The Bootleg Files: Afrique 50

BOOTLEG FILES 591: “Afrique 50” (1950 French documentary short by René Vautier).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.


Never officially released in the U.S.

It would be welcomed.

In 1949, a newly-minted film school graduate named René Vautier received his first big break when the Ligue de l’enseignement commissioned him to create a nonfiction film highlighting its educational mission in France’s West African colonies. Upon arriving in the French African colonies, the 21-year-old Vautier did not find evidence of French benevolence in Africa. Instead, he witnessed a degree of economic exploitation and repressive rule over people who were slowly simmering in their resentment of colonial occupation. As a decorated member of the French Resistance during World War II and a Communist Party member, he was not about to sit back and just tsk-tsk this situation.

But Vautier faced a problem: a French law dating back to 1934 made it illegal for anyone shoot a film in the nation’s overseas colonies unless they were directly supervised by a local official of the colonial government. At great risk, Vautier took his silent 16mm camera and secretly shot footage in French West African villages that detailed the corruption and cruelty of the colonial rule.

Vautier’s “Afrique 50” begins with what seems to be an empty village. Vautier’s narration harshly informs the viewer, “You knew the white people who came before you are either tax collectors or army recruits.” Eventually, several young boys emerge and establish a friendly curiosity with the camera.

From there, the film appears to veer into travelogue territory. The villagers are seen going about their daily duties: the women grind millet and bathe children while men build brick houses, herd cattle and prepare nets for fishing. Hair preparation is very different between the sexes, with the men getting their heads shaved while the women braid their hair into elaborate styles. Young boys play soccer with a melon – if there are young girls in the village, they are not on camera. A group of men answer a call to pray in a group genuflection – they are not identified as Muslim, but today’s viewer will have no problem recognizing their religion’s prayer protocol.

After lulling the viewer into believing that “Afrique 50” is merely a montage of picturesque views of rural Africa, Vautier places his focus on what he calls “the big misery” of the colonies. He notes that schools are only available “when big colonial companies need accountants” while doctors are only brought in when the corporate powers that control the colonies’ natural resources are afraid of losing workers. Men, women and children are seen toiling at grueling work in construction, farming and forestry. At one point, a group of men are sent into deep waters to dislodge a boat stuck on a sandbar – it was more cost-efficient to use African laborers than bring in a tugboat for that job.

“A tractor could do the work of 20 blacks, but 20 blacks are cheaper,” says Vautier’s narration, who describes the French and British companies exploiting the African lands as “the reign of vultures.”

The military and police presence is also highlighted. “Afrique 50” details a massacre in the Ivoirian village of Fallaqa, where the chief’s failure to pay taxes resulted in the mass shootings of men, women and children, the burning of the village and the slaughter of their domestic animals. Vautier also runs a list of Africans who were jailed and killed for daring to question colonial rule.

At the end of his film, Vautier warns that the African people are “rising up” and are preparing to challenge the “corrupt, racist, Machiavellian” rule that the French imposed on them – and whether that challenge will be peaceful or otherwise is not certain.

“Afrique 50” marked the first time in French cinema that an open and angry challenge to the colonial system was presented on the screen. Of course, this was not what Vautier was hired to do, and the fact the film survived is a miracle. After barely avoiding the confiscation and destruction of his footage while in Africa, he managed to get the film back to France. Vautier reportedly had 50 reels of footage, but the French censors that examined what he shot promptly seized all of it. Vautier was able to retrieve about one-quarter of his work back, with the resulting “Afrique 50” clocking in at a succinct 17 minutes.

However, the French government banned “Afrique 50” before it could be seen and Vautier was arrested. He served one year in prison and was prohibited from returning to the colonies. Vautier continued making films, mostly documentaries on political issues ranging from the Algerian war of independence to South African apartheid to environmentalism to feminism. He died in 2015 at the age of 86, hailed in his country as one of its bravest and most audacious nonfiction filmmakers.

After being banned, a few copies of “Afrique 50” managed to get smuggled out of France – a print wound up behind the Iron Curtain, where it won an award at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Warsaw in 1955. The government ban on the film was not lifted until 1996, with a copy of the film presented to Vautier by the French Foreign Ministry, which hosted its official premiere. Most French viewers only saw it for the first time in a 2003 television broadcast. Alas, both Vautier and “Afrique 50” are barely known on this side of the Atlantic, and the only way Americans can learn about this production is through an unauthorized YouTube posting.

Ideally, a DVD label that specializes in restoring and releasing long-forgotten classics – hello, Criterion Collection? – will make an effort to bring “Afrique 50” and Vautier’s other groundbreaking works to the U.S. market. This arrival is long, long overdue.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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