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
Cornerhouse in Manchester starts a season of Francophone films from Europe, Africa, the Antilles and Quebec today. It’s an interesting programme compiled by Rachel Hayward and supported by Alliance française de Manchester and the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. I’m helping to teach an associated evening class and I’ll be blogging on some of the films being screened. The Cornerhouse season includes the following titles:
It’s Not Me I Swear! (C’est pas moi, je le jure!, Canada 2008)
Thu 18 Oct at 18:30
A rare opportunity in the UK to see an earlier film by Philippe Falardeau, director of the wonderful Monsieur Lazhar.
Laurence Anyways (Canada 2012)
Sun 21 Oct at 15:30
The new film by enfant terrible Xavier Dolan which will be on release in the UK and Ireland in December.
Black Shack Alley (Rue cases nègres, Martinique-France 1983)
Wed 24 Oct at 18:30
Another rare opportunity, this time to see a classic film no longer available in the UK. Directed by Euzhan Palcy and based on the book by Joseph Zobel this was a milestone film. I’ll be introducing this screening and posting material on the blog.
War Witch (Rebelle, Canada 2012)
Wed 7 Nov at 18:30
Canada’s entry for the Best Foreign Language film entry for the next Academy Awards. A prizewinner at festivals across the world, Kim Nguyen’s film about a girl forced to become a child soldier in an unnamed African country is one to seek out.
La pirogue (Senegal-France-Germany 2012)
Mon 12 Nov at 18:20
Another of this year’s festival favourites – Moussa Touré’s film about migrants from Africa hoping to reach Europe in open boats.
Our Children (À perdre la raison, Belgium-Switzerland-France-Luxembourg)
Thu 15 Nov at 20:40
A starry cast: Niels Astrup, Tahar Rahim and Emilie Dequenne in Joachim Lafosse’s film based on a real story about a mother and her children faced with a difficult family situation. The UK release will be in 2013.
Sister (France-Switzerland 2012)
On release during November, please check the Cornerhouse listings.
Ursula Meier’s film about a young boy and his sister starring Gillian Anderson and Martin Compston alongside Lea Seydoux and Kacey Mottet Klein has both English and French dialogue. Meier’s realist style in this film has been compared to that of the Dardennes Brothers.
Nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar, Monsieur Lazhar lost out to A Separation in February this year. No contest, you might think – but I wouldn’t have liked to choose between them. A Separation was the film shown in the UK last year and I don’t begrudge it any prizes. But Monsieur Lazhar is my film of this year so far. We had a quartet of star films from Cannes 2011 that opened here a few months ago, but they all signalled their qualities from afar. Monsieur Lazhar seemingly promises little – a new teacher takes over a class in a Montreal primary school after the sudden death of a popular classroom teacher in rather unfortunate circumstances. Against all the odds, the new teacher will triumph with his class and all will be well. Not quite. From the same producers who brought us last year’s Canadian triumph Incendies, this shows that Quebec cinema is on a hot run at the moment.
The triumph of this film is that it attempts a great deal with two strong central narratives – one about the school and one about the new teacher’s own story – which it succeeds in bringing together through a tight discipline of constraint. The script utilises five familiar types for the individuated pupils in the classroom but in the hands of director Philippe Falardeau the child actors (all excellent) are allowed to perform in an unrestricted way. The point about social types is that we recognise them for a good reason – we do commonly find them in society. Who can’t remember in their childhood the overweight klutz who is the butt of jokes, the kid who is always suffering from nosebleeds, the very bright one with obnoxious pushy parents? Occasionally Falardeau teases us with the possibility that the typical character will complete the typical behaviour and we will groan with the inevitability of it all – but each time he just stops as if the punchline is the restraint itself and then moves on to something else.
The school community itself is extremely well observed and the teachers are well cast, especially Danielle Proulx as the Principal. My viewing partner, with long experience of primary classrooms, said she would have loved to work in this school – a perfectly ordinary inner-city school with a nice mix of children from different backgrounds. For UK audiences caught up in the nightmare of the current government’s assault on the education system it’s fascinating to be offered a view of education seemingly from another time. It was only afterwards that we realised that here was a school in which there were classrooms with conventional desks, no sign of children with mobile phones – and no computers! The new teacher finds a laptop on his desk and immediately tries to put it into his desk drawer (it doesn’t fit). I’m not sure if the school is meant to be representative of the Quebecois school system, but we haven’t seen classrooms like this for many years in the UK. But this doesn’t mean that the classroom issues aren’t still relevant – the layout of the desks, the appropriateness of reading material, discipline and most important of all the policy that doesn’t allow teachers to touch children in any way whatsoever.
I should explain that the reason why these all become issues is that the replacement teacher is Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian migrant who appears in the principal’s office like an angel when she is convinced that a replacement teacher is not going to be found immediately. Bachir tells her that he is a permanent resident in Canada and that he has many years of teaching experience. Unfortunately neither statement is true. But he is clearly a decent man with an engaging personality and he gets down to work without any fuss.
The sudden death has upset the children in the class, especially Alice and Simon. Bachir finds himself at odds with the school in how they should deal with the trauma experienced by the children and with the children themselves over his very traditional ideas about classroom activities. What he decides to do is in some ways pedagogically conservative and he finds himself needing to adapt for a group of contemporary young Canadians. He sets them a dictation exercise reading from Balzac – perhaps a reference to Truffaut and the classroom in 400 Blows? On the other hand, his ideas about discussion of his predecessor’s death (which is still clearly an issue for the children) seems quite progressive compared to the strict use of sessions with a psychologist for the children at which he is not present. You may disagree, but this is the point, Bachir Lazhar is only like an angel in his ability to materialise when needed. Like everybody else in the school he has some ideas that work and others that don’t. This is carried through to the film’s resolution, which seemed fine to me – there is no feelgood Hollywood moment.
Monsieur Lazhar has a backstory that I won’t reveal but it means that his interactions with the other staff are sometimes a little difficult – i.e. there are other issues as well as his unfamiliarity with aspects of Quebecois culture. In her otherwise supportive review in Sight and Sound (June 2012), Hannah McGill suggests that the script is clumsy in the way some of these moments are handled and she implies that the plot needs contrivances to enable certain themes to develop. I disagree. I don’t mind plot contrivances – if the events themselves are believable and they all felt very recognisable for me.
The film is conventional and possibly ‘literary’. It’s based on a play written by Evelyne de la Chenelière, who has a small part in the film as Alice’s mother. The origins are evident in the limited locations used (mainly in the school or the homes of a limited number of characters). As I’ve indicated, the school itself may be a little anachronistic, but otherwise this is a straight realist drama. There was just one moment when I thought the film deliberately moved into fantasy (I’m probably remembering it wrongly, but I don’t think it matters). M. Lazhar is marking books at his desk in the school. It is evening and a general hubbub of voices, laughter and music is coming from a school party. M. Lazhar gets up, stretches and with his back to camera starts to dance. At this point, non-diegetic Algerian music comes on the soundtrack and his dancing becomes more sure in its movements. Pure magic! See the film if you can.
Here’s the official trailer (pretty good – doesn’t spoil the film):
The Walloon filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne seem to be on a run of films focusing on young women in difficult social positions. They present social realist dramas set largely in the industrial zone around Liège (although industry rarely figures in the stories) with narratives seemingly taken on and worked over from the Ken Loach storybook. The films don’t have the Loachian humour and occasional bursts of melodrama, but instead offer a more intense narrative focus on an individual expressed through an austere and disciplined aesthetic.
The Silence of Lorna won the script prize at Cannes this year. I’m not sure I can see why except that the script is certainly provocative with two ‘shocking’ effronts to narrative convention and the possibility of engagement with a wide range of issues. However, the film is memorable because of its direction and central performance by relative newcomer Arta Dobroshi. She plays Lorna, a young Albanian woman who has become involved in a complex network of scams. At the beginning of the film, she has just received her Belgian ID – acquired through marriage to a junkie, Claudy. Of course, the Dardennes’ storytelling method requires the viewer to work this out over quite a lengthy sequence. But this is just the beginning of events that see Lorna passed from one man to another. The women she meets are invariably officials of the health service. Lorna is intelligent and resourceful, but can she survive working on scams in which she should not become emotionally involved?
I’m not sure if the film’s title is ironic. Lorna isn’t really ‘silent’ – indeed most of the time she speaks out. But she also has to be secretive and her speech is often directed within the small group of scammers who use her. Dobroshi is always interesting to watch and there are sequences in which you are forced to think about migration as an activity with criminal exploitation possibilities. Unfortunately, I don’t think this goes far enough for me – although I suspect that when I reflect upon the last few scenes, I may revise this view.
The Silence of Lorna is a North-West European social realist film and not a ‘crowd-pleaser’. On the way out of the cinema, somebody wondered out loud “Why would anyone go to Belgium from Albania?”. I really don’t see why Belgium is considered dull. I enjoyed the drab streets of the city as a place I recognised that in one sense seemed calm and civilised. I won’t spoil the ending but will point out that it suggests that the city and the woods outside the urban areas have some kind of symbolic value. We might argue that this industrial region that once made ‘things’ now frantically plies a trade in ‘identities’. I could relate this to those British social comedies like The Full Monty in which men who once worked in manufacturing are forced into forms of ‘performance’ instead. I’m not sure how I got from social realism to postmodernity – but perhaps that’s what films like this do?