A coincidental regime of historicity

By revisiting the words of the famous poet and politician, Aimé Césaire, Sissako not only pays homage to someone who deeply influenced his art, but as a director, he also gives an allegorical dimension to the trivial life of a small Malian village. The narrative voice of the director reading Aimé Césaire’s poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal provides a poetic and metaphorical force coinciding with the visual representation of Sokolo and its people. The poem operates at an individual and biographical level through the story of exile and return to the homeland, but also at the collective level framed by its anti-colonial message and contemporary postcolonial reality caught between hope and despair. The poem also serves as a counterpoint against an ongoing chrono-politics imposed on Sokolo and post-colonial Africa. Mignolo defines Chrono-politics as:

“… a civilizational principle that serves to ostracize all who do not conform to the modern conventions of time, that devalues ‘subalterns’ for being slow and not racing toward death, which in the rhetoric of modernity is translated as ‘progress and development.’”[20]
[open notes in new window]

As mentioned before, the ambiguity of the images emerging from a cinematic work that seems between documentary and fiction does not provide an obvious message. The movie evolves in ellipses and captures seemingly unimportant aspects of real life pertaining to the present moment rather than illustrate an imposed meaning. How can an anti-colonial discourse or poem, which is situated historically, be interpreted fifty years later? How do these anti-colonial writings pertaining to a particular moment of decolonization still frame the political commentary of a contemporary postcolonial movie? How do they operate in the narrative of the movie? What do they say about the reality of the present portrayed in the movie?

The voices of Aimé Césaire and Abderrahmane Sissako coincide in the sense that the narrator of the movie also experiences a return to the native land: there is a re-appropriation of the poetic narrative. But, like the poem, the movie is not just about the narrator returning to his village. The personal voice of the poet and film director soon embodies the collective voice expressing the preoccupations of the villagers and the economic difficulties faced by an entire continent. The book-length Cahier, although historically situated—written in different steps before decolonization, provides a universal message and a transcendental force which attempts to heal the colonial wounds that persist in a globalized world. The timely call for decolonization does not appear as anachronistic (atemporal) but still meaningful forty years after decolonization. The poetic voice of Aimé Césaire gives a lyrical dimension to the village of Sokolo, which is not entirely filmed for itself but also to represent the dramatic fate of the African continent at the end of the 20th century. The director uses the specificity of the local through the lens of Césaire. Social commentary from the poem is relevant to the moment in the movie. The local radio, ironically called “Radio colon la voix du riz” (“Colonist Radio, the voice of rice”), serves as a relay of the poet’s famous Discours sur le colonialisme through its program “la bibliothèque parlé” (“the open air library”):

“Le grand drame de l’Afrique a moins été sa mise en contact trop tardive avec le reste du monde, que la manière dont ce contact a été opéré; que c’est au moment où l’Europe est tombée entre les mains des financiers et des capitaines d’industries les moins dénués de scrupules que l'Europe s'est « propagée » ; que notre malchance a voulu que ce soit cette Europe-là que nous ayons rencontrée sur notre route et que l'Europe est comptable devant la communauté humaine du plus haut tas de cadavres de l'histoire.”

“Africa’s historic tragedy was less its coming in contact with the rest of the world too late than the way this contact occurred. It was when Europe fell into the hands of industrial leaders entirely lacking in scruples that it expanded. Our misfortune meant it was that Europe we encountered, that Europe which is responsible for the highest pile of corpses in history.”[21]

In this excerpt, Césaire reacts against a misconception about the “historic tragedy” of Africa. Indeed, at that time according to Western criteria of historicity—in particular how they were developed by Hegel—Africa hadn’t entered history. At the end of the 18th century, in his theory on history, the famous philosopher argues:

“Africa proper, as far as History goes back, has remained-for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World-shut up; it is the Gold-land compressed within itself-the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night. Its isolated character originates, not merely in its tropical nature, but essentially in its geographical condition.”[22]

Against such an ahistoric and very “dark” vision of the African continent, Aimé Césaire, in the Discourse, resituates the event of colonization outside a linear conception of history and in turn frames it within a precise geopolitical and economic context. The history of colonization cannot be inscribed into an evolutionary process of the world, or understood as a civilizing mission to lift the natives out of the age of darkness and childhood to turn them into civilized human beings. European colonization is rather the result of an unfortunate coincidence. It is not that Africa has been in the margins of the march of history, but the colonization of Africa (or its historic tragedy) resulted in the continent’s encounter with mercenary European capitalism. Indeed, Africa has been involved in the history of modern Western imperialism since the age of exploration. The discovery of the new world and its colonization by the maritime European powers, was concomitant with the age of beginning trade and manufacture in the West. The exploitation of natural resources and territories in America resulted in a strong demand for labor to supply the European markets with plantation produce and precious metals.

Because Ameridians died in large numbers, either from disease or killed by the colonizers, and the number of European immigrants was insufficient, Africa was to become the main provider of free labor. From the middle of the 15th century up to the 19th century, an estimated 12.5 millions of slaves were deported from Africa to different parts of the Americas and the Caribbean islands and more than a million and a half did not survive the voyage.[23] In Africa itself, an undocumented numbers of victims died while they were captured or on their way to the coast to be sold. If they reached their final destination, slaves worked in the worst conditions. Their life expectancy would not exceed ten years. The exact number of victims of one of the deadliest human enterprise is impossible to know.

After the abolition and suppression of the slave trade and then the abolition of slavery, Africa faced another brutal encounter with predatory Europe. The second industrial revolution and the need for raw materials and natural resources spurred European colonial appetites in Africa itself. By 1914, European imperial powers had divided and taken over the entire continent of Africa, except for Ethiopia and Liberia. This “misfortune” (the term “malchance” or “misfortune” retains an explicit reference to a coincidental occurrence) perpetuates itself across the years, even after decolonization. The repetition of the discourse on colonialism 45 years later is, in turn, important because Europe is deaf to the silent suffering of the former colonized world as the poetic words of Césaire through Dramane’s voice reminds us,

“Europe convulsed in screams, the silent currents of despair fearfully pulling itself together and proudly overestimating itself.” (Cahier d’un retour au pays natal)

France is, among former colonial powers, well known for its denial regarding its colonial past. If France officially recognized slave trades and slaveries perpetrated by European powers against populations deported to Europe, America and the Indian Ocean, from the 15th century, and called it a crime against humanity (law of May 21, 2001 called “Loi Taubira”), in 2005, another law (law of February 23rd, 2005) claimed in one of its articles “the positive aspects of colonization.” This law raised so many protests in France, in its former colonies and in overseas departments, that authorities had to repeal the article. In 2007, nine years after Sissako’s movie, Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France at that time, delivered a highly controversial speech at the university of Dakar, which reveals the long-lasting denial of history and persistence of the Hegelian paradigm toward “Africa” that is commonplace in part of the French political elite and general public.[24]

Today indeed, it is not Africa “being late” on a scale of “development,” unable to adapt to the progress of a modern changing world, but a continent, whose economies have been structured by a global capitalist system that perpetuates mechanisms of dependency, generating what is called “underdevelopment.” Against the image of an immobile and static village living in a mythic time of unalterable traditions, the film aims at representing it as a place of constant movements but also a site of dynamics and change. The phone center at the post-office is one example of a modern telecommunication system well established in the village. It probably closed a few years later, replaced by cyber cafés and mobile phones.

However, the tragedy of colonization seems to prolong itself in the tragedy of the postcolonial state, but in a more subtle and surreptitious way. Towards the end, the film moves toward less referential images to a form of abstraction while it develops a more dramatic tone. Thus the desperate words of a villager writing a letter asking his brother overseas to continue helping him to insure the basic needs of his family (food, water, health care), or he and his relatives will not be able to survive in the village. Those words are ominous. Africa’s unpredictable future stems directly from the detrimental heritage of colonization.

Here I limit this broad argument to the example of agriculture, shown in Sissako’s film. From an economic point of view, colonization required the “modernization” of agricultural activities. From the early days of colonization, African economies were reorganized for a production systematically geared toward exportation of raw materials or mining resources that would gain value within European industries once transformed into manufactured products. Financial investments were mainly directed toward sectors that would sustain their own economic growth. Moreover, colonies have endured the cost of financial investments to build the infrastructures of this new economy through mechanisms of taxation and debts. Because the resources coming from local taxes were too low, the colonies were forced to have recourse to loans since the early beginning of the 20th century.[25] All colonial powers throughout Africa practiced this “model of development” to limit their own expenditures and maximize their profits from the exploitation of the new African market.

Hence, a system of international loans contributes to increase the wealth of creditors and to leads to the impoverishment of the debt’s recipients. After decolonization, development plans were carried on in the same mold reproducing the same mechanisms of underdevelopment inherited from the colonial era: an economy restricted to monoculture and raw materials geared toward exports, vulnerable and dependent on the variations of the world exchange rates set in Western stock exchanges, maintaining African countries in the subservient role of providers of raw materials. In the meantime, food-producing agriculture has been neglected compromising countries’ capacity and autonomy to feed their population, creating risks of food shortages, especially in areas with harsh climate conditions. In addition, the structure of the financial investments in the African economies remained unchanged, coming in great majority from the outside (through development funds from former colonies or international institutions).

In the 80s and 90s, the adjustment and structural reform policies from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund reinforced the permanence of the structure of African economies, in particular the structure of exports, encouraging the development of the existing exportation products as a response to the debt crisis.[26] Consequentially, among the “least developed countries” in the world listed by the United Nations Committee for Development Policy, a majority is located in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mali has been on the list since 1971. Mali economy is primarily based on agriculture: it represents 43.6% of the GDP in 2000, and 80% of the population derives its livelihood from this sector.[27] But the production is extremely irregular and extremely vulnerable to natural hazards (drought, flood, ravaging animals). On top of cereal (millet, sorghum, rice, and corn), Mali produces cotton, which is the country’s largest export crop and has been developed since the colonial era.[28] In the 90s, gold mining expanded rapidly. Gold is becoming the primary export product, above cotton.
Therefore, in spite of the different political regimes since decolonization (socialist, military-led regime followed by democracy), the Malian economy has been dominated by the primary sector, dependent on climate variability and on price of raw materials on the international market.

In La vie sur terre, the birds ravaging the crops in the fields are representations of the economic disaster. The discontent and solidarity of the local community are focused upon, visually depicted when a group of peasants is walking together in a silent procession that embodies what could be an unspoken form of collective action. During their march, the voice of Aimé Césaire’s poem adds a dramatic layer:

“The devastating pettiness of this death hobbling from one pettiness to the next” (Cahier d’un retour au pays natal).

One shot later, the viewer understands the tragedy: the food security of the local community is threatened if the birds are not fought against day after day.

In spite of this very harsh reality, the prophetic and spiritual force of poetry is a promise of a future-to-come or “l’avenir” to use Derrida’s term.[29] The poet becomes an epic hero chronicling and beseeching for a change in fate while living in an intolerable state of economic despair and stagnation. The prophetic words of Aimé Césaire coupled with images of the villagers at work (the tailor at his sewing machine, the young men chasing the birds) and at the end of Dramane and his father walking in the wide rice fields, open a meditative space for historical remission:

“Strength is not in us but above us in a voice piercing the night, like the sting of an apocalyptic wasp. The voice proclaims that for centuries Europe has fed us lies and sent us plagues. For it is not true that man’s work is done, that we have no place in this world, that we parasitize this world, that we have to walk in step with the world. Man’s work has only just begun. Man has to conquer the forbidden stilled in the recesses of his fervor. Now we know that the sun revolves around our Earth, illuminating the area our will alone has chosen and that every star shoots from heaven to Earth at our command, without limits.” (Cahier d’un retour au pays natal)

I think of La vie sur terre as an attempt to think beyond historicism. By filming in multiple ways of being outside the fever of the millennium, the film negotiates the plenitude of presents and futures that refuse to comply with the prescription of imposed historical processes. It participates in what Mignolo calls decolonial thinking:

“Undoing the colonial difference as was built in the concept of time will involve, among other things, removing time from the privileged position it acquires in complicity with science, capitalism and the mono-culturalism (e.g., universalism) of Western civilization.”[30]

The film is a gesture to “provincialize Europe” [31] in the sense that Europe orchestrates history. At the end, Nana, the main female character, pedals off on her bike to a neighboring town, perhaps the one she was trying to call. The film does not end on a pessimistic note, but concludes in a climatic suspension. Nana on her bike disappears progressively from the camera in a convergence line, leaving the viewer a question of potential.