The restoration of power to people, the Arab spring, peaceful regime change, the Arab spring 2.0 or whatever might be the new nomenclature used or the latest twitter hashtags introduced, this transcendental need for a genuine experience of liberation continues to find its meaningful impulse in the life and writings of Frantz Fanon. The psychiatrist and anti-colonial theorist who, through his experiences with European anti-black racism and French colonialism in Algeria, has become the anti-colonial thinker and activist par excellence, in his time and ours.
In his first documentary, Fanon: yesterday, today, Hassane Mezine renews our attention to the historical and political project of freedom, humanism, and justice central to Fanon’s life and work. Mezine, a Franco-Algerian and a photographer by training, interweaves a polyvocal, at times conventional, view of Fanon’s life and work with an overlooked materialist analysis of Fanon’s legacy. His film offers a timely and sweeping re-presentation of Fanon’s philosophy and its contemporary relevance through a journey into the personal and political dimensions of his life, and the influence his ideas continue to have on new generations of readers and activists around the world.
Mezine’s documentary opens in an unexpected way, the voice of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, delivering his statement on the “tragedy of Africa” during his 2007 Dakar speech, highlighting that the racist and dehumanizing discourse of a neocolonial Europe is pervasive. To counter the degrading undertones of Sarkozy’s blatant attack, a succession of archival footage of chained bodies, mutilated corpses, and severed heads offers a visual emphasis on the terrible legacy of French colonialism in Algeria. This visual dissonance pre-empts Fanon’s intervention through an audio recording of his 1956 speech on “Racism and Culture,” and suggests Mezine’s interest in disrupting the continuity of neocolonial discourses and institutions through the use of Fanon’s philosophy of revolutionary struggle. Since discursive violence is the late performance of colonial physical violence, there is an urgency to re-appropriate Fanon’s critical, fightback commitments today.
For Mezine, Fanon is a timeless and relevant thinker and activist because his experience of racism and neocolonialism continues to shape how the African is viewed and framed. In the film, the subversive materiality of Fanon’s enduring legacy illuminates the present struggle against neocolonialism because it articulates violence, alienation, and discrimination as a material and political reality. To challenge the moral and political catastrophe, we still need Fanon’s humanism and fightback ideology.
Mezine’s documentary announces its methodology right from the title, the timelessness of Fanon’s work and legacy is presented through the recollections of those who encountered the Fanon of yesterday in Martinique, Algeria, Tunisia, and Mali, and also during our time through diasporic activists and writers, in Palestine, Portugal Unites States and Niger who continue to celebrate and live by his philosophy and ideals today. Fanon: yesterday, today juxtaposes conventional footage and selected readings from Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, A Dying Colonialism, and The Wretched of the Earth with an impressive number of diasporic encounters, which insist that Fanon’s liberation theory is timeless because we are still struggling with the same ideologies and structures of exclusion and dehumanization.
Fanon in time
Fanon was a man of his time—an exceptionally revolutionary time. Through still photographs of Fanon—and interviews with his son Olivier, Abdelhamid Mehri, the minister of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (PGAR) in Tunisia, and Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, his assistant in the general hospital in Tunis—the first part of Mezine’s documentary starts with the major events that marked Fanon’s transition from an eighteen-year-old Martiniquais soldier serving with French troops during WWII, to his early disillusionment with racial politics, which later influenced his writings on colonial ideology of racism and domination, which was pervasive among the political, academic, and institutional apparatuses of French colonialism.
In Fanon: yesterday, today, we are reminded that Fanon was not only a brilliant writer and theorist, but also an innovative psychiatrist. He developed new treatments at the Hospital of Blida-Jointville to challenge the racist theories of the Algiers School of Psychiatry, established by the French psychiatrist Antoine Poirot and taught in France till the 1970s. These stipulated that the North African is a pathological liar and that the Black African is a lazy, primitive subject. Fanon also adopted the new methods of institutional psychotherapy to dismantle the inherited structural racism he encountered at Blida hospital.
The events of November 1954 and the beginning of the armed struggle against the French colonizers marked a decisive moment in Fanon’s transition from a radical psychiatrist to a fightback militant. It explores his appointments as a PGAR representative in Modibo Keita’s Mali and later in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, his encounters with the African intellectual diaspora in Paris and Rome, and his disenchantment with impure, unfinished independence in Houphouet-Boigny’s Ivory Coast (and to some extent in Habib Bourguiba’s Tunisia), gradually transformed him to an iconic figure of African liberation and Third World revolutions.
Fanon was also a Tunisian, through and through. His thoughts on decolonization and his disillusionment with the national bourgeoisie in A Dying Colonialism were influenced by his experience in post-independence Tunisia during the early days of Bourguiba’s rule, along with encounters with the Tunisian bourgeoisie. It was in Tunisia, I think, that his transformation into the revolutionary thinker started.
In Fanon: yesterday, today, time and again, Fanon appears as a larger-than-life figure who passionately and seriously engaged with the Algerian struggle, but also enjoyed being invited to parties and showed compassion, generosity, and sensibility. As biographer Alice Cherki remembers, “Fanon loved to talk with people who commanded his admiration, or simply with friends, and while his brilliant eloquence was riveting, he was also quite capable of being a generous and sympathetic listener. He was an excellent conversationalist, who never spoke openly about himself.”
Mezine’s ability to offer interventions from such central figures as Olivier Fanon, Abdelhamid Mehri, Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, Arnoldo Palacios, Lilyan Kesteloot, and his nod to Josie Fanon as Fanon’s spouse, muse, and comrade, are commendable in providing a compelling and nuanced account of Fanon’s life and personality. However, when presenting bibliographic information about Fanon’s death, Mezine rehearses the conventional version of his last days. The film would have benefitted from a deeper investigation of the relationship between American secret services (CIA) and the under-reported account of Fanon’s death to shed more light on what could have possibly been a political assassination. This is especially important when we take into consideration Fanon’s long meditation of the human experience in the face of annihilation and how, before his death, he wanted to write a book on death and dying. This is one of the reasons why every time I read Macey’s observation that “there is nothing particularly shocking about an intelligence agency’s attempt to use him [as a potential asset]” (487 my emphasis), I become more aware that his biography should not be the definitive one on Fanon’s life and work. Fanon’s death at age of 36 left many chambers open.
Despite these abstractions, Fanon’s legacy continues to make a difference. His philosophy of universal humanism and revolutionary solidarity transcends his time and offers a genuine materiality and imaginary of freedom that continues to inspire new generations of dreamers and fighters against neocolonial injustice and nihilism. In the words of Houria Bouteldja, one of the activists interviewed in the documentary and a member of the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic (PIR) in France, “Fanon left us a legacy, and I feel like his heir. As simple as that.”
Fanon in motion
The contemporary relevance of Fanon’s life and work and the radical vision of his ideas and fightback militancy across a wide range of engagements, understandings, and practices find resonance in Mezine’s film. While the intellectual dimension of Fanon’s work is widely celebrated in academic and theoretical works, the materialist dimension of his political project continues to be overlooked. Mezine offers to ground Fanon’s internationalism in the appropriation of his thoughts by a variety of activists and thinkers, such as the Martiniquais writer Raphaël Confiant, the activist and chair of the Black History Month in France Maboula Soumahoro, and the Palestinian psychiatrist Samah Jabr, to confront and resist neocolonial forms of exploitation and violence.
Two of the strongest and persuasive contributions in highlighting the pervasive influence of Fanon’s vision on today’s activism in Fanon: yesterday, today come first from Cornel West. It is worth being quoted at length:
Much of the world remains pre-Fanonian, but we will catch up with Frantz Fanon because many of us have decided that we want to be faithful until death to his truth telling, to his witness bearing in the face of the CIAs of the world, in the face of the FBIs of the world, in the face of nation-states being in France, England. It is a human affair, and given the impending ecological catastrophe, the escalating nuclear catastrophe, the corporate greed running amok transnational, the trans-specific partnerships reshaping the whole world in the corporate’s interest and image, the moral catastrophe of our mass culture that ties us to the instant gratification and bodily stimulation rather than a nurturing of heart, mind, soul and body to be truth tellers and to be willing to organize and mobilize in the face of a substantial conception of freedom, the spiritual catastrophe, the spiritual blackouts, the spiritual suicide trying to convince those everyday people to give up or to cave in, or for professional classes no matter what color to sell their souls for a massive potage, I thank god as a revolutionary Christian that Frantz Fanon was not a polished or smart professional, but rather a love and intellectual warrior in organic connections with the struggles of the wretched of the earth.
For West, Fanon is the transcendental face of the freedom struggle; the pervasive experiences of dehumanization and alienation calls into practice Fanon’s ideas of revolutionary consciousness, resistance, and invention of new humanism.
West’s commentary on the visual identity of Fanon resonates with Mezine’s film; Fanon yesterday, today is not a polished or smart professional film. Financed through a crowdfunding campaign, his documentary supplants sophisticated cinematic visuals with the gravity of the “real” and the plasticity of Fanonian interventions into the personal, the symbolic, and the political. There is no stylish backgrounds or slick graphics and the seamless economy of the movie is loosely created through the repetitive aesthetics of direct quotations, straightforward interview, and traditional animation. Mezine’s film doesn’t overwhelm; it never reaches a culmination, but it stirs our consciousness by the force of its iconic protagonist.
Salima Ghezali, one of the most charismatic interviewees, delivers a powerful insight on how Fanon continues to be misread and the need to save him from his critics. Ghezali, an Algerian writer and journalist, notes that Fanon “is not present where he is being celebrated.” In a moment of superb intimation, she notes, with a smirk on her face, the absurdity and “sacrilege” of celebrating Fanon and Albert Camus together. Despite Fanon’s iconic dimension, there is a persistence of anachronistic accounts and readings of his ideas and arguments as “passionate,” “romantic and idealistic.” There is a revisionist attempt to dissolve Fanon’s anti-colonial, confrontational positions into textual activism. It is like “trying to take hip hop and make [it] r&b … or funk.” Even worse, just a few years ago, one postcolonial scholar noted that I should not use the verb “theorize” when analyzing the writings of Fanon.
It is important of course to acknowledge that his life and work are bound by the contradictions and pressures of his time; however, Fanon’s work needs to be rediscovered, re-historicized, and especially saved from textualism. Let me put in a bold way: It is not enough to read Fanon’s books; it has to be explained to you the same way Marx’s work has to be clarified to avoid misconceptions and unnecessary abstractions. What needs to be fundamentally understood is that for Fanon and Marx the point is not just to interpret the world, but to change it. It is urgent in this sense, as Benita Parry argues, to delink Fanon’s theory from the poststructuralism of Homi Bhabha and the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and to re-read Fanon’s philosophy within a materialist framework.
For Ghezali, Fanon’s rejection of the African bourgeoisie that highjacked the ideals of the Algerian revolution remains relevant because the national bourgeoisie has reproduced the racial and economic forms of neocolonial domination. This is especially visible in “the refusal to build a social Algerian state” and the racial discrimination against “our brothers,” black sub-Saharan Africans.
Mezine brings together different encounters with Fanon around his life and ideas and their relevance to the understanding of complex issues in his time and ours. Fanon yesterday, today departs from academic and at times theoretical interpretations that come to confine artistic work on the author of the Wretched of the Earth to a visual essay. This includes Aloysio Raulino’s fifteen-minute musing on Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask in O Tigre e a Gazela (Brasil 1976), Isaac Julien’s classic docudrama Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1995) and his emphasis on identity politics, Cheikh Djemaï’s heavily bibliographic film on Fanon’s rising into a revolutionary figure in Frantz Fanon, His Life, His Struggle, His Work (2011), and recently Göran Olsson’s Concerning Violence and his visual study of Fanon’s widely-analyzed eponymous text on the relationship between violence and decolonization. Mezine’s documentary contributes to these projects by fostering our understanding that the personal is political in Fanon’s life and that a genuine engagement with Fanon as a timeless figure requires aims to generate a materialist articulation of resistance and revolution.
In Fanon yesterday, today, there is an explicit suggestion to reconsider the relevance of Fanon’s work and to urgently re-appropriate it to our neocolonial condition. While it is mostly conventional in its chronological structure and interview-based visuals, his documentary offers a sustained engagement with Fanon’s life and legacy by fostering our understanding of his revolutionary time while inviting reflection on the multiple adaptations of his liberation vision of a better tomorrow in our present time. For Mezine and for many of us, Fanon remains “the legend, a hard act to follow.”