One of Africa's most acclaimed and innovative directors, Mohamed Abid Medoun Hondo (1936 - 2019) was born into the Haratin community in Mauritania, a descendent of slaves. Despite a youthful precociousness, Hondo's family could not afford his education beyond the middle grades. He studied to become a hotel chef in Morocco and then moved to Marseilles, France where he had to take an assortment of jobs to help finance his drama studies. He began acting on stage and continued after moving to Paris, mentored by the French actress Françoise Rosay.
Beginning with a role as an extra in Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin Féminin (1966), he made many film and television appearances, including in Costa-Gavras’s Un Homme de trop (1967), Robert Enrico’s Tante Zita (1968), and John Huston’s A Walk with Love and Death (1969). Yet it is Hondo's voice that would be most familiar to French audiences: for decades, he dubbed Black actors in French versions of American films.
In 1966 in response to the dearth of prominent, complex roles for black actors, he and others founded a theatrical company called Shango (named after the Yoruba god of Thunder)—and later Griot-Shango—focused on the works of playwrights from Africa and the African diaspora, including Aimé Césaire, René Depestre and Amiri Baraka among many others absent from the European stage.
Disenchanted with his impact in this area, he turned to cinema's more pervasive reach. After making two short, black-and-white films, he financed his stunning feature debut Soleil O with the money he made dubbing voices, working on it in his free time with untrained actors on whatever film stock he could come by cheaply. Premiering at Cannes Critics' Week in 1970, the film is an experimental, non-didactic collage combining a variety of fiction and documentary techniques to expose the racism, oppression and alienation faced by immigrants in post-colonial France. His low-budget inventiveness and unique style served this cinematic manifesto well:
There are different perceptions of an image. Soleil Ô is crystal clear and is neither intellectual nor sophisticated. It has often happened that those who understood it best were illiterate. When it was shown in Algeria, because the audience was completely able to identify with the film, the proletarians explained it to the intellectuals. My main character could be a garbage collector, a student, or a teacher. His status does not prevent him from being affected in the same manner by the general conditions of history within a racist society. To be a Black expatriate is an identity. Soleil Ô derives from the African oral tradition. It depicts a unique reality. There is no dichotomy between style and content; here it is the content which imposes a style. I wanted to describe several people through one person instead of using a group of people. In my country, when people talk about a specific issue, they may digress and come back to their initial topic. Black cultures have a syntax which has nothing to do with Cartesian logic or that of other civilizations.
O Soleil and Hondo's subsequent cache of now classic works offer impassioned examinations of colonial history and its consequences. Not satisfied with simply replicating the colonizer's methods, he wanted to dismantle what he called "the narrative and psychological mechanisms of traditional [Hollywood] dramaturgy" to raise consciousness. Perhaps the pinnacle of this mission, West Indies (1979) is an epic, satiric musical covering nearly four-hundred years in the history of the French West Indians, from their enslavement to their present-day displacement in France. It was the most expensive African production at the time and took seven years to complete. Other vital works include O Soleil's follow-up Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins (1974) another bold experiment in decolonizing bodies, minds and cinema itself; Sarraounia (1986), the true story of a valiant West African queen who opposed French colonial troops at the end of the nineteenth century; and Lumière Noire (1996), his crime thriller confronting myriad transgressions by the French government toward immigrants.
Challenging the racist status quo, Hondo encountered censorship and the disenfranchisement of Black filmmakers in every aspect of production and distribution. These obstacles only served as fuel to his fire; he called upon African and Arabian filmmakers to "organize our forces, reassert our different creative potentialities, and fill the void in our national, regional and continental cinemas." He was an outspoken supporter of an alternative cinema of the marginalized, often helping other Black filmmakers see their projects to fruition.
In the words of Aboubakar Sanogo, "Med Hondo’s cinema is a cinema concerned with making us think as much as making us feel. It is a cinema that is less concerned with Oscars than with the possibility for film to actually play a major role in the production of new subjectivities, new ways of feeling, new ways of distributing power across the world, and indeed new ways of imagining and experiencing the world."
A recording of Med Hondo's visit to the Harvard Film Archive, April 28 and 29, 2000, also featuring Isaac Julien, Katie Trainor, Steffen Pierce, John Gianvito and Bruce Jenkins.
"What Is Cinema for Us?," Med Hondo, Jump Cut, March 1986
"By Any Means Necessary: Med Hondo," Aboubakar Sanogo, Film Comment, May-June 2020
"Med Hondo: Alter-Modernist," Celluloid Liberation Front, MUBI Notebook, Oct 2020
The Indocile Image: The Cinema of Med Hondo Retrospective and Symposium, Carleton University, Canada, February 2016