[searching for stories, searching for trouble]
by Maxime Jean-Baptiste and Elli Vassalou

Can we speak up and enact a non-colonial, polyvocal take on a story? In which ways does it resonate in contemporary times?

Sasé Istwé is a film project and a polyphonic platform which dialogues with “L’affaire des Insurges de Cayenne”, a historical event that included the radicalization of the Guyanese people, an uprising, a long trial and finally the acquittal of the defendants. These events took place between Cayenne [French Guiana] and Nantes [France] in the interwar period. This incident has affected the history of France outre-mer territories and has up until the present been used by France to perpetuate an idealized image of republicanism based upon universalism.

This project is searching for micro-stories, silenced behind the dominant narratives by using the reactivation of the trial’s archives in a creative dialogue with people of the Guyanese diaspora in Europe and in French Guiana.

Maxime Jean-Baptiste is a filmmaker and Elli Vassalou is a multimedia artist, performer, researcher and activist. They are both interested in decolonial methodologies of narration and filmaking.
Sasé-istwé is part of Sound Image Culture (SIC) platform for 2018-2019 and co-funded by Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds (VAF) and Bureau International Jeunesse (BIJ).

a discursive proposal

I) What is the subject of your project and why do you want to make it?
Maxime : Our trajectory begins with a movie I made called Nou voix, that is an autobiographical video departing from the participation of my father, as a Guyanese figurant, in the movie Jean Galmot aventurier (1990), which deals with the history of French Guiana, and produced by a French production. It’s a biopic that talks about the life and death of Jean Galmot, a french reporter that goes to Guyane to maintain a gold deposit, family inheritance. The set-up of the movie is made in a very  hollywoodian» style, a kind of adventure film. This movie, in its narration, centers the whole story on the figure of Galmot, covering many aspects of these events in the favor of a heroic storyline. The creole language, which is part of the Guyanese identity, is exoticised in the film. My attempt, in collaboration with my father, was to re-enact a part of the film in trying to amplify other kinds of voices that have been silenced in the original French film. This is partly why I chose to keep going with this project, in the feeling that those historical events where full of other voices still muted. It is troubling when we see that this case is still the object of recuperation by French Republic. I quote here an article
that you found on the Internet about this story :
« Between 9 March and 21 March 1931, twelve men and two women,
all French citizens from French Guiana, were put on trial at an
extraordinary session of the cour d’assises in Nantes. All were
accused of looting and murder during riots which had taken place
on 6 and 7 August 1928 in Cayenne; all were acquitted. Despite
being one of the largest trials of the interwar period in
France, the event was largely forgotten until a major exhibition
staged in Nantes in 2011. (…) The riots had broken out following
the sudden death of Jean Galmot, a populist politician, in
the wake of flagrant electoral fraud in the legislative elections
of April 1928 which had seen his candidate blocked from victory
despite a majority vote. Jean Galmot, author of an oath of 15
May 1924 in which he swore that he would ‘rendre la liberté à la
Guyane’ (…) and restore civil and political rights to the French
overseas territory that had, since 1854, been ruled by decree, was
known affectionately in Guyane as ‘Papa Galmot’; thanks to an overhasty
post-mortem, his death was put down to poisoning by his maid.
When rumours of his murder spread (stoked, in part, by incendiary
articles in the galmotiste newspaper La Guyane), an estimated 10,000
people rioted, and, according to contemporaneous reports, ransacked
the houses of Galmot’s enemies and murdered six people, including
the doctor, Clément Jean, who had treated Galmot. Investigations were
opened in Cayenne, but on 31 May 1929 the Cour de cassation moved the
trial to Nantes ‘pour cause de sûreté publique’.» (Marsh Kate, L’affaire
Galmot: Colonialism on trial in 1931)
Elli : Yes, another interesting point that this article of Kate Marsh
explores is the fact that even when the event was finally remembered
in France, by a major exhibition staged in Nantes in 2011, it was
used again to perpetuate an image of an idealized republicanism based
upon universalism. Nantes’ archive of the trial is mostly constructed
by colonial media of the time and some correspondence letters. Is
that right?
Maxime : As far as I know, in the Archive Départementales de la Loire
Atlantique, in Nantes, letters are gathered from the Insurgés as
Léopoldine Radical or Edouard Iqui. They write about their condition
as prisoners and send news to their families. There are also letters
between the Insurgés and the wife of Jean Galmot, and between the
lawyer Gaston Monerville as well. Another resource is a letter in the
book Rhum by Blaise Cendrars, where all the details of the strike in
Cayenne are analysed. In the text, it is mentioned that mainly women
were part of this revolt. Something that the film Jean Galmot aventurier
didn’t include in its narration… Somehow, our project would be a
way to pass from History to micro-stories…
Elli : I read a very interesting article some days ago, about Peer-
2Peer ethnography, I will read it to you “While stories and histories
can be very readable, micro-histories are not. Micro histories are
polyphonic and even dissonant. They include conflict (and, in fact,
it is one of their fundamental characteristics) and do not focus on
the dynamics of consensus (even multiple simultaneous consensus) but,
rather, on the ones of co-existence and diasporas.”
This is a very interesting field to dwell into. We should take the
material that we have gathered, from Nantes archive of the trial
[1928-1931], the movie with your father [1990], the documentary
Les insurgés de Cayenne: Le premier procès colonial à Nantes by
Barcha Bauer [2010] and the material of the exhibition [2011] and
bring them back to French Guiana.
There, we make a call for a working group, a series of workshops
[reading and screening groups, embodied practices, open mic, storytelling,
video making] where we revisit, critically reflect or
contest the colonial dominant narrative. Finding the anecdotes
that are hidden in the micro-stories of the everyday life and the
way they reflect in the landscape and the city of Cayenne. What
happened in the moment of the uprising? How was the situation
dealt by the French government? How did they pick their suspects,
how were they treated and dislocated the Insurgés in another
continent, how did they put them to speak the colonisers’ language
and put them on trial under their Republic’s terms ?
The idea would not be to speak about what actually happened in
1928 but, how it resonates in the contemporary life of Cayenne,
namely, how people choose to remember or interpret this story today.
Are there stories to be told in a non colonial way?
Maxime : Yes. We could meet the Kokolompoe theatre, based in
Cayenne and Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni (North of F. Guiana). It’s a
theatre school that actually play, revisit, enact famous theatres
pieces as local tales from the Saramaka, a Marroon group. It’s a
group, as the Ndyuka or Aluku, of former slaves that escape from
the plantation during the XVIII-XIX centuries, in order to build
an autonomous life in the forest. For playing, actresses and actors
from the theatre use sometimes the Saramaccan or the taki-taki,
two creole language that melt differently African dialects
with Amerindians, English, Dutch and French words. It could be an
intresting meeting for our project. (…) Why are you interested
in the history of this country ?
Elli: I became interested by French Guyana because of you. I
wanted to know what is your-story and how it affects your present
and future. Before meeting you, I didn’t know this country
existed, neither that France has still colonies or that is called
as “Overseas France”.
On a political level, as an activist, this trial reflects on stories
who are keen to me, through histories of political emancipation
struggles and strategies to muzzle it, of territories that has been
invaded, sold and bought with no agency of its inhabitants, like the
land of Greece, where I come from. But I wouldn’t dare to make a project
that is so far from my history – my body. But now, this “other”
is part of you – It’s not an abstract thing, you are my lover. And it
is also your struggle, to understand this otherness inside of you, as
the Guyanese diaspora, half Guyanese – half French. I want to be part
of this understanding, this transformation, I want to melt into it,
because now, it is part of my world, my history also. (…)
What is the relation between the author and his / her subject / the
Elli: We should not forget that you are also the “other” for the
Guyanese people. You and me will be perceived as that, the Europeans,
coming from the rich capitals [Paris and Brussels] to make an
art project. It is interesting for me, as a Greek who has lived in
a remote rural island, but also as a trending in crisis “Athenian”.
I know how it feels when people from the Metropolis come to make a
project about you, “learn from you”. I have also seen the naivety of
the returning diaspora, the distance between an imaginary homeland
chowed and rechowed from old stories and what is really there in its
diversity and constant transformation. I have felt how the metropolitan
person is perceived by a small and precarious community. So I can
stand somehow in the middle, as I have embodied both the roles, of
the observed and the observer, the native and the international artist.
I might have access to some “feelings” that you might not have
as somebody who grow up in a western European context.
Maxime: And there’s also, in the context of Guyanese diaspora where
I’ve been born and raised, a certain resistance toward assimilation
to a western way of life, by the use of the creole language for
instance, a language born inside the plantations during the slavery
time and used to be a way of resisting, of transmitting messages, of
commoning, a way to not forget where we come from.
Elli: Or where we don’t come from.
Maxime: (…) I am too much part of this history, too much involved,
too much drawn by the pictures, the stories, the images. I am
scared of being lost in this. In a way, doing this project with
you, it is going with a companion, an external anchor. I don’t
go there to make a film with a cinema crew, in a sort of neo-colonial
mind as in Jean Galmot aventurier. I am going there with
you. There is not a hierarchical relation between us, but a way to
develop a relationship together. We can actually bring together a
relational aspect to this project, than focus strictly on a story
in the past, on a representation.(…)
Elli : I come as the vulnerable observer, because I will be in
a culture, a land, a language that I don’t know [speaking basic
french and no creole], I will need help all the time to be able to
be present, to understand. This vulnerable stance puts you and the
working group to a position of trying to be inclusive and in this
way to lose your certainties also.
This standing point is not a colonial one. I am not coming to make
sense of the “other” but to create a third language together.
Hopefully a non-colonial, non-patriarchal one.
We need to have a lot of women in this team. (laughs)
Maxime : (laughs) Sure.
Elli : Otherwise, we will end up with “men explaining things to
me”, which is dangerous. We need minority storytellers, not so
much the male heteronormative stories of bravery as in the movie
with your father. If it is true what is said in the Rhum book
(Blaise Cendrars), if there were women who killed the oppressors,
what was the women’s position back then? And what is the memory
and the position of the women today?
What is your formal approach ?
Elli : (…) Spatially, as a videomaker, architect and performer,
I want to see how my body resonates and pulsates within the environment.
I don’t know if I will have a touristic point of view. I
hope I will easily get rid of it. My training as a performer has
gave me tools of working with the space through body perception
and as an architect to detect the ideas and layers behind the design,
history and control of a space. I wouldn’t focus in filmmaking
Maxime: I am used of this history, I have been working with this
country, its landscape and history already, and I have subsequently
images in my mind. I want to work with interviews, making locations,
walks, and from that, it can give a raw material to think
about a way of re-writing, reenacting the archive and of filming
in the context of the working group. As I have already been to F.
Guiana, and make the film Nou voix, I have feelings and a way to
film this landscape that try to not reproduce an exotic image.
What is the relation between your subject and the form you choose?
Elli: For me it is dangerous to go there with ideas of a final
product. But in any case, I believe that the primal format of this
project should be discursive. A critical dialogue between us,
between all the members of the working group. It is a process, a
social and relational design. That is why I find the concept of
peer2peer ethnography intriguing. As you said, you don’t go there
with a cinema crew. We have to keep the dialogue as a form, this
is our safety to not fall again in colonial patterns. We don’t
have to agree in one methodology, we stay with the trouble. Our
conflicts, our misunderstandings can be fruitful and take this
research deepen into the diversities and micro-narratives of the
Guyanese communities and we can all contribute in discovering a
non-colonial form that can be as well taken back to a European
Is this scary?