Migration in African cinema
No one goes to heaven to come back.
There is a pivotal moment in the great epic of Mandé Soundiata, when Sundiata Keita, alias The Lion King, is forced to leave, to migrate. At this point, he’s a young man, full of ambitions and unbridled possibilities. For the first time in his life, despite his obvious lameness and speech difficulties, despite all the obstacles in his way, he is fully aware of his own powers.
This event takes place in the 13e century and the world as we know it is about to change for good. But first Sundiata, the catalyst for this change, must flee, because the circumstances in which he finds himself have become inaccessible. There is an assassination attempt on his life, especially from his own father, King Nare Maghan. Additionally, the place he calls home, a small, low-key kingdom called Mali, is threatened by the ruler of the neighboring kingdom, the mighty Somangaroo known as a wizard.
There is no other way out for Soundjata than to flee.
Migration will offer him the opportunity to become what he was meant to be, the leader that the oracle and soothsayers predicted he would be.
This is the essence of migration. It offers the migrant the opportunity to fully rise to his or her potential. Migration opens doors and makes man a better version of himself. The world is what it is today largely because of migration.
But migration has its dark sides. Migration can be disappointing. The utopia, towards which the immigrant is drawn, can turn out to be a nightmare, a prison where his dreams are crushed, where his very existence can be endangered and where it could end.
These struggles are some of the themes that the three films I want to address explore at length: The black of by Ousmane Sembene (1966), Touki-Bouki by Djibril Diop Mambéty (1973) and Atlantic by Mati Diop (2019).
The three filmmakers, once migrants themselves, must have witnessed these two aspects of migration, good and evil. Thus, in their films, they highlight the possibilities of migration but also the challenges and questions it poses. They reveal how the promised paradise can sometimes turn into hell.
It is a well-known phenomenon: every day myriads of people from all corners and corners of the earth move from one place to another. Some are called expatriates, to avoid the negative connotation associated with the word migrant. But even the migrant who does not have a diploma or certificate is in essence an expatriate. This is the case for many domestic workers, mostly young women, from Asia, Africa, Latin America and even Europe. Life evolves around such a “good”. It continues unabated, day after day. Sometimes it’s like she’s a robot, a machine without emotion. She never complains but works in absolute silence. She lives in the shadows, always in the background, without time to have fun. His world is a world of shadows. It is visible and invisible at the same time. But in her dreams and desires develop. She carries a whole world within her, and this world constantly challenges her, makes demands, often scandalous, impossible to satisfy.
Trapped in the world of shadows and the world within her, the world of the home and the world of migrants, she feels lost and in limbo.
This is the image that the father of African cinema, Sembene Ousmane, tries to show us with his first feature film and the classic, The black of (1966). The film is a rare gem of cinematography. The heroine, Diouana, is of great beauty: her steps are majestic, her skin as beautiful and black as ebony. The Djelis or singers of praise of yesteryear would have sung his names through the ages. But Diouana, a domestic worker working for a wealthy French couple, is trapped in the nightmare that migration has become. In silence, her rage is only visible by light gestures, we see her slowly undoing. For what was once considered a paradise, life in France has turned out to be a nightmare. Migration, the ultimate solution for many, is not the case with Diouana. But she is unable to escape Heaven, because no one goes to Heaven to come back. This is the dilemma of migrants. If the destination country turns out not to be what you expected, a homecoming is not always the solution. Such a decision requires courage, resourcefulness and the same ingenuity that was required to migrate. Because the migrant does not return to this home which he had left. Sometimes, to escape this fate, this feeling of non-belonging, the migrant has no other choice but to sink further into despair, which happens in Diouana.
There is a scene in which she receives a letter from her parents in Senegal. It is a poignant scene that illustrates the dilemmas that migrants often face. Her boss offers to read the letter to her. From the film, it is not clear whether Diouana is illiterate. But we hear it in a voice fluent in French, which suggests that there is power at play here. The power of the boss to dominate him over his worker, the power of the destination country over the migrant, and how this power is sometimes abused. The letter is full of complaints from parents about Diouana. There is also a plea to send them money. We, the viewers, know that Diouana’s salary is kept by her boss, who refuses to pay her, which is the fate of many domestic workers around the world. The letter is littered with demands and reproaches. Home and the desire for home hover like a sharp dagger over Diouana’s life. This is the moment that triggers the collapse of Diouana. Or can it be read as the beginning of resistance? We see Diouana transform from a young woman always impeccably dressed in Western clothes into one dressed in African clothes. She even changes her hairstyle to a style worn in Senegal. Diouana goes even further. She asks that the mask hanging on the wall of her boss’s house be returned to her. “It’s mine,” she said, “harshly. It is as if for the first time Diouanan demanded the return of her individuality, of her African essence in a world where she had been a caste afloat.
But even this desperate act seems too late for Diouana, as the world she found herself in has become a place where she is unable to achieve redemption. Diouana therefore commits the greatest act of resistance. In a final act, she decides to be true to herself by ceasing to be a migrant.
Another aspect of migration, life at home, is explored in a film loaded with symbols, Touki-Bouki by Djibril Diop Mambéty (1973). Two young people, Mory and Anta, while wandering the streets of Dakar on a motorbike riding on megaphones. The film is an allegory of unbridled desire but also of hopeless imprisonment. The bull is doomed to be sacrificed, despite its resistance and its thirst for freedom. The bull cannot escape its simple destiny as food for humans. The two young people try to escape their destiny by dreaming of migrating to Paris, a city whose praises are sung by Joséphine Baker in a sensual and attractive voice. To achieve their goal, Mory and Anta commit theft, but even with this desperate act, they are unable to escape their fate. Arrived at the port to embark on the ship bound for Paris, the same ship that Diouana embarked on, Mory hesitates. He turns around and rushes towards the city in search of his motorbike with the butts. The bull decides to embrace his fate.
But what if the journey undertaken fails? What if the migrant does not arrive at his destination? This is the theme approached with great subtlety and power by Mambéty’s niece, Mati Diop, in the 2019 film. Atlantic. Mati Diop chooses to focus on the effects of unsuccessful attempts to migrate on those who remained at home. She succeeds by bringing back the spirits of the dead at sea to those who have been left behind and by showing them what the migrants saw at sea, what they experienced. What Mati Diop presents is the greatest form of empathy, which makes this film, in my opinion, the best of the three reviewed.
But Mati had great teachers to learn and to rely on, teachers in the person of the father of African cinema Sembene Ousmane and his uncle Diop Mambéty who died so young.
These films pay tribute to migration in all its facets. They show us the beauty of the human being but also the terrible costs of migration.
They are a gift from these three great masters.