“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.” Read More