This is a very difficult film to write about because of its formal qualities, poised between documentary re-enactment and fiction feature, and because of its generic qualities as part biopic, part ‘journalist in war zone’ feel. It is true story about a young woman who pursued her dream and paid with her life. Finally its appearance in 2021 as part of My French Film Festival, after release in France in October 2019, coincides with news stories suggesting French unease about the calls for re-assessing imperialism and colonialism.
Camille Lepage was a young French freelance photographer aged 25 when she travelled to the Central African Republic in October 2013. Her first major African reportage had been carried out in South Sudan and she had already had her images used by major newspapers and other agencies. She spent her time in CAR meeting students, and young people generally, in the capital Bangui and when the civil war in the country started to get close to the capital she teamed up with a group of seasoned European journalists working for major outlets and photographed some of the action and its aftermath. At this point it was the Séléka, a Muslim rebel force that was attacking the capital. Intervention by French forces was expected and duly arrived. Camille went home to France for Christmas but was determined to return to Bangui, by which time the Christians had formed a new militia known as the ‘Anti-balaka’ and they were killing Muslims. Camille learned that the Anti-balaka were moving North from the capital towards the border with Cameroon. She joined their convoy and was killed instantly during an ambush. (This isn’t a spoiler, we learn of her death in the opening sequence.)
CAR is one of the poorest countries on earth. It has a low population density as a relatively large country with less than 5 million people but much of it is savannah and potentially productive and it also has some valuable mineral deposits with diamonds as the major export. Why is the country so poor and how does a civil war seemingly break out on religious difference lines when the Christian population is nearly 90%? I don’t know the answers to these questions but the country has had a difficult history since its ‘independence’, especially during the ‘Empire’ of Jean-Bédel Bokassa from 1966-79. Like several other countries in Central Africa that were created after the land grab by European powers in the late 19th century, CAR has little infrastructure and little contact with the outside world – except with France. Even the Chinese seem to be ignoring the country. The only evidence of an outside world comes via the trucks and motorbikes and the ubiquitous European football shirts.
Camille is the second fiction feature by director Boris Lojkine after his initial documentaries made in Vietnam. His first fiction film, Hope (2014) followed a young Nigerian woman and a young Cameroon man attempting to reach the Mediterranean after crossing the Sahara. Lojkine’s documentary experience seems to still be central to his work. Hope was shot by Elin Kirschfink and she also shot Camille. The new film is presented in a boxy 1:1.50 ratio caught between Academy (1.37:1) and the traditional French widescreen 1.66:1. The ratio derives from Lojkine’s decision to use ‘real’ photographs by Camille Lepage which are inserted at various points, freezing the action. Camille is played by Nina Meurisse, who does indeed convincingly represent the Camille we see in photographs shown at the end of the film. There are a couple of well-known French actors among the journalists (Bruno Todeschini and Grégoire Colin) and the photojournalist Michael Zumstein plays himself in the film – and was able to advise Lojkine and the rest of the crew. The African cast was all local and non-professional. Lojkine in the Press Notes tells us that he set up documentary workshops in Bangui and mentored ten young filmmakers who then became crew members on the shoot.
Camille’s story was ‘narrativised’ by Lojkine who created three individual characters among the students that she meets. This enables aspects of Camille’s story to be outlined more clearly through her relationships, i.e. in smuggling a character past a militia group or joining a family in mourning. The film certainly develops a convincing realist aesthetic, so ‘real’ in fact that I found it difficult to watch at times.
How to respond?
I’m not sure what I can say about the film. On one level it is a significant achievement in filmmaking with high quality photography and editing and strong performances. The ‘realism’ effects of the re-construction of events is very strong. The genre narrative of ‘journalist in a war zone’ is developed in two ways, firstly when Camille joins the experienced journalists in Bangui and travels with them to photograph the raids close to the city and secondly when she is back in France, trying to get a commission from a newspaper or discussing/defending her actions when quizzed by family and friends. Much of the time, however, Camille is on her own (i.e. not with other journalists) when she visits the militias or the families who have lost relatives in the civil war. In these circumstances we try to understand what she hopes to achieve. Reflecting on this later, I’m reminded of Michael Winterbottom’s film Welcome to Sarajevo (UK-US 1997) and that element of several other journalism films which responds to the need for the individual to ‘do something’ like smuggle a refugee out of a war zone. Often Camille shows her genuine concern and her ability to find a means of both communicating and connecting with the people she meets. But this only goes so far and some of them eventually repel her. She believes in her journalistic purpose and that someone must record these shocking events, but many of her photos will not be seen. She lacks any kind of institutional support or indeed any one to ‘watch her back’. Her death in the circumstances seems inevitable.
The Civil War which started in 2012 is still not over eight years later despite the French military presence at various times. CAR seems similar to Chad and some of the other countries in the region – Sudan/South Sudan and the DRC. The European colonial boundaries established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries don’t reflect the many ways in which local communities have identities. French policies in the region are difficult to understand but they don’t seem to be working in terms of military interventions and trade relations. Stories like this definitely need to be told and young, compassionate journalists like Camille Lepage could be among those opening up the debates, but perhaps alongside African journalists? This film, as a biopic, places Camille centre stage in almost every shot. An African film might tell different stories. I do wonder if countries like CAR would benefit more by opening up to neighbours rather than remaining attached to the ex-colonial power. It would be good to see the (post)-colonial situation explored by African filmmakers.
This film is part of both My French Film Festival and MUBI’s current streaming roster in the UK. It screened at Cannes in 2018 and I’m surprised that it hasn’t appeared on release in the UK. Perhaps distributors worry about how it would be certificated by the BBFC? It mixes sexual ‘display’, including full frontal male nudity, with the full horror of guerrilla warfare. Worse for some audiences, this is also an art film with long static takes in which little happens. It’s also fascinating with standout performances. In one sense an ‘interior’ story about one man’s struggle to come to terms with grief, the film is also about nine months of chaos in the long history of anti-colonialist struggles in what the French termed ‘Indochina’ before 1954 and what for those of us growing up in the 1960s became the Vietnam War. I had to research the precise period between March and December 1945 to understand exactly what was happening in the region and what might be absent from the narrative.
In June 1940 the swift German advance into France encouraged the Japanese to invade Tonkin – what is now Northern Vietnam – in order to cut off the last supply line for the Chinese from the port of Haiphong into Northern China and thus aid the Japanese campaign in China. The Japanese forces subsequently moved through the whole of Indochina (i.e. modern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) in preparation for attacks upon the British, Dutch and American interests in the Pacific. They left the French colonial troops and administrators in charge as Vichy France was, in effect, now a Japanese ally. On March 9th 1945 with France liberated and De Gaulle running a provisional government in Paris, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on French forces in Indochina, an action known as ‘Operation Bright Moon‘. The Japanese were correct in thinking that the Free French, British and Americans were already planning to use Indochina as a base to launch attacks on Japan.
The film narrative begins with a massacre of French forces at a camp in Tonkin. One man, a French soldier Robert Tassen (Gaspard Ulliel), finds himself wounded but still alive beneath a pile of bodies in an open mass grave. Somehow, he escapes into the jungle and is kept alive by local people. Eventually he finds his way to French forces who have not been over-run. We learn that his experience has instilled in him a strong desire for vengeance and that he is now determined to find one of the leaders of the Viet Minh forces who was present at the massacre in which Tassen lost his brother and sister-in-law. This takes a little ‘unpacking’.
The Viet Minh was a political movement led by Ho Chi Minh which from 1941 was opposed to both the French and Japanese and began forms of guerrilla warfare supported by the Americans and by the Chinese (both Nationalists and Communists). During the specific period of the nine moths covered by the film’s narrative this produced some very strange alliances with soldiers switching sides as the political situation became more complicated. The first atomic bomb was dropped on August 6 on Hiroshima and Japan surrendered a few days later. Thousands of Japanese soldiers were still in China and Indochina. By September a British Indian Army force had arrived in Saigon and proceeded to re-arm Japanese soldiers to maintain order. Meanwhile other Japanese were being recruited to train Viet Minh fighters against the French and British. I mention all this to simply illustrate how confusing everything must have been. The other aspect of this that is worth knowing is that the French, like the British, recruited local men to join the colonial army. These were les Tirailleurs tonkinois and Tassen finds himself in a mixed fighting force. Later, he recognises that local fighters will join either side if they are starving.
Robert will eventually ‘go rogue’. It’s impossible not to think of Apocalypse Now when we see Robert leading his own small band of mostly local fighters into the mountains seeking out his own personal enemy. The senior officers in his regiment have now virtually given up on him as he won’t take orders from regulars he doesn’t trust, but he is now a skilled fighter himself and knows how to organise. On the other hand he may be seriously mentally ill.
If Apocalypse Now is one reference for audiences, others might be to films like the two versions of The Quiet American. Writer-director Guillaume Nicloux and co-writer Jérôme Beaujour create two other characters who both have an influence on Tassen. One is a mysterious writer, who might have some kind of intelligence role, played by Gérard Depardieu. This character is accepted by the French military and seems to know local culture. The other is that (over?) familiar figure, the beautiful local prostitute Maï (Lang Khê Tran) who speaks French well and who forms a deep but difficult relationship with Robert. While these two individuals are able in different ways to ‘get through’ to Robert, he has little contact with the other French soldiers – only perhaps with Cavagna (Guillaume Gouix) with whom he has a typical love-hate relationship (i.e. they insult each other but clearly have some form of respect). The narrative has no resolution as such but there is a coda of sorts set in early 1946.
In aesthetic terms, the film is always worth watching and I would love to see it on a big screen, though I might have to turn away from some scenes. It was shot on 35mm by David Ungaro and is projected in a CinemaScope ratio with the colour palette dominated by blues, greens and greys – which in turn contrast with the blood. It rains heavily at times and many scenes are enveloped in mist. Some of the long shots of the soldiers making their way along mountain and forest trails are very beautiful. (The film was shot in Vietnam.) I think the score by Shannon Wright worked well. It seemed both minimalist and filled with foreboding. The performances, especially by Gaspard Ulliel and Guillaume Gouix, are very good.
Overall there is no political trajectory to the war – as I’ve indicated by the lack of context (only the months of 1945 are signalled). Nor is there any specific critique of French colonialism, apart from what we read into the exchanges. This makes the film an intriguing addition to the various films I’ve watched from Hollywood, Australia and Hong Kong which deal with the later wars of the 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam. There are other French films set in Indochina as a colonial territory including a number of colonial melodramas and other war films that I haven’t seen. The only one I do remember is Hors la loi (France-Algeria 2010) by the French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb. In that film one of three Algerian brothers finds himself in the French colonial army fighting the Viet Nimh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the battle that signalled the final defeat of France in Indochina. The Algerian soldier hears cries for the ‘colonised’ troops to join the Vietnamese fighting for independence.
We could argue that the French soldiers in Tonkin were virtually forgotten by the authorities in Europe before the Japanese attack. They had had little contact with Vichy for five years and weren’t sure what would await them back in France. This suggestion is well-handled in the script and provides a humanist discourse that balances the comment about atrocities committed by the Viet Nimh. Tassen refers to the beheaded soldiers he finds in the jungle and someone observes that the French have often beheaded people too.
This film is well worth watching but it’s a shame that the focus on Robert Tassen and his experience means that we learn very little about the colonised people of Indochina. Though the characters are present, their ‘voices’ are not really heard. One of the few things a Viet Nimh prisoner says is that he’d like to be French. But perhaps the lack of understanding shown by the French characters is the real message of the film?
Here’s the French trailer (no English subs) which gives some idea of the visual qualities of the film:
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