The mass devastation of Europe during World War II left the major film studios in desolation throughout the continent. Even so, it did not take long for filmmakers to rise from the ashes, finding new stories to tell without all of the lavish production values available before the war. This, along with new and cheaper film equipment such as lighter cameras, more mobile sound tools, and new technologies allowed filmmakers the ability to shoot films outside of the dilapidated studios and take their filmmaking out into the streets, making way for the Italian Neorealist movement and, eventually, the French New Wave. It allowed people who would normally not have been able to make films access to the most powerful form of media in the world. There is no doubt that the French New Wave and its menagerie of talented directors changed cinema forever, yet out of all the burgeoning filmmakers from this era, there is a blind spot that is brazenly overlooked: that of Francophone African filmmakers and their influence on the French New Wave and visa versa. These films and filmmakers were literally caught in the undertow of the French New Wave.
Films had been made on the African continent since the very first few years of cinema’s inception, but it would not be until the 1950s that Africans themselves would gain access to filmmaking equipment and acceptance into film schools to begin making their own films. The earliest known film made by an African, was Congolese filmmaker Albert Mongita’s The Cinema Lesson in 1951. The second is Mamadou Touré’s twenty-three minute film from Guinea titled Mouramani, about a man and his dog, produced in 1953. Additionally, in the same year Emmanuel Lubalu released his film Inflated Tires in the Congo. For quite some time most historians falsely believed that a film entitled Africa on the Seine held the honour of being the first film made by an African. Even though this is not so, Africa on the Seine, directed by Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, holds a special place in film history for being one of the first films made by an African, and more importantly, one that actively investigates the then present day situation of African immigrants living in Paris, as well as critiquing the French colonialist establishment.
Vieyra was born on January 30, 1925 in Porto Novo, the capital of Benin. Of Yoruba origin, Vieyra was raised in a Christian family, his father a high-ranking civil servant of the French colonial administration, with seven other siblings. When Vieyra was seven he was sent to France to attend boarding school (1), and there his introduction to the cinema took place. Raised on a diet of Charlie Chaplin films, Westerns, and adventure films, Vieyra felt a strong connection to the cinema. When World War II hit, Vieyra, like all people living in France, experienced hard times, including both food rationing and coming down with tuberculosis. Making his way through this tough period, Vieyra finished school at the University of Paris in biological studies. While a student, Vieyra got his first experience in the art of filmmaking by working as an extra for a French film. Vieyra stated,
One day, someone came to the African Student Center looking for a person to play the role of an African soldier in Le Diable au corps [Devil in the Flesh, 1949]. I decided that I would give it a try and this is how I became an extra in a number of films as well as on the stage. Since I could neither ride a horse nor swim, I was limited to very minor roles. Nonetheless, this kind of job offered a nice supplemental income and it introduced me to an entirely new world” (2).
Unable to stay healthy for any extended period of time, Vieyra was forced to discontinue his university studies to spend time in a sanatorium to receive medical treatment for his illness. This is where Vieyra met with other film students who urged him to discontinue his studies in biology and pick up the study of film. From “1952 to 1955 he studied cinema and filmmaking at the French film institute I.D.H.E.C.” (3). Graduating in 1955, he along with other friends and colleagues made Africa on the Seine.
Made on 16mm black and white film and funded by the Committee of Ethnographic Film of the Museum of Man, Africa on the Seine investigates a generation of black immigrant students and artists living in Paris. The film contemplates Africa’s culture, civilisation and future. Momar Thiam states that the film finally let Africans “watch the life of Africans in Paris in the era before the big immigrations, and therefore marks an important date in the history of the cinema of our continent (Africa)” (4). The twenty-one minute film raises many questions and ideas while revealing so much about the immigrant experience.
Africa on the Seine, while not the first African film, is the first film to reveal the inner-workings of a black immigrant community abroad. The film reverses the old stereotype of Africa as a film set and makes the Western world the stage for Africans. Sarah Maldoror, a black French filmmaker, states that in Africa on the Seine, “I saw the looks cross between our differences. When we looked at the others on the screen, we were no longer looking at them, but with them” (5) The film is a serious critique of the ethnographic films that so often positioned Africans as the exotic and strange “other”, as in the films of Robert Flaherty and Jean Rouch. This film, a meta-documentary of sorts, critiques the long-standing tradition of ethnographic films in a variety of ways. According to Melissa Thackway this is “conveyed through the characteristic exteriority of the filmic gaze, the physical distance from the characters (most of the film is shot in long and mid-shot), and the silence of the characters whose voices are replaced by the film’s omniscient voice-over commentary and music” (6).
Vieyra’s intention is to not make his subjects seen as different and strange to his audience; one is not meant to simply gawk at those on the screen. Vieyra requires that his audience actively participate in their experience of the film. We are not asked to merely look at these students, artists, and workers, but we are looking at their lives with them as they evaluate their current situation. In effect, we become active participants in the making and understanding of this film. It can be safe to assume that Vieyra’s target audience with this particular film would most likely be fellow African immigrants living in Paris. Such audience members would be actively engaged with the film’s protagonists, and most would be living their own lives very much like those presented on the screen. Those initial audiences for Africa on the Seine would have inserted their own lives into the film and found a connection with the film’s characters. The film gave black audiences an opportunity to see people like themselves on the screen and conveyed in a positive, realistic fashion. The film also gave white audiences a realistic representation of black people and allowed the French to take a closer look into the black immigrant experience in their home country.
This film, very much a progenitor of the tidal wave of films to come from such filmmakers as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and many others, raises a very intriguing question: Where are all the Africans in the French New Wave? Paris is filmed as if it is as white as a newly built home without all of the accents and furniture that turn the house into a home. Watching films from this era one cannot help but become aware of the effects that colonialism has had on French society. Vietnam is used as satire in Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965); Cleo from Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962) meets a French military officer about to be sent to Algeria, which at the time was in a long bloody conflict with France. Other films such as the Chris Marker and Alain Resnais Les statues meurent aussi (1953), was banned in France for ten years and examines the pillaging of African art from the African continent. Also, René Vauthier’s Afrique 50 (1950), another powerful film which documents the anti-colonialist riots in in Côte d’Ivoire and in Upper Volta.
As politically and socially progressive as many of the French New Wave films were at providing audiences with what, at the time, were present day representations of the lives of Parisians, they seem to gloss over the fact that not everyone living in Paris is white. All of the foreign people held under the grip of France are alluded to be in far-away countries. This could not have been farther from the truth. France was involved in the detrimental process of colonialism and had power over several countries on multiple continents ranging from Guadeloupe and Martinique in the South Americas, to Senegal, Guinea, Mali, and the Côte d’Ivoire in Africa. This led to rapid resettlement during and after colonisation where people from France’s various conquests immigrated to France itself. So how is it that the French African experience is something left entirely out of the French New Wave? Africa on the Seine fills in this void, and while four years away from the premiere of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), the film that many point to as the beginning of the French New Wave, deals with many of the issues that circulate within these films as well as utilising many of the filmmaking techniques that would be used by the likes of Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Jacques Demy in years to come.
Like many New Wave films, Africa on the Seine deals with themes of existentialist alienation. The film centres on young African students, workers, and artists who have emigrated from their home countries and have inserted themselves into a society that in many respects does not want them there, and in the case of French cinema does not acknowledge them even being there in the first place. These Africans must walk the Parisian boulevards with a severe disconnect from the world around them, facing racial discrimination, confused stares, and the every day vicissitudes of life in what was then the modern day “City of Light.”
“Finally, directors’ efforts to inscribe an African voice in a country such as France, where, as Olivier Barlet rightly points out, the official policy of integration by definition refuses to acknowledge the existence of immigrant ‘communities’, can once again be seen as an act of resistance, of ‘speaking back’” (7).
Many French New Wave films have one main character in common: the city of Paris. From the opening of The 400 Blows to À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), Paris is often-times an important character that influences the events which surround the protagonists of these films. This is no different in Vieyra’s Africa on the Seine. The film buzzes around the streets and monuments of Paris ranging from the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the cafes, to the sidewalks. What makes these shots and sequences different from all of the other films that would emerge from the French New Wave is that they see these monuments through the point of view of an African immigrant living in Paris. They are not so much romanticised as in other New Wave films, but are filmed as if they are foreign, awe-inspiring, and (from many of the angles they are shot) overbearing, looming down on the viewer as if they are about to capsize and squash you.
One of the most important facets to rise out of the French New Wave and ultimately allowed these filmmakers a chance to make their own films was the abundance of new filmmaking tools and equipment that was available for the first time. Often, during times of war, new technologies are invented; others are re-invented and improved upon to give an upper hand to the country at war. Everything from advanced weaponry to, yes, filmmaking equipment was pushed further and further during World War II. Journalists and famous filmmakers alike needed lightweight and sturdy filmmaking equipment that could be taken out on the battlefield and operated with extremely small crews, oftentimes just one or two people. The Eclair and Arriflex cameras would allow these filmmakers to do just that. Faster film stocks needing less light allowed for films to be shot outside of the ultra-controlled studio sets.
There were several famous Hollywood directors who were enlisted with bringing images of the warfront back home. Some of the more important of these films are Frank Capra’s Why We Fight (1942-1945), William Wyler’s Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro (1945), and John Ford’s December 7th: The Movie, which was banned by the United States government for fifty years for its disturbing images of war. These films led to lighter cameras, more mobile sound and lighting equipment, and made at a much cheaper cost to the manufacturer, which after the war would become available to filmmakers for a fraction of the cost of the more heavy-weight cameras used within the studios. Without this plethora of new filmmaking equipment, Vieyra and other African filmmakers shooting films in France would never have been able to make their films in the first place. Just like their fellow New Wavers, these newly developed technologies allowed for a flourishing of cinematic experiences that culminated in the French New Wave.
One of the fascinating things about Africa on the Seine is that it almost provides scenes, shots, and sequences that could or should have been placated within the French New Wave films. Figuratively speaking, Africa on the Seine could almost be seen as made of the ‘cut-off’ footage removed from films of the French New Wave. As if white filmmakers in France at the time cut out any evidence of an African presence and whenever there just so happened to be an African captured within the frame of a shot, they were left on the cutting room floor. It is almost like Vieyra somehow stumbled upon the pieces of film in a New Wave garbage can and brought them back as if to say, “See? We are here!”
Africa on the Seine is not merely an anomaly within this thing called the French New Wave. There are more films that fall within this category of Africans under French rule making films in France during the era of the French New Wave. In fact, the first African film to win international recognition was Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire de… also known as Black Girl (1966). It shows the despair of an African woman named Diouana, who goes to work as a maid in France. She moves from Dakar, Senegal to Antibes, France to work for a rich French couple and as the film progresses she is treated with more and more contempt and disrespect, with very tragic results. Additionally, Med Hondo’s film Soleil O (1967), a film about another African immigrant who comes to France for a better life and ultimately encounters more than he bargained for. These films, much aligned with the sentiments of Africa on the Seine highlight the effects of racism, colonial authority and repression, alienation, and what it means to be an African in a foreign land.
Over the last fifty-or-so years, cinephiles and academics have lavished praise over how progressive the French New Wave was politically and aesthetically, but it sometimes pays to look beneath the facade. Yes, these filmmakers ushered in a new era of experimentation and ways of telling personal stories, but we also must stop and realise that these films and filmmakers are not exempt from conservative and, while not necesarily racist points of view, a race (white) point of view. These films need to be re-examined and questions need to be asked. Where are all of the minorities? Why did these directors choose to not include these people in their films? We also need to ask ourselves if we have the whole story of this tidal wave of cinema that crashed down upon us in those years of cinematic revolution. The answer is, we did not get the whole story. There was a minority presence, we just never allowed ourselves to include it. And, why shouldn’t Africa on the Seine and others like it not be considered both as African films and as films that form part of that ‘wave’ we call the Nouvelle Vague? Med Hondo puts it best, “they bring some Black faces to the lily-white French screens which have been ignoring us for years” (8).
- Francoise Pfaff. “Paulin Soumanou Vieyra (1925-), Senegal.” Twenty-five Black African Filmmakers: A Critical Study with Filmography and Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1988. p. 289.
- Pfaff, p. 290.
- Samba Diop. African Francophone Cinema. New Orleans: University of the South, Inc., 2004. p. 86
- Momar Thiam. “J’ai connu Paulin Soumanou Vieyra.” Presence Africaine 170 (2004): 25.
- Sarah Maldoror. “Hommage to Paulin Soumanou Vieyra.” Presence Africaine 170 (2004): 23-24.
- Melissa Thackway. Africa Shoots Back: Alternative Perspectives in Sub-Saharan Francophone African Film. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2003. p. 121.
- Thackway, p. 120.
- Thackway, p. 121.