-fledged persons with agency.
The importance of representation, of cultural visibility on film was resounded with the billion dollar success of Marvel’s Black Panther last year. But lost in that film’s hype was the reality that on planet Africa, Nigeria’s industrious film industry, insufficiently labelled as Nollywood, has for over two decades now been doing the important work of documenting the lives, and culture of black Nigerians, and Africans. And with some modest results too.
Cinema in Nigeria has always existed as something of an elitist pastime, but it wasn’t until the video boom in the 1990s that the industry became truly democratized, with audiences speaking out with their money and placing faith on a new generation of business inclined producers. At this time, there were no theatre houses that survived the oil bust of the eighties and so all of the entertainment came through video and television.
These films weren’t of the best technical quality, but they were huge on drama and arrived with a storytelling exuberance that viewers found relatable. Adding icing to the cake, megastars and power players were minted routinely. From Liz Benson, whose chameleon-like ability enabled her to play a university student in one film and a grandmother in the next, to Genevieve Nnaji, presently making deals with Netflix, and to the post-video era of Adesua Etomi, recently seen smoldering alongside Scarlett Johansson on the cover of Vogue. All of these successes were entirely home grown.
There was a hunger for local content and these stories of love, loss, faith, sorcery, and the end of the wicked were devoured by audiences across Africa and in the diaspora. It wasn’t long before similar industries, inspired by the Nollywood magic, began to spring up in Ghana and other countries. It was filmmaking by the people for the people and of the people, independent and without any main agenda outside economic concerns.
While this model proved successful, the lack of quality control ensured a large chunk of the movies have failed to pass basic muster. Sound issues, picture quality, overly dramatic acting, and a paucity of training for practitioners seemingly doomed the industry to some kind of ghetto station. But the growth continued unabated.
Eventually filmmakers began to appreciate the need for training to polish their talent to keep up with the influx of younger auteurs trained abroad. World-class production techniques and talent applied to local stories seemed like the way to go. With this in practice, the films began to show improvement at least technically in cinematography, sound, and production design. Storytelling lagged behind and so did ambition, and the kind of creative thinking and dedication that made West Indies possible has showed up only sparingly.
But the size of the market may yet explain this. Nollywood is only billed as the second largest film industry in the world in terms of quantity of output. This quick turnaround time is key to understanding the market as it is the backbone that sustains the industry, leaving little room for the usual script stations, labs and workshops that tend to deliver productions of a certain quality. Only a handful of producers are willing to spend as much as a year developing a project. The best thing to say about this model may be that audiences decide for themselves, independent of America or Europe, what projects to lavish critical and commercial attention on. The downside is that in terms of identifying quality, audiences are usually no wiser than the filmmakers and the culture of bold, independent film criticism has yet to take hold.
The failure of West Indies to catch on upon release may be a simple case of the film arriving ahead of its time. Or it may be a more damning problem, that because of a paucity of infrastructure and finances, the film was not seen by its intended audience. It is easy to see how a scathing visual criticism of slavery and colonialism may have been rejected by European audiences, but it is more interesting to imagine what an empowered audience in, say, Nigeria would have made of West Indies. This is the reason why local film industries must be encouraged to thrive, on their own terms, with a focus on institutionalizing excellence.
As far as the international film business goes, however, Europe and America are the red hot center, and while it would be great to have Nigerian films compete globally, at the box office and for major prizes, it would be more useful if this wasn’t the surest path to acclaim. It is hard work no doubt, but a country of 200 million people should be able to develop a thriving, independent market for itself. One that has the capacity to assume a leadership role in presenting a more representative view of Africa to the world, and also be able to identify, nurture, and reward its brightest and best. Joining the mainstream is nice, but what is more rewarding than doing that? Standing in your corner, making it mainstream and drawing everyone else in. It is just as Med Hodo would have wanted.