When Med Hondo was born in Mauritania in May 1936, it was part of French West Africa. His father was Mauritian, his mother Senegalese. By 18, he was training as a chef in Morocco, before emigrating to France in 1959, first to Marseilles and then to Paris. His experiences trying to make a living in a range of menial jobs, including cook, farm labourer, dockworker and deliveryman infuse his first film Soleil Ô.
He also began finding small roles in film and television, obviously observing very closely the film-making process. When he was still a teenager, he began making Soleil Ô on a miniscule budget, part financed by taking dubbing work on American movies. The process took four years, but the result was accepted into Critics Week in Cannes, 1970.
“In an unnamed French colony in West Africa, black men line up before a white priest for baptism and renaming – the first step in a process that simultaneously deracinates and subjugates them. In France, colonial blacks, encouraged by propaganda, arrive to seek a better life. What they find is unemployment or a handful of ‘dirty’ jobs, unacceptable living conditions, naked racism and bureaucratic indifference. Searching for a new form, Med Hondo has eschewed all conventional narrative. From the stylized and surreal opening sequence to the episodic adventures of a particular man, the director presents a series of imaginative set pieces, linked by voice-over narrative, that investigate and dramatize a complex of interrelated themes. A scathing attack on colonialism, the film is also a shocking exposé of racism and a brutal and ironic indictment of Western capitalist values. “(Harvard Film Archives notes.)
The structure of the film is simple. Production values are low – most of the filming is in the streets, or (presumably) the homes or workplaces of the cast and crew. Filming was in black and white 16mm and involved the members of a theatre group with whom Hondo became involved.
Its political statement is clear and unambiguous. A young man from Mauritius expects to find his education will be a passport to a better life in Paris. The reality is otherwise – manual labour instead of intellectual, being passed over for lesser capable whites, attitude of colonialism and patronisation in everyday life. If its politics are unsubtle, it’s because there is really no subtlety in the situation. When a situation is so unbalanced the picture that’s drawn will not be balanced, it cannot be balanced honestly.
Possibly equally angry films were made at the time. But Hondo shows from the start his powers as a real filmmaker. He thinks in images, not polemics as shown by a comment where he described an image he was not able to achieve:
The original idea was to show tourist spots packed with blacks only. All of a sudden you see Sacré Coeur and you would see only blacks. It would have had a powerful cinematographic impact. But the idea remained on paper and it wasn’t translated into images.[i]
The situations, encounters, rejections that Hondo uses to construct his film are raw, are brutal notwithstanding the quiet way in which they are presented to us. He is not interested in sugar-coating the story to appease the white bourgeoisie. But it is not a film of external anger or violence – perhaps that is the American way.
His actors are all people who lived these experiences and know how futile it can be to explode. But their anger, frustration and humiliation is palpable in Hondo’s images, in the performances, in the cinéma vérité style, in the rawness of the film.
Notes on the Restoration.
The restoration of Soleil Ô was made possible through the use of a 16mm reversal print, and 16mm and 35mm dupe negatives deposited by Med Hondo at Ciné-Archives, the audiovisual archive of the French Communist Party, in Paris. A vintage 35mm print preserved at the Harvard Film Archive was used as a reference. Colour grading was supervised by cinematographer François Catonné. [ii]
Restored by Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in collaboration with Med Hondo. Restoration funded by the George Lucas Family Foundation and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project.
[i] Med Hondo, quoted in Catalogue for Il Cinema Ritrovato XXXI edizione, 2017
Notes by Peter Hourigan