In 2017, Bologna was set abuzz by a series of new restorations being presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. “Right out of the gate, word spread fast about the legendary Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s rousing introductions at the screenings in his mini-retrospective,” wrote Dan Sullivan for Film Comment. Hondo’s career both behind and in front of the camera had begun in Europe before he became one of African cinema’s most vital yet unsung directorial voices, and as Philip Concannon noted in a dispatch from Bologna to Mostly Film, “during every introduction, he couldn’t hold back the tears, so overcome was he by the simple fact that his long-unseen films were finally being presented to an appreciative audience.” That summer sparked a tour along the festival circuit, and at each stop, Hondo, who passed away on Saturday at the age of eighty-two, was met by cinephiles eager to see his films and to hear the stories behind them.
Having grown up in Mauritania, Hondo left for Morocco as a teen and trained to become a chef before emigrating to France in his early twenties. But he soon discovered that the French weren’t open to the idea of a black chef. Hondo and his fellow African immigrants were only able to land odd jobs—waiter, dockworker, delivery men—and even then, they were paid less for their menial labor than white Frenchmen. These experiences would inform his feature debut, but Hondo first took acting classes, cofounded a black theatrical troupe (Shango, named after the Yoruba god of thunder), and scored relatively lucrative work dubbing black American movie stars (he eventually became the French voices of Eddie Murphy and Morgan Freeman). He even began appearing onscreen, first as an extra in Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin féminin (1966) and then in small roles in Costa-Gavras’s Shock Troops (1967) and John Huston’s A Walk with Love and Death (1969). With $30,000 of his own earnings, Hondo financed Soleil Ô (Oh, Sun), which premiered in the Critics’ Week program at Cannes in 1970 before sharing the Golden Leopard with three other films in Locarno.
Soleil Ô, written as “an authentic act of rage and liberation,” as Hondo once put it, is a series of set pieces that meld documentary and satire, all of them related to the frustrations of African immigrants in France in the 1960s. When MoMA screened the new restoration in 2018, Caroline Gil wrote at Screen Slate: “In the tradition of Jacques Mélo Kane, Mamadou Sarr, and Paulin Vieyra’s Afrique-sur-Seine and Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, the individual experiences a reality in sharp contrast to his idea of the ‘civilized’ empire.”
For Tambay Obenson at IndieWire, West Indies (1979) may well be “Hondo’s crowning achievement.” The $1.3 million musical, the most expensive African film yet made at the time, was shot over a period of seven years on the deck of a wooden slave ship built on a stage in a giant warehouse. Philip Concannon notes that “this audacious film unfolds centuries of slavery and colonialism in a shade over two hours. Hondo can shift fluidly from Caribbean natives being drawn to France by the promise of a better life, only to be forced into servitude, and the white colonists moving in the other direction, all within a single location. West Indies feels both overtly theatrical and exhilaratingly cinematic, with Hondo always using his camera purposefully, combining stunning tableaux with kinetic, passionate scenes of dancing and music.”
Also counted among Hondo’s major works is Sarraounia (1986), the story of an actual battle in 1899 between the African queen Sarraounia and French colonial forces as related in the novel of the same name by Nigerian author Abdoulaye Mamani, who cowrote the screenplay. Dan Sullivan finds that the film, shot in Burkina Faso, captures “the dialectic between the hubris of the would-be imperialists and the more enlightened though no less political maneuverings among the would-be conquered peoples. Top it all off with Pierre Akendengue’s strong and quintessentially ’80s soundtrack contributions, and the result is a work unmistakably concerned with the political dimension of style and narrative.”
1986 also saw an issue of Jump Cut with a special section on African cinema that includes Hondo’s call to his fellow African artists to “organize our forces, reassert our different creative potentialities, and fill the void in our national, regional and continental cinemas.” Along with an essay on Hondo’s work by Françoise Pfaff, the issue also features Mark Reid’s interview. “African filmmakers have to fight on a double front to reach people,” Hondo told Reid. “They have problems with their president, their cultural minister, and with multinationals. Most African countries’ policies do not see the film industry as a way to awaken people, yet we can’t develop our country if we don’t develop the people’s consciousness.”
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