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Directors in Focus
African Perspectives: Med Hondo

This year’s recipient of the Genevieve McMillan and Reba Stewart Fellowship for Distinguished Filmmaking is director Med Hondo. Son of a Senegalese father and Mauritanian mother, Abid Mohammed Medoun Hondo was born in 1936 in Ain Ouled Beri Mathar, in the Atar region of Mauritania. As a young man, Med Hondo traveled as an immigrant worker to France, where eventually he developed an interest in theater and formed his own performing group, "Shango," named after the Yoruba god of thunder. At the same time, he began to learn about the cinema and in 1966 made his first short film, Ballade aux sources, which tells of an African who returns, disillusioned, to his native land after working and living in dreadful conditions in France. Four years later, drawing on the same wealth of experience and emotion, Med Hondo directed his now renowned debut feature, Soleil O. Praised at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival both for its thematic content and the originality of its formal presentation, Soleil O takes its title from a West African lament about people transported from Africa to be sold as slaves in the Caribbean. Symbolically linking their fates to those of contemporary Black workers in France, the film is a succession of forceful tableaux describing the illusions and miseries of African migrant workers.

Although labeled a "militant" filmmaker, across his career Med Hondo has developed rich and powerful forms of storytelling, drawn from the West African oral tradition of the griots. These are films that forcibly seek to dismantle what the director has called "the narrative and psychological mechanisms of traditional [Hollywood] drama-turgy," in the hopes of raising consciousness. From West Indies, a vast musical fresco covering nearly four-hundred years in the history of the French West Indians, from their enslavement to their present-day displacement in France, to Sarraounia, the valiant story of a West African queen who opposed French colonial troops at the end of the nineteenth century, Med Hondo has offered up to the viewer impassioned examinations of colonial history and its consequences. "For three centuries, due to historical circumstances, a whole people has been led to believe that it was superior to the people it had colonized," Med Hondo states. "Such an ideology has not been eradicated in the past twenty years in spite of the independence of African countries. People should be educated about the richness of the African heritage and the discrimination faced by immigrants in France. I hope my films explain Africa and the crucial and burning issues faced by Black people in Africa and abroad."

Special thanks to James Leahy for his advice and assistance in arranging for the visit of Med Hondo.


April 28 (Friday) 7 pm
April 30 (Sunday) 8 pm
Director Med Hondo in Person

Watani (Watani, un monde sans mal)

Directed by Med Hondo
France 1998, 35mm, color, 103 min.
With Dominque Collignon-Maurin, Pascal Renwick, Mony Dalmes
English language version

Med Hondo’s first feature shot on digital video, Watani follows the respective fates of a black street sweeper and a white bank executive who both lose their jobs on the same day in Paris. The banker has trouble finding work but lies to his wife about his problems and continues to spoil his daughters. Eventually, he falls in with a group of racist thugs at a local bar and starts to tag along with them as they attack blacks and Arabs in the streets at night. The street sweeper, by contrast, is left homeless by his firing and is soon forced to take shelter at a local church when local employment agencies and social service organizations allow him to fall through the cracks. He and his family nonetheless maintain their dignity as they band together with other poor immigrants. Watani became controversial after Hondo publicly contested the French ratings board’s restrictive designation for the film, which cited its violence. The director argued that the violence of the film was merely an honest reflection of the realities it was meant to criticize.

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April 28 (Friday) 9:15 pm
Director Med Hondo in Person

West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty (West Indies ou les nègres marrons de la liberté)

Directed by Med Hondo
Mauritania/Algeria 1979, 35mm, color, 113 min.
With Jenny Alpha, Roland Bertin, Gerald Blondcourt
French with English subtitles

"Med Hondo’s West Indies is a revolutionary musical in both senses of the word. This witty, scathing production offers an angry view of West Indian history, using imaginative staging and a fluid visual style. The film’s single set is an enormous slave ship [built in an unused Citroen factory in Paris]. . . . Mobile camerawork and frequent narrative shifts take the actors through various vignettes about French colonialists invading the Indies, Carribean natives lured to Paris, the process by which the islands were first settled and a lot more. The material has the potential for overbearing irony . . . [but] Mr. Hondo has a light touch. . . . With cast members rotating their way through many different roles (the same actors may play slaves, then worried island villagers, then displaced West Indians) . . . Mr. Hondo leads the film through a long series of well-connected tableaux, culminating in an almost joyous call to arms."—Janet Maslin, New York Times

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April 29 (Saturday) 7 pm
Director Med Hondo in Person

Black Light (Lumière noire)

Directed by Med Hondo
France 1994, 35mm, color, 107 min.
With Patrick Poivey, Ines de Medeiros, Roland Bertin
French with English subtitles

In Black Light, director Med Hondo brings an outsider’s eye to the Parisian thriller in this adaptation of a novel by the French writer Didier Daeninckx. During a time of heightened terrorist activity, the French police open fire on and kill the driver of a car in which Poivey, an airport technician, is a passenger. In an attempted cover-up, they lie about the incident and threaten Poivey when he sticks to his account of what happened. Poivey goes to Mali in search of the only other eyewitness, an illegal immigrant who was detained at the airport hotel and hastily deported.


April 29 (Saturday) 9:15 pm
Director Med Hondo in Person

Sarraounia

Directed by Med Hondo
Burkino Faso 1986, 35mm, color, 121 min.
With Aï Keïta, Jean-Roger Milo, Féodor Atkine
French with English subtitles

Sarrouina (Keïta), a young warrior queen of the Azna tribe well-schooled in the arts of herbalism and warfare, leads her people to victory against a neighboring tribe. But the real trial of strength for her comes when the French army marches south to widen its colonial grip on the African continent. The second half of the film focuses on the French, acidly but plausibly satirized as little tyrants whose megalomania swells in proportion with their failure to grasp the realities of the culture they are trying to crush. Grounded in careful historical research, Sarraounia is a superbly crafted and expansive film that strikes a celebratory, assertive tone.

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April 30 (Sunday) 6 pm

Soleil O

Director Med Hondo in Person
Directed by Med Hondo
Mauritania 1970, 35mm, b/w, 105 min.
With Robert Liensol, Theo Legitimus, Yane Barry

In an unnamed French colony in West Africa, black men line up before a white priest for baptism and renaming—the first step in a process that simultaneously deracinates and subjugates them. In France, colonial blacks, encouraged by propaganda, arrive to seek a better life. What they find is unemployment or a handful of ‘dirty’ jobs, unacceptable living conditions, naked racism, and bureaucratic indifference. Searching for a new form, Med Hondo has eschewed all conventional narrative. From the stylized and surreal opening sequences to the episodic adventures of a particular man, the director presents a series of imaginative set pieces, linked by voice-over narrative, that investigate and dramatize a complex of interrelated themes. A scathing attack on colonialism, the film is also a shocking exposé of racism and a brutal and ironic indictment of Western capitalist values.

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