Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3

Soleil Ô: “I Bring You Greetings from Africa

<span class="Italic"><em>Soleil Ô:</em> “I Bring You Greetings from Africa</span>”

The film world and ordinary people(s) in the four corners of the globe have long awaited the home-video release of Soleil Ô (Oh, Sun, 1970), the groundbreaking feature debut of one of Africa’s legendary maverick film directors, Med Hondo. Born in Morocco in 1935, in the age of colonialism, Hondo grew up in Mauritania and moved to France in the midfifties, in the age of decolonization; he settled there for the rest of his life. He worked as a stage actor and then, frustrated by the ephemerality of the theater and the limits of its reach, slowly moved to the cinema. The fact that both fields of artistic practice lacked a meaningful African presence helped spark a vocation in him: to carry the burden of representation and take part in making Africans and Afro-diasporic subjects visible and audible through both theater and film.

Hondo was part of a generation of African and Afro-diasporic artists, intellectuals, and politicians who deeply believed that decolonization and independence should be a radical political, epistemological, economic, cultural, and psychic breakaway from the status quo. He saw his primary role as partaking in the cinematic front of this struggle, and his films cannot be properly understood outside broader continental and global movements of emancipation from various forms of dominance. He arguably had two sets of driving questions: First, how could one participate in establishing a critical, challenging, inspiring, lasting, and transformational African/Afro-diasporic/global-African presence in the cinema? Second, how could one use and transform the cinema in order to help accelerate the coming into being of a new Africa that would, by the very fact of its existence, help redeal the cards geopolitically and chart the destiny of humanity in radically new directions?

Med Hondo

These are the central concerns of Soleil Ô and much of the rest of Hondo’s work. Shot between 1967 and late 1969 or early 1970, the film ostensibly tells the story of an African migrant (a composite Pan-African character played by Robert Liensol) who moves from the (post)colony to Paris in search of the means for self-advancement. Instead, he faces a violent string of explicit and veiled racist acts, including being blocked from employment and enduring housing discrimination and exploitation. He slowly awakens to the impregnable barriers around his and his fellow migrants’ lives—which are compounded by sexual objectification, hostility to interracial love, and the contradictions of class alliance—and decides that only revolutionary struggle will secure his and his people’s emancipation and restore their ability to be makers of history.

A semiautobiographical film, Soleil Ô was intended as a form of self-therapy, a way for Hondo to expose the vampiric racism that was destroying his own life, to exorcise the effects of that cancer on an individual and collective body. It is a film whose entire project rests on the impossible encounter between the gaze of the (formerly) colonized and that of the (former) colonizer. Indeed, Soleil Ô, like much of Hondo’s cinematic work, is animated by a dialectic of looking at (on the part of the formerly colonized) and looking past or looking through (on the part of the former colonizer). There is no mutual recognition. Understanding this slip of the gazes at the heart of the migrant condition involved, for Hondo, the use of a variety of formal strategies founded on the reappropriation of historical consciousness as a point of entry,  as beautifully illustrated in the film’s classic prologue—which starts with the credit sequence and ends with the arrival of the train at the station in Lyon, in an anti–Lumière brothers proposition.

“Hondo deploys Brechtian distancing effects, a rejection of psychologizing characters in favor of a focus on linked external factors.”

Choosing abstracting condensation over literal reenactment, the film begins with an animated sequence showing the moment of encounter: we see an African king, surrounded by his armies and citizen-subjects, approached by white colonizers, who soon tower over him and immobilize him from either side, metaphorically marking the beginning of the conquest of African sovereignty. The sound here works contrapuntally, with energetic percussion on the soundtrack that ends with sarcastic laughter, and voice-over declaring: “It is we the Africans who come from afar.” For Hondo, the message is clear: the contemporary predicaments of the migrants cannot be understood without an explicit return to the colonial moment. “We are here because you were there.” What follows is a series of live-action evocations of the various historical mechanisms that effect the transformation of the colonized into the migrant, rendered through scenes that adapt elements of agitprop and Brechtian epic theater, as well as slapstick and African historiographic theory. Here and throughout the film, Hondo deploys Brechtian distancing effects, a rejection of psychologizing characters in favor of a focus on linked external factors, to allow the audience to see clearly the phenomena in question. The fourth-wall-breaking scene following the credit sequence, for example, deconstructs the colonial mythology of an ahistorical and atemporal Africa by showing a group of African men looking defiantly directly at the camera, closing their eyes, then looking again, while the voice-over addresses the spectator: “We had our own civilization . . . Our commerce wasn’t just barter . . . We made gold and silver coins . . . We had our legal terminology, our religion, our science.”

Likewise, the inspired, pared-down reenactment of the Christian conversion of both continental and diasporic Africans conveys the cataclysmic implications of historical events that represent the mental and psychic metamorphosing of Africans placed, from that point on, in a situation of existing only in relation to Europe or to whiteness (see the puppets). These include the denial of the Africans’ culture (renunciation of their religions and the replacement of their names), their language, their very being, and their historicity, which is followed by the imposition of a new historicity and mode of being—Christianity (“Go and spread the word”)—and of training to become colonial or neocolonial subjects, as seen in the stop-motion scene in which converted Christian missionaries become conquering armies as quickly as a cross can become a sword.

Soleil Ô’s avant-garde politics is rendered even more formidable by its formal virtuosity throughout. It is fluent in a broad range of techniques that renew and recast elements from African and other cultural forms for the reimagination of cinematic narrative—from digression to abrupt nondiegetic inserts; from the imaginative voice-over narration (spoken by several actors) to the adept deployment of what we might call dialectic images, in which a thesis in one scene is followed by its antithesis; from the questioning of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction to the casting of actors in multiple roles; from the episodic structure to the use of experimental sound and music.

Hondo uses a digressive structure as a way of freeing his narrative from the despotism of the Aristotelian form while mirroring the wandering and associational properties of human thought. Soleil Ô conjures its own language, drawing from forms of African orature in which departing from the main topic and later returning to where one has left off are part of the very jouissance of storytelling. Take as an example the scene in which our protagonist is sent to visit a sociologist who is investigating the status and value of African migrant labor in the French economy and society. The scene functions as both a metatheorization of the case studies of migrant life figured in the film and a critique of the extreme violence concealed in the disembodied technobureaucratic language accounting for it. Instead of playing the roughly six-minute episode as a whole, Hondo breaks it up over almost a half hour of screen time, repeatedly leaving it to explore other loosely or directly related topics: a pedagogic illustration; a powerful and damning documentarizing scene on deplorable migrant living conditions; multiple scenes in which the protagonist looks for a job, with violent rejections; a scene on strikes and demonstrations that explores working-class solidarity; scenes that deconstruct the myth of Black invasion; an accidental encounter with the president of an unnamed African nation; a gathering of students and migrants; etc.

One of the film’s most iconic episodes explores the possibility of interracial romance. The sequence is dialectical (sexual fantasy about Black male hypersexuality vs. the undercutting thereof), blends fiction and nonfiction, and is sonically experimental. Liensol’s character and a white Frenchwoman hold hands as they walk on the Champs-Élysées, stop and kiss, put their arms around each other’s shoulders. Fiction becomes documentary here as the camera captures actual white passersby casting outraged gazes at the pair, expressing shock, disgust, disbelief, and a refusal to accept. This is an extremely powerful moment of cinema, in which a staged scene creates live, nonfictional reactions, and a highly inspired cameraman catches race itself, as it were, bursting out of the frame. The director comments beautifully on this with a sound montage in which we hear barnyard animal sounds over the images of the passersby, positing this supposed cosmopolitan apex of human civilization as belonging to the realm of the bestial. A sonic dagger is hereby cinematically lodged into the very heart of the beast of racism.

Throughout, Soleil Ô boasts a layered, experimental sound design and a potent soundtrack. The former benefits from the talent of the legendary Jean-Paul Drouet (who plays the Indian tabla and effectively creates and amplifies the hero’s heartbeat as he races through the forest at the end of the film). The latter also involves the European-modern-jazz architect Michel Portal, who beautifully approximates John Coltrane’s sound as the hero, escaping the city for the countryside, encounters a snarling dog and raises his fist in a manner reminiscent of the Black Power salute. But perhaps the most unforgettable soundtrack element is the pagan kyrie by the Congolese group Les Black Echos, whose reinterpretation of the classical Christian liturgy with acoustic guitars is worth anthologizing. Their sound accompanies the forceful and confident march of the new disciples of Christ in the film’s prologue, who, having been de-Africanized by renouncing their native languages, being baptized, and accepting new names, march triumphantly, with raised crosses, toward the conversion of their continent. The merciful prayer of the kyrie contrasts here with the merciless bloodbath that will accompany the French-American-English Christian conquerors’ taking of the continent.

Finally, how not to mention that the legendary Cameroonian musician Georges Anderson composed the deeply ironic “Apollo” for the soundtrack? Soleil Ô was in production during the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing,  and apparently, some of the cast and crew watched the historic event together live on television at Hondo’s Montmartre apartment. Hondo comments directly on current events by playing “Apollo” over the Black-invasion sequence, in which he trains his camera on migrants rendered invisible in France. Initially conceived by Hondo as a series of scenes in which throngs of Black people would literally surround and occupy symbols of French culture (the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, etc.), the sequence ended up, due to financial constraints, as a montage of migrants in the streets of Paris: individuals, families, or groups of people seen walking, enjoying ice cream, taking a stroll together, running errands, having discussions, sitting at cafés, riding bikes, window shopping, playing pinball—all in a kind of respite from the ambient, putrid racism—while Anderson’s lyrics wonder why humans are going to the moon while “the wars continue . . . on the earth between tribes . . . and hunger already has a hold . . . in towns far and wide?”

As if in call-and-response mode from the other side of the Atlantic, the great Gil Scott-Heron was around the same time composing a sung poem decrying analogous living conditions for African Americans, “Whitey on the Moon,” which has recently been resuscitated with the explosion of racial strife across the United States even during the COVID-19 pandemic (and, incidentally, while the space race continues). As Scott-Heron sings, “I can’t pay no doctor bills, but Whitey’s on the moon . . . No hot water, no toilets, no lights, but Whitey’s on the moon.”

According to François Catonné, the film’s director of photography, Soleil Ô was made with a core crew of just five people: Hondo; his companion at the time, Yane Barry (who also acts in the film); Catonné, who also took on assistant cameraman duties; Denis Bertrand, the camera operator; and a sound engineer. The film was made using 16 mm black-and-white reversal stock that Hondo purchased whenever he earned a bit of money from his acting career, contributing to the shoot’s taking at least three years to complete. As an impecunious director who could not afford to pay either cast or crew, Hondo was able to count on their voluntary participation on weekends. In some cases, the crew paid for material out of their own pockets (lamps for the cinematographer, for example); Bertrand brought unexposed film stock from ORTF, the national television network at the time. The cast itself was made up primarily of friends from other film shoots Hondo had participated in, from the theater, and from the world of dubbing, in which he earned his living. The locations were generously provided by friends and colleagues. The cutting of the film took place at night, according to one of its editors, Michèle Masnier, with little coverage—barely one or two takes per shot. Hondo often told the story of the most expensive scene, the one in which a head of state enters an embassy with a prostitute (the location was loaned by a prominent lawyer), which had to be reshot at least twice after being destroyed by the processing lab.

“The film comes to you chiefly thanks to Hondo’s own tireless efforts to make films that last and matter in spite of all the obstacles in his way.”

Thankfully, the film was a festival and critical success. After its May 1970 premiere in Cannes, it won the Golden Leopard at Locarno, then traveled to New York, Berlin, Carthage, Tashkent, and Ouagadougou, where it won the International Critics Week Award at the Pan African Film and Television Festival. Its commercial fate was, however, complicated by Hondo’s outsider status in the French film industry, among other things, and although it ran for over three months at Paris’s Quintette Theater in 1973, he reportedly never received any revenue from its distribution.

Soleil Ô has had a fifty-year journey before reaching the reader of these lines. It comes to you chiefly thanks to Hondo’s own tireless efforts to make films that last and matter in spite of all the obstacles in his way. The film is a harbinger of most of his subsequent works, from Les Bicots-Nègres, vos voisins (1974), also on the migrant condition; to his two films on the Sahrawi cause, Nous aurons toute la mort pour dormir (1977) and Polisario, un people en armes (1978); West Indies (1979), set in the Afro-diasporic context of the Caribbean; Sarraounia (1986), his anticolonial epic; Lumière noire (1994) and Watani, un monde sans mal (1998), again on migrant conditions; and Fatima, the Algerian Woman of Dakar (2004), on relations between Africans north and south of the Sahara.

Soleil Ô is a polyvocal film; it speaks of Blackness, of whiteness and white supremacy, of Africa and Europe, of the diasporic, the interracial, the decolonial, the tricontinental, the emancipatory. It apprehends Africa as not just a continent but a global entity. Although it can hardly be pigeonholed, it first and foremost belongs in the African film heritage, as a work that blazed trails that are yet to be fully followed. In the director’s own words, “I would like people to take my images and sound as participating in the development of African cinema . . . as participating in the history and historicity of Africa. It is Africa that begot me, that gave me the strength to continue.” But the film also belongs in the canons of global Black/Afro-diasporic cinema, of Third Cinema, and of avant-garde cinema, as well as being an exemplary form of genuinely independent filmmaking. It is, simply put, a classic of the cinema tout court.