Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 26, September 2002

 

 

 

Julie Papaioannou

Intersecting Identities

 

 

Lieve Spaas

_The Francophone Film: A Struggle for Identity_

Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press/St Martins Press, 2000

ISBN 0-7190-5861-9

xiii + 290 pp.

 

Lieve Spaas's original study, _The Francophone Film: A Struggle for Identity_, introduces the reader to issues of identity formation in the French-speaking countries other than France by bringing together directors and films within the context of a common linguistic heritage, as the terms Francophone and Francophonia denote. Spaas's work attempts to break new ground in Francophone film study, as it is the first work that comparatively addresses the social, political, individual, and collective realities of a historically differentiated French-speaking world. The focus of the book is the context of a common Francophonia that connects linguistically, geographically in cases, but first and foremost historically, the countries under study with France. In Spaas's own words, the book 'studies those countries of Francophonia that have had a sustained contact with France and, in the case of former colonies, that were French at the moment of independence' (x). Spaas also clearly explains Francophonia in relation to the organization of ACCT ('Agence de la Cooperation Culturelle et Technique', created in 1973, which in 1993 became 'Agence de la Francophonie', preserving nevertheless the acronym), and this association works well on the informative level.

 

The book is divided into three parts, each representing Francophone film production in three different continents: Europe, North America and the Caribbean, and Africa. Every section is further divided by countries of interest, drawing attention to specific historical and socio-political issues that have affected each particular case of Francophone film production. The book almost exclusively covers films from the second half of the 20th century (except the discussion of the Belgian filmmakers Charles Dekeukeire and Henri Storck that goes as far back as the 1920s). In the light of a given socio-historical and cultural background for every Francophone country, always in dialogue with France, the study narrows its focus to a number of filmmakers whose individual work most satisfactorily represents the struggle for identity. Thus the structure of the book functions on two important levels: each continental section has its own breath of life while it simultaneously connects with the experience of other Francophone cinemas through the bond of identity formation. This intersection of Francophone experiences serves Spaas to cautiously and consciously transcend categories of 'race, gender, genre, period or nation' (x) in addressing a wide range of films. In the Preface to the book, Spaas acknowledges the diversity of her chosen subject, in terms of both social and filmic experience, and makes clear that her comparative study takes into account 'distinctions of ethnicity, territoriality, religion and citizenship' (x).

 

Given this clarification, however, the explanation about the critical paradigm of this study is rather elusive. According to Spaas:

 

'the emphasis here is on the intersections between memory and history, narrative representation and social reality, with the intention of scrutinizing the relationship between individual, social and political issues and colonial, postcolonial and neo-colonial problems manifest in Francophone cinema' (x).

 

The objective of the project is thus to draw attention to the *intersections* of the above questions, and the method used is that of a 'mapping expedition' (x). Indeed, the very structure of the book plays out this method, one that assists in treating questions both of the particular (individual filmmakers, and significant films), and the universal (discussions about film production within state borders, regions, and continents). By emphasizing specific countries and filmmakers, and by analyzing a significantly important body of films, Spaas examines continental, regional, and state issues of identity formation. Though adeptly developed in each individual section of the book, the method of a 'mapping expedition' creates a sort of tension in bringing its three separate sections of distinct Francophone experiences to work together as an organic whole under the rather generic term of Francophonia. This tension becomes clearly evident in the Introduction: 'Francophonia and Identity'. The first half of which is devoted to the Frenchness of Quebec and the nationalistic nature of the dialogue between Quebec and the *motherland* France; the second half brings up the question of the Frenchness of the former colonies, approaching it through a brief discussion of colonization and neo-colonial tactics in post-independence. European Francophonia, such as the cinemas of Belgium and Switzerland that are treated in the first part of the book, is not mentioned in the Introduction, leaving the reader rather puzzled as to the purpose of this omission. Is it the centrality of the former position of Belgium as a colonial ruler -- a position that latently equates this country with the historical position of France as a former colonizer -- that disallows Belgium's lining up with the formerly colonized and marginalized Francophone regions, as for instance with the Democratic Republic of the Congo; or is it Belgium's own internal crisis of linguistic and national identity that, along with Switzerland's neutrality, disqualify these countries from the introductory discussion of Francophonia as a repository of Frenchness in terms of language and culture? It is strikingly remarkable, nevertheless, that the implications of colonization, assimilation policies, and the dissemination of French language and culture, as discussed in the study, highlight rather than blur historical preoccupations within the all-inclusive character of the Francophone family.

 

Spaas's 'intersections' challenge the universality of the term Francophone, emphasizing difference and distinct relationships in cinematic experiences. On these grounds, however, Spaas repeatedly makes use of the term 'postcolonial' in an ambivalent manner. While the use of the term postcolonial is often linked with the terms colonial and neo-colonial to indicate a chronological order, its use in the case of Belgium as 'part of the postcolonial world' (8) begged an elucidation. Returning to my previous point, if Belgium historically equates France on the level of former colonial powers, could the term postcolonial be used in relation to France, and in what particular conditions? Would these conditions be merely chronological? In fact, the unhyphenated version of the term that Spaas employs in her book has stirred a long theoretical debate in postcolonial studies, inasmuch as it highlights the tendency to evade the chronological succession that the prefix 'post' implies. Questions of periodicity and continuity, as well as questions of counter-hegemony and counter-colonial perspective, have generated a variety of *post(-)colonial* approaches. Also, considering the theoretical debate as to whether territories such as Quebec or Australia belong to a postcolonial world, a concrete position on the issue of postcoloniality on the part of the author -- without nevertheless bogging the reader down with elaborate theoretical analyses -- would have provided him/her with a solid understanding of the postcolonial condition in the context of this study.

 

At any rate, looking at film production in the major Francophone countries, the study inevitably reveals intersections of relative categories between North (Europe and North America) and South (Africa). Spaas skilfully makes a subtle connection between capitalist and non-capitalist worlds, going beyond the dichotomy between First and Third (World) cinema. Significantly, the prism of Spaas's *intersections* is the bridging of dichotomies to maximize discussions on specific identities. The strength of the book lies in the thematic arrangement of each particular section with regards to issues of identity formation. Spaas's engaging narrative flow brings forth the juxtaposition of the filmmaker's personal experience with the analysis of individual films to successfully get the point across to the reader.

 

Throughout the book the study of European Francophone cinema is strongly characterized by issues of existential quest, identity crisis, fragmented self, and social identity, positioning the individual at the forefront of the analysis to either depict or echo the post-war predicament. Chantal Akerman's _Les Rendez-vous d'Anna_ (1978) serves as a great example of Spaas's choice of films that raise questions of post-war modern Europe through memory, mapping out individual experiences that are not necessarily confided within the Belgian borders, but rather they are intriguingly involved to the quest for social, and furthermore European identity (30). Akerman's _Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles_ (1975), or _La Dentelliere_ (1977) by the Swiss Claude Goretta, provide another set of examples of European Francophone filmmaking dealing with individual identity, but highlighting the feminist condition (27). Significantly, both Belgium and Switzerland present a corpus of films that treat questions of exile at home, underscoring issues of multilingualism, diversity of the population, migration, and economic crisis. Cinematically, the group of European films focuses on the daring investigation and acute criticism of conventional film language.

 

Quebec's quest for national (and furthermore nationalistic) identity dominates the discussion of film narrative in the second part devoted to North America and the Caribbean. The focus of Spaas's analysis of Quebecois films is the breaking with conventional codes, whether they be social, moral, or cinematic codes. An extensive presentation of the struggle to establish Francophone film on the Canadian National Film Board (NFB, or ONF standing for the French 'Office National du Film') is not only highly informative, but also reflects Quebec's campaign to shed its provincial status and acquire national autonomy, as well the regions' resentment towards the Anglophone part of the federal state of Canada. The choice of Quebecois film reflects the region's appeal to nationalism portrayed through the filmmakers' investigations around themes of masculinity and fatherhood, liberation of women, and traditional, moral, or religious values. Indeed, the majority of the films under discussion challenge conventional models of male behavior, and in most of the cases incompetent father figures and absent mothers often allegorically relate to the English conquest and rule, and the loss of 'motherland' France respectively. Spaas examines films by directors such as Claude Jutra and Denys Arcand that, along with Micheline Lanctot, Claire Poirier, and Lea Pool (representing the most recent film production by women filmmakers), bring questions of individual identity to the fore against the background of Quebec's quest for national identity. The reference to the referendum in Quebec in 1980, which 'shattered the dream of an independent Quebec' (64), appears to underline the book's omission of the most recent referendum in 1995.

 

Quebec and the Francophone Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique are grouped together not only by their geographical proximity, but also by the peculiar character of their status: Quebec, a Francophone province within an Anglophone country; the Caribbean islands, French Departments overseas. If Quebec, because of the loss of 'motherland' France, attempts to appropriate the historical and linguistic bond to gain autonomy, Guadeloupe and Martinique, because of their current administrative and political bond with mainland France, struggle to reappropriate their history and Creole language. Additionally, questions of African identity and slavery thematically connect this section with the following one treating Francophone African cinema. It is at this *intersection* of differences that Spaas most interestingly puts her intention of a 'mapping expedition' to work. Later, in connecting North and West African films in one section, Spaas explains: 'Although the countries within these two Francophone regions each have their own distinct characteristics, several historical and linguistic criteria and their shared colonial experience justify grouping them when exploring their film production' (128).

 

Using an analysis of the Caribbean film _Rue Cases-Negres_, directed by Euzhan Palcy in 1983, the study draws attention to film production in North and West Africa. The quest for identity takes on a different meaning in the African continent, since cultural and national issues come to the fore. With the introduction of Francophone African film production, Spaas makes a clear and significant point:

 

'Ten years on, stronger national identities are emerging and studies on specific countries and individual film-makers are appearing. Yet, because of the distribution problems of African cinema, which cause African films to remain unknown to a larger audience, each country still needs the over-reaching groupings of being 'African' and 'Francophone'' (131).

 

Spaas discusses a wide array of filmmakers and films and, in her film analyses and discussions of identity, concisely includes questions of orality, tradition, and individual and social life, addressing a series of dichotomies between the spoken and written word, tradition and modernity, urban and rural space. It is understood that in this study, great in scope and detail, the availability of films, as well as the author's personal preferences dictated its comprehensiveness. It is understood that in this study, great in scope and detail as it is, the availability of films, as well as the author's personal preferences, dictated its coverage. Films that participated in FESPACO 1999 -- Festival Panafricain du Cinema et de la Television d'Ouagadougou, a renowned event that takes place biennially in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso -- make up a considerable list of the Francophone African films in this book. However, it is surprising that Abderrahmane Sissako's _Life on Earth_ (_La Vie sur Terre_, Mali, 1998), that won the best editing award in 1999, is not included, while the video-documentary _Chef_ by Jean-Marie Teno (Cameroon, 1999) makes the list, along with _Pieces d'identites_ (Mweze Ngangura, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1998), that won the much coveted Yennenga Stallion (*Etalon de Yennenga*) the same year, _La Genese_ (Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Mali, 1999), and _Silmande_ (Pierre Yameogo, Burkina Faso, 1998) -- films that brought home the FESPACO 1999 prizes of best cinematographic decor and best musical score respectively. In addition, discussion of promising filmmakers such as the Burkinabe director Regina Fanta Nacro and Jean-Pierre Bekolo -- whose _Aristotle's Plot_ (_Le Complot d'Aristote_, France/UK/Zimbabwe, 1996) allegorically treats African cinema and its deplorable conditions of distribution and exhibition -- could have further underscored this otherwise meticulous scholarship.

 

Spaas's insightful analysis of film texts makes the book pleasurably readable and accessible to a wide range of readers. This accessibility assures a successful application in film classes on regional cinemas, since the individual sections work well as reference material, providing analyses, both chronologically and thematically, of a wide spectrum of significant films. films

 

University of Rochester, New York, USA

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

Julie Papaioannou, 'Intersecting Identities', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 26, September 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n26papaioannou>.

 

 

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