Sfax, Tunisia 90 years ago / Sfax, Tunisie, il y a 90 ans





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Uploaded on Dec 30, 2010

Camel caravans at the gates, black African musicians at the market, sailing ships in the harbour: Sfax at the beginning of the twentieth century, before the package holiday industry changed it all.

Chameaux aux portes de la ville, musiciens noirs au marché, voiliers su port: voici Sfax au commencement du 20e siècle, longtemps avant le tourisme moderne.

Images of Empire: Four exotic films from Pathe
Four Pathé Baby films first issued in 1923 (but probably issued in other formats earlier).

The Oasis of Tozeur / L'Oasis de Tozeur
Une Chasse au Faucon en Algérie / Falconry in Algeria
La Chasse aux Buffles en Indochine /Buffalo Hunting in Indo-China

If the majority of Pathé Baby travelogues are about us travelling around Europe to see them, the carefully selected and picturesque inhabitants of places where we might be supposed to want to holiday, some take us further afield, to the countries of the French Empire, especially in North Africa and the Far East. Here we are looking for the foreign, the spectacular, rather than the means and morality of the operation of an immense collection of territories, but we do get fascinating insights into ways of life which were in the process of having their first brush with the modern world. The film about Sfax shows a busy port, with some European-style buildings, where everything seems to be done by hand, aided only by sail-power. This isn't to say that the life there was primitive: the designs of the sailing-craft are elegant and clearly efficient. But compare this with the modern films of Sfax readily found on YouTube and you get an instant and vivid impression of the impact that the twentieth century had on this old and historic town. To see the conditions in which people lived, traded and worked is a real privilege but it is perhaps best not to over-estimate the difference from the way of life in fishing ports on the north side of the Mediterranean: the way of life in Collioure (France), which was extensively photographed at this time, looks remarkably similar apart from the clothing worn.

The oasis of Tozeur is one stage more remote from us in northern Europe again. Respect is paid to the local architecture and pride taken in the immense date-palm plantations and the export industry it supports - perhaps the pride of colonial possession rather than admiration for the efforts of the colonised, but not, overtly, tinted with condescension. The film of the Algerian chieftains hunting takes us further into experiences remote from our own. Today we can go to animal parks and country shows to see falcons on the wing, swooping on butcher's meat, but we don't normally see a kill. Actually, the cameraman appears to miss the actual swoop of the falcon, but the filming of the killing operation is frank and a little gruesome. Hunting was obviously viewed, and actually felt, in a different way in the early twentieth century. Imagine getting out the projector on a Sunday night and showing this to the kiddies in the sitting-room. Attitudes have changed.

The final film in the quartet is set in Indo- and once again brings death into the sitting-room. Again, we are spared the actual moment of truth as the buffalo is shot, but the film once more is cool and unblushing about putting animals to death for pleasure. There is some amusement to be had, though, in seeing the Europeans riding around in pith helmets -- they really were used, not just created for comic strips. The sight of working elephants is impressive: I was surprised how quickly and neatly they could manoeuvre. The most telling moment, however, is over in a flash, when a messenger arrives to tell the hunters where the buffalo are. He runs up, and, incredibly, kneels at the white men's feet. Perhaps there is more truth about the relations between the colonials and the colonialised in this one shot than in the rest of the four films.


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