by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire — Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich [FIDMarseille ’24 Review]

July 5, 2024

Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich’s new film can only be described as experimental. It doesn’t just explore the legacy of Martinican writer Suzanne Roussi-Césaire, an intellectual whose ideas and achievements have largely been eclipsed by those of her husband, post-colonial poet and theorist Aimé Césaire. The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire is also a meta-filmic commentary on the process of reconstructing history’s incomplete record. Hunt-Ehrlich frequently breaks the frame, showing us the process by which she and her actors are constructing 1930s Martinique with limited cinematic means. (The film was actually shot in Florida.) We are also kept guessing as to whether the performers onscreen are representing Suzanne and Aimé, or themselves as actors within Hunt-Ehrlich’s project.

This slipperiness is clearly by design. One of the theses of Ballad is that Suzanne Césaire might have achieved much more as a writer were she not a mother of six. This conundrum — the fact that motherhood is time-consuming even as it affords a mother unique human insights — attains another layer of meaning when we learn that the actress playing Suzanne has taken the role three months after the birth of her own child. This performer, Zita Hanrot, is never addressed by name, and so the film strongly suggests that Hanrot is playing a character (the actress) who is playing yet another character (Suzanne Césaire). Motell Foster, who appears as Aimé, is similarly multiplied.

Suzanne Césaire, we are told, published only seven essays in her lifetime, essentially giving up her career as a writer in 1945. So to a great extent, The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire is both an intellectual reclamation project and a speculative fiction, asking us to consider what this woman might have accomplished under different circumstances. This accounts for the fragmentation and mise en abyme that characterizes the film.

But despite these non-traditional methods, there is something very familiar about The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire. This metatextual approach has been applied many times before by filmmakers working to supplement a culturally incomplete historical record. Hunt-Ehrlich’s slow, deliberate pace and the often declamatory performances she elicits from her actors immediately recall postcolonial cinematic experiments from the 1980s and ‘90s, in particular the films made by the Black Audio Film Collective, its former member John Akomfrah, and others who took inspiration from the Black Audio project, including Isaac Julien, Ngozi Onwurah, and more recently Ephraim Asili.

While this observation hardly detracts from the work that Hunt-Ehrlich has produced, it does raise the question of whether, and at what point, bold formal techniques become standardized, perhaps even just another genre. We understand that we’re in the midst of a major wave of what, for lack of better terms, have been called experimental documentaries. But this field is so broad that it has developed into sub-categories, one of which — the Brechtian historiographic metafiction — is almost immediately recognizable.

With roots in Black Audio and Trinh T. Minh-ha, this style has even achieved a measure of commercial success in films like Asmae El Modir’s The Mother of All Lies and Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters. And this, unfortunately, leads one to ask: are these tactics really applicable to so many historically and culturally specific subjects? And, if the methodology is so endlessly iterable, can it really be called experimental?

Published as part of FIDMarseille 2024: Dispatch 2.