Director: Vincent Meessen
Vincent Meessen’s radical and inventive film essay intertwines the 1967 Jean-Luc Godard film La chinoise with interviews with family and friends of the late Senegalse Marxist intellectual and activist Omar Diop. Diop appears as himself in the Godard classic and died aged just 27 in his Gorée island prison cell, a victim of Senghor’s repressive regime. But Meessen’s intentions are not to make Diop a martyr but rather focus on his current and future importance.
Non-professional actors are used throughout including the Vice President of the People’s Republic of China. He visits the Chinese-financed Museum of Black Civilisations, and this type of neo-colonialism comes under as much scrutiny as that of the French. Excerpts of the Godard original are interspersed with commentary on what Diop’s life and work means today, some in Mandarin.
Added to the cinematic mix is footage of a Shaolin master demonstrating the martial art of tai chi, as if this ‘path’ somehow corresponded to the Maoist exercise displayed in La chinoise. Perhaps this also relates to the Senegalese ‘Arsonist’ movement whose tactics became increasingly violent, including an attempt to assassinate French President Pompidou during a visit to the country. This resulted in many draconian prison sentences, including Diop’s when he returned in an attempt to free political prisoners.
The film within a film format is both Godardian and postmodern and the essay style allows an investigation of politics, justice and memory. It does not make for easy viewing but the footage of modern-day Dakar gives us a sense of psycho-geographical perspective. The interviews are often filmed in semi-darkness with the subject gazing out of frame, adding to the conspiratorial, almost paranoiac atmosphere.
So, what does this didactic and inquisitive approach have to tell a Western audience? Largely it creates awareness of the dangers of development that becomes colonialism and the futility of post-colonialist reparations which fall on deaf ears within today’s Senegalese Marxist Left. It also considers how the impact of the May 1968 uprising in France has continuous repercussions acround the world through the work of Foucault, Althusser, the Situationists and radical philosophy of the era that impacts current ideologies.
The use of an improvised Chinese-style soundtrack by Wouter Vandenabeele and Bao Sissoko is a sideways nod to the aforementioned neo-colonialism and is suitably obscurantist. Director Vincent Meessen and his assistant Mamadou Khouma Gueye really make an innovative if pedantic form meet its content. Director of photography Vincent Pinckaers capably captures the essay itself but also gives a sense of space and time (namely today’s Dakar played against revolutionary Paris).
While he may alienate a more general audience, credit has to be given to Meessen for sticking to his guns, quite literally with his tacit support of the ‘Arsonists’. So, for the discerning film fan of experiment and eclecticism there is much to admire here, a resolute succés de scandale.
Reviewed on 8th June 2021 at Sheffield DocFest.