The masterful Soleil Ô has been lost to time. What cost it its relevance? Was it its meager $30,000 budget, its segmented technique, or its biting, satirical anti-colonial sentiments? The film, which is featured in the third edition of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, was shot over a period of four years and received acclaim at Cannes and Locarno film festivals in 1970. It was officially restored in 2017.
Still, its audience is limited. The Criterion Channel can only reach so many. The movie is a stunner, and of the African cinema I have managed to see so far, one of the bright stars in a slowly reemerging catalog of righteous films that need to be seen to be understood. Its pulsing montages as bountiful as its deliberately paced scenes of dialogue, Soleil Ô has all the makings of a film as technically interesting as it is culturally flammable.
The opening scene depicts a group of young immigrants being asked by a priest to renounce their prior religions and convictions in the name of Christ. In the sequence that follows, the group of men in robes carry what appear to be white crosses down the street in a limping, mangled procession. Then, an off-screen commander shouts, “French-American-English!” In a swift cut, the two men at the front of the line are suddenly shown to be wearing army attire. The entire group then rotates their crosses into swords.
The men still wearing robes are instructed, under the supervision of a white officer, to duel amongst themselves. Soon, they drop their weapons, and begin to fight with only their hands. Once they have settled, defeated, into a pile of bodies, the two army-suited Black men take up fighting. The white officer dangles a single bill onto each of the men’s faces once they’ve fallen to the ground, as if to “revive” them, and they resume fighting. In the end, only one is given a Franc, and he falls to the officer’s feet in an unsettling combination of desperation and exhaustion.
In another scene, the white “teacher” (a man who is set upon diffusing his pro-western ways) discusses immigration restrictions with the protagonist, simply known as the Visitor, played by Robert Liensol. The camera stays queued in on the man’s eyes, which communicate his disdain better than a verbal proclamation ever could. That recurring arrangement of the French man at arm’s length and the African man in extreme close-up is one of the most successful devices in the film.
Additionally, filmmaker Med Hondo breaks the fourth wall by having his pupils talk directly to the camera. In faux-interview style, a French man is asked if he has anything against the Black man. He answers blithely that, although he has nothing against anyone, “we must recognize that we are not all the same. Africans eat millet, and we eat potatoes.” After this comment, the Visitor marches in and asserts, punchily, with his eyes always on the Frenchman, that, “we, too, eat potatoes.”
It’s that mix of humor and rage that makes Soleil Ô so captivating. Brief moments of respite are offered during the musical montages: men in bars, dancing, enjoying themselves, contrasted with shots of who appear to be Black non-actors going about their daily lives in France, furthering the movie’s identity as a documentary hybrid. There are also the pale-faced paper mâché puppets that are put face to face with the group of immigrants. The puppets, with unseen speakers, berate the men into accepting their place in society.
Other topics addressed are the fetishization of Black men by white women, interracial relationships (in a sequence that depicts the Visitor walking around with a white woman accompanied by livestock noises and disgruntled French bystanders), and the ethnocentric imposition of western ideals. There are tongue-in-cheek graphics illustrating those concepts (on that note, the animated opening credits are also very memorable), as well as a recurring scene set in a classroom wherein the “teacher” instructs the men how to comport themselves in European society.
Although its four-year production timeline might suggest a level of higher planning and cohesion, Soleil Ô is, at its essence, a collection of stories and ideas. All the ideas complement each other along the road of assimilation and antipathy, but the film features a little bit of everything. Weighing the economic privilege of a body of people’s multi-century influence over another is no gossamer subject, and debunking the nationwide stereotypes and discrimination inflicted upon African immigrants has, unfortunately, yet to become an obsolete task.
Soleil Ô is just as timely as it was 60 years ago. A flippant question posed by one of the French gentlemen, (“they got independence, what more do they want?”) is of no small import. Granting people freedom after imposing force and authority upon an innocent land should not be seen as a generous task. If the goal is harmony, separation will never satisfy.
The steps to reparations are deemed so wildly unthinkable for many, and their possibility may not have even crossed Hondo’s mind at the time. Midway through the film, the men, squashed into their meager lodging situation, discuss whether they should want for more in their lives. Is it the fault of the French that they’ve ended up how they’ve ended up? They’ve been told to blame their corrupt rulers for the lack of work in their home countries. But years of fluid development were interrupted and faltered by the imposing colonial forces. Certainly, they would’ve had more of a chance if their homelands were not taken as possessions. One man pipes up, in a comment that bears both sarcasm and reassurance, “Don’t worry, we’ll colonize them back.”
At the end of the film, the Visitor finds himself eating lunch with a white man and his family in the countryside. Suddenly aware of how little he has in common with these people, and unable to hide his troubles, he runs for the forest. It is unclear whether it is his own voice or the sounds of others edited in, but someone begins to scream. Cut to: visions of men drowning in a river, an image of Malcolm X pasted onto a rock settled next to a fire. The screams continue in varying volumes and stages of anguish, even once the Visitor finds a place to crouch. He yells back, with flitting images of famous revolutionaries guiding his thoughts. Then, he is silent. He stares out into space, a dazed smile plastered on his face, body open to the world.
A “TO BE CONTINUED” card pops up. The film never actually received a formal continuation, but I believe the text serves more of a thematic purpose than a literal one. It urges viewers to sustain the fight for equality and to push hard for justice in a white-dominated world. Revolutionaries will continue to be punished for trying to change the status quo, and utopia is far from reach. But the mission lives on.
Soleil Ô is streaming on the Criterion Channel.