When Martiniquan Euzhan Palcy’s Rue Cases Nègres (Sugar Cane Alley) appeared in 1983, it seemed that French Caribbean cinema was all set. From the Anglo-Caribbean perspective at least, the French Antilles were in an enviable situation: as part of France, they had access to French funding, as well as to government institutions such as the National Cinematography Centre (CNC). But since Sugar Cane Alley only a handful of films have been made in or about the French Antilles. Palcy herself has since made only two features, just one of them — Siméon — set in the Caribbean.
In Guadeloupe, however, there seems to be a renaissance of sorts taking place in the audio-visual arena; and the driving force behind it is the film Nèg Maron, a 2004 production directed by Jean-Claude Flamand.
“Maybe this year it’s happened for us,” says Janluk Stanislas, one of the up-and-coming young Guadeloupean filmmakers who worked on Nèg Maron. “It can be a real start for a young generation of filmmakers to go further. Christian Lara and Euzhan Palcy — it’s not that I don’t like what they do, but every time it’s like we have to make movies about our past. With Nèg Maron we’re going in the future.”
“The only films I was seeing that presented images of black communities that I could recognise were from Jamaica and African-American filmmakers like Spike Lee,” says Flamand, who emigrated to France from Guadeloupe at age six. He spent his formative years in a rough neighbourhood on the outskirts of Paris, where he says he wasn’t “that involved in the bad things going on — though sometimes you dreamed of it.” As he tried to make sense of his social situation, Flamand became interested in the idea of how he could present the things he was seeing in the form of a narrative. He started hanging out with filmmakers, and soon managed to pick up enough knowledge to start making short films that quickly attracted the attention of the music video-making establishment. To gain more experience he also worked on feature films; directing commercials, meanwhile, provided him with a steady income. When he felt ready, he started to write Nèg Maron.
Set in an urban ghetto area in Guadeloupe, Nèg Maron tells the very contemporary story of two young men who have been friends from childhood, and who find themselves at a crossroads in their lives. The film offers a vision of the French Antilles which puts paid to the idea that these islands, with their special status as French overseas departments, are that much better off than the independent territories which surround them. Nèg Maron touches on issues such as the continued concentration of wealth in the hands of the white béké class, drugs and alcohol, the breakdown of family, the ineffectuality of local politics and society’s failure to find a place for the young people who are the film’s central figures — and, from Flamand’s point of view, the nèg marons (maroons) of the present day.
Following the example of the hip-hop–influenced African-American cinema, Flamand cast French Caribbean rap stars Admiral T and Didier Daly in the lead roles, in what he describes as “a meeting of two artistic forms which deal with the same subject matter”. Kassav’s Jocelyn Beroard also makes an appearance, as does deejay Stomy Bugsy. The dialogue is delivered in rapid-fire Guadelopean creole. With his friend and colleague Mathieu Kassovitz (director of the critically acclaimed La Haine ) as producer, Flamand was able to secure the two million euros required to make Nèg Maron, and the film recouped every cent of it at the French box office. But its more important contribution may in fact be the flurry of music videos and short films young Guadeloupeans like Janluk Stanislas have been inspired to make.