Returning the Colonial Gaze

Returning the Colonial Gaze: Afrique Sur Seine

The third instalment of The Barbican’s “Returning the Colonial Gaze” series of Francophone African and French cinema from the 50s, 60s and 70s, opened with a beautiful short from Paulin Soumanou Vieyra.

Credited as the first film made by Senegalese filmmakers, and the first directed by a black African, “Afrique Sur Seine” explores Paris through the lens of an African student, questioning whether Africa can be found on the banks of the Seine. All in all, its conclusion is optimistic – utopian, even, with the visual emphasis on interracial friendships and romances and the narrator’s parting words “we are winning the battle of light.”

I initially found this perspective at odds with the realities of its time – in 1955, France was one year into the bloody Algerian War of Independence and brutally suppressing a revolt in Cameroon, and in the world of cinema the Laval Decree tightly controlled any filmmaking in French-occupied African territories.

Vieyra himself had been refused permission to film in Senegal, and “Afrique Sur Seine” was partly a response to that refusal. Since there was no law forbidding filming in Paris, he instead centred the experience of a black African in the imperial capital. Given its context, does the film have more subversive potential than a first watch might indicate?

I think it does. On arriving in Paris the narrator asks of the city “where are your gold-paved streets of black children’s fairytales?” The city, and especially its Latin Quarter, is a place of beauty and diversity where black and white and yellow (sic) can enjoy “the fruits of the earth for all, the fruits of culture for all.” But let’s not forget that the rice they are eating is imported from lands exploited by European rule, as is the tobacco they are smoking.

The fact that this film (itself a “fruit of culture”) was borne out of censure alludes to the reality that outside of this immigrant quarter in the metropolitan bubble of a colonising state, culture is not “for all” but tightly controlled and dispensed at the discretion of the powerful. Alongside his cornucopic image of the Latin Quarter, Vieyra also speaks of “days without bread, days without hope” and his repeated “salute” of the city’s beauty seems as hollow as it is genuinely enamoured. The film is first and foremost a love-letter to Paris – but it is also implicitly critical of the structures that have mythologised it in the minds of black children who, like the narrator at the beginning of the film, know nothing but “their little corner of Africa.”

In 1955, the first Indochina War had just ended with the demarcation of an independent North Vietnam, Algerians were radicalising in response to the brutality of the French regime as the bloody Algerian War escalated, and the Cameroon insurrection had not yet been quashed.

The closing line of Afrique Sure Seine, “we are winning the battle of light”, is accompanied by images of interracial couples dancing in the city designated “the capital of black Africa”. But at a time when France is losing its hold over “black Africa” and the rest of its overseas territories, in the wake of a shocking journey to his homeland where he witnessed the brutality of African life under occupation, and hot on the heels of a refusal of permission to film there, surely Vieyra’s phrase is less naïve than it is loaded with subtle irony? And surely it isn’t a reach to imagine that alongside the fight for assimilation and acceptance in Paris, Vieyra could be commenting on the other (explicitly anti-colonial) battles being fought by black Africans elsewhere?