SAFRANA (OR, THE RIGHT TO SPEAK)
Dir. Sidney Sokhona, 1976
France. 110 mins.
In French with English subtitles.
Like Med Hondos SOLEIL O. and Jean Rouchs PETIT A PETIT, Sidney Sokhonas SAFRANA (OR, THE RIGHT TO SPEAK) is both a satire of transition after French colonialism and a look at the alienation felt by African migrant communities in nations of their former colonizers. Operating as a reverse ethnography, these films took field notes on European social norms and put their notion of what is standard into question. Alternating between observational comedy and instructional political tract, SAFRANA starts with a quote by Mao about intuitive approaches to figuring out whats useful for ones own country in the operations of another, and ends with a documentary on farming techniques for agrarian socialism. A road trip, punctuated by acidic flashback vignettes, gets us from A to B by sketching a former colonizer with less to offer the formerly colonized than vice versa.
The film is built around Somankidi Coura, with its ex-factory workers turned farmers playing fictionalized versions of themselves, along with photographer/activist Bouba Touré. With a number of pointed gags, Sokhona charts the various disenchantments of the workers on their exploratory stay in France meant to pick up useful techniques for their home country from tertiary status at a factory to secondary status in a union; or the casual racism of a couple that wont let an African garbageman pick up their dog from a trash can to another that wants to bring home a foreigner for kinks. By the time they end up at the farm, were as ready for the possible solutions explored in the climax as they are.
Sidney Sokhonas NATIONALITE: IMMIGRE and SAFRANA, OR THE RIGHT TO SPEAK should constitute 11th-hour addendums to the canon of post-colonial Francophone cinema. Made when Sokhona was in his early 20s, recoiling from a rash of exploitations and abuses in Frances African migrant community, the films form a blistering duo: NATIONALITE: IMMIGRE dramatizes the real-life rent strike undertaken by Sokhona and his neighbors in the Rue Riquet settlement housing, a docu-fiction of its own community in collaboration thats unlike anything youve before seen in world cinema.
Assuming the position of both French and African filmmaker, Sokhona published a kind of manifesto in Cahiers du Cinema entitled Notre Cinema (Our Cinema), wherein he decried the cultural feedback loop enabled by state funding (especially in postcolonial cases), the incessant use of African landscapes as backdrops for tawdry Western melodramas, and the pigeonholing of black movies in festival programming citing that the 1976 Cannes Film Festival included CAR WASH in its main slate, but consigned Ousmane Sembenes CEDDO to competition in Directors Fortnight. If SAFRANA closes on an impossibly optimistic note for Sokhona (as the audience has, over the too-brief course of two movies, come to understand him), it reveals itself in hindsight as a byproduct of the French example, wherein the the organizing onscreen bears a utopian fruit thats nevertheless untrustworthy. (Sokhona alleges that audiences were far more skeptical about the immigrants warm countryside reception in discussions following screenings in Paris.) Whats universalized in the humiliations of NATIONALITE: IMMIGRE remains or as Sokhona put it to Cahiers, Immigration has not only served to alienate us but also to teach us to be ashamed of what we were before. Any immigrant with a conscience realizes he has as much to claim on the workers side as the farmers, today.
Malian immigrants would band together to form the Somankidi collective, making a healthier living off the farming practices depicted in SAFRANA making it a sequel both political and socioeconomic to Sokhonas first film. The laborers relocated to the Senegal river, where they remain today; founding member (and SAFRANA star/participant) Bouba Touré would later tell multidisciplinary artist Raphaël Grisey that Somankidi Coura was founded because we didnt want our brothers, our cousins, to come sell their labor in France. To see 8mm images from the cooperatives founding vibrant young African men in snappy duds, at once relaxing and working together on a shared cane harvest is to reckon with their post-postcolonial power. Griseys split panel documentary COOPERATIVE observes the ongoing collective in juxtaposition with the villages Parisian roots of origin, whereas BOUBA TOURE, 58 RUE TROUSSEAU, 75011 PARIS FRANCE allows its namesake to contextualize the political struggles of the time (including a tacit, unignorable Pan-Africanism) while surveying the walls of his apartment in Paris.
As the Somankidi Coura celebrated its 40th anniversary this past January (complete with an exhibition of Bouba Tourés photographs), Spectacle is thrilled to present these rare and invaluable films in their first-ever New York City screenings.
These screenings are made possible solely thanks to the collaboration of Raphaël Grisey, Tobias Hering of Kino Arsenal, Cinémathèque Afrique/Institut Français, and Amelie Davin-Garet of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.
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