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The Coordinates of Neocolonial (In)hospitality

by Ethan Tussey

by Daniel Norford for IN MEDIA RES

In keeping with the theme of "cinematic architecture," my post will focus on the politics of space in Ousmane Sembene's 'Le Noire de..." (1966), a film that chronicles the suffering of Diouana, a Senegalese guest-worker transplanted to Antibes, France, and her eventual suicide as a result of the subjugating regime of her employers' domestic arrangement.

The accompanying clip shows Diouana entering the living space of the villa before passing into the kitchen. Sembene frames "Madame" in a deep-focus shot that draws the viewer's attention to Diouana in the background, visible through multiple door frames. Through the use of deep focus and the multiple planes of the image, Sembene creates a virtual triangle composed of Madame-Monsieur-Diouana. Through this geometric construction, the film suggests the political economy that underpins and produces the design of the villa's closed floor plan: relegated to the nebulous 'background' of the household, Diouana's predicament finds expression through the arrangement of space, and through how this arrangement produces a sense of distinction between the now-qualitatively different coordinates of the villa; Madame's and Monsieur's 'natural' environment is the living area, in contradistinction to Diouana's foreclosed positioning.

It is the African mask located on the wall just outside of the kitchen that provides an opportunity to speak of this scene as describing the paradoxical (in)hospitality of the neocolonial space; no mere accidental prop, the mask was actually a gift from Diouana to her employers, given as a gesture of gratitude for their disingenuous 'invitation.' Its presence in the shot reminds us that Diouana's treatment is, among other things, a betrayal of the project of hospitality that always accompanies the inviting of guests into the home, even when these latter are circumscribed by an oxmoronic 'guest worker' label.

On this register, the triangular domestic arrangement of the clip also opens up the ambivalence of this undecidable (in)hospitality: it both disavows and anticipates an economy of substitution, equivalence, and exchange, invoking the capitalist circulation of goods and people, and the general equivalence of that arrangement. The promise and the threat of substitution is further suggested by the French word hôte, which can mean both 'host' and 'guest' depending on context, and which provides an opportunity to view the household as constituted--and thus also haunted--by the promise of equivalence, equality and similarity which its domestic space both invokes and denies.

Colonial French Cinema

A clip from Le Noire de...

from Le Noire de... (1966)
Creator: Ousmane Sembene
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey