The Med Hondo Effect
Aboubakar Sanogo in conversation with Daniel McNeil
Med Hondo is not only one of the foundational figures of African cinema, but also one of the most talented, radically versatile and profoundly influential directors from the continent. A retrospective and international symposium on his cinema recently brought the pioneering filmmaker to Carleton and the National Gallery of Canada.
Aboubakar Sanogo, Chair of Film Studies and organiser of the retrospective and symposium, shared his reflections on the first Canadian homage to Med Hondo’s work with Daniel McNeil, an Associate Professor of History and Carleton’s strategic hire in Migration and Diaspora Studies.
Daniel McNeil: The Oscars may go to Steven Spielberg and Alejandro Iñárritu, but you’d like to claim Med Hondo as one of the most important film directors working in the world today. Why do you think his work is so significant?
Aboubakar Sanogo: For me, Med Hondo’s cinema is a cinema concerned with making us think as much as making us feel. It is a cinema that is less concerned with Oscars than with the possibility for film to actually play a major role in the production of new subjectivities, new ways of feeling, new ways of distributing power across the world, and indeed new ways of imagining and experiencing the world.
His cinema asks: what would it mean to have a world that is based on a project of radical equality among human beings? What would it mean for the cinema to help usher in such a world?
Med Hondo is also an important film director because he considers the cinema to be on par with politics, economics and other discourses and practices which participate in the management of the human polity. He will not satisfy himself with the ways in which the limited and limiting equation “cinema=entertainment” is made to account for all filmmaking practice, to predispose audiences to accept only one kind of cinema.
Med Hondo expands our cinematic gustatory palates so as to go beyond complacency and embrace complexity. The spectator that Med Hondo seeks to produce is not the hedonist spectator but the citizen-spectator. His cinema takes the spectator seriously and refrains from exploiting her lower instincts, to instrumentalize her obvious emotional levers. In that way, he situates himself in a tradition that seeks to expand the role of the cinema, to free the cinema from the spaces in which it has been confined by the merchants and speculators of pleasures.
’Med Hondo is not only one of the foundational figures of African cinema, but also one of the most talented, radically versatile and profoundly influential directors from the continent.’
Finally, Med Hondo is simply a virtuoso of the cinema. Films like Soleil O, Les Bicots Negres or West Indies should be required viewing for any cinephile, film student or aspiring filmmaker. They are invested in reinventing cinematic form and in helping redefine what counts as cinema.
Daniel: If the cinema of Med Hondo is such a tremendous resource of thought and feeling, why is it so difficult for us to see and experience his films in Canada?
Aboubakar: There are many reasons for this. The first layer of explanation would have to account first and foremost for Canada’s own relationship to Hollywood which makes it difficult to see Canadian and other non-Hollywood films in Canada.
There is also the much larger question of the tenuous status of African cinema in Canada, which is not often seen commercially in Canada, but tends to be shown primarily in film festivals and university campuses. Thus people who do not frequent these spaces are unlikely to easily encounter the cinema of Med Hondo.
Another important aspect of this question is that his cinema does not readily participate in the “throw away” or “chewing gum” economy of dominant cinema, which for the most part, the spectator often forgets once they live the theatre. Med Hondo’s films leave an indelible mark on the spectator. The spectator’s memory keeps many of their scenes and sequences in mind and keeps on mulling over them for a long time, slowly uncovering layers of signification, resonance and implications. There is almost a process of transference whereby the spectator’s body becomes almost an archive of Med Hondo’s images, a receptacle that will now transport them from place to place. In that sense it is almost as if Med Hondo turned spectators’ bodies as means of exhibition of his films by indelibly inscribing his images in them, literally through incorporation.
This may be their ultimate victory, for even without the entire propaganda apparatus of dominant cinema, his films have an uncanny capacity to wait until they find their audience. Their subversive potential partly lies in their ability to extricate themselves from the zero-sum absolutist race for the now! What Med Hondo’s films demonstrate is that an entire cinematic production exists out there that is being silenced and censored economically by virtue of the “carpet bombing” strategies of studios who have garnered for themselves privileged access to various means of distribution and exhibition outlets. The overbearing presence of dominant cinema is the sine qua non of the absence of and lack of access to the films of Med Hondo.
’His cinema asks: what would it mean to have a world that is based on a project of radical equality among human beings? What would it mean for the cinema to help usher in such a world?’
That said, after Ottawa and Carleton, our retrospective will be traveling to the Toronto International Film Festival’s Bell Lightbox for a more complete retrospective in early August. Toronto audiences will also be exposed to the cinema of Med Hondo. The singularity of the Toronto event is that we hope to offer a more complete retrospective there, with films shown on 35mm. Med Hondo will also be there. So, if you missed this in Ottawa, you have another chance to make it up in Toronto. After Toronto, we are working on another retrospective at the Harvard Film Archives.
What is exciting about this is that it all began at Carleton University, which in the process will be remembered as the point of departure for a new phase which consists in bringing Med Hondo back into the field of visibility in various metropoles around the world. We are also looking into New York and London as potential future destinations as well as many places in Africa of course. That said we are also looking into the possibility for DVD releases and online streaming. So, there is more to come soon…
Daniel: That is wonderful news. In addition to the week-long retrospective on the cinema of Med Hondo, you organised a two-day symposium that featured distinguished scholars in the fields of Cinema Studies, History and Film theory from around the world reflecting on the ethics and aesthetics in Med’s work. What aspects of the international symposium on the pioneering filmmaker, artist and activist-intellectual resonated most powerfully with you?
Aboubakar Sanogo: It was also an infinite pleasure and honour for me to invite and receive colleagues from North America and Africa to celebrate Med Hondo’s work. The keynote lecture by Professor Robert Rosenstone was a must for anyone who wanted to learn about the debates taking place in the context of the articulation of cinema and history. A professional historian, Rosenstone made it clear that he considered Med Hondo to be writing history on film just as academic historians use words, pens and computers to do their work.
The Saturday session was a major highlight for me as it brought together films scholars to discuss Med Hondo’s work from a multiplicity of perspectives. I was particularly interested in putting these presenters in conversation with Carleton faculty as respondents in order to mark the location specificity of the symposium. I really enjoyed your response to Med’s work, particularly the ways in which you placed his work in the context of an Afro-diasporic intellectual tradition, as well as Charles O’Brien’s take on Med’s films through the angle of sound.
Daniel: Thanks Aboubakar. I was also struck by the ways in which the keynote and the panels on Saturday addressed Med’s uncanny ability to address the past with dreadful objectivity. It was made clear that his films reject the idea that we should just translate a dead history, and neatly tuck the past away on a shelf or in a museum. In contrast, they document a living history that inspires revolutionary consciousness about the past, present and future. How has Med’s work inspired you and your colleagues to think more deeply about history and the historical process?
Aboubakar: For Med Hondo, history is very much alive in so far as it is an archive of a multiplicity of emancipatory struggles awaiting critical transmission. His own biographical narrative is an archive of personal struggles to raise oneself in the pantheon of African cinema without the benefit of any formal film education and industrial infrastructural support. It is also an archive of the emancipatory struggles, defeats and aspirations of African cinema in terms of what it saw and still sees as its contribution to the continent itself and to the world at large.
Its anchoring in history makes Med Hondo’s cinema unthinkable outside the pedagogic. For he sees history as fulfilling a function of critical pedagogy for the mind and the imagination, in that it gives them vitamins and wings to invent and conquer the future. Indeed, Med’s work has within it a certain sense of restlessness with regard to “the way things are,” that is vis-à-vis the present. He will under no circumstances settle for a present that closes horizons and wishes to have things solely on its own terms. He tries to organize his cinematic project around the maxim of Frantz Fanon that “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” In doing so, he articulates a certain dynamic relationship to history itself by foregrounding an inescapable and inexorably awe-inspiring and self-defining rendezvous with the present as an ultimate test of one’s humanity.
Daniel: Can you say a bit more about politics and aesthetics in the cinema of Med Hondo. How, for example, does Med’s work relate to the politics and poetics of decolonial intellectuals who call on us to shift the geography of reason? How does it reflect a new humanism that rejects the presumption and arrogance of Eurocentric art, or what Fanon famously diagnosed as the sickness and inhumanity of Europe and North America?
Aboubakar: You are right in highlighting the fact that Med Hondo’s films are also in conversation with a kind of decolonial history of ideas and intellectual history which help nourish his own emancipatory project. This is possible to trace on a film by film basis. For instance Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks haunts Soleil O in a significant manner.
But Med also converses with other figures of the Africana pantheon like Senghor, Lumumba, Ben Bella, Malcolm X and Joseph Ki-Zerbo, and icons of global revolutionary protest such as Che Guevara. Les Bicots Negres (which we did not show) is at once under the sign of Marx, the cinema and ideology debate in film studies and the critique of the Francophonie as a neocolonial project. It is impossible to think of Med Hondo’s West Indies outside of a critique of Aime Césaire’s departmentalization politics.
Finally, Fatima the Algerian Woman of Dakar is not only the ultimate homage to Fanon as a Pan-African father figure who deconstructed the colonial division between so-called North and sub-Saharan Africa. It is also a celebration of legendary African historian Cheikh Anta Diop, who contributed significantly to the institutionalization of the “Ancient Egypt-as-Black African” paradigm at the heart of a configuration which seeks to wrestle knowledge itself from the lethal grips of a profoundly dehumanizing colonial epistemology.
Daniel: What’s next for Med?
Aboubakar: Med Hondo has been trying to make a film on Toussaint Louverture, the hero of Haiti’s liberation, since the nineties but has not yet been able to secure sufficient funding for it. He would very much like it to be his last film. I read the screenplay and it is a fantastic historically informed and structured epic. So, if you know potential funders, including our own former Governor General who hails from Haiti, please let us know…
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