Illustration and article by François Giraud
Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar
Although he worked at the margins of the film industry for half a century, pioneer French-Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo (1936-2019) is not an obscure artist. As recently as 2020, the German publisher Archive Books compiled almost fifty years of interviews with Med Hondo, which shows the interest that his transnational and anticolonial cinema continues to elicit, decades after many of his films were released. In 1970, his first long feature film Soleil Ô—which powerfully denounces racism in French society and the exploitation and discrimination of African emigrants in Paris—received exposure at Cannes Festival and was awarded a Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Festival. Some of his later films, such as Sarraounia (1986) and Black Light (Lumière noire, 1994), have been studied in academic journals specialising in African and postcolonial studies.
Yet, until recently, I had never heard of Med Hondo, even if, like many French spectators, his voice has been familiar to me since childhood. When he died in Paris in 2019, some mainstream French media referred to him only as the voice of Eddie Murphy; during his prolific career of voice acting, he dubbed an innumerable amount of Hollywood films, which enabled him to pay off his debts as the producer of his own films. The lack of acknowledgement of Hondo’s rich career as a director is the consequence of the extremely limited distribution of his films up to now; almost none of them can be seen by the general public today. As a Mauritanian diasporic filmmaker who uncompromisingly critiqued France’s imperialist past and neo-colonialist politics, it is no coincidence that Hondo has been marginalised in the film industry and overlooked in the history of French cinema. In the research I undertook on marginal cinema made in France in the late 1960s and 1970s for my doctoral thesis, I never came across his name, which to me is indicative of the extent of the erasure of his rich contributions to film history and global culture.
I discovered Soleil Ô by chance while browsing the catalogue of an English streaming website which archives forgotten films. In 2017, Soleil Ô was restored by Cineteca di Bologna in Italy, as part as the African Film Heritage initiative funded by Martin Scorsese’s film foundation and the George Lucas Family Foundation, in partnership with the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and UNESCO. Though this wonderful restoration has given relative visibility to Hondo’s work at festivals in recent years (in spite of the problematic lack of media coverage in France, compared to Anglo-Saxon countries), it is a disappointment that most of his nine long feature films remain so difficult to access.
Soleil Ô reveals the disenchantment of an anonymous African immigrant from an unknown country, who suffers from daily microaggressions, such as hostile glances in the streets of Paris, racist and condescending comments, job discrimination, poor housing, lack of support from Unions, and sexual fetishization. The violence of this systemic racism leads to feelings of angst that reawaken the trauma of colonialism which Med Hondo represents allegorically in the prologue: a group of colonised persons, who all play a part later in the film, ask a white Christian priest to forgive them for having spoken their native language, before being baptised. In voice-over, the main character explains how he has been forced to assimilate into French and Western culture, making him believe that France was his home too:
“One day, I started studying your writing, reading your thoughts, talking Shakespeare and Molière, and holding forth. Sweet France… I am bleached by your culture, but I remain a Negro, as I was at the beginning. […] I am glad to walk upon your soil and to discover your first city which is also my capital. Sweet France… I am coming to you. I am coming home.”Subtitles from Soleil Ô, The Criterion Channel, 2020
However, in contrast to his appreciation of ‘sweet’ France, the main character quickly perceives his “home” country as a place of oppression where he feels “annihilated, scorned, rejected” according to his words. Hondo not only critiques the hypocrisy of France—which presents itself as a country of human rights, where the universal Republican motto of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity is supposed to apply to everyone without distinction—but also the corruption of new African leaders who are responsible for misleading their people.
Hondo’s denunciation of ongoing colonial dynamics also fuels the ambitious and epic film West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty (1979), which exposes the history of colonial expansion in a satirical and educational way. Hondo appropriates the genre of musical films – deconstructing their ‘glamorous’ Hollywood aesthetic—in order to represent the history of slavery in the Caribbean and highlight France’s neo-colonial ruling of its overseas territories. Interestingly, (neo)colonial power is performed by the same five actors who play similar roles throughout the four centuries of time over which the film takes place, exposing the repetition of patterns of domination perpetrated by numerous colonial administrations. The setting of West Indies has also been cleverly chosen. The entire action of the film takes place on board a large sailing boat located within a modern warehouse. In this single location, Hondo weaves links between colonial history and contemporary politics, racial and class divides, ancient forms of economic exchanges based on the Atlantic slave-trade and new economic dynamics that force West Indians to leave their native island in order to join the workforce of Metropolitan France, while wealthy white tourists benefit from the exotic charms of the former colonies.
The aesthetic dimension of Hondo’s films should not be overlooked as it enhances his political messages in a very effective and innovative way. He is an accomplished filmmaker who uses image and sound—the layered soundtrack of Soleil Ô is particularly fascinating—to engage the audience in complex political, cultural, and social issues, which resonate strongly with ongoing discussions about race and colonial legacy, particularly in France. Hondo struggled to produce his films (it took him seven years to find the funding to make West Indies), and he also encountered many obstacles to distribute them and reach a broad audience. As he explains at length in the book Med Hondo: un cinéaste rebelle, his work has been intentionally marginalised and invisibilised by the French cultural and media system, which makes the rediscovery of his films all the more necessary today.
Hondo’s work could enrich the curriculum of various disciplines across academia, from History and Politics to Literature and Film. His films open up new perspectives on topics such as colonialism, African history and culture, the politics of migration to France from Africa, film aesthetics and political cinema. A film like West Indies, which gives a well-documented overview of the colonial and postcolonial historical context, would be a valuable resource for undergraduates who study French and Francophone culture and civilisation. Given its erasure from the French film canon, it is time, now more than ever, to include Hondo’s brilliant work in curricula. His critical eye and bold cinematic style offer a rich perspective on Black history which urgently needs to be discovered.
Med Hondo’s films can be extremely difficult to find. Most of them remain unavailable on video. The DVD and Blu-Ray of Soleil Ô are available in the new box set Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project N°3 (Region A/1). West Indies is unavailable on DVD, Blu-Ray, or VOD (yet, for mysterious reasons, the film can be found on unofficial streaming websites…)
Soleil Ô. Directed by Med Hondo, 1970.
West Indies ou les nègres marrons de la liberté. Directed by Med Hondo, 1979.
Gutberlet, Marie-Hélène and Kuster, Brigitta (editors). 1970-2018 Interviews with Med Hondo. Archive Books, 2020. (a free PDF including Med Hondo’s interviews in their original language is available on the website of the publisher: https://www.archivebooks.org/1970-2018-interviews-with-med-hondo/)
Petty, Sheila. “The Metropolitan Myth: Assimilation, Racism, and Cultural Devaluation in Soleil Ô and Pièces d’Identités.” L’Esprit Créateur, vol. 41, no. 3, 2001, pp. 163-171.
Sanogo, Aboubakar, “Soleil Ô: ‘I Bring You Greetings from Africa.” Criterion, 2020, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/7120-soleil-i-bring-you-greetings-from-africa .
Signaté, Ibrahima and Hondo, Med. Med Hondo: un cinéaste rebelle. Présence Africaine, 1994.
François Giraud holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh where he currently teaches French literature, culture, and language. In his PhD thesis, entitled “Gesture in French post-New Wave cinema”, he explores new ways of thinking about the expression of human gestures in film. He is also a visual artist.