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Analyses et comptes rendus

Kane Hamedine. — La maison bleue

Jennifer Bajorek
p. 470-475
Référence(s) :

Kane Hamedine. — La maison bleue. Film documentaire, 55 min., Belgique, Tândor Productions, 2020, DCP/Bluray/DVD.

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1Hamedine Kane’s remarkable 2020 film, La maison bleue (The Blue House) (Tândor Production, Belgium), centers on the artist Alpha Diagne and various goings-on around his house. Alpha’s house, indeed blue and located in the so-called Jungle of Calais—being shot, there, on the eve of the camp’s “definitive” destruction in 2016—is the film’s ostensible subject. Soon enough, however, the viewer comes to understand that Alpha’s house is itself a kind of camera: a shadowy and enigmatic chamber that is a privileged site for the production of images. This depiction, which is brilliantly set up by Kane in the film’s opening sequence, is of paramount significance to our interpretation of the film as a whole.

2As the film progresses, this provocative depiction of the blue house-as-camera illuminates and sharpens several more complex aesthetic strategies and arguments. These include the unfurling of a palimpsestic geography, which reaches far beyond the Jungle; a persistent haunting of the French borderscape by the ghosts of French colonial history; and a hilarious send-up of the contemporary art world, particularly vis-à-vis its engagement with migrants. (This send-up essentially provides the film’s dramatic tension and expands to fill its second half.) Ultimately, La maison bleue suggests that, rather than the blue house per se as an architectural structure—marvelous as that structure may be, with its distinctive thatched roof, constructed in the “traditional” Fulani style—the film’s true subject is the agency of African actors, artists, art, and histories in the European borderscape. This agency is all too often invisibilized in dominant representations of those borders and is shown to be a formidable force, suggestive of new configurations of memory, mapping, and co-habitation here.

3The very first images we see are shot from the house’s interior (the camera body), looking out. They are conceptually expansive and visually lush. The exterior scene, framed in the doorway (the aperture), is suffused with a grey, Northern light. The light filters through translucent woven curtains, held together by a clothespin and fluttering in the wind. Their rhythmic movement is a visual echo of the film’s spare sonic landscape. A low background drone (water? traffic? voices?) over which we can just make out the sound of birds chirping is soon followed by the sound of strumming on a guitar.

4Just visible in a gap to the right of the curtains stands a tall, slim man, dressed in jeans and a light grey hoodie, smoking a cigarette in front of a thicket. Separating the man from the thicket is a mesh metal fence, barely visible behind him, topped by razor wire. Much suggests he belongs in the house’s orbit: his relaxed demeanor, the seemingly incidental way that he is framed in the doorway, his relative proximity. As his head swivels from side to side, observing events unknown to us, he occasionally looks towards the house.

5The screen goes dark to make way for the film’s title sequence. When the image returns, the curtains are still there, but the smoking man is gone. Before we can decide quite how to react, he reappears. His body, truncated from elbow to knee, looms in the doorway. He folds his body forward, and we hear a rustling, indicating that he has paused to remove his shoes before entering. As he crosses the threshold, we hear a voice say (in Fula): “Jeez, Alpha, it’s so cold.” In lieu of a spoken response, we hear only humming, a voice harmonizing perfectly with the guitar.

6In this moment of perfect harmony, we realize that a series of subtle inversions has taken place. The man we saw smoking outside the house is, we now grasp, the filmmaker, who has positioned himself in front of the camera, thereby troubling any stable distinction between its subject and agent. After Kane enters the house, we cut to a shot of Alpha, head resting on a pillow, face in shadow. His gaze is intent on something we cannot see, and his posture suggests that he is cradling a guitar. The shot establishes Alpha as the house’s principal inhabitant (he is also, we soon learn, its architect), marking a further inversion. Rather than being in need of shelter or of welcome, the migrant is the one who offers hospitality to others. (In later scenes, we will see Alpha offer hospitality not only to the filmmaker but to myriad visitors, including other Jungle residents, Jungle tourists, the media, and his public.)

7The sequence ends with a slow pan across the house’s interior wall, revealing a kind of picture gallery. A pair of color photographs printed on cheap paper, showing what the viewer will soon come to recognize as Alpha’s yard. A brightly-colored drawing depicting the house’s unmistakable blue exterior, its color imparted by plastic waterproofing. A photomontage combining a portrait of Alpha with elements of his house, including its distinctive Fulani roof. (The texture of the roof is magnified in close-up, the composition, a riot of avant-garde diagonals.) A pencil sketch of the house, akin to an architectural drawing, bearing an inscription underneath. (The words are too blurry to read, yet we can just make out the name “Alpha.”) Finally, the camera stops on an elaborate black and white mandala, before reversing course and returning to Alpha—who is, we now understand, himself a maker of images, and whose artistic vision will drive the film as much as Kane’s.

8Alpha’s house emerges, throughout La maison bleue, as a central node in a much larger landscape, extending across multiple and overlapping perimeters. Some of these are temporal and spiritual, existing only in memory. Others are spatial, physical, geographic. Vitally, we learn (still early in the film) that Alpha is the filmmaker’s childhood friend, with whom he grew up in the village in Mauritania. The two men have recently been reunited, and their exchanges, in French and Fula, fill in Alpha’s backstory since leaving Mauritania in 2005. They also paint a vivid verbal picture of the place they have left behind. Specific individuals are named. Complex migratory trajectories are rehearsed. Of those who have stayed behind, girls have become women. (“You wouldn’t recognize them.”) Women have become old women. An old and prideful man has grown older and more prideful: blind, immobile, aphasic. These intimate exchanges between the two childhood friends imbue the film with a kind of mnemonic-cartographic genius. The whole thing unfolds under the aegis of reminiscence, shared experience, and collaboration. Cyclical time, history, and memory are, La maison bleue reminds us, always operative in the borderscape. This ensures that the images we see do not always correspond, functionally, to the events and experiences that take place there, nor can the latter be simply depicted or described.

9In the film’s core sequences, we see Alpha going about his business, and we learn that his house, in addition to the singular blue structure, comprises a yard and outbuildings that contain an art studio, an art gallery, a cinema, a vegetable garden, a chicken run, and a basketball court. An outhouse, a library, and an art school are shared with neighbors. The blue house thus becomes a kind of proprioceptive anchor in an expanded landscape, key features of which are explicitly dedicated to art- and image-making.

10Confirming the centrality of visual and aesthetic experience to this landscape, in one crucial scene, we watch Alpha erect his plein-air cinema. A white sheet serves as an improvised screen. The projector runs off his personal generator. He is preparing to show a football match. Once the projection gets going, Kane keeps the camera trained on his friend’s face, as the latter observes others watching the projection. Whether, and when, to stop the projection is an explicit topic of conversation. As the two men debate the consequences of stopping (or not stopping) the projection, Alpha utters the gnomic phrase, “No one can take on the power of the State.” It isn’t clear what prompts his comment in the moment, although we are obviously never far, here, from a generalized threat of State surveillance and control, in a setting in which cameras are super-abundant, and when the camp’s destruction by the State is the film’s ultimate horizon.

11As the cinema scenes build toward a crescendo, two unnamed jungle residents out for a stroll pause to take in the projection. Expressing consternation about the source of the image, they turn to Kane and conclude, erroneously, that his camera (even as it films them) must be the source. Alpha mocks them for their ignorance, yet the two men’s failure to grasp where the pictures they see projected on the screen are coming from lands like an unsettling omen. In the Jungle, looking, watching, and seeing bring not only pleasure but also danger. Elsewhere in the scene, Alpha refers with disdain to the presence of a “secret service snitch,” who “sees everything.” Elements of this more or less industrial process of image production, circulation, and interpretation—in which an image may always be distorted or cut off from its source—are, La maison bleue demonstrates, lovingly tended by Alpha, whereas others elude his control.

  • 1 It is worth recalling that other refugee and migrant camps in sites in northern France preceded th (...)

12If all Kane’s film did was depict Alpha’s house as image factory, it would still be noteworthy. For such a depiction counters seemingly intractable asymmetries in the representational ecology of the European borderscape, saturated by images produced from primitivizing, exoticizing, and de-politicizing perspectives—and reproducing them. The Calais Jungle has long been fertile soil for this type of myth-making, and it has been a particularly privileged site for the production of xenophobic and racist media images, designed to cultivate hysteria amongst non-migrant citizens. A number of works made by engagé artists in the Jungle and in other key borderscape sites have all made significant counterproposals within this field. With regard specifically to the Calais Jungle, photographic works by Mathieu Pernot, Gilles Raynaldy, Léopold Lambert, and Adel Tincelin spring to mind, as does Qu’ils reposent en révolte [Des figures de guerre I], a 2010 experimental documentary film by Sylvain George.1

  • 2 H. Steyerl, “Documentary Uncertainty,” A Prior Magazine 15, 2007, pp. 300-308.
  • 3 J. Bajorek, “This Past Must Address Its Future: Uses of African Noncontemporaneity in Contemporary (...)

13Despite this explosion of frenetic artistic experimentation, we have hardly tipped the scales of the dominant representational ecology. It remains impossible to “unsee” the stock photographs of crowds of migrants (almost always dominated by sub-Saharan Africans), rushing the no-go zones set up on the perimeter of the Eurostar tunnel, which were first published in British tabloids starting in the mid 2000s. The rise of a “crisis” discourse over the past decade has only added to the proliferation of xenophobic and racist representations, and these images have become commonplace in the mainstream media. Even projects centering representations produced by Jungle residents, or those based on active artistic collaboration between migrant and non-migrant artists, have not always been able to inoculate themselves against the dominant codes. Hito Steyerl suggests this failure must be understood less as a matter of a given artist’s or group of artists’ intentions or political astuteness, than as a matter of structural (for Steyerl, often technological) factors plaguing the contemporary representation of migrant experience.2 My own writing has emphasized the role played by colonial-era strategies and image ecologies in the representation of migrants from Africa in Europe in particular.3

14In one of several scenes in which we see the artist at work in his studio, Alpha adds the finishing touches to a collage in which tabloid headlines (“Anarchy in Calais”; “Calais: Send in the Army”; “Softy Calais Goes Ballistic”) feature conspicuously, suggesting that Alpha is all too aware of these representations—and of the necessity of countering them. Alpha has placed these headlines alongside a magazine Mona Lisa, clippings of EU politicians grinning or scowling at lecterns, the ubiquitous Union Jack. Here as elsewhere, La maison bleue remains distinctive not just for its representation of Alpha’s story or his art, but for its careful insistence on his status as an image-maker and artist.

15The violence of the tabloid headlines’ military metaphors is hardly exaggerated, and, at key points, Kane’s film underscores the historical nature of this violence. Repeating for his friend the many steps of his trajectory since leaving Mauritania, Alpha explains that he came to France because his grandfather died there. “I came here to France because this is where my grandfather died. My father [sic] was a veteran, a brigade leader!” He goes on to suggest that he might therefore have had a claim on French citizenship. This trope, recognizable to anyone familiar with French colonial history (the promise of citizenship made to West Africans who served in the French colonial military remains unfulfilled), touches off a disorienting moment of transgenerational remembrance. He goes on to add, “But then you know that because your father [sic] served with mine in the army.” Colonial history is also family history. That Alpha slips between speaking of his grandfather’s and his father’s military service only amplifies the sense of burden and debt. What is buried in France has been carried in West Africa for generations.

16The failure of the French State to recognize the (blood) sacrifice made by West Africans to ensure that State’s existence, and the actual entanglement, therefore, of West Africans’ histories and memories with French soil—on which, and for which, their ancestors died—remains a bitter disappointment. This failure also points up Europe’s hypocrisy with regard to its (barely) suppressed colonial history, and its blanket refusal to acknowledge the experiences of collective memory, cyclical temporality, and ongoing colonial-ancestral entanglements that continue to shape its borders for migrants and non-migrant citizens alike. Distinguishing La maison bleue from other counterproposals in a crowded field is its serious, if quiet, engagement with these entanglements, through which it achieves its more truthful representation of the border as a colonial artifact—rather than, say, a territorial fact.

17As the Jungle’s demolition becomes truly imminent, the blue house’s future becomes an emergency. Alpha must act to secure his artistic legacy. The status of his art as what is essentially a marketable commodity in the European borderscape had already been an explicit topic of conversation between the two artists: “You said my house is a work of art?” “Yes!” To which Alpha responds: “Someone who takes his Fulani culture and represents it in a country. I haven’t seen that in Europe.” In French and Fula, the word “represent” is frequently heard. Alpha goes on to articulate a vision for what will happen when he “represents” the blue house, along with its yard and outbuildings, to the wider world: “Ça va cartonner dans le monde!” (“It is going to blow up all over the world!”) It is not until the film’s final sequences, however, that we see Alpha put into action his carefully considered plan. He will relocate his house to Paris art gallery for an exhibition, ensuring it a tenuous posterity, even if this also leaves him homeless.

18We had already understood that the blue house served, among its many functions, as an art gallery. (At one point, we see a sign posted on the path out front, reading “Art in the village,” marking its inclusion on a well-known Jungle art tour.) The closing sequences convey a zany opening-night energy. Canvases are displayed on easels. A jumble of sculptures (made using recyclage, an important technique of contemporary African art) transforms Alpha’s yard into a veritable sculpture park: defunct cassette tapes adorn a tree like futuristic Christmas ornaments, plastic water bottles are threaded with sticks to make humanoid figures, a leaning tower of stuffed animals worthy of Jeff Koons. A suite of paintings has been mounted on the metal mesh fence against which we first spotted the filmmaker. The shot, taken from inside the house, with curtains fluttering, clearly echoes the one with which the film began. Our portrait of the artist will henceforth be mediated not just by a single camera, however, but by whole sound and camera crews. For several minutes, we watch these follow Alpha, boom mics popping into and out of the frame, as he gives interviews to a clueless-seeming American journalist and receives his adoring (and occasionally offensive) fans.

  • 4 Alpha refers several times to his case file with the French Office for the Protection of Refugees (...)
  • 5 The people we see assisting Alpha with his house’s dismantling are aid workers belonging to the gr (...)

19A series of more poignant reckonings also find their way into these closing scenes, adding to a mounting ambivalence. One unexpected thread reveals the shame that some members of Alpha’s family initially felt when he and his house began to appear on television. We witness a telephone call to Mauritania, during which friends and neighbors in the village seem to celebrate his fame, even as they do not recognize his voice. The emotional tenor is one of excitement, to be sure, but also of uncertainty and even loss, as we see Alpha go through a series of transformations in the film’s second half: from shame to fame, artist to hawker, undocumented to documented. (The latter possibility is at least intimated, as an upsurge of action on Alpha’s OFPRA case file is reported.4) When we finally see the blue house being dismantled under Alpha’s assiduous supervision—the roof is lifted off by a team of NGO workers-turned-art-handlers and placed on the back of a trailer—the photographers close in.5 As we watch the house being prepared for its next art-world incarnation, it is impossible to know whether we are watching a spoof of borderscape art or a work of borderscape art achieving its ultimate instantiation.

20La maison bleue’s initial lessons are relatively straightforward, if still vital, ones about the inherent instability of Europe’s borders, which have, at least since the colonial period, not existed wholly within Europe. But the film ultimately raises a slew of thornier questions about the distinctive vantage point that Alpha brings to bear on this instability, and about his capacity to mobilize it for his own ends. Is the dismantling and relocation of Alpha’s house a victory or a disaster? Does his status as an artist make him somehow more deserving of recognition, or more capable of winning it? And what about the presence of all these cameras? Do they affirm the realization of Alpha’s artistic vision or represent something potentially more sinister? To La maison bleue’s credit, the film drops these (for now) insoluble questions into a radically expanded vision of the European borderscape, in which distant sites and memories are implicated, and which a whole constellation of tools and technologies drawn from African art and art histories, ancestral knowledge, and lifeworlds not just present but actively and creatively bring to bear.

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Notes

1 It is worth recalling that other refugee and migrant camps in sites in northern France preceded those identified with/as the Jungle by many years. See, for example, the camp at Sangatte (situated to the south and west of the Eurostar entrance to the Channel Tunnel), which sprang up after the tunnel’s completion, in the late 1990s, and which eventually gave rise to an official refugee camp, erected inside a hangar that had been used to store Channel Tunnel boring equipment and run by the International Red Cross. Regarding the Sangatte camp, see J. Salmon, Le Hangar (Pomponne: Trans Photographic Press, 2001), consisting of photographs that she shot inside the hangar in 2001.

2 H. Steyerl, “Documentary Uncertainty,” A Prior Magazine 15, 2007, pp. 300-308.

3 J. Bajorek, “This Past Must Address Its Future: Uses of African Noncontemporaneity in Contemporary Art from the French Borderscape,” ARTMargins 12 (2), 2023, pp. 69-80.

4 Alpha refers several times to his case file with the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons Office (Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides, or OFPRA) in the film. Alpha did eventually become documented, after the film was shot (H. Kane, personal communication, August 8, 2022).

5 The people we see assisting Alpha with his house’s dismantling are aid workers belonging to the group Secours populaire (ibid.).

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Jennifer Bajorek, « Kane Hamedine. — La maison bleue »Cahiers d’études africaines, 254 | 2024, 470-475.

Référence électronique

Jennifer Bajorek, « Kane Hamedine. — La maison bleue »Cahiers d’études africaines [En ligne], 254 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2024, consulté le 20 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudesafricaines/47903 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11y2u

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Auteur

Jennifer Bajorek

Hampshire College, USA; Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD) Research Centre, University of Johannesburg, South Africa

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