|The Wretched of the Earth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Cinema Politica last night screened an old-fashioned sort of documentary film, Concerning Violence made by a Swedish filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson who was committed enough to his message to stay up until after 3 am Stockholm time to engage in a question-and-answer session with the considerable audience in Montreal.
In saying that the film has a slightly old-fashioned air, I am more or less agreeing with an audience member who told the filmmaker his film was “ahistorical”. Although not wholly agreeing with that, Olsson did say that the film was designed as an illustration of a text written “fifty years ago” by the Martinique-born philosopher Frantz Fanon --- in fact, the text was drawn from the first chapter of the last book Fanon wrote before dying at the age of 36, The Wretched of the Earth --- and implying that it was not his business in this particular film to follow up the various spokespersons he used to illustrate his text as they proceeded through life in their various ways.
The particular point of contention arose around his use of an early Robert Mugabe quote, taken from not long after he became the leader of Zimbabwe. In those days Mugabe was a leader much-admired by progressives in the Western world, an admiration that has diminished as he has doggedly clung to power, during his later years driving most of the white farmers from their farms, in the process plunging his nation into an economic crisis.
The burden of the film, both written on the screen as quotes from Fanon’s book, and carefully enunciated by Lauren Hill, handling the commentary, was that violence lies at the root of all relationships between colonialists and their subjects, and that only by mastering their own responsive violence could their subjects hope to break the circle of their oppression. When an audience member mentioned to Mr. Olsson that Mandela did not fit that prescription, he sharply reminded the man that Mandela had been the head of the armed wing of the African National Congress, and thus was no exception to the rule. This is the second Cinema Politica film to deal with violence or non-violence within two weeks. The previous film, called Everyday Rebellion made an earnest plea for non-violence, dealing with many inspiring resistance movements that have sprung up around he globe, from the Egyptian spring in Tahrir Square to a movement of topless feminists in Ukraine. As one of that film’s blurbs describes it:
“From the Occupy movement to the Spanish ‘Indignados’ to the Arab Spring and from Iran to Syria to the Ukraine, everyday people are expressing themselves through nudity, performance, silence, sound, creation and community. Everyday Rebellion is a high velocity exploration of the power of ideas and the courage it takes to use the body as a non-violent tool in protest, showing us the infinite possibilities of people power in the imagination of a better world.”
Though that film, directed by two Iranian brothers, is persuasive, one’s scepticism is aroused by, for example, the final result of the Tahrir Square rebellion, which has led to a military takeover that appears to be more oppressive than what went before. (It’s not the first time that social revolutionaries have made matters worse: the 1960s U.S. “revolution” of manners ended in the election of the repulsive Nixon as president).
For me, the history of the African National Congress in South Africa makes the ultimate and virtually unanswerable case for the use of violence: the apartheid regime shut off all political expression for the country’s black African people, even changing every law under which the protesters won court cases, until they were left with no option but to turn to violent struggle. The wave of crime that has overcome South Africa since then surely is more attributable to the many years of twisted government by the white oppressors, and the deformations it worked in the South African body politic, than to the fact of the use of violence by the revolutionaries. Many prescient observers during the apartheid years warned that if apartheid continued, the country that would be left behind would be almost ungovernable.
Last night’s filmmaker, Olsson, said that no white man had a right to set up a camera in Africa, and that filming of their reality should be left to Africans themselves. (That did raise a question in my mind as to what Olsson himself was doing making such a film, in that case). I sympathized with his aim, to make a film illustrating a set of complex ideas, for I have myself tried to make films directed to the same purpose, and I know it is not easy. Most of the questions he received from the audience last night dealt with political realities in various parts of the world, and he expressed himself as wishing more questions had been directed to pure film-making subjects, on which he confessed he could have used some guidance, or at least reasonable commentary.
His case was certainly made strongly, beginning with an interview with a horrendously smug, racist, Rhodesian, who appeared to believe he was pre-ordained to lord it over the local population in perpetuity, and who did not hesitate to speak of them in the most scurrilous tones. It reminded me of my years in journalism, when I numbered the white Rhodesians as the worst single population of people I had ever run across, a group of plumbers and carpenters and store clerks from Lancashire or Yorkshire, simple people on a lower income level at home, suddenly transferred into a Master Race with their swimming pools, and endless servants, and pretensions to grandeur. Although even there the peculiarity of human beings , their irrepressible individuality, shone through: one young woman I knew was strongly against the local political system, while the rest of her family, including her sister, blindly accepted their destiny as Master Race. How does one explain such a thing, in rational terms?
I was pleased to see an extended quote spoken by the late leader of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, especially since, in introducing last night’s film, a professor from Ottawa appeared to suggest that the recent overthrow of Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso was simply yet another example of white European interference in African governance. Unless I was mistaken in what he said (and I confess it was difficult to follow his rambling address), this formulation simply ignored the fact that Compaore assassinated Thomas Sankara, who was one of the most progressive young leaders Africa has ever thrown up, and immediately jettisoned all his progressive policies. It also ignored the fact that Compaore was brought down after an estimated one million people thronged the streets of the nation’s capital demanding his resignation. Not likely that the French organized that, surely. Sankara’s assassination has stayed with me over the years as an especially unfortunate event in the history of Africa, but a few years ago I saw a film on Burkina Faso, of which the very last image was of a small boy, running along with one of those wheel rims that kids everywhere have always played with, and singing a song in praise of Thomas Sankara. That remains with me as positively the most hopeful image I have ever seen for the future of Africa.
Sankara’s contribution to Olsson’s film was one of the mot memorable things in the film: a catalogue of freedom measures, including such stirring statements as that anyone wanting to provide food aid should send seeds, shovels, tractors, hoes and implements to help them grow their own food, which was followed by a reasoned critique of he International Monetary Fund and its perilous measures, designed to hand over Africa to international businessmen. Eschewing IMF aid, Sankara nevertheless succeeded in making his country self-sufficient in food in the four short years he was given as leader.
I thought the decision to have a local professor introduce the film was rather unnecessary, especially since the very first images in the film itself are of an Indian woman professor outlining the history and message of Fanon’s book that the film was intended to illustrate. I would have liked to question Olsson on Sankara and his message and fate, but Olsson in answer to another question had more or less renounced any responsibility to provide follow up to the statements shown that were made during earlier years in independent Africa, and whose validity might have been called into question by later events.
Much as I admired the effort and the educational purposes that prompted Olsson’s film, I am not sure that it can be described as an unequivocal success.