Fools, Cowards, or Criminals?

Ian Buruma

8/9/2017 12:00:00 AM

The Memory of Justice a documentary film directed by Marcel Ophuls, restored by the Academy Film Archive in association with Paramount Pictures and the Film Foundation available on HBO



The main Nuremberg war crimes trials began in November 1945 and continued until October 1946. Rebecca West, who reported on the painfully slow proceedings for The New Yorker, described the courtroom as a “citadel of boredom.” But there were moments of drama: Hermann Göring under cross-examination running rings around the chief US prosecutor Robert H. Jackson, for example. Jackson’s opening statement, however, provided the trial’s most famous words:

We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well. We must summon such detachment and intellectual integrity to our task that this Trial will commend itself to posterity as fulfilling humanity’s aspirations to do justice.

How well humanity lived up to these words, after a good number of bloody conflicts involving some of the same powers that sat in judgment on the Nazi leaders, is the subject of The Memory of Justice, the four-and-a-half-hour documentary that has rarely been seen since 1976 but is considered by its director, Marcel Ophuls, to be his best—even better, perhaps, than his more famous The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), about the Nazi occupation of France, the Vichy government, and the French Resistance.

Near the beginning of The Memory of Justice, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin declares that the barbarism of Nazi Germany can only be seen as a universal moral catastrophe: “I proceed from the assumption that every human being is guilty.” The fact that it happened in Germany, he says, doesn’t mean that it cannot happen elsewhere. This statement comes just after we have seen the Nazi leaders, one after the other, declare their innocence in the Nuremberg courtroom.

We also hear a former French paratrooper recall how the French in Algeria systematically tortured and murdered men, women, and children. There are gruesome images of the Vietnam War. And Telford Taylor, US counsel for the prosecution at Nuremberg, wonders how any of us would cope with the “degeneration of standards under pressures.” Later in the film, Taylor says that his views on Americans and American history have changed more than his views on the Germans whom he once judged.

Such juxtapositions are enough to send some people into a fury. The art critic Harold Rosenberg accused Ophuls in these pages of being “lured…into a near-nihilistic bog in which no one is guilty, because all are guilty and there is no one who is morally qualified to judge.”1 Ophuls, according to Rosenberg, “trivialized” the Nazi crimes and “diluted” the moral awfulness of the death camps.

This is to misunderstand what Ophuls was up to. The film never suggests that Auschwitz and the My Lai massacre, or French torture prisons in Algiers, are equivalent, let alone that the Vietnam War was a criminal enterprise on the same level as the Holocaust. Nor does Ophuls doubt that the judgment on Göring and his gang at Nuremberg was justified. Ophuls himself was a refugee from the Nazis, forced to leave Germany in 1933, and to flee again when France was invaded in 1940. Instead he tries, dispassionately and sometimes with touches of sardonic humor, to complicate the problem of moral judgment. What makes human beings who are normally unexceptional commit atrocities under abnormal circumstances? What if such crimes are committed by our fellow citizens in the name of our own country? How does our commitment to justice appear today in the light of the judgments at Nuremberg? Will the memory of justice, as Plato assumed, make us strive to do better?

Ophuls does not dilute the monstrosity of Nazi crimes at all. But he refuses to simply regard the perpetrators as monsters. “Belief in the Nazis as monsters,” he once said, “is a form of complacency.” This reminds me of something the controversial German novelist Martin Walser once said about the Auschwitz trials held in Frankfurt in the 1960s. He wasn’t against them. But he argued that the daily horror stories in the popular German press about the grotesque tortures inflicted by Nazi butchers made it easier for ordinary Germans to distance themselves from these crimes and the regime that made them happen. Who could possibly identify with such brutes? If only monsters were responsible for the Holocaust and other mass murders, there would never be any need for the rest of us to look in the mirror.

It is true that Ophuls does not interview former Nazis, such as Albert Speer and Admiral Karl Dönitz, as a prosecutor. His role is not to indict, but to understand better what motivates such men, especially men (and women) who seem otherwise quite civilized. For this, too, Rosenberg condemned him, arguing that he should have balanced the views voiced by these criminals with those of their victims, for otherwise viewers might give the old rogues the benefit of the doubt.

There seems to be little danger of that. Consider Dönitz, for example, who makes the bizarre statement that he could not have been anti-Semitic, since he never discriminated against Jews in the German navy, forgetting for a moment that there were no known Jews in Hitler’s Kriegsmarine. When Ophuls asks him whether he really believes that there was no connection between his ferociously anti-Semitic speeches and the fate of the Jews under the government he served, the admiral’s tight little mouth twitches alarmingly before denying everything in the harsh yelp of a cornered dog. This speaks for itself, and needs no “balancing” by another voice.

Ophuls is a superb interviewer, polite, cool, and relentless. His tone is often skeptical, but never moralistic or aggressive. This allows him to get people to say things they may not have divulged to a more confrontational interlocutor. Albert Speer was responsible for, among other things, the ghastly fate of countless slave laborers pulled from concentration camps to work in German armaments factories. Responding to Ophuls’s quiet probing, this most slippery of customers speaks at length about the moral blindness and criminal opportunism that came from his ruthless ambition. Unlike most Germans of his generation, Speer believed that the Nuremberg trials were justified. But then, he could be said to have got off rather lightly with a prison sentence rather than being hanged.

Where Dönitz is shrill and defensive, Speer is smooth, even charming. This almost certainly saved his life. Telford Taylor believed that Speer should have been hanged, according to the evidence and criteria of Nuremberg. Julius Streicher was executed for being a vile anti-Semitic propagandist, even though he never had anything like the power of Speer. But he was an uncouth, bullet-headed ruffian, described by Rebecca West as “a dirty old man of the sort that gives trouble in parks,” a man one could easily regard as a monster. The judges warmed to Speer as a kind of relief. Compared to Streicher, the vulgar, strutting Göring, the pompous martinet General Alfred Jodl, or the hulking SS chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Speer was a gentleman. What saved him, Taylor recalls in the film, was his superior class. When Ophuls puts this to him, a ghostly smile flits across Speer’s face: “If that’s the explanation…, then I am only too pleased I made such a good impression.” In the event, Speer got twenty years; Dönitz only got ten.

Ophuls said in an interview that it was easy to like Speer. But there is no suggestion that this mitigated his guilt. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who also interviewed Speer at length, called him “the true criminal of Nazi Germany,” precisely because he was clearly not a sadistic brute but a highly educated, well-mannered, “normal” human being who should have known better than to be part of a murderous regime. This is perhaps the main point of Ophuls’s film as well: there was nothing special about the Germans that predisposed them to become killers or, more often, to look away when the killings were done. There is no such thing as a criminal people. A quiet-spoken young architect can end up with more blood on his hands than a Jew-baiting thug. This, I think, is what Yehudi Menuhin meant by his warning that it could happen anywhere.


Far from being a moral nihilist who trivialized the Nazi crimes, Ophuls was so committed to his examination of guilt and justice that The Memory of Justice had a narrow escape from oblivion. The companies that commissioned it, including the BBC, did not like the rough cut. They thought it was far too long. Since the film was to be based on Telford Taylor’s book Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy (1970), they wanted more on the Vietnam War and less on Nuremberg. Rejection only made Ophuls, who never took kindly to being told what to do by the men in suits, stick more stubbornly to his own vision. He was less interested in a specifically American tragedy, or indeed a German tragedy, than in man’s descent into barbarousness, wherever or whenever it happens.

Ophuls was locked out of the cutting room in London. The producers put together a shorter version of the film, with a different spin, which was sold to ZDF television in Germany. Ophuls then traveled all over Europe to save his own version. A German court stopped ZDF from showing the shorter one. The original edit was smuggled to the US, where a private screening reduced Mike Nichols to tears. Hamilton Fish, later a well-known publisher, managed to persuade a group of investors to buy the original movie back and Paramount to distribute it. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976, and then in New York and on college campuses, as well as on television in many countries. But for the cussed perseverance of Ophuls and the help of his American backers, The Memory of Justice would never have been seen. In Fish’s words, “You needed his type of personality to make such a film. He took history on personally.”

After its initial run, however, the movie disappeared. Contracts on archival rights ran out. The film stock was in danger of deteriorating. And so a documentary masterpiece could easily have been lost if Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation had not stepped in with Paramount to put it all back together again, a labor that took ten years and was completed in 2015.

Much has changed, of course, since 1976. Germany is a different country now, geographically, politically, and culturally. When Ophuls talked to Dönitz, the West German establishment was still riddled with former Nazis. Most of the wartime generation masked their dirty secrets with evasions or shabby justifications. The history of the Third Reich, in the words of Eugen Kogon, a Holocaust survivor and the first German historian to write about the camps, was still “the corpse in the cellar.”

Quite ordinary people, like the smiling man encountered by Ophuls in a small town in Schleswig-Holstein, still remembered the Third Reich with great fondness as an orderly time when people knew how to behave and there was “no problem of crime.” Ophuls happened to meet this friendly burgher while he was trying to track down a female doctor who had been convicted at Nuremberg for murdering children in concentration camps by injecting oil into their veins, to name just one of her grisly experiments. After she was released from prison in 1952, she continued for a time to practice as a family doctor. She was, it appears, well respected, even friendly.

When Ophuls finally managed to find her, she very politely declined to be interviewed, since she was in poor health. Another former concentration camp doctor, Gerhard Rose, did agree to talk, however, but only to deny any guilt, claiming that his medical experiments (infecting victims with malaria, for example) served a humanitarian purpose, and that the US Army performed experiments too. Ophuls observes, quite rightly, that American experiments were hardly conducted under the kind of circumstances prevailing in Dachau and Buchenwald. But the hypocrisy of the Western Allies in this matter might have been better illustrated by pointing out that German and Japanese doctors who committed even worse crimes than Dr. Rose were protected by the US government because their knowledge might come in handy during the cold war.2

Perhaps the most disturbing interview in the movie is not with an unrepentant Nazi or a war criminal, but with the gentlemanly and highly esteemed lawyer Otto Kranzbühler. A navy judge during the war, Kranzbühler was defense counsel for Admiral Dönitz at Nuremberg, where he cut a dashing figure in his navy uniform. He later had a successful career as a corporate lawyer, after defending the likes of Alfried Krupp against accusations of having exploited slave labor. Kranzbühler never justified Nazism. But when asked by Ophuls whether he had discussed his own part in the Third Reich with his children, he replied that he had come up with a formula to make them understand: if you were ignorant of what went on, you were a fool; if you knew, but looked the other way, you were a coward; if you knew, and took part, you were a criminal. Were his children reassured? Kranzbühler: “My children didn’t recognize their father in any of the above.”

It was a brilliant evasion. But Kranzbühler was no more evasive than the French prosecutor at Nuremberg, the equally urbane Edgar Faure, who had been a member of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. Ophuls asked him about French war crimes during the Algerian War of Independence, when torture was systematically applied, civilians were massacred, and prisoners were thrown out of helicopters, a practice that later became widespread under South American military regimes. “Well,” said Faure, “events do get out of hand. But you can’t really criticize politicians who have the difficult task of running the government.” Edgar Faure was prime minister of France during part of that war.

The 1970s were a critical time in Germany. There were still people, like the son of the former Waffen SS officer interviewed by Ophuls, who believed that the Nazi death camps were a lie, and it was the Americans who built the gas chambers in concentration camps. But the postwar generation had begun to question their parents amid the student revolts of the 1960s. Just a year after The Memory of Justice was completed, radicalism in Germany turned toxic, when members of the Red Army Faction murdered bankers, kidnapped industrialists, and hijacked planes, all in the name of antifascism, as though to make up for their parents’ complicity with the Nazis.

German families were torn apart by memories of the war. Ophuls includes his own not uncomplicated family in the film. His German wife, Regine, the daughter of a Wehrmacht veteran, speaks openly to American students about her own childhood under the Nazis. One of their teenaged daughters talks about the need to come to terms with the past, even though their mother finds seventeen a little too young to be confronted with images of concentration camps. Then Regine says something personal that cuts to the core of her husband’s life and work. She wishes sometimes that Ophuls would make films that were not about such dark matters. What kind of films? he asks. Lubitsch films, she replies, or My Fair Lady all over again. We then hear Cyd Charisse singing “New Sun in the Sky” from The Band Wagon (1953), while watching Ophuls in a car on his way to find the doctor who murdered children in concentration camps.

This is typical of the Ophuls touch, show tunes evoking happier times overlapping with memories of horror. The motive is not to pile on cheap irony, but to bring in a note of autobiography. His father was Max Ophuls, the great director of Liebelei (1933), La Ronde (1950), and Lola Montès (1955). Max was one of the geniuses of the exile cinema. Memories of a sweeter life in imperial Vienna or nineteenth-century France are darkened in his films by a sense of betrayal and perverse sexuality.

Nostalgia for better days haunted his son, who spent his youth on the run from terror with a father whose genius he always felt he couldn’t live up to. He would have loved to direct movies like La Ronde. Instead he made great documentary films about the past that won’t let him go, about Vichy France, or Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo butcher of Lyon, or Nuremberg. The true horror stories are mixed in all his work, as in a collage, with songs from pre-war Berlin music halls and Hollywood movies.

One of the most unforgettable examples of the Ophuls touch is a scene in a film that has almost never been viewed (another bitter fight with producers). November Days (1991) is about the fall of the Berlin wall. One of the people he interviews is Markus Wolf, the former East German spy chief, whose father, the Communist writer Friedrich Wolf, had known Max Ophuls in pre-war Berlin. While Markus dodges every question about his past with blatant lies, we hear music from one of Max’s movies slowly swell on the soundtrack as Marcel thinks out loud to himself how lucky he was that his father decided to move west instead of east.


In the second half of The Memory of Justice, the focus shifts from east to west, as it were, from Germany to France and the US. Daniel Ellsberg, speaking of Vietnam, says that “this war will cause us to be monstrous.” We hear stories from men who were there of American soldiers murdering civilians in cold blood. We hear a Vietnam veteran talk about being told to shut up by his superiors when he reports a massacre of civilians ordered by his commanding officer. We hear Ellsberg say that no one higher than a lieutenant was ever convicted for the mass killing of Vietnamese civilians by US soldiers in My Lai.

On the French side, stories about summary executions and the use of torture during the Algerian War (1954–1962) are followed by a crucial question put by Ophuls to Edgar Faure, the former Nuremberg prosecutor and later prime minister of France: Did he, Edgar Faure, think the French would have accepted an international commission that would judge, on the basis of Nuremberg, what the French did in Algeria? No, said Faure, after a pensive suck on his pipe, since one cannot compare the invasion of another country to the actions taken by a sovereign state in its own colony.

Sir Hartley Shawcross, the British prosecutor at Nuremberg, speaking to Ophuls in his elegant country house in Sussex, remembers how much his American colleagues had believed in justice and the rule of law. Like other British officials at the time, he took a more cynical view: “All law is created by the victors for the vanquished.” What mattered in his opinion, however, was not who made the laws, but whether the principles were right. About this he had little doubt.

Looking back, Otto Kranzbühler shared Shawcross’s memory of American idealism. But he believed that as a model for the future, Nuremberg had been a failure. The trial, as he saw it, presupposed a united world community in which wars would be a thing of the past. This illusion did not last long.

In fact, the trial was tainted from the beginning, not only because among the men who judged the Nazi leaders were Soviet veterans of Stalin’s bloody show trials, but also because Allied war crimes could not even be mentioned. A former British officer involved in the wartime bomber command had no doubt that the destruction of Dresden was a war crime.

If The Memory of Justice has a weakness, it is that this second half of the film, concentrating on French and American war crimes, is not quite as gripping as the first half about the German legacy of Nuremberg. Perhaps Ophuls’s heart was not in it to the same extent. Or perhaps no matter what one thinks of My Lai or Algiers, they are overshadowed by the sheer scale and savagery of the Nazi crimes.

Then again, pace Rosenberg, Ophuls doesn’t suggest that they are equivalent. What is comparable is the way people look away from, or justify, or deny what is done in their name, or under their watch. The wife of a US marine who died in Vietnam, living in a house stuffed with flags and military memorabilia, simply refuses to entertain the idea that her country could ever do anything wrong. More interesting, and perhaps more damning, is the statement by John Kenneth Galbraith, an impeccably liberal former diplomat and economist. His view of the Vietnam War, he tells Ophuls, had been entirely practical, without any consideration of moral implications.

Vietnam was not the Eastern Front in 1943. My Lai was not Auschwitz. And Galbraith was certainly no Albert Speer. Nevertheless, this technocratic view of violent conflict is precisely what leads many people so far astray under a criminal regime. In the film, Ellsberg describes the tunnel vision of Speer as “controlled stupidity,” the refusal to see the consequences of what one does and stands for.

This brings to mind another brilliant documentary about controlled stupidity, Errol Morris’s The Fog of War (2003), featuring Robert McNamara, the technocrat behind the annihilation of Japanese cities in World War II and the escalation of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. To him, the deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians was a mathematical problem. Only many years later did he admit that if the US had lost World War II, he could certainly have been indicted as a war criminal.

Even more chilling is another documentary by Morris, which received less attention than The Fog of War. In The Unknown Known (2013), we see Donald Rumsfeld, another gentlemanly technocrat, shrug his shoulders about Vietnam, commenting that “sometimes things just don’t work out.” When, as the result of another war in which he was even more intimately involved, Baghdad was convulsed in anarchic violence, he notoriously remarked that “stuff happens.” This is what Hannah Arendt called a “criminal lack of imagination.”

Perhaps the US in 1945 set its ideals too high. But it is a tragedy that the same country that believed in international law, and did so much to establish the norms of justice, has done so little to live up to them. The US is not even a signatory to the International Criminal Court, a flawed institution like the Nuremberg tribunal, but a necessary step in the right direction. No one can hold the greatest military power on earth accountable for what it does, not for torture rooms in Abu Ghraib, not for locking people up indefinitely without trial, not for murdering civilians with drones.

For Germans living under the Third Reich it was risky to imagine too well what their rulers were doing. To protest was positively dangerous. This is not yet true for those of us living in the age of Trump, when the president of the US openly condones torture and applauds thugs for beating up people at his rallies. We need films like this masterpiece by Ophuls more than ever to remind us of what happens when even the memories of justice fade away.



How Meryl Streep’s Speech Became Golden For Journalists As HFPA Dishes Out Annual Grants

Pete Hammond

8/3/2017 12:00:00 AM

You can always tell when the marathon movie awards season is approaching. Talk of movies going to Toronto, Telluride and Venice starts accelerating, campaign consultants start asking me what upcoming fall release contenders I may somehow have already managed to get an early look at, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has its annual dinner to hand out lots of money for worthy endeavors at their official Grants Banquet.

True to form it was held last night at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and according to brand new HFPA president Meher Tatna, this year more than $2.8 million in donations to a total of 55 institutions of one sort or another was dispersed. Most notably this time around, one of the recipients of a $200,000 grant came directly from a suggestion made in a Golden Globes speech in January: Meryl Streep, in accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award, urged the HFPA to support the Committee to Protect Journalists, a natural fit considering the makeup of the organization.

Tatna said Streep’s speech (which got lots of attention coming as it did just days before the inauguration of Donald Trump, a prime target of her remarks) inspired her and the group. Now it has put its money where its mouth is, a fitting and generous gesture as the HFPA celebrates 75 years and its Diamond Anniversary this year.

There was less talk about Trump at this event than at the Globes or most other awards gatherings this past season, but host Chelsea Handler did get a great zinger in at the beginning of the presentation. “Tonight we celebrate the three things Donald Trump hates the most: foreigners, the press, and actually donating money to charity,” she said to big laughs from the crowd, which was filled with representatives of the many organizations winning grants from the cash rich HFPA, publicists eager to curry early favor in the upcoming season from the many Globe voters all in one room, and a celebrity lineup of presenters and accepters who may also just coincidentally have a movie or TV show that could be a Golden Globe contender.

Among the latter were Armie Hammer, Bob Odenkirk, Chrissy Metz, Anthony Mackie, Elisabeth Moss, Matt Bomer, Patrick Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Chadwick Boseman, Kathryn Hahn, Ava DuVernay, Kumail Nanjiani and Dustin Hoffman to name a few. Hoffman accepted the annual check (this year, $350,000) for Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, which over the years has been the beneficiary of millions of dollars toward film preservation and restoration from the HPFA. That gift was preceded by a filmed message from Scorsese himself.

In addition to restoring more than 90 films, HFPA grants have committed nearly $30 million since this practice was started in 1989, and more that 1500 scholarships. Additionally at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the org donated a cool $500,000 to the International Rescue Committee.

Among the many who benefit this year, DuVernay accepted a grant on behalf of The American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop For Women, while Hahn and Nanjiani welcomed a new grant this year for the Los Angeles LGBT Center and its Outset: Young Filmmakers project promoting at-risk LGBTQ youth with hands-on filmmaking experience. Another $10,000 grant went to helping Veterans in Film & Television, a worthy endeavor that gives support to military vets breaking into the film business after their (in many cases) numerous tours of duty.

Entertainment was provided by Keala Settle, singing a powerhouse rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love Of All.” Settle, nominated for a Tony last year for her supporting role in Waitress, could be headed for Globe and/or Oscar recognition for her first big film role as the Bearded Lady in the 20th Century Fox holiday release The Greatest Showman which stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum. As noted in my coverage of Fox’s presentation at CinemaCon in March, Jackman was effusive in praise of Settle. Certainly her performance last night won’t hurt in continuing the buzz for the as-yet unseen film musical. I am told she has a Jennifer Hudson Dreamgirls-style show-stopper from the film musical’s score by Oscar and Tony winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Among executives in the crowd at the Beverly Wilshire was Fox chairman Stacey Snider, who seems to be holding a hot hand this awards season with numerous Oscar possibilities — hopefully including the summer hit War For The Planet Of The Apeswhich is truly epic and thought-provoking. Fox is taking their survival drama The Mountain Between Us starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba to Toronto.

Among other execs I saw were NBC’s Robert Greenblatt (still thrilled over Dear Evan Hansen’s Tony win, as well as all those Emmy nominations for This Is Us); Open Road’s Tom Ortenberg, who was praising its Thurgood Marshall drama Marshallstarring Boseman; Reigning Best Picture champ (Moonlight) A24’s  David Fenkel and Daniel Katz , both understandably excited to be releasing their Cannes pickup The Florida Project, a real discovery of a movie; and  Lionsgate’s Patrick Wachsberger who has Jake Gyllenhaal in TIFF World Premiere Stronger, and Julia Roberts November release Wonder in the mix.

And so another season is knocking at the door.


Meet Martin Scorsese’s partner in saving African cinema


7/27/2017 12:00:00 AM

Aboubakar Sanogo spent years trying to track down a copy of Soleil O, one of the most important African films ever made.

"There is before and after Soleil O in the history of African cinema," said Sanogo, an assistant professor of film studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The movie, the directorial debut of Med Hondo, about an immigrant who moves to Paris in search of a better life, only to encounter racism and humiliation, has popped up in theatres here and there over the years, but never received wide distribution after it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970. Imagine not being able to find a print of Mean Streets. This isn't just the sad state of Soleil O, but of much of African cinema itself, Sanogo said.

It's why he's so excited about his latest undertaking, the African Film Heritage Project, launched in partnership with Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation World Cinema Project and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The goal of the initiative will be to not only preserve and restore African cinema, but to help raise awareness of African films by getting them shown in theatres and at film festivals around the world.

"Preservation is only half the battle," Sanogo said. "The real battle is: Get it seen."

Scorsese's involvement in the project is a personal dream come true for Sanogo, who counts the director among his favourite filmmakers. But more importantly, it gives the project a profile it might otherwise lack.

"He's a Hollywood filmmaker, yet he's acutely aware that Hollywood is simply not enough, that our experience of the world is incomplete if we only see films that Hollywood offers us," Sanogo said.

Scorsese's World Cinema Project, which aims to preserve and restore neglected films, has restored, preserved and exhibited 31 films from around the globe, including Africa, since its launch in 2007.

Hollywood's offerings are so well promoted and vastly distributed that they often push other movies from our sites, intentionally or not, which has certainly been true of African cinema, Sanogo said.

"It has been marginalized precisely because the screens of Africa and the screens of the world are dominated by the cinema of one country primarily," he said.

It's an unfortunate state of affairs for all, regardless of where they come from or call home, Sanogo said.

"The world is not complete if it does not have the African lens to it," he said. "It is a truism that the world was born in Africa. And therefore, to know Africa is to know oneself."

But, he cautioned, "It's important that people don't keep in mind only the historical aspect, but Africa as it moves, as it lives today."

There is a rich tradition of documentaries and experimental and feature films made in Africa, as well as films that date back as far as the early 1900s, but unfortunately many of them are hard to find or are in poor condition, Sanogo said. Just visit the archives in many African countries and you'll see for yourself, he added.

"It brings tears to your eyes."

While it is important to preserve these films and show them to a global audience, it is profoundly necessary to make them available to Africans themselves, Sanogo said.

"The act of seeing oneself on screen is an affirmative act," he said, adding that when we see ourselves on screen, we are able to recognize so much about our lives. "This is the beauty of the culture, this is the beauty of the way we have invented to the world – in our own manner, in our own language, in our own cuisine, in our own music – our own stories, our own institutions, our own ways of being together. That is what cinema does that really makes it a life-affirming medium."

Sanogo was finally able to watch Soleil O after meeting Med Hondo in person.

The African Film Heritage Project has already made it easier for others to see the film. Thanks to the efforts of the project, Soleil O screened in the Cannes Classics section of the famed film festival earlier this year, and then was exhibited at a film festival in Italy last month.

Fighting Hollywood is certainly no easy task, but like every struggle for equality, it is one that benefits us all, Sanogo said. "If all cinematic traditions were treated equally, if the distribution processes and institutions were open to all cinema, the world itself would be much richer."


Shine a Light: Scorsese’s Film Foundation Leads a Charge to Preserve 50 Endangered Gems of Africa’s Cinema History

Ryan Stewart

7/21/2017 12:00:00 AM

Having touched on the rich cultural heritage of West Africa with “Feel Like Going Home,” an episode in his 2003 documentary series The Blues, which explored the African roots of the Delta blues, Martin Scorsese had another fortuitous opportunity to engage with the continent’s artistic offerings in 2007.

That year, he was invited to Mali by Souleymane Cissé, a celebrated Malian director who shared with him the joys of African cinema, as well as its struggles.

“Cissé was very urgent in expressing the need for African cinema to be preserved,” said Margaret Bodde, executive director of Scorsese’s preservation-focused nonprofit organization, The Film Foundation. “The great flowering of African cinema of the 1960s and ’70s has not really been available where the films were made. So we’ve always had it on our minds to try to tackle this issue.”

The right circumstances were ultimately initiated by FEPACI, or The Pan African Federation of Filmmakers, an organization formed in 1969 in North Africa to be a continent-wide (and diaspora) voice for promoting African cinema interests. Concerned with the urgent need to preserve African film heritage, FEPACI developed an idea for a program to identify and select 50 films across the continent for preservation. They also began having discussions with The Film Foundation about joining the effort.

“From that point on it became clear that this was a world heritage cultural patrimony issue, so we sent a proposal in to UNESCO,” said Bodde. UNESCO—the Paris-based agency of the United Nations dedicated to cultural, educational and scientific endeavors—responded two months later.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova explained: “Protecting African audiovisual heritage is inseparable from the safeguarding of African cultural and natural wonders. It is a source of pride and dignity. It is a driver of social cohesion and belonging. It is also an accelerator for economic growth, job creation and revenue generation. Films shape our opinions and the way we see the world. They give confidence and courage to transform societies for the better.” Bokova sees the project as “a source of enrichment for humankind.”

A letter of agreement between the entities was formalized on June 7, 2017, with the creation of the African Film Heritage Project initiative.

Going forward, the partners will rely on the expertise of a FEPACI advisory board of archivists, filmmakers and scholars tasked with seeking out the initial 50 films. The alliance already has a success under its belt that predates the letter of agreement, with the restoration of celebrated Mauritanian director Med Hondo’s 1969 drama Soleil O (Oh, Sun). A critique of neocolonialism, the film was shot over a period of four years and tells the story of an African immigrant’s journey to Paris to find his ancestors.

The film’s restoration took place at the L’Immagine Ritrovata lab in Bologna, Italy and was financed by The Film Foundation and the George Lucas Family Foundation, with the work being completed in time for a screening at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Having seen the film, Bodde describes it as “a film of righteous anger…poignant and heartbreaking.”

“The partnership with the Film Foundation will help further increase the visibility of Soleil O, not only in Africa but across the world,” said Aboubakar Sanogo, North American Regional Secretary for FEPACI. “This film more than ever contributes to bringing us together in a world where misunderstanding among peoples is increasing.”

Sanogo also stressed that an overarching goal of the partnership will be bringing the film heritage of Africa to Africans themselves. “One of the objectives [of FEPACI] is always to have a conversation with African audiences through the cinema,” Sanogo said. “That conversation before was made difficult by the fact that African screens were occupied by Hollywood, Bollywood, Hong Kong films and European films. Part of this partnership is about putting these films back into the circuit in Africa itself.”

The films selected for preservation will include narrative features, documentaries, avant-garde works, shorts and newsreels and will be broad enough in their temporality to paint a multifaceted portrait of a 20th-century Africa both independent and under colonization. By confining its selection timeframe to the hundred year period from 1889 to 1989, the partnership hopes to reconstitute, in the words of Sanogo, “a really credible history of African cinema.”

“We have to go far back to be able to reconstitute the complexity of the narrative of African cinema, and resituate it properly in the general history of cinema itself,” Sanogo said. “Those who write the history of cinema tend to begin African cinema history with independence in the late 1950s and early ’60s, but even in colonial times and around the time of the Lumières, Africans were making films.” MM

Photograph: (L-R) African Film Festival director Mahen Bonetti, FEPACI’s Aboubakar Sanogo, Martin Scorsese, UNESCO’s Irina Bokova and New York University associate professor Yemane Demissie launch the African Film Heritage Project. Photograph by Dave Alloca/ Starpix / Courtesy of The Film Foundation

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue.



News Archive