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Soleil Ô and the expansion of the African image

Thu, Feb 15, 2018
by Rooney Elmi

The fourth annual Cinema Revival: A Festival of Film Restoration opens with a discussion of the work of West African filmmaker Med Hondo and a screening of his1967 feature debut, Soleil Ô. Columbus-based Rooney Elmi, who covered Hondo's work for a retrospective at TIFF Bell Lightbox, offers insight on the too-little-known filmmaker and his first film's restoration, completed with support from Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation. Rooney specializes in visual media and pop cultural criticism. One of only 10 emerging writers nationwide invited to the 2017 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, she has also contributed to outlets such as i-D, IndieWire, Filmmaker, Okay Africa, and Reverse Shot, and in 2016 founded SVLLY(wood), a biannual print and digital movie magazine geared toward curating a radical cinephilia.

Soleil O title card

What defines the film “canon” and who decides what's included in it?
It’s a pesky debate that tends to permeate nearly every conversation surrounding classic film. During the summer of 2016, I was invited to investigate how those cultural conversations can heavily impact the afterlife of neglected films, in connection with a two-week retrospective at TIFF Bell Lightbox honoring the oeuvre of a film giant, The Indocile Image: The Cinema of Med Hondo.

In the fourth annual Cinema Revival festival, the Wexner Center officially throws itself into the gauntlet of institutions putting Hondo and his groundbreaking debut, Soleil Ô on the forefront.

Born Abid Mohamed Medoun Hondo to farmers in the Atar region of Mauritania in 1936, Med Hondo has certainly established himself as a face on Africa’s cinematic Mount Rushmore. Hondo’s body of work provides an unrelenting critique on the stain of European colonialism with a punk boldness that mirrored his pioneering chimeric docu-fiction aesthetic and anti-capitalist rhetoric. His films tend to conclude by inciting a call for revolution, and if there’s ever a time to embrace his call to action, it’s now. Soleil Ô  marks an ideal choice for the first film to be restored, exhibited, and distributed under the African Film Heritage Project, due to its proximity to the African film renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s and its meditation of the plight of refugee alienation, a subject that is, sadly, timeless.

“When I wrote my script I did not have an audience in mind, I was living in France and experiencing what being a minority felt like. I had to yell and free myself. Writing the script of Soleil Ô was an authentic act of rage and liberation.” –Med Hondo

The semi-autobiographical directorial debut was shot over a period of four years on a shoestring budget. Conceptualized as a series of vignettes, strung together by a lyrical narration, Soleil Ô  profiles the journey of a black immigrant who makes his way into the heart of politicized Paris in the hopes of gaining economic prosperity. The unrelenting reality of racism and humiliation on supposed “civilized” land sparks a process of radicalization within the lead character that honors the ongoing legacy of freedom fighters such as Malcolm X and Patrice Lumumba.

Despite the revered status of Ô, it had a notorious record of being unavailable even in Burkina, the film capital of Africa, but that’s changing with the African Film Heritage Project. A partnership between Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and UNESCO, this new entity has taken on the responsibility of locating, restoring, and preserving African films that have unfortunately been lost to history and/or deliberate disregard. Perhaps one of the more delightful inclusions of AFHP is the mission to disseminate the films throughout Africa, restoring the continent's cultural legacy for a new generation. Scorsese’s intent to broaden the preservation of world cinema began a little over a decade ago with the World Cinema Project, which has helped restore films from Cuba, India, Cuba, Armenia, Turkey and more. It's arguably the crown jewel in his already illustrious career.

Soleil O film still

Understanding the mission of The African Film Heritage Project helps accentuate the importance of Soleil Ô and the decision to make it the first film to be honored with preservation. As a work born from the new African film movement, alongside films by fellow Rushmore figureheads Ousmane Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty, and Souleymane Cissé, its rediscovery aids in the expansion of the canon. While Western-centric cinephilia continues to dominate discourse, this newfound venture strives to broaden our knowledge of world cinema. As Aboubakar Sanogo, the Ottawa-based scholar and North American regional secretary of FEPACI, explains, “This partnership will work to bring African cinema into the field of visibility and audibility in order to reclaim and reconquer the continent’s dignity and place in the world. The films that will be restored will show her beauty, her complexity, her doubts, her uncertainties, and of course, her hopes, aspirations and attitudes toward life on Earth and beyond."

Images: from Soleil Ô, courtesy of Cineteca di Bologna.


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