Boundary problems : Beur / banlieue / political film in the context of contemporary French Cinema

In a very interesting recent article published in the journal Contemporary French and Francophone Studies (16:1, 2012, pp. 55-68), French film scholar Panivong Norindr laments the way in which other scholars (including the author of this blog entry!) have tended to establish a de facto dividing line, a kind of analytic apartheid, between mainstream political cinema (itself a much debated object) and Beur and banlieue  film-making, two groups of films associated with French directors of North African heritage and the troubled outer cities respectively. The consequence of this division, if we accept it is real (it may not be quite as stark as Norindr suggests) is that one set of questions (about class, about workplace struggles or about economic distribution, for example) tends to get asked of one group of films while a different set of questions (about ethnic origins and identities and their recognition or non-recognition, or about spatial segregation and social exclusion) is asked of another group or groups. As a result of this, instead of seeking either to break down problematic distinctions or to ponder the reasons for their emergence, film scholars tend not simply to take them for granted but to reinforce them. Based on a recent paper that I gave, and drawing on the work of theorist Nancy Fraser and on two films, Couscous (2007) by Abdellatif Kechiche and Dernier Maquis (US Adhen) (2008) by Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, I would like to explore some of the grounds on which the divisions noted by Norindr might be challenged. I have chosen these specific films because of the very active way in which they seem to be posing the same kind of question and asking for a radical rethink of problematic cinematic boundaries.

Nancy Fraser has been engaged in her own probing of problematic political and analytic boundaries since at least the mid-1990s. In her Justice Interruptus from 1997, for example, she explored the transition from a socialist political imaginary in which the central problem was redistribution to what she calls a ‘postsocialist’ political imaginary within which struggles are more often framed as being over identities, cultural ‘domination’, and recognition. The result, she noted, in what is now a familiar argument, was a pernicious tendency to uncouple cultural from social politics and to allow a relative eclipse of the latter by the former (see Justice Interruptus  p.2). She returned to some of the same themes in the more recent Adding Insult to Injury (2008), a book in which she debates with some of her key critics. She sets up a distinction between struggles for recognition and struggles for redistribution not as adequate labels for real world conflicts, but more as ideal types, real world struggles, as we know, typically involving claims for both recognition and redistribution, although some favour one type of claim and others the other. The interest of Fraser’s work does not simply lie in its descriptive or analytical power (which some of her critics dispute) but also in the way she seeks to chart ways to avoid the kind of disabling separation of the two types of struggle which, at its worst, leads to the familiar failings of an ‘identity’ politics shrunken to struggles for the recognition of often reified and homogenised identities within the status quo.  Fraser’s way forward revolves around what one might call a deconstructive materialism: the need, on the one hand, to de-essentialize identities and to open them up for reframing, and, on the other hand, to pay close attention to political economy as the grounds upon which the material and institutional connections between struggles can be explored and developed. She suggests, in particular, that rather than posing problematic questions about whether identities are recognised, we should focus on discrimination, on why, in particular contexts, individuals or groups are excluded or barred from full participation. Such an approach takes us away from fruitless questions about the ‘truth’ of identities and back towards an investigation of the political, social and institutional contexts in which some voices are privileged and others devalued or excluded. My intention in what follows is not to use Fraser to interpret the work of the film-makers, nor to use the films as illustrations of her work, but rather to suggest that, as theoreticians of their own practice, the film-makers are moving in a similar direction to Fraser and carrying out their own materialist deconstruction.

Kechiche’s Couscous (La Graine et le mulet) is the story of Slimane, a shipyard worker of North African origin in the southern French port of Sète. As the film starts, Slimane is in the process of being forced out of his job. An older worker, he is deemed unable to keep up with the pace required. His comment on this situation is that French workers in general are being undercut by cheaper foreign labour as their jobs are outsourced. Soon, he is unemployed. Some of his family want him to retire to his North African ‘homeland’. Slimane sees things differently: he acquires an old boat and, with support from his son and the daughter of his partner, decides to do it up and turn it into a floating couscous restaurant. To proceed in his venture, however, he needs to jump through a series of financial and administrative hoops: he needs a bank loan; he needs official permission to open and run a restaurant; he needs to be allowed to moor his boat by the right quayside to attract customers. As we imagine, he finds that there are many obstacles put in his path. In the end, he invites all those he has been dealing with to an opening night. The assembled guests are offered food, drink and music, and, when the couscous itself fails to arrive, a prolonged belly dance, delivered by Slimane’s adoptive daughter in a bright red costume.

la graine

Read in narrowly identitarian terms, Couscous could be seen as an affirmation of a Beur identity and a reassertion of the neglected role of immigration in the history of modern France and of the French working class. But the film is more complex than that. To begin with, refusing any sense that Slimane might have a stable identity, it instead suggests that identities are contextual productions: initially a French worker, or perhaps an immigrant worker, Slimane is then thrown back upon his origins by people who want him to return ‘home’ before he finally becomes a bearer of exoticised cultural identity, complete with colours, smells, tastes, sounds and movements, as shown at length in the prolonged restaurant scene. Moreover, these identities are not free floating, idealised entities but depend on economic and institutional contexts and have material consequences. Slimane has been a French worker to the extent that he has become fully integrated into the French economy. Yet, because he is an immigrant worker, someone who, for financial reasons, was undeclared for the first part of his career by his employer, he will not be entitled to a full pension. Likewise, when he decides to open a restaurant, he is being driven by the closing down of industries and the rise of tourism and consumption: his self-production as a bearer of an exoticised cultural identity is not something arbitrarily chosen but is a response to concrete socio-economic shifts. On a symbolic level, his struggle to gain permission to moor his boat and open his restaurant might seem to be purely about a desire to give cultural visibility to the previously marginalised. But the film refuses this purely symbolic reading: we are made to travel with Slimane and his adoptive daughter as they navigate their way through the French administrative system and deal with obstacles, such as the official who pointedly tells them that French people are very keen on good hygiene. We are also shown the hard, collaborative or individual labour that goes, firstly, into refurbishing the boat and, secondly, into providing and serving the meal. Rather than fetishizing Slimane’s identity, the film explores the material and institutional contexts in which identities are produced.

Something similar might be said for Ameur-Zaïmeche’s Dernier Maquis. Although set in the world of work, this film is anything but a conventional realist fiction. Its story revolves around Mao, an employer of North African origin, his two businesses, repairing vehicles and making and repairing pallets, and his employees, Maghrebi-French mechanics and African manual workers. The workplace is simultaneously isolated – there is no sign of a town nearby – and associated with international trade, not simply by the pallets upon which modern goods are almost always shipped, but by the aeroplanes which we see passing overhead. The pallets, incidentally, are painted bright red. We are in a strange intermediary space between the realist and the symbolic, the socially grounded and the emblematic. This is an ideal terrain upon for the film is able to carry out its materialist deconstruction.

dernier maquis

The drama begins when Mao converts part of an underground parking space into a mosque and appoints a tame Imam whose role will be to encourage his flock to be docile and productive and to keep an eye on them if necessary. The workers, almost all of whom are Moslem, are not impressed. The appointment of the Imam should have been a democratic decision of the group and not the privilege of their employer. In any case, the boss seems to have found money for a mosque while owing some workers money and paying others low wages. Part of a social group longer established in France, the Maghrebi-French workers refuse to continue worshipping in the mosque and instead construct an improvised prayer room with and amongst the pallets. Their tools of labour, the hose with which they wash, for example, are also drawn into their religious practice. Mao is unimpressed. Calling the mechanics together, he tells them that the repair shop is running at a loss and that he is reluctantly obliged to let them go. Refusing to go quietly, they occupy the workplace, blocking the entrance with lorries (trucks). They invite the more quiescent African workers to join their struggle and, when the latter refuse, threaten them and lock them out. When Mao seeks to climb in over a fence, they beat him up. As the film ends, they use forklift trucks to form the pallets into a barricade.

Again, read in narrowly identitarian terms, the film could be seen as an attempt to force a history of immigration into view and to give Islam, France’s second religion, some very overdue cinematic recognition, not least by locating it within the workplace, a location with which it is not typically associated. But, again, things are more complicated than that. Ameur-Zaïmeche does not simply bring Islam into view: he shows its imbrication in the materiality of lives and in the structures of the workplace with its very real socio-economic asymmetries. At the same time, refusing any straightforwardly positive representation, he divides his Islam against itself, making it a contested, unstable object, rather than a reified identity: the Islam of the workers is clearly not that of the boss; the role it plays for the Maghrebi-French is not the same as the one it has for the Africans. Finally, rather than being something simply external to political modernity, Islam is shown to be one of the sites where it might potentially be renewed. The mosque is not just an object of struggle. It is the place in the film where an oppositional voice first takes form.

At the same time, like Kechiche’s film, Dernier Maquis operates a reworking of modern French social and industrial history. While the colour of the red pallets present in so many of its scenes seems to anchor the film’s story in the history of the left, the Maghrebi-French and African identity of its workers forces an opening out of that history onto the neglected role of immigration in its making. It is not simply a question of adding a new element to an existing story (of the French working class) that would otherwise remain unchanged. It is rather a matter of drawing attention to the constructed nature of those histories themselves, in the same way as Kechiche’s Slimane can be a French worker or an immigrant or both according to the context and the moment.

This necessary mutability of framings is nowhere more elegantly conveyed than in Ameur-Zaïmeche’s use of the pallets. They are both solid, material objects, and infinitely malleable construction blocks, like so many giant blocks of red lego. At one stage, as we saw, the workers turn them into an impromptu place of prayer. At the end, of the film, as we noted, they become a barricade, a structure with an obvious use-value for the worker’s struggle but also something with a mythical status in the context of French history, within which, perhaps reductively, the barricade has become the key symbol of revolt and revolution. In between, as Ameur-Zaïmeche himself noted, the piles of pallets, especially in nocturnal scenes, bear a certain resemblance to the banlieue tower blocks so associated with more recent forms of rebellion. Last but not least, of course, the pallets are the humblest workhorses of the globalised circulation of goods that is essential to the functioning of contemporary capitalism. Through his use of this one humble object, Zaïmeche is carrying out his own labour of materialist deconstruction. On the one hand, he points towards the need to remake the frameworks that keep potentially oppositional stories (of workers, of immigration, of Islam, of the banlieue) apart. On the other, he reminds us how, whatever stories we wish to tell, we need to ground them in material contexts. It is not enough simply to bring the histories of French Islam and of the French workplace together, their conjoining must be cemented through materially intersecting practices.

dernier maquis 2

In her chapter on Rachid Bouchareb’s Second World War epic, Indigènes, in Screening Integration: Recasting Maghrebi Immigration in Contemporary France (Durmelat and Swamy eds., 2011), Mireille Rosello cautions against seeking to replace one canonical version of history with another more ‘correct’ but equally canonical one in a way that elides the necessary constructedness of any history and the politics and ethics of historiography. Attentive to this danger, both Kechiche and Ameur-Zaïmeche set history in motion, not in a pure spirit of relativism but from a desire to open up the space and provide the tools for more useful histories within which questions of distribution and of recognition, or of work and migration, could be considered in their inextricable intermingling.

Martin O’Shaughnessy, Nottingham Trent University

This entry was posted in Culture and the crisis, Film and crisis. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Boundary problems : Beur / banlieue / political film in the context of contemporary French Cinema

  1. Pingback: Couscous | larischcult

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