Cross-Cultural Film Guide/ Patricia Aufderheide
The American University/ ©1992
Plot: Jose (Garry Cadenat), a young boy who lives with his grandmother (the native Martinican Darling Legitimus, one of the two professional actors in the film and a veteran actress in France, where she was limited to demeaning roles) in the cane fields of Martinique in the 1930s, wins a scholarship to attend high school in Fort-de-France, the capital.
Life in the village has already been rich in lessons. He has learned the shadings in race relations through friendship with a mulatto boy, the bastard son of the Creole plantation owner. He has learned about exploitation and resistance when a neighbor woman offers him lunch in exchange for servant work, which makes him late for class. He defies his angry teacher and the the woman,running away from school to throw rocks at her precious dishes. And he has learned about the African roots of his culture from his village mentor, Medouze (Douta Seck, a noted West African actor).
In Fort-de-France, grandmother drags her old bones from door to door in the rich sector of town as a laundress (Jose only won a partial scholarship), while Jose not only struggles to meet the demands of his new professor, but also discovers the class, race and colonial divisions of city life. His moment of glory seems to come when the professor reads his essay to the class--a paean to the life of poor blacks, drawn in part from the ancient tales of slavery told him by Medouze. But the professor accuses him of plagiarism, and Jose flees. Later the professor tracks him down at home, to tell him he's changed his mind and congratulate him. It's a turning point for Jose, who is launched on the road to a future that can acknowledge its roots, even as his grandmother dies. A harsher fate awaits the mulatto boy, whose white father has died without acknowledging him.
Style: The film has high production values, despite a less-than-a-million-dollar budget, and is executed with deceptive grace and simplicity. It comfortably uses the conventions of psychological realism in which traditional international fiction features are made. The acting by child non-actors is of particular note, an achievement not only of the children but of Palcy's directing. The film maintains close focus on the psychological experience of the boy hero, but packs the screen and the scenes with illuminating and contextualizing material. It carries a message without reducing the story to the message.
Background on director/film: Palcy, who is black, began work in the French National Radio and Television station FR3 in Martinique, and made three films working with children before this. She won a grant for a third of the production funds from a French government grant for young directors. She wrote the script, drawing it from a well-known Martinican novel by Joseph Zobel, of the same title. Martinican officials including the noted poet of negritude Aime Cesaire, the mayor of Fort-de-France, backed the production as well. (Cesaire's friendship with Seck had much to do with his agreeing to play the role.) The film was made in French, not the Martinican creole, in part to satisfy the grant requirements; however the film was not, as is traditional with such grants, first shown in France. It premiered in Martinique, where it broke all box office records for any film ever shown there, and as a result of a post-card campaign from Martinique to France also became a hit in France.
Because the film was controversial and because the white Creole elite continues strong in Martinique (which continues to be an overseas province of France), Palcy had wondered if there might be local criticism. However, she told Pat Aufderheide when it came out, in an interview in Chicago, there was no elite outrage. "Partly it's because they have less power than they once did, because French overseas investment now has more control over the economy. And partly it's because they were relieved to see the final result. They had been afraid that the film would be much harsher in its portrayal of whites, in fact a racist film. I however had never wanted to make a racist film. I wanted to make a film that could touch people, awaken their consciences to a sense of change--a revolt in a positive sense--and move hem to struggle peacefully for a better life, to come to see themselves as people with dignity."
Palcy went on to study with noted French filmmaker Jean Rouch and completed a film with him before working in Hollywood on A Dry White Season, an anti-apartheid thriller set in South Africa, which she directed.
Film production context: Film production throughout the Antilles is very much an individual and personal affair. Small and impoverished populations create no adequate mass base to finance commercial production. French government grants both to its overseas provinces and its ex-colonies (not just in the Antilles but in Africa) have been critical in spurring film production.
Importance: The film swept the French Cesars (like the Oscars), and won two awards, including the Silver Lion, at the Venice Film Festival. It was a smash hit at home, and well-received in France. It had a successful commercial release in the U.S., with Orion, and continues its life on commercial video shelves. One of the reasons for its international success is its winsome hero and the story that can be interpreted as a boy pulling himself up by his bootstraps. However, that reading is belied by a more careful look at the central dilemma of the film: that colonial education provides no way for someone from the lower rungs of the society to honor their own and their culture's experience of struggle. The enduring success of the film is its ability to allow the viewer to enter into the boy's central problem without becoming didactic.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1982 (originally translated 1967)
Joseph Zobel, Black Shack Alley, Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980
Aime Cesaire, The Collected Poetry, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983
Aime Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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