Sex, Okra & Salted Butter

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A small man, dwarfed by his large overcoat, stares avidly at the TV screen in a smoky bar, with what he hopes is the winning ticket clutched in his hand. In the crowd around him, each customer is equally captivated by the screen. The tension breaks as the horse loses and the crowd share in communal disappointment.  Malik turns to his friend, and declares that if he ever won on the races, he would ‘go straight home’. At this stage, the location of ‘home’ is unclear, but the audience can assume it is an African country, one which Malik has left to participate in the hope, luck, chance and disappointment which have come to symbolise the immigrant experience.

The shot of the bar cuts sharply to a sex scene in the hospital between Malik’s wife Hortense and another man, and then to the corridor outside the room where her colleague comically attempts to cover-up Hortense’s exclamations of pleasure and distract the head nurse by crying out in pain. Hortense is unconcerned with the possibility of being discovered, she is totally consumed in the moment of her love-making. The contrast between Malik’s nostalgia for the home country and Hortense’s sense of abandon in pursuit of happiness makes for a humorous juxtaposition of two potential ‘routes’ that the immigrant can take – one that refers constantly to the point of departure, and the other that embraces the present moment of a new experience and place.

Set largely in an HLM apartment in Bordeaux , this often farcical comedy depicts the domestic space of a family unit in a state of flux. Hortense (played by the captivating Mata Gabin) leaves her much older husband to embark on a romantic affair with a French oyster farmer. Malik remains in denial about her departure for an extended period, whilst simultaneously developing a comically risqué relationship with his neighbour Mme Mariam. Following a series of plot turns, Hortense’s eldest son Dani meets a stranger called Amina in a club. She comes to live in Malik’s apartment, and eventually becomes part of the family when Dani declares he is the father of her child in an attempt to superficially conceal his homosexual identity from Malik.

The implications of Haroun’s film gain their significance from the particular historical moment in which it was made:  the end of a turbulent decade in France which saw both the unexpected rise of the Front National party, the 2005 banlieue ‘riots’, and the memorable response by then Minister of the Interior Nicholas Sarkozy that identified the participants as scum that should be ‘hosed’ off the streets. Such events, that remain present in the collective imagination of France, debunked the myth of a multicultural French nation including ‘assimilated’ first and second generation immigrants. Seen in this context, the naturalised portrayal of the immigrant family in Haroun’s film is a significant contribution to an ongoing conversation about what constitutes the French ‘nation’ in the 21st century.

By setting his film primarily in the home of an immigrant family characterised by many comings and goings, Haroun establishes the fluid boundaries of a domestic space through which he can usher in a wider French audience. From whichever part of French society they hail, the audience is invited to imagine themselves as part of the same social space as the immigrant characters, and the microcosm of the home becomes an optimistic allegory for the nation.

The comic genre of the film also allows for a gentle satire on both the prejudices of the white French characters and those of the first and second generation immigrants. Haroun plays with the concept of a dynamic gaze on the ‘other’ that can move back and forth, humorously captured in the scene where Mme Mariam looks at the three Malian men through her peep-hole, and then one of the men reverses the gaze by looking back through the peep-hole at her. Although the domestic drama of the family takes centre-stage in the plot, the narrative’s ancillary inclusion of Mme Mariam, and Malik’s eventual invitation of her into the family home (as a friend rather than a domestic servant) allows for a positive vision of integration.

But significantly – and refreshingly – this integration is on the terms of the immigrant himself.

– Caitlin Pearson

Find out more about another of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s films, Daratt on The Africa Channel.

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