Med Hondo

Med Hondo
March 22nd 2024

Med Hondo, born 1936 in Morocco, is known as one of the most important African filmmakers of his time. Hondo studied at an international hotel school in Morocco and at the age of 25, he emigrated to France. He spent his early years in Europe in kitchens, farms, and docks. Confined to menial labor that paid him less than French citizens, Hondo sought another path: acting. His best known acting is his later voice work, dubbing French versions of Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset in Se7en (1995) and Eddie Murphy's Donkey in Shrek (2001). Years of study and practice under the French actress Françoise Rosay and her children would engross him in Molière and Shakespeare, and eventually lead him to create his own theater troupe at the same time that a principal actor in many of his films, Robert Liensol, was forming his own. The two merged their separate companies to create the Griot-Shango company, which became instrumental in Hondo’s success. The group staged plays by Aimé Césaire, Kateb Yacine, and Guy Menga among many other Third World, Caribbean, and African writers, even performing early versions of what eventually became his grandscale epic West Indies (1979).

Hondo eventually made a switch to filmmaking, learning the craft from crew on the early films he starred in during the 1960s. In an interview with the film scholar Melissa Thackway, Hondo said, “Cinema leaves a trace. Film actors’ work remains. You can screen a film a year, three years, four years, ten years later; it remains. Whereas theatre... You rehearse, you perform, and the next day, there is nothing left. It’s over. So I thought to myself that cinema must be wonderful.” Forty-five years after its initial release, West Indies, which was restored by the Harvard Film Archive, will screen at Film Forum and followed by a retrospective of Hondo’s other films at Anthology Film Archives.

West Indies was Hondo’s sixth feature film, and set the record for the most expensive African film ever produced (with a budget of 1.3 million USD) upon release. The film adapts Daniel Boukman’s stage play Les Négriers (The Slavers) as a musical. The film charts several hundred years of exploitation in the titular region and takes place entirely aboard a slave ship inside an abandoned factory. It opens with five characters, each archetypal of a different aspect of colonialism—The Parliamentary Representative (Robert Liensol), the Abbot (Philippe Clévenot), the Social Worker (Hélène Vincent), the Representative of Employers United (Jean-Paul Denizon), and Death incarnate (Ronald Bertin)—who watch projected images cataloging daily life in the West Indies. Death reveals that his plan is to ensure “that those tiny little people on those tiny little islands vanish from the map.”

Death’s plan in the film is a reflection of Boukman’s argument that contemporary emigration to France was a new form of slavery meant to disenfranchise West Indians both at home and abroad. While West Indies does not name the location its events take place in, and posits a fictional account of history, its broad strokes account for the real struggles of Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic among a multitude of exploited nations. This is present in its depiction of sugarcane’s introduction to the West Indies by the fictional Jean Aubert (a stand-in for Christopher Columbus), its representation of the slave trade and a slave revolt inspired by Toussaint Lourvertures’s Haitian revolution— Napoleonic betrayals and all—and its portrayal of 1979, when the film was completed.

The musical aspect of the film invites the audience into a spectacle of sound and color, where elaborately staged dances mime its characters’ colonial subjugation and eventual resistance. Choreographed by Linda Dingwall, the dance opens itself up to the theatricality of Hondo’s vision—ecstatic and refined. Dingwall, a graduate of the School of Pennsylvania Ballet, faced many of her own challenges grappling with her position as a Black woman often pigeonholed to contemporary dance. Many of the dance styles in the film emerge from the West Indies’ social milieux, but some of the most extraordinary moments in it see its characters depart entirely from their traditions. In the section of the film following the slave revolt, there is a confrontation with the French which turns into a dance number. A frantic electric guitar joins an ensemble of brass, woodwinds, and percussion as fire explodes on the set. The rebels choose militance, which takes the form of a ballet in the film. The men and women—once slaves—leap, bound, and stretch across the stage as if untethered from gravity, all the while screaming “Torrents of fire! Torrents of blood!” Hondo’s camera is fluid in its motions, mirroring the many dancers on display, taking in the full scale of his epic, and emphasizing its anti-colonial gestures.

The film’s last musical number crescendos in loud proclamations: “We want the fruits of our labor to ourselves! We must arm ourselves with guns, compasses and hammers, hoes, spades, and machetes! Rise up! Now is the time!” It’s a festive revolution, with newly united comrades draped in costumes adorning every color of the rainbow and streamers raised along a burning effigy of the Parliamentary representative, whom the people have rejected as a stooge of France. Finally, a whirling camera dances too; it moves in circles until the people in frame become a blur of pinks, blues, and greens, that are subsumed by fire.

Soleil Ô (1967) remains Hondo’s most popular film, in no small part due to a welcome 2017 restoration by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the World Cinema Project. He described the film as “an attack of vomiting,” saying “I didn’t want to simply do cinema, but rather express, cry, scream the outrage of the Negro I am.” This feeling is palpable in the film’s haunting poster, which depicts Liensol’s protagonist, Visitor, screaming—the image is multiplied 67 times so that his face consumes the entire sheet. The film opens with a brief animated sequence showing an African leader sitting before his people when colonists approach and embrace him. The camera pans to the people he has forsaken and cuts to their live-action counterparts. A voice-over explains, “We had our own civilization. We forged iron. We had our popular dances and songs…Our commerce wasn’t just barter. We made gold and silver coins. We had pottery and cutlery… We had our own literature. We had our legal terminology, our religion, our science, and our teaching methods.” The group of young African men are inducted into Christianity, repent for practicing their native language, and are given crosses to bear. Then, they march with their crosses, which they flip upside down and wield as swords. At the command of a French general, the group suddenly turns on each other, and fight themselves to the death. In an interview with Hondo, the film critic Guy Hennebelle referred to this opening as “Brechtian.” Hondo replied, “Good for Brecht if he found original ways of telling damning truths. You see, I don’t believe in influences myself.”

The film’s story revolves around an African man who has recently emigrated to France and is in desperate search for work. Despite his polished appearance and affable personality, it seems this unnamed stranger is not welcome in this country. Though Hondo expanded on these arguments in West Indies and other films, Soleil Ô represents Hondo’s first attack on French immigration. Scores of young men are left destitute, paying out exorbitant rents to live in “rabbit hutches.” “If they don’t need us, then why invite us here?” It’s a central question not only for Liensol’s protagonist but for Hondo throughout his filmography.

France relies on foreign workers to carry out jobs they consider beneath its white citizens; and, the former are faced with systemic and interpersonal racism on a daily basis. It appears that every good occurrence Visitor encounters is undermined. Take, for example, a favorite sequence among critics. Two young French girls discuss what it must be like to have sex with an African, fetishizing the men who walk past. One approaches Liensol on the street and seduces him. The public gawks—a white woman and Black man? Hondo dubs over their reactions with farm animal sounds. An elderly lady stares disapprovingly, clucking like a chicken. Two portly men oink like pigs. The French are turned into the animals they think the Africans to be. Alas, all doesn't end well for Liensol. The lady, after sleeping with him, informs him that he did not live up to “the African standard” and leaves.

West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty (Med Hondo, 1979)
West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty (Med Hondo, 1979)

The film’s structure is fascinating for its refusal to play into the expectations of audience’s accustomed to the classic films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. It’s in this way almost reminiscent of the French New Wave. Hondo, interestingly, starred in one of Jean-Luc Godard’s early films, Masculin Féminin (1966), and came to blows with the director for his style of shooting. He recounts, “while the camera was still rolling, I burst out: I’ve had it! This is ridiculous, this isn’t cinema, it’s shit! Everyone was like: Med, are you crazy?! It’s Jean-Luc Godard! But I didn’t care. We finished the shoot; Godard came to see me: We are going for dinner. But I said: Thanks, I have had dinner, I have had lunch, I have had everything, and I left.” While Soleil Ô does offer the viewer a protagonist to follow, it often challenges the audience’s connection to him through skits, non-sequential editing, staged documentary footage, textual interjections, and its lax plotting. With the film, Hondo fully acts out his belief that “a camera is an amorphous object.”

Black Light (1994), adapted from the French novel of the same name by Didier Daeninckx, marks the first (and last) feature film where Hondo’s protagonist is a native-born Frenchman: Yves Guyot (Patrick Poivey). The film establishes its conflict in its first few minutes, showing a staged reenactment of the police killing of a motorist intended for reporters to misunderstand what happened. The victim was driving with Guyot in the passenger seat and though Guyout survived to tell a different story than the one the police tells the press, he finds few people willing to believe him. His only apparent answer lies in the eye-witness account of an immigrant who was deported to Mali. In Black Light, Hondo explores surveillance, police brutality, and how the French state exploits and discards foreign and domestic workers. Hondo presents what at first appears to be a straightforward political thriller, which gnarls itself into an interrogation of individual heroism in the face of systemic injustice.

As Guyot journeys deeper into the heart of the conspiracy behind his friend’s death, he travels to Africa in order to uncover what happened. While for much of the runtime the picture feels foreign to what makes a Hondo film his own, the sequences in Africa chart comfortable and familiar territory for everyone but Guyot, who finds himself remarkably out of his depth. As the police narrative unravels and Guyot begins to close-in on the people responsible, Hondo suddenly abandons the protagonist. Taking his place in the story is Commissioner London (Charlie Bauer), who is tasked with picking up where Guyot left off. London, though earnest in his search, is ultimately captive to the powers surrounding him. Separated from the mechanisms of justice, the truth is only worth so much in the end. Though far from his best work, it stands to prove just how flexible Hondo is in the director's chair.

Sarraounia (1986) and Fatima, the Algerian Woman of Dakar (2004) stand out in Hondo’s narrative works, both for centering women in their stories and because they take place entirely in Africa. Sarraounia tells the story of the titular Sarraounia Mangou (Aï Keïta) (Sarraounia roughly translates to queen), chief and priestess of the Azna people. The film adapts the book of the same by Abdoulaye Mamani into a historical epic of African resistance to colonialism, the likes of which have not been seen since.

Sarraounia led her people in an intense, protracted guerilla battle against the French. Keïta embodies the role of a queen with fervor and determination. Were she to falter in her portrayal of strength, both the characters’ and audiences’ suspension of disbelief would be compromised, but the powerhouse performer’s every word rings out like thunder. The scale of both French destruction and native resistance are captured in breathtaking cinemascope by the cinematographer Guy Famechon. (Sarraounia is notably the first African film to be shot in cinemascope.) A film of this kind was only possible thanks to Thomas Sankara, the Pan-African Marxist President of Burkina Faso throughout the ‘80s who granted Hondo access to shoot the countryside and use of their army for extras.

Sarraounia is Hondo’s most straightforward narrative film, and despite its apparent lack of experimentation, it remains one of his most bold films for its scale and uncompromising vision. Still, Hondo includes his trademarks: voice-overs about historical struggles in Africa, a striking sequence that involves the double-exposure of an animation and live-action elements, and an abundance of lively music—both diegetic and soundtracked—that provides the film with a driving energy.

In a 1997 interview with Françoise Pfaff, Hondo said, “There are two types of music in the film. One comes from the oral tradition and is interpreted by Abdoulaye Cissé, who used traditional instruments such as the kora in his rendition of ancient melodies from the Diola region… The modern part of the musical score was composed by Pierre Akendengué of Gabon, a very important African musician who has not yet received the recognition he deserves.” The degree to which Hondo seriously considers the written historical record and the oral history surrounding Sarraounia’s story allows the film its most awe-inspiring moments. Hondo again: “Sarraounia is not a legend; she did exist and still does… Everything in my film is strictly true.”As the French encounter doubts among their conscripted African soldiers for the battle ahead, lightning strikes their camp like fire hurled from the heavens. There is little question in the soldiers’ minds as to the cause—Sarraounia’s wrath has been incurred, and the audience, too, believes.

Fatima’s story dispenses with the French in its narrative almost altogether, though they appear as an ambient force driving the initial conflict between the story’s protagonists. The story takes place after the Algerian War, opening with the words, “Our past is over, our present is uncertain and our future is dark. But there is only one Africa, Africa is one!” It begins in Algeria, 1957, with the Senegalese French soldier Souleyman (Aboubacar Sadikh Ba) leading out a commandment of French troops. Hounding a group of civilians into a shelter, he marks men for death one-by-one: “Him! Him! Him!” The legion fires into buildings and crowds as women run screaming. Time-jump. Speaking with his father, a pious and proud man, Solueyman is urged to confess to any wrongs he may have committed during the war. He discloses he raped a young woman named Fatima (Amel Djemel). In accordance with the tenets of Islam, the father seeks a wedding for Souleyman and Fatima. Though Souleyman is anxious, fearing the possible reprisal that may come from his return to Algeria, he embarks on the journey to make right. Little does Souleyman know that Fatima has come to bear his son and is viewed as an outcast for her bastard child.

If Hondo is concerned with any one thing in Fatima, it is reconciliation—the possibility of a united Africa. Though the film’s premise hinges on Fatima's willingness to marry her rapist, Hondo doesn’t carve out drama from this scenario. Fatima’s ultimate test is to make a family out of strangers, and she comes to find it in unexpected places. While Hondo does address the rotten core of this marriage toward the end of the film, its final blow lands with a rather troubling thud, as it’s hard to parse what exactly Hondo intends to come across. Was Fatima ever obliged to her partnership with Souleyman? Is Souleyman, as a man and a representative of reactionary forces, capable of redemption and reconciliation? Hondo doesn’t give any easy answers to these questions, instead leaving the audience with the narrator’s recurring statement that “time passes by, and life goes on.”

Though Soleil Ô was Hondo’s first feature, it was not his first film. That title belongs to Ballad Aux Sources (1965), a short film that Hondo directed alongside Bernard Nantet, which has never been screened in its finished form. It’s a silent odyssey about an African man reflecting on his home. Though incomplete (its audio track was stolen and a new one is not in working condition), it contains some of the most breathtaking images in Hondo’s career and sets up the themes that enraptured him throughout his career. Scenes of France greet the audience, though already Hondo’s humor pokes at French culture; he immediately juxtaposes the women on the street with department store mannequins. Suddenly, a jump. The audience is on a beach, separated by a title sequence played over the waves of the sea, and a young girl dances. It’s a cinema of African joy as others come to join her, balancing ladders on their heads and playing instruments for all to hear. The film’s landscapes are reminiscent of John Ford’s films, proving that even in his earliest work, Hondo has an unparalleled eye for beauty.

The other short in Anthology Film Archives’s retrospective, My Neighbors (1971), was a part of the longer documentary The Black Wogs, Your Neighbors (1974). The short features interviews with African immigrants in Paris who discuss racism, and their harsh economic and social conditions. It is by far the most formally restrained film in the program, as Hondo lingers on a few handheld shots for most of the 35 minutes. There are two notable moments of formal departure. The first occurs after the first interview, in which the film includes a musical interlude as a female singer sings, “go and see my neighbors,” while Hondo’s camera lingers on the abject living conditions of his interviewees. The other is an animated sequence that caps the film and features cut-outs of world leaders shaking each others’ hands, raking in money, and pretending to be sad about the misery of the developing world they’ve sowed for their gain—all set to the tune of national anthems from across the Western world. At the end of My Neighbors, a faceless voice says, “The government… encourages people to emigrate. Why…? The African governments encourage these people to emigrate, to stop them from revolting.”

West Indies opens tonight, March 22, at Film Forum in a new 4K DCP restoration and Anthology Film Archives begins its “Med Hondo Retrospective tonight as well.