West Indies, les nègres marrons de la liberté
Ana Naomi de Sousa
March 16, 2024

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” — Bertolt Brecht

Med Hondo was born in Morocco in 1935. The son of Mauritanian and Senegalese parents, he became a film director while living in France. He shot works in Tunisia, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, mainly funded through his work dubbing Hollywood actors, including Eddie Murphy and Danny Glover, into French. As a director, actor and voice actor, he intentionally defied the potentially restrictive forces of geographical borders, cinematic forms and language, reinventing his ferociously political cinema with every work in his filmography, in a way that no one else in history has ever been better positioned to, and which recalls the words of Frantz Fanon, one of his greatest influences: “In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.”

With its dramatic setting, oral narrative, music and dance, West Indies, Les Nègres Marrons De La Liberté has often been misunderstood as a tribute to North American musicals, but Hondo’s intention was in fact the opposite:

“It was a question of denouncing forms such as the musical, which in the eyes of the public referred to American cinema… I want to give… a different vision, to show that, despite scarce resources, but with a sufficiently clear ideology, we are in no way blinded by American film… I wanted to free the very concept of musical comedy from its American trademark. I wanted to show that each people on Earth has its own musical comedy, its own musical tragedy and its own thought shaped through its own history.” 1

This kind of determined, subversive and anti-imperial experimentation didn’t begin and end with West Indies. At the beginning of his artistic career, in the 1960s, Hondo co-founded (with Robert Liensol, a Guadeloupean actor who features in West Indies) the Parisian theatre company Griots-Shango, working with African actors and staging pieces by people including: the Martinican intellectual Aimé Césaire; René Depestre, Haitian poet; Guy Menga, Congolese playwright; and the writer Daniel Boukman, who wrote West Indies. Med Hondo was influenced by the political, dramatic and poetic canon of Négritude, the Francophone literary movement around Black consciousness in the 1930s associated with anticolonial and independence movements across the French colonies — although Hondo would later turn critic of its most famous proponents, among them Césaire and Léopold Senghor, the poet and later president of Senegal, who he felt failed to deliver on their promises following independence.

The films made by Med Hondo, and in particular his great works Soleil Ô, Sarraounia and West Indies, are not only milestones in African cinema but also potent denunciations of the French colonial legacy, brimming with rage and irony, and refusing to give in to persistent cultural elitism or the assimilationist values of French colonialism and its supposed mono-culturalism. They are also deeply felt, emotional narratives about resistance to colonialism through history, crossing various geographies and containing strong undercurrents of Pan-Africanism and Marxism, as well as the palpable influence of Frantz Fanon’s political philosophy.

Hondo’s contribution to a pan-African cinema was immense; he played an important role in FESPACO, the pan-African film and television festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where he founded the African Filmmaker Committee through which he published the reference text “What is Cinema for Us”, insisting that Arab and African production and distribution be freed from the imperialist yoke of Euro-American cinema. Often referred to as one of the founders of African film, as a militant director and essential figure in Third Cinema, Med Hondo challenged the many labels given to him, seeking a broad and critical understanding of historical African experience always anchored in its diversity of ethnicities, languages and religions, so as to resist restrictive and essentialist definitions.

Set on board a three-decker ship and shot, intentionally, in an old Citroën factory in Paris, West Indies tells a long and heart-wrenching story that intertwines the histories of slavery, plantation colonialism, anticolonialism, post-independence power struggles and the ongoing legacy of colonialism in the post-colonial metropole. Here, Hondo takes aim at the French colonisers, speaking to a particularly French-Creole experience, but his historical accusations could easily be applied to Portuguese colonisers, who enslaved and extracted profit from the Portuguese colonies and their peoples until the late 20th century. Watching this film in Portugal today is a powerful reminder of recent, deeply violent and unjust history, in a country that undoubtedly wishes to avoid a reckoning with that history. It is also a reminder of the power of African cinema in the broadest sense, as a hammer for sculpting a new world.

1 Marcel Martin, “Brève rencontre avec Med Hondo”, 1979, translated from French to English by John Barrett, 2018. Reproduced with permission from Yukiko Martin, in 1970—2018 Interviews with Med Hondo A Cinema on the Run/Archive Books

Ana Naomi de Sousa

Ana Naomi de Sousa is a director and journalist. She directed the documentary films The Architecture of Violence, Angola – Birth of a Movement, Guerrilla Architect and Hacking Madrid — all of which were shown on Al Jazeera English. She has worked with the agency Forensic Architecture, in Saydnaya, and on an interactive documentary about a Syrian military prison for Amnesty International. She has partnered with Decolonizing Architecture on a range of films and installations. She writes about the politics of post-colonialism, space and culture for diverse platforms, including The Guardian, Al Jazeera and The Funambulist.

Batalha Centro de Cinema

Praça da Batalha, 47
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