Polyglot Ep. 2: Le Mal du pays (Homesickness)

Amelia Umuhire

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Amelia Umuhire, Polyglot Ep. 2: Le Mal du pays (Homesickness), 2015.

Artist Cinemas presents Polyglot Ep. 2: Le Mal du pays (Homesickness)
Amelia Umuhire

10 Minutes
French with English subtitles

Artist Cinemas
Week #4

May 20–26, 2020

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Amelia Umuhire’s Polyglot Ep. 2: Le Mal du pays (Homesickness) (2015), on view from Wednesday, May 20 through Tuesday, May 26, 2020.

Polyglot is a web series about the lives of young German artists of African descent, as they navigate German society. In Le Mal du pays, rapper and poet Babiche Papaya is homesick and frustrated by the maintenance of a natural haircare routine. In a fragile instance of open interiority, in which it is not entirely clear whether it is the hair that is burning or the heart that is hurting, Babiche Papaya introduces herself by her given name, Amanda. Le Mal du pays is a practice of what artist Rahima Gambo calls “micro-freedom.” The film and the other episodes of Polyglot—which are in fact available on YouTube—constitute a sociology of the quotidian, through a method that grasps how such everyday is threatened by the implosion of its own stabilities, at the shifting moment when personal longing materializes into cultural belonging.

Polyglot Ep. 2: Le Mal du pays is presented here alongside an interview with the filmmaker by Yasmina Price​. The film and interview are the fourth installment of École du soir: Six Films, from Rwanda and Beyond, a program of films, video works, and interviews convened by artist Christian Nyampeta, and inaugurating Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

École du soir will run from April 29 through June 9, 2020, with each film running for one week and featuring an interview with the filmmaker by an invited guest.

Amelia Umuhire in conversation with Yasmina Price
Edited by Christian Nyampeta

Yasmina Price (YP):
I thought we could start by talking about your reading, or your feelings towards the idea of Polyglot, your web series of which “Le Mal du Pays” is the second episode. The series suggests that your interests in tracing conditions of exile, of quarantine, and of nostalgia predate the current convergence of crises.

Amelia Umuhire (AU):
That’s a lot of questions at the same time! At the core of it, the simple idea was to make short films, and then these became a whole series, about a feeling that a lot of people might have and yet, on that is rarely depicted on screen. In the sense that most depictions of immigrants in a European context, including those of black people, always contain some sort of hostility, and it is rare to encounter depictions of these people where they just get on with their lives.

The idea of a series emerged from an acute feeling of homesickness, because I couldn’t afford to travel back home for the holidays. This made me think about others who might be in the same condition as I: those that might not be able to visit their places of origin not only because they cannot afford the ticket, but also because they are no longer in possession of the right papers.

So, the series started as a way to depict a life lived in several places at the same time, at least in my head.

That depiction of simultaneity is what I was particularly struck by, already present in the opening shot. As the protagonist types on a cell phone, the word Deutsch is written underneath the space bar. I think that for a lot of people who live across different places and different languages, the cell phone is a place that signals these co-existing pluralities and the inability to communicate over space. Obviously, now we’ve been deprived of the possibility of in-person interactions—at least to a certain degree—the way texting can mask our difficulties and hesitancies in expressing a certain emotion is harder to escape. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had the experience of writing and re-writing a message, trying and failing to approximate what you would say face to face.

The scene was a way of beginning the film and the journey it depicts with the protagonist, Amanda. The framing allows the viewer to be in the character’s mind before seeing her on the screen.

As the viewer, you can see what she’s writing, but you haven’t met her yet. Still, you already learn about her hesitation and related feelings. That way, the viewer gets to know Amanda somewhat intimately. I thought the scene was useful in that sense. But also, it is rare to remain in the surroundings of people you want to be around, in a sense. At some point, you or everyone else moves on, and to keep in touch you must use the screens to mediate the contact.

You’re describing how the viewer interacts or encounters Amanda, a moment of startling interiority and intimacy. This made me think about how it’s getting harder and harder to really meet strangers. Gone are those moments of random intimacy that you could have while out and about. But, the film is also sort of giving us that, in the sense that it’s giving us access to her presence, but without a lot of personal history. Maybe what this moment offers is a proximity of process, which is usually an intimate space?

In fact, I was wondering if you could also say something about your attentiveness to process: the process of texting, the process of trying to do something with your hair and it not working and trying over and over. And, I think that again there’s something so … there’s something so private about what you’re showing, it’s the sort of thing that everyone does in private, but we never bother to talk about it.

In a way, I felt that in order to understand who each of us are, it’s important to show what we do when we are alone. When we are alone, when we’re out of sight, is when we get to be who we actually are. That’s when we’re doing our hair and becoming frustrated, because that’s where we are confronted with ourselves.

So, in order to make a character understandable, it makes sense for her to perform an intimate but everyday gesture.

Maybe these little everyday rituals that had always been the invisible anchor of one’s life have now taken on a greater magnitude because there’s much less of an outside life, and as a result the things that one does inside are much more significant…

I was also struck by the sequence you made to establish a specific sense of Berlin: a black barber shop, followed by the travel agency whose storefront advertises tickets to African countries that, as you mentioned, might not be immediately or easily accessible to the addressee. Then, the sequence moves on to an Italian-Egyptian restaurant. I was curious to know if getting a protest on film was something that happened by chance, or if you knew about it in advance? In other words, what is the process of establishing your sense of space or place, a sense that thinks specifically on the complex and layered experiences of migrant and immigrant populations?

Berlin has many layers of immigration, and sometimes this shows as you go about in the city; in the architectures of movement, in the stores, in geographically instantiated communities—you can tell by the way the city changes, by who’s been moving around and who has just arrived.

And yet, what immigrants do is the opposite of colonization: when we arrive somewhere, we must be super humble, integrate, and adapt to the society that we’ve moved to. However, the only way immigrants can actually show up and represent themselves is by owning a shop. These shops stand for something more than the fact that they are warranted by the obvious chain of supply and demand.

I wanted to show the invisible connective elements of these environments, places such as the travel agency, which offers services and travel packages outside typically German holiday destinations. The same goes for ethnic minorities’ restaurants, and the “Afro-shops.” These places know their clientele, they know we’re here, and we know we need them. So, the sequence you’re referring to is about this reality of extended mutualities. But also, the sequence is about what Berlin generally looked like in 2015.

The protest was filmed by random coincidence. Still, in my experience such a scenario was also quite common in Berlin at the time. It has to do with the multiple communities that have their own relationship to home, and whatever brought them to this city manifests differently. At the end, the sequence establishes the mixture that composes the world we’re in, the world Amanda and Mama Omar (the hairdresser) inhabit.

Black hair care is such a specific arena, be it the barber shop, the braiding salon—all of these are spaces of exchange, care, and community that are only possible in person. Could you talk about the artistic ideas underlying this space of intimacy, and how you create it visually?

The intimacy between hairdresser and client tends to be prerequisite. If there is a lack of intimacy, then the whole hairdressing experience is impossible. You have to imagine what would happen if you were to leave your hair in the hands of someone you don’t get along with! I wanted to show that their relationship is tender, even if it’s just a relationship between hairdresser and client. But I also wanted to show the artistic side of hair itself, as an expression that has its own self-sufficient merits similar to those of the immigrant shops I mentioned earlier.

In this way, hairdressing is a beautiful way of getting to know oneself, especially if, as it was in my case as a young European girl of African descent in Berlin, my own hair is something I grew up being taught to dislike. When I used to touch my hair in between visits to the hairdresser, it would give me a very hostile feeling, as though I needed to fix it, as if something was existentially wrong with it.

There is something so universal amongst Black women learning to care for our hair, and also a recurring set of dynamics in African hair salons, regardless of the location, there’s something known about that space.

And speaking of familiarity, I love the ending of Le Mal du Pays when Amanda holds onto Mama Omar’s leg. This image speaks to the broader way we seek comfort when we are away from home, away from one’s natural national or cultural contexts, away from when and how we used to be able to take care of each other. The scene conveys a moment of such adapted comfort, which is no less powerful given they are essentially strangers.

Actually, Mama Omar and Amanda are not really strangers, because I believe that there’s a shortcut or bond that exists between people who have experienced the same kind of pain. So when they start speaking, Mama Omar asks very intimate questions about Amanda’s family, and then it is Mama Omar who gets emotional at the end, thinking how Amanda must be missing her family. They’re not really strangers, it’s just that their paths had not yet crossed. They meet through this interaction of haircare, but it’s as if they could be aunt and niece.

That’s a shared feature, actually. In Niger, for example, it’s so common to call a woman tantie, which is French for “auntie,” even without a formal familial relation… I really like that idea of the shortcut. This short film is in effect also a shorthand for so many other conditions of homesickness, nostalgia, distance, and the difficulties of communication.

Maybe the ability to call strangers your aunt is one of the superpowers that Africans have developed, as a result of being dispersed in a very violent manner in recent history. So maybe it is not so surprising that we invent ongoing and temporary communities as we go. I felt that this attribute was something worth showing.

Where does Le Mal du Pays fit within your wider practice? What were you making before this, and what have you developed after this episode of Polyglot?

The web series Polyglot was the first project I produced. It was almost five years ago. Since then I made Mugabo, another short film. It is set in Kigali, Rwanda, and it is an experimental film about an artist who returns home for the first time after a twenty-year absence that began with her flight in the wake of the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, which she survived with her sisters and mother. After Mugabo, I made a radio feature entitled Vaterland, which was produced for the German station Deutschlandfunk Kultur. As with Mugabo, this audio work in long form extends my ongoing research into personal histories of the Genocide. In the meantime, I directed all kinds of things, including a commissioned video used as a performance backdrop for the twentieth-anniversary tour of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Most recently I worked as assistant-director on film based on Pétit pays, the best-selling novel by Gaël Faye.

As you might be able to tell, Polyglot was at the origin of all these other works. In fact, recently I have also started working in video art, as a distinct practice from filmmaking. Looking back now, I realize that I am still seeking answers to the questions and formal elements I started to explore in Polyglot, but this time expressed through different disciplines. And the questions and concerns that drive the new works were already present in Polyglot. In a way, Polyglot is a prototype, which might explain why I look at it rather critically… In any case, I’ve come to see how making Polyglot was a unique and formative experience for me. My collaborators and I felt that we had to do it. We were compelled to make it, not so much because it was our job, nor because we were swayed by the hype around web series—which, in fact, only became popular a while later. The cultural environment five years ago was different from the present one. But, yes, Polyglot was the beginning, a very meaningful beginning.

It sounds like Polyglot was a guerrilla project, born of coming of age into a somewhat inhospitable place and needing to formalize the ensuing feelings into some kind of cultural expression. In that sense, did you have other short films or web series in mind when you were making it? Both in terms of works that influenced you, but also works that you wanted to make? Or did you feel that the three episodes including Le Mal du Pays were sufficient in narrating the story you had set out to tell?

As I mentioned, I wasn’t motivated to make this web series because I had been influenced by other web series that existed at the time. Still, my imagination was sparked when I saw how the format of the web series seemed to be a tool accessible to those who hadn’t even attended film school. This stood in sharp contrast to the heaviness of the equipment, the need for fundraising, and the bureaucracy that filmmakers usually must endure in order to realize their films. So, I should confess that I was indeed very influenced by this aspect of the web series format, and in particular the works of Issa Rae and Cecile Emeke—all these people who were using YouTube as a platform and were showing that YouTube videos were as worthy as any other medium. In fact, they were reaching out to wide audiences who needed this connection, and in a way, their work and online presence were fulfilling a similar function to the foreign grocery stores and Afro-hair salons and travel agencies.

Right. Now I see how Le Mal du Pays contributes to this presence by creating a meta-dimension: Amanda watches a YouTube haircare video and in so doing Le Mal du Pays ends up in the wider circuitry of grassroots guerrilla video projects that compose a kind of diasporic mode of connection. Obviously, this connection reaches beyond the diaspora alone, but ultimately, your film and the ones you draw from are a mode of signaling different and yet common experiences in ways that are broadly accessible.

When you really think about it, what else is there to show? I can’t think of anything else to show other than what I already know. There tend to be a lot of intellectualizing around the fact that we simply exist. Conversely, there can be lots of fictionalized versions of myself. All of these modes are valid, but sometimes it’s also meaningful to depict what reality looks like.

At the end of the day, no one else can narrate your own reality because no one else inhabits it on that intimate, interior scale. Unless you decide to give shape to these minor histories, they would remain unnoticed, and they would never get historicized…

For more information, contact program [​at​] e-flux.com.

Film, Internet
Blackness, Identity Politics, Postcolonialism
Return to École du soir: Six Films, from Rwanda and Beyond
Return to Artist Cinemas

Amelia Umuhire (b. 1991, Kigali, Rwanda) is a filmmaker and artist living in Kigali and Berlin. In 2015, she wrote and directed the award-winning web-series Polyglot, in which she follows the lives of young, deracinated London- and Berlin-based Rwandese artists. Her short film Mugabo was awarded Best Experimental Film at the Blackstar Film Festival, and screened at MOCA Los Angeles and the Berlin Biennale among many other places. In 2018, Umuhire produced the Prix Europa-nominated radio feature Vaterland for the German radio station Deutschlandfunk Kultur. She was a Villa Romana Fellow in 2020, and is currently working on her first feature film.


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