Dir. Sidney Sokhona, 1975
France. 85 mins.
In French with English subtitles.
OFFICIAL SELECTION 1976 CANNES FILM FESTIVAL
One could hardly be blamed for interpreting NATIONALITE: IMMIGRE as an endless litany of dehumanizing bureaucratic obstacle courses as Serge Daney pointed out in his review On Paper, the film juts uncomfortably against the militant Lefts emphasis on using rupture theory to delegitimize the legal process, a high-minded option unavailable to immigrants like those depicted here. Sokhona took to filming after the Aubervilliers scandal of January 1970 when five African migrants died in an overcrowded shelter on the periphery of Paris due to asphyxiation prompting then-Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas to declare an end of these settlements, sometimes nicknamed bidonvilles or caves, by 1973. The filmmaker wasnt so optimistic but then, what NATIONALITE: IMMIGRE does offer is a rare glimpse at community organizing coming into praxis on both sides of the camera, with many of Sokhonas neighbors playing themselves. (Sokhona financed the film in piecemeal fashion once scene at a time while working as a telephone operator.) While the thrust of NATIONALITE: IMMIGRE is unabashedly polemical, the loose narrative structure allows Sokhona to pursue fascinating side-stories and political tangents, at times dipping from what appears to be pure verite into a purely Brechtian exercise wherein immigrants are handed jobs in the form of huge placards, which they must carry around their necks, denoting their net worth to society in material terms.
In Cahiers, Sokhona would elaborate to Daney and Jean-Pierre Oudart that I was not sure that he who had loved NATIONALITE: IMMIGRE would like it which does not mean that no one can love both. SAFRANA is, for me, the continuation of N:I. At the time it was done, compared to the reality of that time, there were a number of plans in the construction of the film itself on which we had to pass. For the first time, perhaps, people saw things they had never seen so their membership was much simpler. I think people also ask: should a film about immigration be cinema? N.I. was in black and white, there was a certain desired poverty its unthinkable to film an immigrants home in color. People will go see a movie; of course they will see a subject, but it must be possible to express it in a very simple way. I think a political film or engagé can use other weapons, and touch a large number of people taking account of the movies.
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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