Leaving the old behind – the cinema of Med Hondo, rediscovered

    In their recent three volume publication on filmmaker Med Hondo, Berlin’s ARSENAL and Archive Books rediscovered an artist who was way ahead of his time. In his endeavour to communicate his particular experience as an African migrant in Europe, Hondo developed a new film language. He showed that the distinctions between document and fiction, or between short and feature film forms, as well as narrative strategies such as a focus on lead actors, are nothing but conventions, and that film media offers much broader possibilities for expression. Hondo used these possibilities primarily to denounce the racism and the exploitation of migrants in Europe. He was able to do so not because he was a victim of these deplorable practices but because he was a creative and talented film artist. Yet, he was also an African migrant in Europe, and his talent and creativity remained obscured. I believe that we should not repeat the same racist denial today. As the knowledge about Med Hondo’s outstandingly innovative and creative film heritage is finally available to the audiences worldwide, we shouldn’t fail to see the importance of his initially marginal migrant practice for contemporary film art. Hondo’s work, proof that the old constraints can be overcome, is also an invitation to keep searching for new formations of film language. This is important because, to start imagining the solutions to today’s problems we need to find new languages to talk about them.

    Soleil O, a film by Med Hondo
    Soleil O, a film by Med Hondo

    Beyond classical narrative cinema

    The good thing is that today we are much more aware of the possibilities for formal change. As film distribution moves from cinema to online, the narrow character of classical narrative, with its conventions and genres, is becoming ever more evident. Filmmakers, critics, artists, and users are experimenting with the new possibilities and developing ever new forms, from transmedia narratives to video essays and desktop cinema. Actually, the attempts to break the confines of classical narrative cinema have a long tradition, from video art to the Dogma 95 manifest to the New Wave that took over European countries from France to Czechoslovakia to the Yugoslav Black Wave during 1960s. Parallel to the New Wave that was associated with the leftist political movements, represented by the Paris 68 protests, another attempt to break free from the cinematic conventions took place. The time and place were the same, only the subjects were of a different race. That is, African and African-American migrants living in France. Yet, since racial differences proved to be more persistent than those of social class, their activities remained obscured to this day. Their voice, regardless of the radically new and innovative film language they developed, remained unheard. Med Hondo, a talented theatre and film actor, and director was the key personality of this movement.

    In his endeavour to communicate his particular experience as an African migrant in Europe, Hondo developed a new film language.

    The migrant prince

    Med Hondo died in 2019. Ever since his passing, the users of French social media have mourned the loss of their Prince of New York. Such was the French title of the film Coming to America (1988) with Eddie Murphy who was dubbed in French by Hondo. Many are convinced that Hondo «the voice actor» made the French version of the film funnier than the original. Born in Mauritania, Med Hondo was sent to study in Rabat after primary school. There, he entered a catering school, and this brought him to France where he attended acting classes and started working in the cinema, because «it was different from monotonous restaurant work» (Hondo in Interviews, p. 170-171). Soon, he began making his own films. Yet, after some early successes, such as the screening of Oh, Sun at Cannes Film Festival, «all my illusions were crushed one by one» (ibid., p. 178). He ended up financing his films with the money he earned by dubbing American actors.

    In these films, he was giving voice to those who were oppressed. In his first two feature films, Oh, Sun (Soleil O, 1970) and Arabs and Niggers, Your Neighbours (Les ‘bicots-Nègres’ vos voisins, 1974), the «Arabs and Niggers» testify about white Europeans’ deeply inhuman treatment of «their neighbours,» the migrants. Sarraounia (1986), based on a historical personality, the legendary Hausa queen who resisted the advances of French Colonial Forces, is a fascinating eulogy to female wisdom and strength. And in Black Light (Lumière noire, 1994), Hondo exposed corruption in French metropolitan police, whose methods «scarcely differ» from those of the gangsters, as wrote Madeleine Bernstorff (On The Run, p. 194).

    Sarraounia, a film by Med Hondo
    Sarraounia, a film by Med Hondo

    Language and Politics

    Some of the themes of Hondo’s films, such as the pre-colonial history of Africa, are almost unique. Others are more common. But Hondo always managed to introduce a new angle or a more penetrating view. Police corruption, for example, is a common topic nowadays. But even compared to the most outstanding films of this genre such as the dark, sharp, and fast À bout portant AKA Point Blank (2010) by Fred Cavayé, Black Light is sharper and its criticism more acute. Hondo changed the structure of this hybrid genre (a «polar», that is, specific French fusion between a crime thriller and film noir) thoroughly, even by [SPOILER] killing off the film’s hero half way through and replacing him with another. At the same time, the film was a stark critique of France after the Pasqua Law from 1986 which triggered mass deportations and denounced a largely unwanted presence of African migrants in France and Europe.

    Hondo’s innovations were grounded in the need for political change. West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty (1979) is a hybrid of musical and costume drama, simultaneously addressing the slave trade and migration. It takes place on a ship so that every dock presents a distinct historical period, and it was also filmed on an actual ship located in an abandoned factory. In short, the film is a breathtaking piece of conceptual art. Showing how thoroughly the contemporary European immigration policies are intertwined with its colonial past, it is also a powerful political statement.

    Med Hondo most probably innovated expressive forms of film media more than any other film director in the history of cinema. This innovation did not come from the desire to make art for art’s sake but from a historical need of a group of people who had to make their voice heard in a language not created by themselves. The editors of these books deserve special credit for convincingly presenting this in a complex combination of theoretical reflections, political agendas, and personal narratives. They stressed both, the creative and political potential of Hondo’s practice and his permanent struggle with racist prejudice. Yet, I think it’s too narrow to classify Hondo as «a pioneer of African cinema» (On The Run, p. 12) because thus, we risk continuing the celebration of his work as a politically just attempt outside the high standards of film canon. We should see it as the new film canon instead. Not because it is just but, because it is necessary. Hondo developed solutions that might work outside his particular experience and historical situation. He found ways to use film media to express the unspeakable and imagine the unimaginable, which is one of art’s main tasks. Today we need this more than ever.

    Books Referenced: 1970–2018 Interviews with Med Hondo: A Cinema on the Run, On the Run: Perspectives on the Cinema of Med Hondo, Das Kino von Med Hondo / Le cinéma de Med Hondo (EDITORS: Marie-Hélène Gutberlet and Brigitta Kuster; PUBLISHER: Archive Books, Berlin, 2021)

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    Melita Zajc
    Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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