The TV film about Mauritius, “Dreams, fortunes and dealers in the sun” (Reves, fortunes et traffic au soleil) broadcast on French TV Station M6 on 22 January, has caused something of a furor, but criticism has rather missed the point about what is so bad about the documentary. The film was also on You-tube, but seems to have been removed.
The first criticism is of the category “whatever will tourists think?” This kind of reaction to any criticism of the country has become a national joke for some years now. On the documentary, the Vice Prime Minister Xavier Duval, who is also Finance Minister, and Tourism Minister Michael Sik Yuen both deplored the film for its spoiling the image of Mauritius. This “image” of Mauritius as a “paradise” has been painstakingly concocted by the tourism industry for decades - not an easy task if you remember that Mauritius used, until only 40 years ago, to be considered by everyone outside the country to be a dirty, smelly hell-hole, typified by Nobel Literature Prize winner VS Naipaul’s short-story “The Over-Crowded Barracoon”, which short-story, to add another peek into the other side of our paradise, was promptly banned in Mauritius.
The second criticism of the M6 documentary is that press ethics were not respected. In fact, a drug-dealer “source” in the film was so flimsily disguised by the film-makers that, within an hour of the program being broadcast on French TV, he was hit on the head with a concrete block in real life – presumably by “colleagues” of his – and sent into a coma for a week. He is still in hospital. So, journalists are reminded that they do have some responsibility to consider the direct effects of their film on their sources. In Mauritius, we can all recognize someone’s bit of corrugated iron fencing a mile away – whether a French film-maker knows this or not depends on the degree of his awareness of the society he is filming.
The most offensive part of the film is, in my view, something else, though. But first, and this is said in the film’s favour, it is not a pretentious film, and its title describes its content fairly well. What is obnoxious about the documentary is that it is constructed quite consciously on a view of Mauritian society that was hegemonic in the right-wing, pro-western, anti-Independence circles in Mauritius in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The film, like the archaic pro-colonial view, holds that there are the following social classes in Mauritius:
- A nice family from France trying to make good in Mauritius (not easy), and for whom Mauritians are very much minor bit-parts, like people you can buy fresh fish, or fresh vegetables from, or who can get on your nerves for not being quick enough in the kitchen. So, this sets the colonial atmosphere of the film.
- A nice sugar baron family whose male heads of household patronize the “locals”, tapping them on their backs, and criticizing the way they, for example, cut cane. The film both enjoys the excessively rich life-style, and is ironic about these silly oligarchs with funny accents who run this colony.
- A very rich woman, who runs disco’s and a huge real estate business, and who is described as “Creole” (the film is strong on classifying people), and who has 700 pairs of shoes, her own masseurs, hair-dresser, drivers, etc waiting hand and foot on her and her daughter.
- A drug dealer in a poor working class area of Port Louis, talking big. And a “landing” by police officers, clearly staged for the documentary. These characters all have no family.
- The owner of a huge modern textile factory, Mr. Francois Woo, who is also seen without family, but only as a fine, upstanding industrialist.
- A youngster who runs a tiny totally illegal back-street sweat-shop producing pirated brandname shorts using over-time hours of workers from abroad who are not getting enough overtime work at the factory they were brought over to work in. This “industrialist” is, of course, also without a family.
- The “majority” of the people is described (again in the West’s ubiquitous race-religious classification of everyone in ex-colonies) as Hindu, and this majority is portrayed in intentionally “exotic” footage of people having long needles stuck through their tongues in a religious ceremony, during which a child is filmed “walking on fire”. There is a long close-up on the face of a man nearing a trance state at the ceremony, and he turns out to be none other than last year’s Minister of Tourism, Nando Bodha.
So, the view of society is that there are quite well off French families, some millionaire Franco-Mauritians including one whose family has borrowed 200 million Euros for their latest project and some rare, well-off westernized families. The rest of the population are either one-dimensional caricatures, or marginal creatures or, for the vast majority of the people, simply invisible.
This is exactly how the extreme right-wing forces portrayed Mauritius in the 1960’s, and because this “idyllic” society was being threatened by Independence, they opposed Independence. Their propaganda was so powerful that it caused the destruction of their own political base by provoking the flight from the country of many in the westernized upper-classes, intellectual elites and even skilled workers. This kind of propaganda was very damaging at the time. And it is rather hideous to see it back again. It is almost incredible that this view of society has remained intact in some corners of the French intelligentsia, or in the minds of their advisers for the film. Maybe they were people who actually did believe the propaganda and left for France who ended up doing the advising? Whatever the reason for this colonial frame of mind, seeing the film is like walking into a right-wing part of the Mauritian past.