At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Africa in the spotlight, plus Alice Rohrwacher’s surprise Grand Prix winner.
Martinique writer Frantz Fanon was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century on colonialism, and his writings touched powerfully on race, psychology, and power. Fanon initially caused a stir with Black Skin, White Masks, which looked at the way conceptions of inferiority become psychologised and pathologised by those deemed “inferior.” Fanon’s chapter about discovering race, when he was deemed “black” as a kid by another “white” kid and the weight of inferiority that comes down on that discovery, is one of the most brutally incisive chapters in literature, and is called attention to in Göran Hugo Olsson’s documentary Concerning Violence. The psychology of inferiority and the way colonialism (and post-colonialism) perpetuated this was explored in Fanon’s 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth. While The Wretched of the Earth concluded violence is a natural consequence of such relentless psychological brutality, Fanon’s nuances on violence and revolution was lost in France—then fighting brutally in Algeria—where it was promptly banned.
Concerning Violence examines Fanon’s writing in the context of various liberation struggles. Read by Lauryn Hill, Fanon’s pulsating syntactical rhythms add a rare energy to voiceover footage from the conflicts of the time—specifically, Guinea-Bissau, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Angola, and Liberia. The footage is quite remarkable, depicting astonishingly brutal colonial governments also whitewashed by history. Striking images include the first-hand account of an attack by the MPLA (Angola), the casual racism of a white Rhodesian, the guerrilla battle in Guinea-Bissau (it seems as if Manoel de Oliveira used this scene as a basis in the conclusion of No, or the Vainglory of Command), or most brutally, a mother and baby, each with limbs blown off by the Portuguese, trying to carry out the normal task of feeding (the future itself being a consideration too difficult to think about).
While Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique were clearly liberation struggles, the inclusion of Liberia is a particularly illuminating one. Liberia never went through a formal decolonisation process (being “independent” during the 19th century European land grab), yet the effects of the West were being keenly felt. The film includes footage of strikers at a Swedish owned mining company being treated horrifically after the mining company and the government colluded to try to break the strike. Given the events of the Marikana Miners’ strike in South Africa in 2012 and the ongoing torture and collusion of Western mining companies in the Congo (amongst others), this has a brutal contemporary relevance. Western corporate interests, indifferent Western consumers, and local interests aren’t necessarily compatible. Also, violence split on arbitrary lines and ongoing subjugation—Fanon wasn’t simply writing about “Africa”—is still echoing today.
On the back of Fanon’s broad-brush approach, the film takes a similar wide focus. There is a risk that this geographically arbitrary focus simply Orientalises the African continent—broadly, Africa is presented as a totality through the film’s chapters, whereas Fanon’s writing is clearly relevant in the rest of the world (Europe, South America, and Asia in the 20th century internally had their issues with violence too). It would be interesting to see what would have happened if the film had focused on one specific country’s liberation struggles to explore Fanon’s ideas. A weakness in Fanon’s thought—specifically, ignoring women and their subjugation—is also covered off by a preface by Gayatri Spivak and by the film footage itself. Concerning Violence is an agitating film of revolution and power. Despite relying on a 1961 text and footage from the 60s and 70s, it still feels awfully potent.
Despite its name conjuring up images of remoteness and obscurity, Timbuktu was historically one of the key centres of Islamic learning and holds some important Islamic art. In 2012-13, after a Tuareg rebellion merged with displaced Libyan fighters (the Tuareg and Arabs faced considerable prejudice in contemporary Mali, and have rebelled on numerous occasions since the early 20th Century for independence) and murky foreign influences (Algeria meddled, the rebels initially were funded by the West to fight Gaddafi, etc.), the rebellion took on a decidedly fundamentalist and brutal tone. Timbuktu was captured on April 1, 2012 and was held for just over eight months before a combined French/Malian army recaptured it in January 2013.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu takes a look during this period of capture and opens with antiquities being used for target practice. His style eschews a single narrative, instead focusing on a broad tableau of individuals caught up in the violence. Sissako also examines the soldiers who captured the town—their foreignness a key aspect in the violence that followed—but they’re not presented in simplistic terms. They’re hypocritical, arguing whether Messi or Zidane is the better footballer while simultaneously punishing children for playing football, and trying to commit adultery while also horrifically punishing adulterers. A comic scene involves a soldier being unsure what to do when he hears singing (music is banned), as the song was in praise of Allah. Yet in criticising the invaders, Sissako doesn’t romanticise the way things were. A key narrative moment comes from neighbourly violence rather than violence from the rebels, and Sissako suggests that when the community bonds break between neighbours is when outsiders can take over.
The narrative does have an air of predictability to it, but it’s fiercely and compellingly told. The imagery is stunning, most notably during the dramatic river fleeing scene, all magic hour light and perfect composition. A football game without a football is also a beautifully fluid scene, all feet in the dust moving as ballet dancers. The final freeze-frame image, a beautifully conflicted moment à la The 400 Blows, stops at a moment trapped between freedom and imprisonment. While liberation may have occurred subsequent to the events of the film, Sissako warns that, without a community banding together, there’s no guarantee the events are simply a historical document.
Alice Rohrwacher’s Grand Prix winner The Wonders captures a sense of things in flux, both emotionally in terms of its main character Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) coming of age, and in Italy in a more general sense, as nostalgia and tourism takes over from ordinary people trying to eke out a living. A German-Italian family of beekeepers find themselves living a tenuous life: their tenancy on the land is uncertain, their dependence on their artisan honey for a livelihood has become difficult in a market that has different expectations of authenticity (and with limited margins), and the Tuscan region in which the family live is increasingly catering to tourists rather than the inhabitants themselves. More money, after all, comes from foreign tourists than from selling home-made products. The film seizes a moment in time with the family, and while its ‘slice-of-life’ narrative is a touch underdeveloped—the film’s many strands could have done with an extra 20 to 30 minutes of exposition—its overall effect is moving.
There are clear parallels to Victor Erice’s 1973 masterpiece Spirit of the Beehive. Erice’s film looks at the psychological effect on fascism via a small girl, capturing the banal effects of the Franco dictatorship and the Spanish Civil War. In The Wonders, the fascism comes from within, an occasionally well-meaning but overall dominant paternal influence (Sam Louwyck), whose word is the final word on any familial decisions. It’s hinted that he was once a member of a commune and has that air of old-school Marxist (complete with the misogyny), yet he is broken down by the societal changes going on around him. Like Spirit of the Beehive, a stranger arrives, a young delinquent German boy, who throws the family balance slightly off-kilter. It is this aspect of the narrative that is the weakest and most rushed. Finally, while Ana in Spirit of the Beehive is enamoured/frightened by Frankenstein’s monster, Gelsomina becomes obsessed with trying to win a dreadfully tacky “talent contest” (the showgirl is played by Monica Bellucci). The contest uses classic Italian TV stereotypes, cheese, and awkwardness, and one can only imagine how horrified an old school Marxist would have been by having to compete in it. The listlessness of the characters in both films suggests an uncertain future: Erice’s film optimistically looked forward to the death of Franco, while The Wonders arguably is more pessimistic. Despite the family uniting in the final scene, family bonds are tenuous and will be tenuous to come.
Rohrwacher also makes a pointed comment about how tourism, in its quest to present an authentic experience, effaces local culture. The contest superficially (if I’m being charitable) harks back to the “glorious” Etruscan era, an empire assimilated into the Roman Empire by the 4th Century BC, yet that doesn’t stop the TV show adopting a weird pseudo-parochialism in discussing the past. It’s as if people when faced with the uncertainty of the present and the future, take comfort in nostalgia for the past. Filmed on 16mm stock, the film adopts this end of an era approach, and this is arguably where Rohrwacher is at her most optimistic: life will continue to exist, even if dominant narratives say it’s about to become extinct.