It inevitably starts in an airport. This time, it’s the Toronto one, where I live. The plane is late. Two hours to kill, filled with good resolutions.

I promised myself to start from the beginning, keeping a detailed diary that documents the entire process…Have a little bit of discipline, comrade!




It inevitably starts in an airport. This time, it’s the Toronto one, where I live. The plane is late. Two hours to kill, filled with good resolutions.

I promised myself to start from the beginning, keeping a detailed diary that documents the entire process…Have a little bit of discipline, comrade!

On the road, with happiness and anxiety

Waiting to leave for Detroit. Everyone has their electronic devices. I’m comfortably seated, ready, with my IPod in my ears. The “Blues”playlist is on. I try to put myself in the mood. I am anticipating, that which I’m dreaming of and want. And I start planning this trip. I am not in a socializing mode, not in these circumstances, not in these places of transit. I don’t want to lose focus. You may be wondering what I am up to…Well, let me tell you: I often have the privilege to undertake some art projects, mainly thanks to grants offered by the Arts Council of Ontario to francophone artists. This year, I was offered the opportunity to take on a project dear to my heart since I was little. I’m going on “the road”, the mythical one which leads to the American South.




Detroit is a little bit like Fargo. It’s not really what you would expect. There is more to it than meets the eye…For now, I have only briefly transited through the city to land in the suburbs where some friends will be hosting me, some real lefty Detroiters. 

I fantasized that, with their help, I would be able to meet trade unionists from the auto industry. Sadly, none of them agreed to meet me.

A segregated city


My friends live on the outskirts of Detroit, near the famous “8- Mile”, as in Eminem’s album title. Their neighborhood is the total opposite to the downtown area which actually not that far; it’s the gay district, hipster, progressive. Might as well say “all white”, or almost… What I have no other choice but to still call segregation seems obvious to me. Except for little small pockets where a few black people seem to have wandered in.  Otherwise, for the most part, there seems to be a clear division of things. Even though my project is not focused primarily on the African-American community, I quickly found myself hanging out in black communities, since I have decided to follow my “natural inclination”, meaning following my love for African-American music in its community context.



A schizophrenic world

It’s a bit surreal. For once, the word is not overrated. My host Eric is taking me around Detroit. He knows the city well. He’s a wealth of valuable explanations and knows which streets to take. It’s fascinating how you pass from one extreme to the other within two blocks. Going from a city so desolate and abandoned that it seems to have been bombed, with mostly black residents that look tired, worn out, damaged, in the image of their environment… to pockets of an ideal and lush Frank Capra–esque America. Pockets where real mansions with manicured lawns coexist with schools whose windows have been shut-close using ugly plywood boards full of graffiti. This is a caricature, a microcosm of what it feels like to undertake this journey: diving in a schizophrenic world.



A european’s romanticism


I’m stricken by the fact that Detroit is a very black city and yet there are no black people in my Detroit “sample”! I have only been here for a few days and already the romance – perhaps naively European – that I associate with these Rock ‘n’ Roll and R&B cities, this route to the South, has already taken a toll. It is in moments like this when I am completely immersed in the experience in certain places that stuff start to make sense beyond the images, as –let’s face it –this misery is tragically photogenic. But when faced with this human disaster, aesthetics become indecent. These settings are no longer quaint.  They are just sad.



On the road to Cincinnati

I chose not to take the highway, as I exit Detroit. This is good. While playing around with the GPS, I discover the “take side roads” option. But the scenery is far from being a bucolic countryside. I go from one desolate and distressing city to another, mainly populated by disadvantaged black communities. Along the way, I stop in a small village for a coffee and a cigarette. There is a western decor inside around a bison theme. A giant stuffed head that “looks real” is mounted onto the wall. Near the exit, I notice a kind of big box made to serve as a place where “used flags” can be dropped off. There is a sign that specifies that they will be later incinerated with dignity. A lady addresses me with empathy when she sees me smoking outside, “We don’t have any rights left to do anything!“… I am not too sure why her comments comes across a little right wing to me.



Tatoos & mexican food


In Dayton, amidst its large deserted avenues that give me a sense of abandonment, I choose to let myself go, try being a dilettante, follow my instincts and to just go have a real coffee in the best bar in town. I find myself in this trendy spot for the inevitable local hipsters amidst large deserted boulevards that once were industrious. It has a western flair to it, with the railway and ghosts of 50s convertibles parked outside the old diners that are still standing. This is where I meet a tattooed guy that grants me permission to film him in the Mexican restaurant where he plans on grabbing a bite that evening. He’s really nice and cool, but yet I have the feeling that something is “wrong.” This guy has money, a good job, yet he eats alone on a Saturday night while defining himself first and foremost as “father”. This brings me back to my own anxieties. He does not talk about divorce though. I dare not ask for more, in this context of such a short meeting.



local farmer’s market and barbershop

I am afraid that – after Detroit – any other city is going to seem fresh and dainty in comparison. Cincinnati seems to be in a healthy and dynamic state, even with its “junkie neighborhood”! My quest for a breakfast place takes me to a nice greasy spoon where I get to taste the “Goetta”, a local specialty made of pork and oats, mixed and grilled, reflecting local history and the Germanic influences on the local culture. As I am leaving the old diner, a distorted voice emanates from a speaker. Next door is a church nestled within a store. They are handing out free sandwiches that day, and a few homeless people are listening to a woman preaching to them promising better days. I try to capture the moment… at least the sound.



Doubt settles in. I realize that the pace that I have imposed on myself given the territory I am about to cover makes the whole journey rather performance-like, and goes against the spontaneous kinds of meetings I was hoping for. It’s the reality check of the humble French who doesn’t really get the sense of scale of distances in America. I should perhaps have devoted myself to a smaller scope but spent more time as I had originally envisaged (just in Louisiana) rather than dash through it all too fast. But, how does one resist the temptation of the road…. especially this road? Why resist the pleasure of getting uprooted everyday or so to go discover another world?



Malaise in Lexington

I walk by a cemetery. Intrigued by an isolated banner. It is hung on the graveyard’s gate and invites to celebrate “Juneteenth”. I realize that this is a cemetery described as “African”. I learn that this is a historic cemetery, founded by an association of “people of color” in 1869, and “Juneteenth” is the oldest festival celebrating the abolition of slavery in the United States. So my questioning is valid, the community does exists… just not here.



Just like in the TV series ” Weeds” and “Breaking Bad” contemporary to this trip, the America that I am crossing seems to be one riddled with cracks and that is rotting, behind its appearances. It is easy to avoid poor/black neighbourhoods and not go in, to ensure that you don’t go through them unless this you take the wrong exit, which is unlikely to happen thanks to the wonderful invention that is the GPS. It’s a bit like I had felt in Johannesburg in the period just after the end of the Apartheid. You could very well pass from a white bubble to another without ever passing through Soweto. Are the often richer white communities even aware of the extent of damage that is just at their door?




Why does the giant roadside cross give me such anxiety? I have never been afraid of calvary shrines. There were plenty of them, practically at all intersections, in my childhood in Normandy. It must be the aggressively proselytizing business aspect, nothing quietly traditional here. It’s one of Birmingham’s mega churches. I must really be in the South. In the same category, there is also a real space rocket in an upright position. It should really be in a museum. I find such roadside installations to be dangerous visual distractions!



The next morning, while still nursing a heavy hangover following rounds of Moonshine at Gip’s, I nevertheless painfully head over to Max’s place. He invited me to brunch. I once again discover another facet of the city. Planted along a road that winds through the forest, I discover a sort of manor house with three storeys on a hillside overlooking the valley. With a weary and disillusioned look, but at the same time obviously happy to have new friends, Max shows me his countless family’s memories, his family tree, and the portrait of his ancestor that looks exactly like him. This reminds me of a Maharaja I met long ago in Udaipur who only lived in one room of his castle that he otherwise rented to tourists. He would spend his days watching TV programs on wildlife, the same wildlife as his father hunted a long time ago.




The drive is easy. I know that New Orleans is near… my Mecca! As I cross Alabama, I think about its exceptionally high prison population. Small road signs send stern messages and set the mood, like this ad in a gas station illustrating a threatening policeman and announcing “the cops are watching you” to discourage malicious activity. Or perhaps these two almost identical cars that are in front of me at a red light… One is brand new and the other all rusty, the game being: “Can you identify a “black person’s” car and a “white person’s’car”?




America loves sentimentalism

I’m on the road to New Orleans. It’s hot and humid. I come cross unsympathetic cities. Poverty clearly has no racial boundaries. Religious and political billboards, as well as trailer parks, are multiplying. But the campers aren’t tourists, they’re poor people. I have only just arrived in Louisiana, yet I have already heard of haunted places. I can picture the ghosts. So many people, so much intermingling, so many dramas must have taken place in this intoxicating humidity.




New Orleans finally!

First, I’m off to Bullet’s. I got the insight from an academic specializing in jazz. I head directly to Bullet’s, after dropping my bags off at Maurice’s, an adorable French expat settled here since the 60s, “Companion of the Tour de France” Master Chef in pastry. He now rents apartments in the “old French quarter”. There is a festival happening in town for a large black magazine, which attracts thousands of visitors. Shopkeepers tell me, “When the blacks come, we prefer to keep our shops closed”. Closed blinds, the city is pretty much dead. I’m off to the “Seventh Ward, a place that I am told is dangerous.




In Cajun Country

The next day, I drive to Lafayette. Along the way, and through the consulate of France in New Orleans, I meet a young French teacher of African descent who’s been catapulted into high school in a small Cajun town. Her story is inspiring. Upon her arrival, things start going awry. Most parents are Cajuns, therefore white.They can hardly conceive that the teacher is black. They are not used to it, and things get stuck. But the most fascinating aspect is the rest of the story. After the transition period, they come to see her, question her, and come to understand that she comes directly from Africa, and therefore, they have no problem with the situation. She has nothing to do with their contentious past, “their blacks”. It has now less to do with skin color, and a lot to do with history.




Vian the secular saint

From Lafayette, I drive to Houston where I reconnect with friends. The road seems long, too straight, under a metallic blue and cloudless sky. It’s atrociously hot. The architecture of bridges is as massive as that of cathedrals. People tell me about the presence of the KKK in Viador, one of those “middle of nowhere”places that the highway crosses. Houston is one of those American cities in which a European will desperately seek the non-existent downtown! Only nightmarish tangles of highways, malls, and chains restaurants. My friends reside in their childhood neighbourhood. Inhabited by what looks to me as black middle class. I inquire about the cross and teddy-bear shrine that is on the front lawn. This is how the death of a teenager or a child killed by a stray bullet is commemorated.




As I’m coming back from the gas station, a man pulls out a gun from his trunk and walks decisively towards the supermarket. My first instinct is to start the car and leave as fast as possible. Then I realized that there was a large stand of guns and ammunition in this store, and that he’s probably just bringing in his gun for repair. Billboards rhythmically appear on the road with more or less aggressive messages in the name of Jesus, where we are summoned to “repent” and “confess”, or better, and better yet, to “submit”. With the same nagging regularity, but in an alternating manner, other billboards that are no less aggressive promote mega “adult stores”.



It’s so damn hot. Most of the buildings and stores don’t have any windows or shops to protect themselves against the heat; the closed curtained and almost non-existent windows make me it difficult to really identify places. I’m really in a strange land. In what seems to be a transition zone between the stated culture of Southern Louisiana and what I hope to be the magic triangle of the Blues, I get busy to ensure that I get to meet people living in “trailer parks”. For once, I set aside chance encounters, and since I have no contacts that can help me here, I decided to push destiny a little. I dutifully sit on the desk of my hotel room and begin calling all permanent campsites on the outskirts of the city.



A nice little meal from a roadside joint

Epic failure at the trailer park, the few people that had volunteered cancelled at the last moment. The “systematic” method clearly doesn’t work. Must not force things. I am glad to leave this place. Finally, I leave the highway to take small national roads. I stop to have breakfast in the middle of the countryside, in this little town straight from a Coen Brothers’movie. In what looks like the only store that hasn’t gone out of business yet, a small black grandma serves her customers and offers a variety store/restaurant/gas station at once. She has homemade “cookies”. These kinds of buns where the flour is mixed with lard, a Southern specialty. She sells them in the form of egg and ham sandwiches.



I let myself wander. By fidelity to the little boy fed with Westerns who always sleeps in me, how could I not to take a second to imagine the Indian warrior and cowboy crossing these great outdoors? As a more mature man today, and while my car rolls on the highway, I can imagine how it must have been for the Europeans to come here. I imagine them as peasants from Normandy –not so different from those that I have known –discovering these vast landscapes on horse and without the ads for factory outlet types of sex shops…



The south is truly over. But black clubs still exist, with the same trademark southern culture. I locate one and let a young bouncer search me before I go in. He looks younger than the age limit shown on the signs that state “You must be 30 years old or over to enter”. You can’t get in either if you have a gun, or a backward baseball cap. Inside, people went through the whole nine yards in their attire. Men have their hats and impeccable polo shirts, the women are in heels and sexy dresses.




Where it all began

I’m enjoying the last sensation of this high that I get every time I leave a hotel room to hit the road for another new destination. I am going back to my starting point, Detroit. Alongside the road, several mosques. Detroit has one of the largest Middle-Eastern communities outside the Middle East. There are also abandoned schools with barred windows. I get there the day after the official announcement of the city filing for bankruptcy. This “registration of the era” is important because it sets the mood, like Zimmerman/Trayvon case.



Conception, filming, editing, photography, and text : Bruno Moynié.

Bruno is an ethnographer-filmmaker who lives in Toronto, Canada.

Funding: Ontario Arts Council

Translation, review and general assistance : Aline Nizigama & David Nadjari

New Orleans extra picture credits: Julia Moynié

Consultants for Louisiana: Mark Huntsman & Laurent Comeau

Web design: Reservoir Studios

I know this is the routine acknowledgement but this project would obviously really not have been possible without the generosity, the trust and the hospitality of the many people I met along the road, especially but not limited to: Robbie Morgan, Chuck Mercadel, Eric & Laurie Brown, Myah Aquil & Jon Sewing, the New Orleans french consulate, Jean-Claude Duthion, Patricia Sunderland, Sherman Willmott, Rob Bowman, Inga Treitler, Suzy Gillett, Rola Nashef, Catherine Gouband.

" These are things that I saw and heard. They mainly reflect what the people I encountered made me feel, or have conveyed to me. This is merely a diary derived from my thoughts and my candid perceptions, and does in no way shape or form claim to represent the real identities or life courses of the people who had the great kindness to let me peak into their lives. "