Afrique sur Seine
Regarded as one of the first francophone films directed by Black Africans, Mamadou Sarr and Paulin Soumanou Vieyra’s Afrique sur Seine (1955) centers on exploring nascent post-colonial identity. Paulin Soumanou Vieyra (1925–87), a pioneer of African cinema, formed the African Cinema Group (with Mamadou Sarr), among other significant contributions to African film. Afrique sur Seine was recently presented at MoMA under its excellent Forgotten Filmmakers of the French New Wave program.
Without dialogue, the short film Afrique sur Seine presents slices of African life, shifting from the river banks of the Niger to the Seine and the Latin Quarter of Paris, culminating in an aperçu of 1950s city life from dawn to dusk. The film moves from scenes of children in Africa to capturing a day in the life of a Black man in the streets of Paris while a continuous voiceover prophesizes an embellished present and better tomorrow.
In the opening scene, kids spin tops in an undisclosed African village. Next, they play football. Their living conditions seem sparse—mud houses and cloth wrapped around their waists. The kids jump and play in the river. “C’était le bon temps,” (“These were good times”) says the voiceover. Quintessential innocent scenes of childhood.
Kids become students and adults, and fog has replaced the sun. Along the beat of African drums, we then follow a main character—a Black man in a suit with the charm and charisma of today’s Omar Sy. His steps take us down Parisian streets where he greets Asian people in a café called Indochine, gives money to a homeless person, and returns to a room that two students share. The film, the moving embodiment of a continuous stroll, shows other encounters in the city throughout the day and into the night.
Afrique sur Seine brings us back to a time of immense hope and potentiality, when burgeoning progressive and radical left-wing social and political movements in France gave Black and brown people the belief that a social ladder could be climbed through education alone. Yet what distinguishes Afrique sur Seine is the use of a flipped narrative and a reverse gaze. It’s not about a white explorer “discovering” tribes, landscapes, and cultures so different from their own that these peoples and their cultures become objects of intense and intrusive curiosity. In fact, Afrique sur Seine is the opposite: a Black man’s contemplation of Paris. “I’m going to discover Paris to look for Afrique sur Seine,” the voiceover says.
And Paris is a stage. Through the camera of Sarr and Vieyra, we discover the physiognomy of a world-city. The unnamed Black man in a suit is the incarnation of a flâneur, which turns the viewer into a badaud or curieux waiting for an event to happen. In his 1986 Reflections, Walter Benjamin had theorized on the gaze of the flâneur, who channels a “mode of life” which “surrounds the approaching desolation of city life with a proprietary luster.” Where one could have expected to see in this role a white Frenchman smoking a cigarette on a terrace, it’s an African student who turns Paris into his own playground.
Like the nineteenth-century rise of the city-dweller, this character brings the countryside to the city. He meanders through the intellectual areas of the left bank’s Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the posh Opéra and Rivoli neighborhoods, followed by the Jardin des Tuileries, and the more working-class Montmartre, all with the awe of a first-time visitor. Monuments tower above him and act as symbols of this new geography: the Spirit of Freedom in the Place de la Bastille, the statue in the Place de la République, the entrance of the Sorbonne Law School. The camera turns shaky and dizzy when panning on the Eiffel Tower. Architectural fetishism constitutes an ode to modernity, a self-exhibition for Paris, which largely remains an untouched theater, a museum city.
The film contrasts the scenes in Africa with the scenes taking place in Paris—Afrique versus Afrique sur Seine. What happened to the carefree joy of jumping into the warm Niger River? Water now presents itself in manicured fountains and the Seine, where it is forbidden to swim. Children used to play in the village; they now play in sewage. We wonder which way of life is more desirable, despite the voiceover leading us to unreservedly embrace modernity as a linear path to civilization.
What further sets the tone of Afrique sur Seine is the solemn voiceover reading a manifesto. The text conveys the lyrical and urgent articulation of a promise that inspires universalist and hopeful dreams. The narrator refers to “streets of gold for Black children” and a “salute to peaceful victories, peaceful men.” In doing so, it conveys a wish, how things should be, as opposed to how they are, for we are shown poverty and colonial violence in the streets of Paris in 1955.
The filmmakers chose to set their camera on France because they were constrained by a system of bureaucratic authorization needed to film in colonies at the time (which protected Western propagandistic messages). The fifty-seven-day siege of Dien Bien Phu, in which the Viet Minh resistance army defeated French colonial troops during the First Indochina War, ended months before Afrique sur Seine was released. The French repressed a Malagasy uprising in Madagascar in 1947. In Algeria, the massacres of Sétif and Guelma in 1945 and the start of the Algerian War of Independence in 1954 brought news of atrocities even closer to the metropole. And while the Upper Volta colony was formally dissolved in the 1930s, it would take several more decades for countries such as Senegal, Mali, and Niger, to become independent at the turn of 1960.
Other scenes of the film show a bourgeois fantasy of social elevation through “science and letters” as well as cultural assimilation, such as when the protagonist drives around Paris on a scooter with a Marilyn Monroe-esque girlfriend holding onto his waist. They exude love and freedom. In a later moment, a double date—a Black couple and a white couple—eat together, observing all good European manners, each having a small glass of wine nearby. A Black woman holding a purse waits for her date, a white man. This new society then, is color-blind. Race is transcended through “civilization,” which subliminally resurrects a French colonial-era “mission.”
These references evoke the vanishing veneer of time and naïveté. The film brings to the screen my own inherited world. My father left Tunisia to study in Paris years after Afrique sur Seine but still within the “Glorious Thirty” period of post-World War II reconstruction—before chronic unemployment and unbridled anti-migrant sentiments hit. The monochromatic scenes of Afrique sur Seine are the sepia-colored memories of my childhood. I would walk by Boulevard Saint-Germain and my father would tell me of the tiny room he stayed at on Rue du Bac nearby, not far from where French writer Romain Gary used to live. Similarly, on Rue Soufflot and around the Luxembourg Garden, my father would bring his past to life. In these familiar places, he would reminisce about his semi-mythologized time as a Sorbonne student, where he met my white mother. Stones of central Paris speak to me; they come alive under a personal history.
But this world of representation is far from the experiential reality of later generations of brown and Black people. Pushed to the peripheries and banlieues, they face daily discrimination in every area of society from entering white-collar job markets to housing. For these later French-born generations, meritocracy is an empty, bitter promise. Some members of these younger generations further raise the question of assimilating to what and as whom. Under the French motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” all citizens are meant to be born equal yet it’s an incantation that fails to fully live up to expectations. Antiracist and decolonial marches have called for pluralistic, non-exclusionary expressions of culture, belonging, and social justice to—hopefully—reconcile theoretical equality with an everyday manifestation.
It’s within this new pluralistic context that films such as Les Indigènes (2006) have begun to reckon with “conditional citizenship” and the consciousness that working hard and eating with a fork isn’t quite enough to fit in when we are called “Aicha” or “Mamadou.” Maybe by insisting so much on this desire to abolish otherness, Afrique sur Seine unintentionally reveals insecurities and prejudices already present in the 1950s, hinting at what Frantz Fanon had already analyzed as “black skin, white masks” in his namesake book released in 1952.
Regrettably, the over-intellectualization of the voiceover suffocates the possibility for human emotion to transpire. The film’s main character—an essentialized “migrant”—interacts briefly with an Algerian man, but we quickly move on instead of exploring the confrontation of their various experiences. When the camera lingers on American-born French actress Marpessa Dawn, we succumb to her mesmerizing beauty, eagerly wanting more of her presence than a fleeting glimpse. We want to understand what’s behind her gaze and the questions she grapples with as she waits for her white boyfriend by the Fontaine Saint-Michel.
“Cinema worked as a counterpower to politics to help convey ideas. And working together was the most efficient way to do this,” Vieyra’s son, Stéphane Vieyra, remembers in an interview with MoMA.
Reflecting on the filmmakers’ intention to share thoughts and new propositions through cinema, we are left to examine the expanse of Africa—a place, a people, an idea, a history, a future, a friendship, a necessity? And where’s Africa? Africa is everywhere, as long as we can breathe and live it; it is a boundless desire to abolish artificial borders and predetermined narratives.