Final Friday Film: Camp de Thiaroye

Directed by Ousmane Sembène 
From a screenplay by Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow 
(1987 Senegal 153 mins)

“In this powerful and moving film Sembène, in collaboration with Thierno Faty Sow, who co-scripted and co-directed, reclaims and tells to the world another of those fragments of history concealed by colonialism which he sees it as his task to disinter. Such stories are part of the history not only of Africa, but of the colonial powers, in this case France, as well. “You don’t know natives or the colonies”, Capt. Raymond is informed when, at a meeting at the General’s H.Q., he insists that the Army should honour its obligations to the tirailleurs. France, he argues, cannot successfully reconstruct by “robbing natives”, particularly those who have, as he outspokenly reminds the assembled officers, been fighting the war “in your place, gentlemen”, a reminder that the authorities in Senegal initially collaborated with Vichy. Ironically, it is not his ignorance of “natives or the colonies” that limits Raymond, but his naivety about his fellow Frenchmen: “An officer who does not keep his word is not worthy to wear the French uniform.” When he hears of the massacre in Diatta’s village he is quick to point out that it occurred in 1942, under Vichy. (In Sembène’s 1971 film Emitai massacres in the Diola region from which Diatta comes are shown as continuing after the liberation of France, and De Gaulle’s assumption of power.) Diatta argues that the mentality of colonial armies, be they French or Nazi, is the same, going on to point out that collaborators are surrounding the leader of the Free French and being put in charge of the colonies. Despite his greater historical awareness (Raymond is, in fact, often prepared to defer to his erudition) Diatta too is taken in when the General apparently gives in to the tirailleurs‘ demands, and offers his word “as a general officer”.

“Secondly, debate is very important in African cinema. It draws on the political rituals of traditional society, which, though feudal, had its system of checks and balances, which resulted in some degree of democratic exchange of opinion. In Camp de Thiaroye the tirailleurs use the traditional, highly rhetorical, almost theatrical, mode of debate of their various societies, but adapt this ritual form to the only language they have in common: the pidgin which the French insultingly call “petit nègre”, a language which is both a result and a tool of colonial exploitation. Here it is revealed as having a potential for eloquence, allowing it to become a moving medium for the articulation of feelings, needs, grievances and resistance, and thus ultimately for the development of the tirailleurs‘ collective political awareness and consciousness of themselves as Africans. One consequence of the latter is the decision to choose their own leaders, selecting a representative from each barracks, rather than relying on their nonetheless much loved and respected Sergeant-Major, who has been promoted by the whites. The structures they evolve grow out of their historical situation, and compare strikingly with the rigid hierarchies of colonialism and the military: “The army is discipline. Obedience to your superiors”, the General tells them. The formal pageantry of the parade-ground serves to stifle debate, mask conflict, hide betrayal and destruction, whereas the theatrical exchanges of the traditional discourse offer a forum for debate, evolution and reconciliation.”                    —James Leahy, Sense of Cinema, October, 2003

Ousmane Sembène was the son of a fisherman, born in Ziguinchor in Casamance to a Lebou family. From childhood Sembène was exposed to Serer religion especially the Tuur festival, in which he was made cult servant. Although the Tuur demands offerings of curdled milk to the ancestral spirits (Pangool), Sembène did not take his responsibility as cult servant seriously and was known for drinking the offerings made to the ancestors. Some of his adult work draws on Serer themes. His maternal grandmother reared him and greatly influenced him. Women play a major role in his works.

In 1944, Sembène was drafted into the Senegalese Tirailleurs (a corps of the French Army). His later World War II service was with the Free French Forces. After the war, he returned to his home country and in 1947 participated in a long railroad strike on which he later based his seminal novel God’s Bits of Wood.

 

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Celebrate the Limerick Soviet of 1919

When Green and Red Commingled: The Limerick Soviet of 1919
A 100 Year Celebration at The Brooklyn Commons

The seismic tremors that the October Revolution sent through Germany, Hungary and Italy are well known to students of the post-World War One Europe. Less familiar is the fact that the revolution’s ripple effects were felt as far to the west as Ireland. This April will mark the centennial of an episode in Irish revolutionary history known at the time—and since—as the Limerick Soviet. When ten thousand people turned out for the funeral of Robbie Byrne, an Irish Republican Army adjutant, and delegate to the Trades Council of Limerick City, who died at British hands, the city was placed under martial law, and citizens were forced to carry written passes to leave and enter the town. The Trades Council answered these repressive measures with a general strike, run by a committee of union delegates. For twelve days Limerick City was in the hands of its workers, who put out a newspaper, organized the food supply, ran public transportation, and even issued their own currency. When a journalist compared the strike committee to the workers councils (soviets) that had taken power in Russia nearly two years before, it was a title that the working class of Limerick City proudly and enthusiastically embraced, prompting workers in scores of lesser labor actions throughout the country to call their strike committees soviets.

The Limerick Soviet marked a hopeful intersection of the workers’ movement with the Irish war of independence, which had begun a few months earlier. It held out the promise that the working class would take the lead in the struggle for Ireland’s freedom. Both the promise, and the disappointment as the soviet came to an end, hold valuable lessons for the struggles of today.

Join us for a showing of The Limerick Soviet, an hour-long documentary on the above events, produced by today’s Limerick trade unionists. The film will be followed by discussion and song. Refreshments will be available. Celebrate the St. Patrick’s Day weekend with a toast to Ireland’s rich revolutionary tradition. (No plastic shamrocks or green beer permitted.)

Special thanks to Frameworks Films of Cork, Ireland and to the Limerick Council of Trade Unions, producers of The Limerick Soviet.

 

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Pontecorvo Double Feature!

Anti-Bourgeois Film Festival
9th Anniversary Double Feature

Pontecorvo Night @ The People’s Forum

Presented by The Left Academy & The Marxist Education Project

5:30 pm
The Battle of Algiers
1965, 100 minutes

The celebrated, newsreel-like film, shot in Algiers in black and white details the national war for independence as fought in Algiers against the occupying French forces. Director Gillo Pontecorvo and writer Franco Solinas created several protagonists in their screenplay, who are based on historical war figures. The story begins and ends from the perspective of Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a petty criminal who is politically radicalized while in prison. He is recruited by FLN commander El-hadi Jafar. This character is played by Saadi Yacef, who was a veteran FLN commander.

7:45 pm
Presentation and discussion of significance of Pontecorvo’s two great films during his time and ours

8:30 pm
Quemada (Burn!)
1969, 108 minutes

A film of revolt set in the Caribbean, could be any of the colonized islands. Marlon Brando plays a British agent who advises Jose Dolores as leader of a slave revolt, to advance English colonial interests. In 1848, revolutionary Jose Dolores, disgusted by the white government’s collaboration with British interests–leads a second uprising, jeopardizing the Antilles Royal Sugar Company. After six years of the uprising, in 1854, the company brings Walker (the Brando character) back to Queimada with the consent of the British Admiralty, tasking him with suppressing the revolt and pacifying the island. Walker attempts to save Dolores’s life but the rebel leader rejects his assistance, asserting that freedom is earned, not received.

Soundtracks to both films by Ennio Morricone

From an interview with Gillo Pontecorvo by Maria Esposito for the World Socialist Web Site
June, 2004

“…About three years ago the BBC defined my work as “the dictatorship of truth”. In my cinema, when faced with the choice of distancing oneself from reality or using an effect that might be used to win the popularity with the public, I always renounce these possibilities and stay close to reality.

ME: Is this why you decided to make The Battle of Algiers in documentary style?

GP: Yes.

Let me explain how much this love for reality, the reality that surrounds us, weighed on me. I only spent four days doing the screen tests for the actors in The Battle of Algiers, but a month looking for the right kind of photography that would best convey this sense of truth.

The difficulty was to find the right sort of look that would imitate grainy photography with strong contrasts, like those of the newsreels, and yet, because it had to be shown in the cinemas where people paid to see it, it had to retain a certain formal dignity, a formal beauty. It therefore took us a month to discover the technique required. The method that finally guided us was to take the original negative and make a copy of it and then re-photograph the copy.”

From a 1999 Gerald Peary interview with Pontecorvo

Cineaste: Could you talk about your brilliant casting in Burn!, using a non-actor as the West Indian guerilla leader, Jose Dolores, opposite Marlon Brando.

Pontecorvo: It was a fight! United Artists wanted me to use Sidney Poitier. I didn’t want to, though I like him as an actor, because his face wasn’t wild. Then I went looking to off-Broadway for black actors. I didn’t find the right one.

In Colombia, during a location scout, we were searching for a forest to burn. We drove very far into the wild in a jeep. Suddenly we saw this peasant man on a horse. This is the face I’d been looking for for four months. But instead of coming to me, he ran away! It was very hot, people around me were furious when I said, “Sorry, we have to find this man.” We asked the local chief to order the playing of a drum. All the people came out, including this man, Evaristo Marquez. He’d never seen a movie but he understood money. He said, “OK.”

I called Marlon on his island. He said, “If you believe he’s right, don’t worry about me.”

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Re-Discovering Fanon: Preview to a work in progress

Re-Discovering Fanon: Preview to a work in progress
An evening with outtakes and director Rico Speight

Re-Discovering Fanon will make evident Fanon’s unrelenting hatred of racism and his uncompromising determination to set forth a dialectic of disalienation in order to bring about a new humanity. Using quotes from his writings, archival footage, still images, and interviews with scholars, colleagues and family members, the documentary will probe the question, “Who was Frantz Fanon?”

Rico Speight is an independent producer/director/writer of film and theatre; he is also a film and video editor and educator. His production credits include documentaries, narratives, television productions, web productions and live theatre. His documentary, Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, the first installment of a two part series on the parallel lives of African American and Black South African young people was released in 1997; in 1999, that documentary screened at the 52nd Cannes International Film Festival. In 2007, Speight released a follow-up production titled, Where Are They Now?, that is a sequel to Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?

For Re-Discovering Fanon, Rico traveled to Martinique in 2005 and conducted extensive research for the documentary; in November of 2007 he began actual production in Martinique, interviewing members of Fanon’s family in Fort de France. He currently lectures on film production at Sarah Lawrence College and is a freelance television studio director for CUNY Television and NYU-TV in New York City.

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