The earth doesn’t lie

COLONIALISM / Charting the French civil rights movement and the interwoven anti-colonial liberation struggles on the African continent through the life of activist and photographer, Bouba Touré.

Crossing Voices provides a profound cinematographic experience. The film consists of rare cinematic, photographic and sound archives, which are assembled in a mesmerizing manner. A movie should not just tell a story but engage and spur the observer’s imagination. Crossing Voices does just that. It perks our senses and holds a tight grip on us throughout its two-hour-long duration.

Crossing Voices Open City Documentary Festival Raphaël Grisey Bouba Touré
Crossing Voices, a film by Raphaël Grisey, Bouba Touré

Waves of exodus

The topic is very specific, and yet it is relevant to us all. It begins in the irrigated gardens of the riverside of Senegal, then illustrates the waves of a rural exodus from the sub-Saharan region, follows the suffering of the African immigrants, and ends up being about us and how we are depleting our food resources at a rapid pace. Crossing Voices is not only about the pan-African experience of exploitation of the rural population. It is also about how large-scale farming drains our resources at an increasing rate.

The filmmakers frequently cross-edit between historical footage and the present day. In this way, they manage to intertwine multiple storylines into one. The result is engaging and thought-provoking. Here is one of many examples: In black and white footage, we see blank-eyed African soldiers displaced somewhere in the French war trenches of the First World War. There are no white men among them. The African soldiers are storming the Germans. The same footage comes to us repeatedly. We cut back to a large termite castle by the Senegal River. Earlier in the film, we learned that termites play a crucial role in maintaining a sustainable ecosystem in the region. The amplified sound of termites rattles in our ears. A close-up of the white larvae makes us (believe it or not) identify ourselves with them. The following footage from the 50s shows a bulldozer tearing down their mound—something tears inside me. The brutality is shocking. The electronic music is spinning out of control as it goes up into higher frequencies. One senses that an evil omen has just been released. We are back on the battlefield of 1914. In their striking uniforms, the white French generals descend into the war trenches to inspect the loss of black soldiers.

The narrator integrates several people into one. «I» is the African youngster torn from his «primitive» village, put into uniform, and shipped to France. «I» is the paperless African who works under inhuman conditions in a hidden-away factory in Paris. The year is 1960, but it could be any other year because, as we see, the conditions have not changed much for the paperless. «I» is the African immigrant who starts photographing his degraded living conditions in his plight for justice. «I» is the activist returning to his homeland with his hippie friends. The year is 1973, and they have a utopian dream of creating a small-scale farming coop, which they name Somankidi Coura. The crucial point is when they refuse developmental aid as a gift of modern farming technology. This decision turns out to be a lifesaver.

The topic is very specific, and yet it is relevant to us all.

Continued exploitation

Through clever montage, the editors, Raphaël Grisey and Chaghig Arzoumanian illustrate how development aid is just a continuation of exploitation. By imposing a Western lifestyle upon others, we have exported a society model based on consumption, waste and depletion. A small privileged urban class took the role of the earlier colonial powers by continuing the exploitation of the inhabitants of rural areas. They are indirectly causing an unprecedented ecological disaster. Draught, hunger and poverty lead to further rural exodus. Moreover, we are merely at the beginning of this destructive cycle.

Watching footage of the dire living conditions of the African immigrants during the 1960s makes me think of the evil slumlords in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838). Called a «foyer», the windowless building infested with lice and rats could house up to 300 immigrants forced to pay rent. Almost all tuberculous cases in France were spread in these foyers. Is the situation any better today? I think of a headline I read in the Guardian last week, «Baby dies in ‘inhuman’ Dutch centre for asylum seekers». It turns out that this government facility houses 600 immigrants in a field with no roof or shower facilities. The conditions these refugees face are becoming more severe with each new wave.

Crossing Voices Open City Documentary Festival Raphaël Grisey Bouba Touré
Crossing Voices, a film by Raphaël Grisey, Bouba Touré

History repeating

The story is assembled in a cyclical structure. I have always been told that history repeats itself, but Raphaël Grisey really makes a point that there is no such thing as a linear timeline. Similar events seem to occur in repetitive cycles. By going back and forth in the narrative, it becomes apparent that everything is connected, and we are going in cycles that are spiralling into a catastrophe.

We have to turn to permaculture if we want to hope for a better future. Video footage dated «2051» depicts local women growing food on their own plots of land. They grow organic and diversified and show tribute to the termites.

Crossing Voices is, first of all, very original and entertaining cinematography that will stand the test of time. One can immediately sense the immense work behind the film. Bouba Touré and Raphaël Grisey have collaborated since 2006 in compiling a huge amount of rare archives concerning Somankidi Coura. It has resulted in a PhD dissertation, a book publication, a theatre production, and a world travelling art exhibition. Bouba Touré died just before the film was finished, but as his voice says, «I do not want to die, so therefore I walk with time». So true, this film will last for decades to come. It is a classic similar to another film reflecting Western waste-society, Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982, dir. Godfrey Reggio). It has proven to be spellbinding and up to date 40 years after its making. I believe Crossing Voices will last as well.

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Margareta Hruza
Margareta Hruza
Hruza is a Czech/Norwegian filmmaker and a regular film critic at Modern Times Review.

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