“Africa was colonized, and so is its cinema,” Sidney Sokhona wrote. His films aimed to change that.
The first time we see Sidney Sokhona, the director and star of Nationalité: Immigré, he is on his knees. Two French bureaucrats sit behind a desk, not bothering to look at him as they conduct their interrogation, mechanically writing down his details and finally handing him a piece of paper, which he takes in his mouth before crawling away on all fours. The paper bears the name of his public-housing assignment. His submission symbolizes the inhumane treatment he’ll face in his new home, and the politeness with which he will be expected to endure it.
Hybridizing documentary and fiction, Nationalité: Immigré reaches occasionally into the surreal, as in this first scene. The film was shot between 1972 and 1975. With no money to pay another actor, Sokhona, a Mauritanian immigrant in his early twenties, was forced to play the lead role himself. As the story begins, Sokhona arrives in Paris, having traveled in the trunk of a car. His fantasy of city life, as thin as it is—“Finally, I will see with my own eyes the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, which I have seen so many times at free movie screenings organized by the French embassies in Dakar and Nouakchott”—never materializes, and neither do job opportunities, despite the prayers and lotto tickets to which he pins hope. Sokhona centers the film on the real-life rent strike undertaken by the rue Riquet shelter tenants in those years, in opposition to abusive and dangerous housing conditions. Voice-over explains: “Immigrant workers were already living and working in the most inhumane conditions. But then five people died in Aubervilliers, victims of the owners of this slum. One week after this atrocity, two black Africans were pulled from the Ourcq Canal with fractured skulls.” Over an image of two bodies under a sheet, the voice insists, “So for us immigrants, the situation presented itself like this: we had to organize ourselves to struggle or we would all perish.”
A few years later, in 1978, Sokhona published an essay, “Our Cinema,” in Cahiers du cinema, calling for an African cinema that would cease to be tokenized, ghettoized, and defanged by subsidies. The lack of infrastructure and facilities, he explained, keeps African film indebted to Europe, limiting its quality despite filmmakers’ efforts. “At any time and in any country, to talk about films is to talk about money,” he wrote. “And for a film, once it is made, to earn money so that its director can make another film, it has to be distributed.” That Sokhona’s films have languished in obscurity (in spite of Nationalité: Immigré having shown at Cannes in 1976) adds a retroactive bitterness to the statement. This month, Spectacle Theater has been hosting the first-ever New York City screenings of the film, along with his second feature, Safrana (or, The Right to Speak), from 1976.
“Africa was colonized, and so is its cinema,” Sokhona wrote. His films subvert traditional documentary and ethnographic models, using a variety of overt explanatory devices—voice-over, radio segments, text, classroom scenes, interviews, speeches—to identify the way information is kept and deployed. His tongue-in-cheek didacticism gives the films a nuanced skepticism appropriate to the postcolonial moment, when the values of the colonizing West—freedom, equality—were glaringly absent in day-to-day life.
Safrana braids multiple framing conceits into a complex story of four West African men working in France. Perhaps to emphasize their collective experience, each character is named after one of the actors—but not after the actor who plays him. Before long, fed up with the menial labor and overt racism, they quit their jobs and decamp to the French countryside, where they learn agricultural techniques from peasants who’ve resisted mechanization. The African men aspire to bring the knowledge back to their native countries. The commune they envision became a reality when one of Safrana’s actors, Bouba Touré, founded a community called Somankidi Coura on the Senegal River in 1976. It exists to this day, a success that radically undermines the inherited values of postcolonial global capitalism in proving that industry and exploitation are not the only means to achieve stability.
Together, Safrana and Nationalité: Immigré chart an evolving political consciousness. “I am an immigrant,” Sokhona says in the latter. “I am the same one who came clandestinely to France, to work the assembly line. I am the same one whose grandfather was deported to the Americas during the slave trade. I am the same one whose father died in the Ardennes during World War II, a war in which he took part without knowing why.” That film ends with an empowering success: the rent strike wins the migrants relocation to a safer shelter. But there’s an important caveat: the new home is surveilled and controlled by the police. Safrana, meanwhile, begins with a quote from Mao, and its four heroes call one another “comrade.” The film ends not with reform but revolution, as the voice-over states: “Farming might not be the only answer for immigrants. It’s one way of examining our political awareness … When everything is to be done, the stakes are high … Faced with this danger we must fight for appropriate farming that can feed mouths and create jobs.”
Sokhona wasn’t the first to film the stories of African migrants in postcolonial France. Ten years prior, in 1966, Ousmane Sembène made Le Noire de… (Black Girl), which follows Diouana, a Senegalese woman working for a rich family as household maid. At first she’s elated to leave Dakar, but in Antibes, she feels trapped, having been promised a more attractive job and the opportunity to see France. “For me,” she says in voice-over, “France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, and my bedroom.” Paternalized and exoticized, she undertakes her own strike, refusing to leave her bed. But for Diouana, a woman and a domestic worker, the cause is far lonelier and more vulnerable than the kind featured in Sokhona’s films. To get her up, the white man offers her money; she collapses as if the bills hurt. Her voice-over, distraught and angry, says, “Never will I be a slave. I didn’t come here for the apron nor the money.” In Sokhona’s films, warnings of danger and reports of violence come over the radio and from the mouths of French Leftists, but there’s no direct conflict depicted. Sembène’s film is more familiar, having had wider distribution in the West; it ends with Diouana slitting her wrists.
In all of these films, the enemy is not just the police and the overt racists, but the “progressive” whites who want authentic rice with mafé cooked by an African maid, and the leftists attempting to coopt and represent the immigrant cause. The French critic Serge Daney lauded Nationalité: Immigré for its exposé of the neglectful left, writing, “The immigrant, the ideal proletarian with only a mattress in a slum to lose, found himself burdened with embodying, through his individual life experiences, the various phases of a thoroughgoing ‘crash course’ in self-awareness, as already recognized and indexed by Western Marxism.”
One character in Nationalité: Immigré offers a history lesson on the systemic oppression of immigrants. Sokhona’s camera reveals the speaker: a white hippie Frenchman wearing a dashiki. He speaks from a chair in the middle of the woods, far from the lived experience in overcrowded shelters and factories.
In the past two weeks, the U.S. has seen more than six hundred immigrants arrested and detained by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security released documents outlining Trump’s plans to increase deportations by stripping undocumented immigrants of their right to privacy and enlisting local police forces to find and detain them. These memos are disturbingly similar to France’s 1972 Fontanet-Marcellin directive, which also left immigrants at the mercy of police—a directive that caused the very organizing movements Sokhona documents in his films.
Organizers on the left must be aware of who is vulnerable. Last week saw a sort of general strike, a “Day Without Immigrants,” in which immigrants and those in solidarity stayed home from work and school. But who’s following the precarious fate of those who were fired the next day: the eighteen Tennessee workers at Bradley Coatings, Inc.; the twelve restaurant workers in Oklahoma; the thirty JVS Masonry employees in Colorado, the twenty-one Encore Boat Builders in South Carolina?
Daney, the critic, might as well have been referring to today’s American left when he wrote, in the seventies, that French leftists “were to be confronted by the bourgeoisie’s cynical negligence of their own laws … The activists failed to grasp the legal system as an authoritative body where something actually takes place.” Sokhona, in films that deserve a wider audience now as much as ever, presents the devastating scope and the still-unfolding legacy of that authority.
Sarah Cowan is a freelance writer and a video editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She lives in Brooklyn.