Brussels-based artist Vincent Meessen works in long waves. His film JUSTE UN MOUVEMENT (JUST A MOVEMENT) was preceded by a number of earlier versions: a book publication, an installation at the Centre Pompidou in 2018, and a documentary first aired on Arte in 2019. Meessen describes JUSTE UN MOUVEMENT as „a portrait of an African Marxist militant and at the same time an essay film about Jean-Luc Godard’s LA CHINOISE – as a reprise.” His film is historically multilayered and narratively extravagant with its inventive montage, jumping between time and place. How to forge a path through this film, which, in the sense of Godard, watches its own making as it unfolds?
A headstone in a cemetery lays out the bare facts: Omar Blondin Diop, born 18.9.1946 in Niamey, the capital of Niger; died 11.5.1973 on the slave and prison island Gorée off the Senegalese capital of Dakar. In 1946, both Niger and Senegal belonged to the colonial territories of France, while in 1973, Senegal had been liberated for thirteen years, at least on paper. In a scene in JUSTE UN MOUVEMENT showing the Dakar of today, a wall slogan can be seen through the window of a train: „France out!” What does the end of the official colonial period mean if not only France but also the autocratic leaders of Africa’s francophone states continue to invoke an economically and militarily fortified „Françafrique”?
As early as February 1971, when French President Georges Pompidou was due to pay a visit to Dakar, all factions on the left were united in their opposition to France’s control over Senegal. Omar Blondin Diop, a philosophy student and future militant who divided his time between Paris and Dakar, was the future-oriented antithesis to Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor. The two contemporaries followed one another closely, both finding great affinities amongst the intellectual milieu of Paris and meeting with political activists and artists. While Senghor met with Presidents de Gaulle and Pompidou, the great Picasso, and Hitler’s sculptor Arno Breker, Omar moved in the circles of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Anne Wiazemsky, and Jean-Luc Godard, studying Foucault, the Situationists, and the Black Panther Party as well as Deleuze/Guattari. While the Senegalese politician-writer with a French passport sought a close political, economic, and military alliance with France, the activist-bohemian wanted to decolonize Senegal and free it from French control, by force if necessary. In the end, Diop would die at the hands of Senghor’s torturers.
„Chinafrica" supersedes Françafrique
The prison island of Gorée is a symbol for the kidnapping and transport of slaves, even though its historical notoriety as a hub for the transatlantic slave trade is considered disproven. However, the round prison building there displays striking parallels to the recently opened Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar. Meessen’s film cautiously approaches the building site of the „Shanghai Construction” company, happening to brush against the Mercedes star of a Chinese state convoy. The museum was built by the Chinese government, with the end goal of exploiting Senegal’s supply of raw materials as quietly as possible in return.
„The Chinese people strongly support the just war of the African people,” reads the intercut commentary from LA CHINOISE. But in 1967 the People’s Republic was itself a destitute and newly liberated country, whereas today it is a rising world power, promoting its economic interests through the construction of stadiums, train stations, mosques, housing, or cultural facilities.
What makes Meessen’s film so politically unique is how it traces the gradual superseding of Françafrique by „Chinafrica." By the advent of the 21st century, the Chinese government had made it a priority to extract raw materials from around the world. Only with these materials could the factories of the Pearl River Delta and other parts of China manufacture the cheap products destined for the global marketplace. As many as two million Chinese citizens are active across the African continent. What is less well known is that, in return, up to half a million African traders, service providers, civil servants and students live in China.
National governments, business people and individuals are no longer fixated on the West: they can choose between lenders, weigh up various conditions and blaze a trail for themselves into the world beyond „Fortress Europe.”
If the global class of the bourgeoisie „has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country,” as Marx/Engels stated in their Communist Manifesto in 1848, then it is no longer only top managers who move along the economic axes of globalization, but also the independently active small-scale merchants, adventurers and migrant workers. National governments, business people and individuals are no longer fixated on the West: they can choose between lenders and weigh up various conditions, access products and services that once seemed unavailable and blaze a trail for themselves into the world beyond „Fortress Europe.” Chinafrica is embedded into a radical neoliberal market process and at the same time pursuing a decoloniality (Walter Mignolo) beyond Western models.
Meessen’s cameraman Vincent Pinckaers speeds through Dakar, perched on the rear seat behind a Chinese motorcyclist. The viewer sees a Chinese-run store where a meal is being prepared: Chinese cabbage, one of the few ingredients used by both Chinese and Africans, albeit treated in very different ways. The owners of the shop, a couple, make a video call to their daughter Fi Lu back home. She should not return to Africa, they say, but find a partner in China as quickly as possible.
Later JUSTE UN MOUVEMENT shows a Senegalese Muslim woman in a headscarf, standing before a blackboard covered in Chinese and French writing. Mame Awa Ly Fall, a doctor of Chinese medicine, lived in China for ten years. Like the Senegalese tai chi professor and kung fu champion Doudou Fall, she is affiliated with the Confucius Institute, whose aim is to spread Chinese culture across the world. In intercut scenes, Jean-Pierre Léaud from LA CHINOISE observes the two while puffing on a cigar. In a theater named Cinema Empire, of all things, dance-like tai chi movements play across the big screen – „but it must be the just movement,” states an intercut clip from a Situationist kung fu film. Athletes run in circles around the cinema, shouting Chinese motivational sayings that could just as well belong in a management seminar.
Polycultural reading beyond simple identity politics
Vijay Prashad, director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, traces the connections between Bruce Lee and Black emancipation in his 2001 book Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting. The Delhi-, Beirut- and Northampton-based author proposes a cosmo-political reading of Asian martial arts: „Ultimately, the world of kung fu is one in which non-whites dream of a revolution of bare fists against the heavily armed fortress of white supremacy.” When Bruce Lee’s ENTER THE DRAGON hit theaters around the globe in 1973, the Vietnam War had reached its most decisive phase: „Emancipation was not limited to the big or small screen.” Resistance-focused kung fu schools opened in U.S. ghettos, and the Black Panthers taught „black Maoism.”
Prashad offers an anti-essentialist and „polycultural” reading beyond that of simple identity politics. This means thinking and acting within an international sphere of resistance, for the „Afro-Asian and polycultural struggles of today in effect make it possible for us to redeem a past that has been fragmented by historians along ethnic lines.” This memory work across continents is closely linked with Meessen’s interwoven work.
Political rapper and activist Malal, a.k.a. Fou Malade, joins a panel on a TV talk show. Later, he falls into a discussion during a train ride with Felwine Sarr, co-author of the groundbreaking report titled „The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage” together with Bénédicte Savoy, commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron. The two argue about the appropriateness of Dakar’s new Chinese-influenced Museum of Black Civilizations. What is needed – as Vijay Prashad would argue – is constant reinvention, not referring back to a static identity from the past, Sarr says favorably. „But aren’t we repeating the same mistakes, since the museum was built by the Chinese?” Malal insists. In a flashback, Fi Lu looks across Dakar to the port where shipping containers from China are stacked. „Don’t sell Africa’s future!” a banner reads. Like a wave, JUSTE UN MOUVEMENT ripples long and far across continents.
Jochen Becker (Berlin) works as an author, curator and lecturer and is a cofounder of metroZones | Center for Urban Affairs. Most recently he curated Chinafrika. under construction (Graz, Leipzig, Weimar, Shenzhen, Nuremberg).
Translation: Hilda Hoy