Portuguese director Nuno Escudeiro has made an affecting documentary set in the Roya and Durance Valleys on the France-Italy border. It’s primarily an observational work so we learn about the situation through characters’ interactions and occasionally their explanation of the situation to the director (but not directly the camera). For instance, one explains that the valleys, though in France, were part of Italy before World War II and the inhabitants don’t feel they belong to either country. It’s a sort of liminal space into which Eritrean refugees try to seek asylum.
Legally, of course, they should be able to do so but the authorities also perceive the area to be a liminal space otherwise why would they suspend due legal process? This is a naive question as police are often happy to contravene the law especially when told to do so. We learn most from Cedric, one of the leaders of local people who try to right the wrong done to the refugees who are often plonked back over the border into Italy without due process. Children often find, on official paperwork, that their birthdate is 1st January 2000 meaning they have suddenly become adult so can be dealt with particularly poorly. Such cynical corruption is indicative of the way those portrayed as Other are often treated.
As to the refugees themselves, there’s only one scene when we get to hear their voices directly. Even then we don’t get to know who they are, or from what they are fleeing, rather we are informed about their generalised sense of trauma. Whilst the absence of their voices is an obvious omission, it would be unfair to be too critical as Escudeiro’s purpose is clearly to tell the local heroes’ stories and he does this successfully. These people bear witness to the wrong and do what they can to set it right.
In recent news Turkey’s president Erdoğan threatened to allow 3.5 million Syrian refugees into Europe if there was any attempt to interfere with his restarted, courtesy of Trump, war on the Kurds. The morality of using people as a bargaining chip, never mind the fact they are desperate, is unspeakable. So Escudeiro’s film is important in reminding us human’s humanity to humans in a world where examples of inhumanity are too numerous to mention. Bearing witness to the terrible treatment of refugees is necessary so we don’t feel that such behaviour can be normalised.
I’m not sure why I booked this screening. Possibly it was the prospect of Catherine Deneuve as a matriarch and the reputation of writer-director Cédric Kahn. I also like the venue, the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington. However, I later realised that I’d got my Cédrics mixed up. I was thinking of Cédric Klapisch who made Un air de famille in 1996 and this new film has a very similar plot, except it shifts the location to a country house rather than a restaurant. Cédric Kahn is connected in my memory with films that are more dramatic than comic.
The birthday party in question is for Andréa (Deneuve) the matriarch of a family of two sons and a daughter plus three grand-children and a husband Jean (Alain Artur), who I don’t think is the father of any of the three grown-up children. Andréa is the owner of the large house in the country. The director himself plays the elder son Vincent with Laetitia Colombani as Marie, his wife and the mother of the two grandsons. Emmanuelle Bercot plays Claire the daughter and Vincent Macaigne plays the second son Romain. Claire’s estranged daughter Emma (Luàna Bajrami) is a student who lives with her grandparents and Romain has his latest possible fiancée in tow, Rosita (Isabel Aimé González-Sola). The party also includes Emma’s boyfriend Julien (Joshua Rosinet). He is a talented pianist who I don’t remember having much dialogue at all. He is disturbingly the only person of colour on screen. I did tend to see his presence as either a cliché or a form of tokenism (intended to strengthen the sense of Emma as a rebel within the family group?).
It’s worth noting that four of the actors are also directors themselves. I’m not sure if that makes any difference. The setting and the script suggest a very ‘theatrical’ production with most locations in the house or garden and just a few brief but eventful car trips outside. Cédric Kahn himself suggests that there is a conventional three-act structure and one episode includes a play devised and performed by Emma and Julien and the two young grandsons. As well as the starry cast, the film has an equally experienced and celebrated crew and the whole thing looks very good. Music is important and I very much enjoyed a song by Françoise Hardy, ‘Mon amie la rose’. Why then did I feel disappointed and a little let down by the film overall?
I think perhaps that I was surprised that such a conventional film would be included in a festival programme. This is indeed like a well-produced play with twists and turns in the plot and each of the core star actors given a story to present. But in the end these stories don’t add up to much that’s new or particularly interesting. Added to that, the comic elements didn’t really work for me. Sometimes the comedy seemed cruel or perhaps seeking to be satirical but without clear targets. It’s a prestigious production however and if you like that kind of thing you might like this.
Rue cases-nègres is being screened at HOME in Manchester on Saturday October 5th at 18.10. This is a great opportunity to view an important film as part of the celebration of ‘Women in Global Cinema’ – and Black History Month in October. The following notes are from an Introduction to the film screened as part of an evening class at Cornerhouse (the previous incarnation of HOME) in 2012.
Rue cases-nègres is an adaptation of a novel by Joseph Zobel with same title first published in France in 1950. It tells the story of a young boy, José Hassam who lives in the shanty town of ‘Black Shack Alley’ – sugar cane-cutters’ huts in Martinique in the 1930s. In the novel, José’s mother works in the main town so the boy is in the care of his grandmother M’Man Tine, a cane-cutter who is determined that José will get the best education in the island’s top school. (The film makes José an orphan.)
The film adaptation, written and directed by Euzhan Palcy, was released in September 1983 in France after winning a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for best first feature and also the best actress award for Darling Légitimus as M’Man Tine. In the French film industry’s César Awards in 1984, Euzhan Palcy was again honoured with the Best First Feature Award. At the time of the film’s release Euzhan Palcy was 28 years old.
Joseph Zobel (1915-2006)
Zobel’s writing career began with short stories in Martinique in the late 1930s and his first novel was completed in 1942, but repressed by the Vichy government on the island. In 1946 he moved to Paris and continued writing and also studying at the Sorbonne. He also began to teach at a lycée in Fontainebleau. He completed a second novel and more short stories before finally completing his most famous publication in 1950. He then developed his poetry work and became involved in radio production. In 1957 he moved to Senegal, first teaching and then again as a poet moving into radio and eventually becoming a cultural advisor to the new radio services in francophone West Africa. He continued to write and publish for the rest of his long life, moving between Senegal and France where he died in 2006.
Rue cases-nègres was re-published by Présence Africaine in 1974 – a very welcome new print since the 1950 edition was hard to find. It finally appeared in English as Black Shack Alley in a translation by Keith Q. Warner in 1980.
The négritude movement is associated primarily with three writers from different parts of the French Empire who met in Paris in the 1930s. Aimé Césaire from Martinique, Léopold Senghor from Senegal and Léon Damas from French Guiana (Guyane) worked together on the publication of a journal, L’Étudiant noir. Each had slightly different ideas as to what the concept meant in practice, but these common features are apparent from their writings:
- promotion of pride in a Black identity and validation of African history and traditions;
- opposition to colonialism and racism and the hegemony of European thought;
- socialist/Marxist ideology;
- literary style of realism.
However, the négritude writers also generally thought in terms of gaining an equal part in French government rather than seeking independence from France. Césaire and Dumas were both members of the French National Assembly for their home colonies and, when independence was in effect forced upon Senegal, Senghor became its first President.
Though Zobel arrived in Paris more than ten years later, négritude was still an important set of ideas in Parisian intellectual circles. Rue cases-nègres is in some ways a book imbued with the ideas of Zobel’s fellow Martinican, Césaire, and Léon Damas had been sent to the school that features in the novel in 1924. Césaire (who, had been a scholarship pupil in France) returned to Martinique to teach at the same school, the Lycée Schoelcher, in 1939. Zobel later worked in Senegal when Senghor was President.
However, Zobel did not himself consider Rue cases-nègres to be a novel defined by négritude. His model was more the work of the African-American writer Richard Wright and in particular his autobiographical study Black Boy (1945). Wright moved to Paris in 1946. Keith Q. Warner (1979) suggests that most of the writers in Zobel’s position wrote about their own experience since there were no other literary models available within their own culture at the time. He goes on to argue that Zobel gives us a detailed observational account of conditions in Martinique in the 1930s. This is instructive in its account of the poorest members of Martinican society, but only occasionally does Zobel make direct political comments.
Négritude was a set of ideas derived specifically from francophone culture – although it had something in common with the Harlem Renaissance in 1920s New York and the Hispanic Caribbean ‘negrismo’ of the early twentieth century, with cross-fertilisation between writers in each group, many of whom met in Paris. The French capital had been a haven for writers and a focal point for Black intellectuals tracing their inspiration back to Toussaint L’Ouverture’s rebellion in Haiti during the Napoleonic Wars.
Négritude was not without its critics, including Frantz Fanon, one of Césaire’s pupils at Lycée Schoelcher and Sembène Ousmane, a working-class, self-educated Senegalese whose novels and later films argued something rather different in the 1950s and 1960s (based on his experiences in the 1940s). Négritude was also opposed by some Anglophone Africans who had experienced a different kind of colonialist culture.
Martinique, along with the slightly larger island of Guadeloupe, is part of the ‘French Antilles’ located in the South East Caribbean. In the 1930s its population as a French colonial possession was around 210,000. In 1946 it became an Overseas Department of France and eventually part of the European Union. French colonial policy thus placed the relationship between its ex-colonial subjects and the metropolitan centre in a very different context to that of, for example, the nearby anglophone islands of Dominica and St Lucia. Most of the islands of the Antilles actually experienced different periods of British, Dutch, Spanish or French colonialism at different times.
Christian Filostrat (1979) tells us that the entire school system of Martinique was controlled from Bordeaux (the main French port for the slave trade). Nothing in school referred to local culture and therefore the eventual appearance in the island’s bookshops of Rue cases-nègres was a very welcome shock – to read something written by somebody who had experienced growing up and going to school in Fort-de-France (the colonial capital and largest town on the island). Before Zobel, none of the literary work of Martinicans writing in Paris had in effect ‘come home’ to Martinique. ‘Assimilation’ meant that the overseas Martinicans simply became ‘French’ and the islanders remained in the rigid class system which saw the 5% white population (békés in the local creole) at the top, followed by the ‘mulatto’ population and then the majority Black population at the bottom. Education was the main way to move up the social scale.
Born and raised in Martinique, Euzhan Palcy read Zobel’s novel when she was 14 and had an outline script ready by the time she was 17 – when she was working with the local broadcasting company. Soon after this she left for Paris to study literature at the Sorbonne and then filmmaking at the Louis Lumière School.
In my mind, it was urgent to make a movie of this story . . . Zobel’s book was a great revelation and shock because all of our books are about France. It was the first time I read a book written by a black man of our country about the fruits of our country.” Euzhan Palcy quote on http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/worldlit/caribbean/CaribCinema_SugarCane.html
The achievement by Euzhan Palcy was widely recognised. She had made Rue cases-nègres for less than $1 million and in 1984 she was invited to Sundance by Robert Redford. In 1989 she became the first Black woman to direct a feature produced by a major Hollywood studio with the South African literary adaptation Dry White Season (from the novel by André Brink). Since 1983, Palcy has divided her time between major projects in France and the US in both film and TV – nearly always in relation to stories from African-American or African-Caribbean-French history. She has been repeatedly feted and honoured in both countries and Rue cases-nègres has become a classic film used in both French and American education institutions. A quick glance at her Wikipedia entry gives an indication of the extent of her work and public profile. However, despite the success of Rue cases-nègres in 1984, few of her subsequent productions have been released in the UK.
Rue cases-nègres was released in the UK in the summer of 1984. This was an important period in British film studies when issues of identity, colonialist cinema and concepts of ‘Third Cinema’ were gaining prominence. The film was included in the list of films provided as part of the Anti-Racist Film Programme devised for the London Against Racism project of the GLC.
In her review of the film for Monthly Film Bulletin (July 1984) Jill Forbes, the well-known scholar of French cinema, praised the film as a well-told story that contributed to the representations of the history of Caribbean culture – and in doing so overturned typical Hollywood generalisations about Caribbean ‘types’. But she also commented on the style of the film which she felt was trapped within the conventions of French cinema. She points out that (at that time) there were several commercial French films trading on the nostalgia of the colonial period (much as in British TV and cinema’s interest in nostalgia for the Indian colonial period). Some scenes in Rue cases-nègres unintentionally played to this nostalgia. Other scenes, more documentary in nature, she compared to the ethnographic and ciné vérité tradition in France. The founder of ciné vérité, Jean Rouch did much of his work in West Africa or with Africans in Paris.
Forbes’ comments are important and they point to the difficulties for Caribbean filmmakers who are doubly colonised – both politically and cinematically. Forbes argues that, apart from Cuba with its strong cinematic traditions and ‘New Cinema’ since the 1960s, the Caribbean had not developed a cinematic identity. In doing so she ignored the Jamaican film The Harder They Come (1972) which might make an interesting comparison with Rue cases-nègres. Made in Jamaican patois and with a reggae soundtrack, The Harder They Come is a film based on the story of Rhygin – a real Jamaican criminal from the 1940s. In the opposite process to Rue cases-nègres, The Harder They Come then prompted a 1980 novel based on the film by Michael Thelwell which was written in patois and included extended references to Jamaican folklore. These two stand-out films serve as examples of the different cultural conditions that produced post-colonial films in the francophone and anglophone Caribbean.
A note on the film’s official nationality
Rue cases-nègres is in many ways a film about francophone culture, especially language and education, yet officially it is a French film. The production companies were French and Martinique is a department of France. On the other hand its ‘cultural identity’ is Caribbean-French and just as with anglophone Caribbean filmmakers such as Horace Ové from Trinidad, the practice developed of seeing filmmakers such as Euzhan Palcy as part of a new Caribbean cinema, or even as part of African cinema. This would also be true of several African filmmakers who make films from a French production base.
References and further reading
Filostrat, Christian (1979) ‘Foreword: We All Had a M’Man Tine’ in Zobel (ibid)
Forbes, Jill (1984) Review of Rue cases-nègres, Monthly Film Bulletin, July
Warner, Keith Q (1979) ‘Introduction’ to Zobel (ibid)
Zobel, Joseph (1997) Black Shack Alley, Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers
Roy Stafford, 24/10/2012
Keith reviewed this film at Berlin earlier this year. Here are my thoughts on the film now in UK cinemas.
Agnès Varda’s last film opened locally with a ‘seniors’ morning screening. I wonder if many of those in the audience were watching their first Varda screening. All seemed to enjoy the show so Agnès judged her delivery well. She died earlier this year just a couple of months short of her 91st birthday, but as this film demonstrates she had lost none of her creative powers starting her tenth decade. In this personal statement about her own work she addresses us directly as part of the audience seated in several different auditoria. The film is an illustrated lecture taking us through nearly 70 years of work as a photographer, filmmaker and finally ‘visual artist’ (an English term she endorses). It isn’t a straightforward chronology. She jumps around a little but as far as I can see she covers all of her feature films and most of the shorts. The only disappointment for me was the short sequence on her photography (which preceded her first film in 1954) which comes towards the end of the film. I’d of liked to know a little more about this and how it informed her filmmaking. Her talk began with a statement about her three key ideas about filmmaking – here is how she describes them in the Press Notes:
INSPIRATION is why you make a film. The motivations, ideas, circumstances and happenstance that spark a desire and you set to work to make a film.
CREATION is how you make the film. What means do you use? What structure? Alone or not alone? In colour or not in colour? Creation is a job.
The third word is SHARING. You don’t make films to watch them alone, you make films to show them. An empty cinema: a filmmaker’s nightmare!
People are at the heart of my work. Real people. That’s how I’ve always referred to the people I film in cities or the countryside.
This gives you a good idea of how she set about ‘creating’ her story. In fact she made a statement at the Berlin press show when the film was screened saying that this film would now do her talking for her as personal appearances were becoming tiring. Varda’s presentation lasts nearly two hours and I could have taken double the time listening to her commentary and watching the clips. I’ve seen around half of her 23 features and now I feel more encouraged to seek out the shorter films, especially the earlier ones in California. The key to appreciating Varda is to tune in to her own fascination with the world and what she can do with her camera. Varda was true to the idea of the artisanal artist-filmmaker. She remains the definition of an auteur, developing her own company Ciné-Tamaris which has retained control of her films (and those of Jacques Demy and others) and re-released them on restored digital versions. She’s kept much of her filmmaking literally ‘in house’ with various production roles for her daughter Rosalie Varda and son Mathieu Demy and partnerships with a series of actors and crews. One of those who appears in this film is Sandrine Bonnaire, who reveals just how hard she was pushed as a 17 year-old in the lead role for Vagabond.
I would have liked to have seen a bit more about Varda’s marriage to Jacques Demy and how these two, in some ways very different, creative people bounced ideas off each other. She does discuss her documentary biopic Jacquot de Nantes (1991) made when Demy was very ill, but not the two documentaries she made after his death. The two were in California together during the 1960s but made very different films there.
Varda adapted to the possibilities of new technologies and embraced the use of digital cameras. Varda by Agnès is presented in two parts so that the early career is ‘analogue’ and the later career is ‘digital’. The split is also one of 20th and 21st century practice. The revelation for me was the ‘installation’ work in the second period when Varda became a visual artist. I wish now that I’d made more effort in 2018 to get to the Liverpool Biennial where there was a photographic exhibition, a new installation and a season of her films. As far as I can see this is the only time that Varda was received in the UK as a ‘visual artist’ and we might never get to see some of the intriguing installations glimpsed in Varda by Agnès such as Patatutopia from 2003 or the Cinema Shacks she built from old cans of her celluloid films in 2013.
Agnès Varda was one of the great filmmakers, photographers and visual artists of the last 70 years. We will be lucky to see her like again. All I can do is to urge you to see this hugely enjoyable current release and to dig out any DVDs or VODs from her catalogue that you can find. There are some posts you might find interesting on this blog.