The Pioneering Afrique sur Seine Sheds New Light on Black Paris in the 1950s
The son of filmmaker Paulin Soumanou Vieyra speaks about the legacy of his father’s film, screening at MoMA this week.
Afrique sur Seine (1955) was a film ahead of its time. Formally, it was a bridge between Italian Neorealism of the 1940s—a style of filmmaking that evoked the hardships of war, from impoverishment and displacement to death and destruction, through the scarcest of means—and the French nouvelle vague (New Wave) that emerged in the late ’50s, a spirit of artistic experimentation that embraced and evoked newfound postwar freedoms and was itself a youthful revolt against all forms of tyranny, whether political, social, sexual, colonial, or artistic. Historically, Afrique sur Seine represented a pioneering effort by Black African filmmakers—the Benin-born, Senegal- and Paris-based Paulin Soumanou Vieyra (1925–1987) together with Jacques Mélo Kane, Mamadou Sarr, and Robert Caristan—to turn the camera on themselves, to create images of Black culture and society entirely at odds with the pervasive stereotyping of the colonial gaze (whether French, British, Belgian, or beyond) that saw Africans as barbaric or infantile, in need of taming and easily exploited, the kind of images that populated virtually every movie screen in the world and insinuated themselves so perniciously into Western consciousness.
To give some idea of how pervasive and routine this thinking was at the time, consider this review of an African film that preceded Afrique sur Seine by a few years, Mouramani (1953) by the Guinean filmmaker Mamadou Touré. Writing in the March 31, 1955, edition of Le Monde, the influential critic Jean de Baroncelli observed, “…[We] are presented with Mouramani, the first film conceived, directed and interpreted by black Africans from the French Union. To tell the truth, it is less a film than a clumsy and naive sketch. But it mixes with this naivety a kind of languor that is not without charm. The author, a young Guinean of twenty-two, Mamadi Touré, intends, it seems, to create a purely African cinematographic production. Let us advise him to learn his trade seriously (without becoming too beholden to academic rules) and wish him good luck.” That Baroncelli was admired by the Young Turks of *Cahiers du cinéma*—Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and other provocative critics who would become synonymous with the French New Wave—speaks profoundly to the resistance that Vieyra and other Black African artists, writers, filmmakers, and thinkers faced.
Paulin Soumanou Vieyra was an aspiring biologist who instead turned to filmmaking in the early 1950s, becoming the first Black African to graduate from the prestigious IDHEC (L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques, or the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies) film school in Paris at a time when any rare opportunity to study in Europe was expected to lead to the practice of medicine, law, or business. He joined with friends in Paris to form the so-called African Cinema Group, creating a portrait of immigrant life in the Latin Quarter in Afrique sur Seine that both meaningfully claimed the European city and its modernisms for themselves, and pointed the way toward a new Pan-African liberation. The following year, in 1956, they made Un homme, un ideal, une vie, a portrait of a Senegalese fisherman who in his own way attempts to marry traditional customs with modern technologies.
Vieyra’s contribution to the development of a truly Indigenous African cinema cannot be overstated: in his film criticism and his championing of new African voices at international film festivals; in his capacity as director of the Actualités sénégalaises, a popular newsreel series in West African cinemas, within President Léopold Sédar Senghor’s newly created Ministry of Information as well as his later appointment as the first director of programming of the first Senegalese television station; in his contributions to the realization of the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists at the Sorbonne, in Paris, in 1956 as well as the Second Congress in Rome in 1959; in his meaningful association with French philosophers, political thinkers, and activists, as well as key members of the Négritude Movement; and in his mutually supportive friendships and collaborations with Alioune Diop, the Senegalese scholar who in 1947 founded the seminal journal Présence Africaine, the French ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch (also featured in our current New Wave series with his films Moi, un noir, The Punishment, and The Human Pyramid), the Senegalese filmmakers Ousmane Sembène and Ababacar Samb, the painter Iba N’Diaye, and the poet Birago Diop.
On the occasion of our screenings of Afrique sur Seine (on May 14 and 16) as part of the film series Forgotten Filmmakers of the French New Wave, my curatorial colleague Smooth Nzewi and I recently interviewed Stéphane Vieyra about the life and career of his father, as well as his own efforts to preserve his father’s legacy through the creation of the Paulin Soumanou Vieyra paper archives at the Indiana University Black Film Center & Archive. With special thanks to Sandrine Neveux and Joséphine Chavanon for acting as translators during our discussion.
–Josh Siegel, Curator, Department of Film
Afrique sur Seine. 1955. Senegal/France. Directed by Mamadou Sarr, Paulin Soumanou Vieyra
Josh Siegel: Stéphane, perhaps we could begin by discussing your father’s biography, specifically, his film Afrique sur Seine, and the larger social and political context in which Vieyra worked. How, for example, did he end up going to school in Paris at IDHEC?
Stéphane Vieyra: Yes, no problem. I am the younger son of Paulin, who had three children: two boys and a girl. And I’m the president of the association that is promoting the films of my father as well as my mother. When my father was 10 years old, in 1935, his father sent him to someone working in the railway in France, so he could study. Then the war started. He came back to Benin at the age of 25 (he hadn’t been back since he left at 10). So he didn’t even recognize his own mother.
JS: Your father was the first, as I understand—it’s always dangerous to say first of anything—but at least one of the first sub-Saharan Africans to graduate from IDHEC. But at the time, it was unheard of for Africans to send their children abroad to study anything besides law, medicine, or economics. The idea that Black Africans could come back to make films of themselves was also unheard of, in part because of the Laval Decree in 1934, which essentially restricted the depiction of Black Africans to white filmmakers in the employ of French and British colonizers.
SV: He’s the first African graduating from the school in ’52, and at the end of his study, he shot his first film.
JS: C’etait Il y a Quatre Ans.
SV: Yeah. The film is very engaged politically, and it almost got censored because it was showing an African character that is westernized. But the film managed to be shown with the help of his friend from the communist party in ’54.
Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi: The film was produced during a moment when anti-colonial sentiment was at a fever pitch across Africa. Postwar Paris was an exciting time as political independence beckoned and African immigrants had begun to think beyond being Black French. The impending reality of self-rule loomed large. But why was it important for him to switch to film, especially at this key moment? And why was it necessary for him to want to make a film about Black life in Paris?
SV: It was an important choice for him because he felt that the cinema should serve the people. So he sees the cinema as a way to promote different cultures as well as a kind of Pan-Africanism. We see images of students, but the voiceover is talking about hope for Africa. And he’s showing not only African people, but also Asian people and the mix of culture that was Paris at the time.
USN: Vieyra got into IDHEC in 1947, right? Coincidentally, 1947 was also when Alioune Diop created the literary magazine Présence Africaine, which was published in Paris. The first editorial of Présence Africaine, titled “Niam n’goura ou les raisons d’être de Présence Africaine,” was a call for a concerted effort by men and women of goodwill—Black, White, Asian—to support and promote Africa and its cultures through the new established literary platform, and it bears out what you just explained. Vieyra was part of the fraternal circles of Black intellectuals, such as the Négritude group, that gathered in Paris’s Latin Quarters and that may have sparked his ideological commitment to Pan-Africanism.
JS: After graduating, Vieyra contributed regularly as a critic to Présence Africaine both as a journal and as a publishing house, and later wrote a book for Présence Africaine about Ousmane Sembène, his filmmaker friend, whom he also supported while working for the Senegalese government agency in charge of film production. Vieyra was very much at the center of this conversation about a future Africa. And both as a critic, as someone who covered film festivals specializing in African cinema from Carthage in Egypt to FESPACO in Ouagadougou.
SV: Yes, Paulin was totally immersed in that movement. He was a part of Présence Africaine in ’57, and he was writing for them a lot. And he also was part of the Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956, and Rome in 1959, organized by Alioune Diop, led the Society of African Culture. There’s a book from Présence Africaine talking about that period and the Congress in Rome. He made a movie later about this Congress.
USN: It was during the Rome Congress that he led a group that called for the development and institutionalization of a cinema culture in Africa at large. Some would argue that it was in Rome that the final decision was made to stage the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar in 1966. So he was part of the incredible conversations about the future of Africa. Could you speak more about how he saw the importance of cinema culture in Africa? And, tangentially, I am also curious to know why he decided to move to Senegal and not to his native Benin.
SV: Cinema worked as a counterpower to politics to help convey ideas. And working together was the most efficient way to do this. So he was a founding member of the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers. At the time, there were 40 African member countries, and I think now it’s 42 countries. When he came back to Benin, he didn’t get the welcome he thought he might. The fact that he was a filmmaker didn’t sit well. So he accepted a job offer at the AOF [Afrique Occidentale Française, or French West Africa], and he moved to Senegal as the director of the news for the support of Africa, producing nonfiction films in Senegal. A few years later, many African countries achieved independence. Vieyra was appointed by Senegal’s first president, [Léopold Sédar] Senghor, to be the director of Senegalese News.
JS: And also just to add, I do think it’s a very interesting film despite what Vieyra said in retrospect, not least because it’s told through an aesthetic that blends fiction and nonfiction elements, that incorporates footage from René Vautier’s film Afrique 50, that uses handheld camerawork and natural light, captures daily life in the streets—in other words, incorporates key aspects of what would eventually become known as the spirit of the New Wave, way ahead of its time.
SV: The film is a sociological study. Paulin studied cinema. So the film is written in a cinematic language, and we get the message of hope in the voiceover. But the film is so important because it shows the vision of an African filmmaker. So it’s not propaganda. It’s more just how he sees things. And each time you see the movie, you discover new elements and details.
USN: Afrique sur Seine is considered pioneering in its attempt to decolonize, in part because it is a film by Africans about themselves. And so it really becomes about the agency to frame one’s self on your own terms, and you see that in the film. Of course, it’s a film that is done through the lens of Black immigrant students. I think it’s so bare, honest, and transparent, when you pay attention and watch the film closely and carefully. You see Vieyra weave together a compelling kaleidoscope of Black presence, from interracial relationships, struggle for survival, intellectual circles, social gatherings, and the magic of modern life. The film made visible the incredible texture of Black Paris. You get the sense of the predicament of being a cultural outsider, the uneasy attempt to forge relationships from a position of marginalization and for some, defamiliarization. But the other thing I wanted to talk about is the American-born actress. What’s her name? Who also featured in Black Orpheus?
JS: Marpessa Dawn. And Afrique sur Seine was four years before Black Orpheus; at this point she wasn’t known.
USN: She was an emerging actress. So one could say that the film in itself is not only about observing Black immigrants. If you want to think about it in a larger cinematic history, it’s also a film that begins to tell the narrative of the Black Atlantic at a time when this was virtually unseen through the eyes of Black filmmakers. Wouldn’t you say that, Josh?
JS: Yes, absolutely. I think what you both have been saying about Afrique sur Seine not being propaganda certainly is true. And I do think that the idea of training a camera on Black students in Paris is, in and of itself, an important thing for its time. I do also, though, in the narration, sense a bit of ambivalence. What you describe is the difficulty of trying to be a Black student in Paris at the time, and the pressures of assimilation, the pressures of French colonization, and centuries of history inscribed in the ancient buildings themselves that he’s photographing throughout the streets of Paris, for which there doesn’t seem to be any entrée for immigrants. So it seems to me there’s a lot of tensions that are really at play in the film itself. And I don’t know enough about Marpessa Dawn’s biography to know how she ended up in the film. She was 21.
USN: Yeah. But she moved to Europe when she was 16. So she had spent some time there.
JS: Wasn’t she a nightclub performer as well?
USN: Yes, yes.
JS: So I think they found her in the Latin Quarter performing as an ingénue in nightclubs and recruited her to be in the film. In 1957, she played the bit role of “La négresse” in a film called Élisa, and then a native girl in a 1958 film called The Woman Eater. I mean, you can imagine the trajectory of her career in the mid-’50s, the stereotypical casting, before Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus in 1959.
SV: Maybe you can find answers in the Black Film Center Archive at Indiana University.
JS: Indeed! Your donation to the Black Film Archive in Indiana University, and your efforts over the years to preserve Vieyra’s memory and the films themselves, first with Terri Francis and now with Akin Adeṣọkan and the incredible staff at IU, is so essential to film history. I think this invitation for further exploration is a perfect ending to our conversation. Stephane, I hope we have a chance to welcome you to MoMA soon.
USN: That would be great.
SV: Thank you.
Afrique sur Seine screens Saturday, May 14, and Monday, May 16, at MoMA, as part of the film series Forgotten Filmmakers of the French New Wave, organized by independent curator Jean-Michel Frodon, Joshua Siegel, Curator, and Olivia Priedite, Senior Program Assistant, Department of Film, which runs through through June 3.
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