This year, IDFA presents a focus program that interrogates our current world’s colonial past: a program about a complex subject related to different guises and perspectives which have affected past generations and continue to affect ours, reflects Claire Diao.
This program consists of 16 films, old and new titles, divided into two parts: one focusing on the inhabitants of various European cities, and the other on systemic aspects of colonialism. Two interesting perspectives, presenting various points of view will that cause the audience to reflect within a global context about how past and present are intrinsically related to this weighty colonial heritage.
Amsterdam, Paris, London, Lisbon, Berlin. All these capital cities were built thanks to wealth that was looted from the various parts of the world that were invaded by the respective colonizing nations.
If you took a careful look at the terminology used by the colonizers at that time, you would realize that the vocabulary used was part and parcel of the propaganda message. Thus, people leaving their countries to ‘discover’ other parts of the world did not talk about “invasion” but “conquest” (such as the famous Spanish “conquistadores”). Those who were invaded did not have access to the same language, nor the same propaganda tools, such as cinema, to express their oppression. For a long time, films were made by the colonizers for the glory of the colonization of Asia, Africa and Latin America. In Great Britain, in 1931, J. Russell Orr, Director of Education, Kenya Colony, even published an article entitled ‘The Use Of The Kinema In The Guidance Of Backward Races’.
*… What does “Backward Races” mean? And how can someone use this terminology to define someone different from themself? If these “Backward Races” had published an article at that time, how would they have referred to this “Director of Education, Kenya Colony”? A director of miseducation? A missionary taking power out of their country? Or a wizard, trying to take control of their minds?
Because of the oppressor’s powerful propaganda strategy, it took a lot of time to see films made by these oppressed people. It was not until the 20th century and the emergence of independence movements in various ‘Third World’ countries that we had the opportunity to discover new voices expressing different perspectives through the seventh art.
By then, some filmmakers had visited these places and given voice to the voiceless. These were mostly anthropologists (like Jean Rouch or Marcel Griaule on the French side) or documentary filmmakers. But they were still Westerners.
However, as they were more able to travel than the oppressed populations stuck in their own countries – which were not even, at the time, considered as ‘countries’ but ‘colonies’ – their presence and their knowledge were useful in order to express a countering point of view. Oppressed populations were keen on inviting foreign documentary filmmakers to help them spread their opinions, especially during independence movements.
For example, renowned Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens directed the short documentary Indonesia Calling in Australia in 1947. At this time, waterside workers refused to serve the ‘Black Armada’: Dutch ships carrying arms to repress the Indonesian independence movement. Using cameras to record the workers instead of the soldiers, the resistance rather than the oppressors’ defense, was a strong political act, especially coming from a Dutch filmmaker acting against his own government. In the Francophone-invaded areas of Africa, French documentary filmmaker René Vautier (Afrique 50), did the same and was jailed and censored for 40 years because of his involvement in such anti-colonial activities.
Another interesting perspective would be that of the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck. Coming from the first liberated Black nation of the world (1804), Peck grew up in the Belgian-invaded Congo. His perspective is definitely different from that of a filmmaker born and raised in an imperialist country, and this perhaps explains why his Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1990) remains a classic. The film recalls the death of the former Prime Minister of then newly-independent Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Apart from these voyagers, there were also filmmakers who remained in their own countries but gave voice to the local voiceless, also known as ‘immigrants. This is the case with Johan van der Keuken, the famous Dutch documentary filmmaker who in 1996 created a portrait of the city of Amsterdam through its customs and inhabitants, including people coming from various territories colonized by the Dutch. The 245-minute film is classically titled Amsterdam Global Village.
Progressively, the voiceless used cinema to express themselves. Some of them, such as the famous Cambodian documentary filmmaker Rithy Panh, were living in countries invaded by foreigners. Panh, whose piece France Is Our Mother Country (2015), uses archival material and cinematic collage techniques to precisely describe how colonized populations were educated to thank the invaders for the ‘ideal’ life that they brought.
This intriguing propaganda has been used by all the colonizers in the world. In Indonesia, the Japanese invaders also used films to justify their Asian hegemony, as is presented by the Japanese Shin-ichi Ise in Now Is the Past – My Father Java & the Phantom Films (2021). The film is an intimate and historical entry into the Japanese past through the eyes of a grandson whose grandfather participated in this propaganda.
This familial look at the past is also the defining gaze in Nelly’s Memory (2021), in which Belgian director Nicolas Wouters collects his grandparents’ memories from colonized Congo. Leaving there between 1946-1958 as there was no colonization, this short doc interrogates the truth from former Belgian colonialists and highlights the shadows of a familial amnesia.
Familial, again, is the perspective used by the French filmmaker Nathalie Pontarlier in On the Zenith’s Edge (2021). In presenting the Fang, the community of her Gabonese ancestors, Pontarlier expresses how their culture was forced aside by Christian colonialists. The film has an intimate look also employed by French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot whose documentary Retour à Reims (2021) traces the social struggles of French women and left-wing workers over the last 50 years. With an exquisite use of archival material, the film is adapted from the French philosopher Didier Eribon’s essay of the same title (2009).
This national perspective on historical heritage is also one that can be considered to deal with the West Indies, whether French (Sylvaine Dampierre’s Words of Negroes (2021) dealing with the workers at a sugar factory in Marie- Galante) or Dutch (Geographies of Freedom (2019), directed by the Portuguese Miguel Luis Peres Antunes dos Santos and based on research by Dutch Egbert Alejandro Martina). This mid-length documentary centers its archival material on the neocolonialist relationships between the Dutch multinational company Shell and the Netherlands Antilles. It also interrogates the much-celebrated Dutch freedom within this neoliberal world.
Historical heritage is also questioned by Erika Etangsalé in In the Billowing Night (2021), a mid-length doc. Here the filmmaker tries to interrogate her father, who has been working in France through the Bumidom project that brought workers from Reunion Island and other West Indian territories into mainland France during the ‘Trente Glorieuses’ period when the country underwent a development boom but lacked a workforce.
Gradually, the voiceless started to use the same medium to express themselves. Some of them were living in the various territories that had been invaded, while others were living in the colonizers’ countries. This is the case for Ghanaian director John Akomfrah, whose Handsworth Songs (1986) followed the Handsworth and London riots and relates the struggle of post-war Black British citizens.
A city such as Berlin has been probed by the German filmmaker Hito Steyerl through the history of its Potsdamerplatz. In The Empty Center (1998), Steyerl tracks the process of urban restructuring from German reunification to contemporary attitudes against immigrants and minorities.
This internal look at a society is also the perspective adopted by the Brazilian documentary filmmaker Leonardo Mouramateus in his Half a Light-Year (2021), which features live video recordings of Lisbon’s streets and inhabitants while two lovers talk in voice-over.
Portugal, which has invaded various territories in the world and hosted, in return, a population coming from those territories, is also the setting for another documentary Chelas nha Kau (2020), directed by Bagabaga Studios and Bataclan 1950. In this hip-hop piece where rappers are listened to, the district of Chelas is unequivocally presented as a ‘dangerous’ place where it is not possible to deliver pizza. The Bagabaga Studios cooperative then offers an inside perspective that is more human than the usual report made by mainstream media about areas they are afraid to enter.
Entering is, finally, the approach taken by French filmmaker Alice Diop in We (2021), in order to meet the various inhabitants of the areas surrounding Paris. Adapted from François Maspero novel Les passagers du Roissy Express, Diop explores the so-called French ‘banlieues’ in order to represent a mosaic far more diverse than the usual mental images people have. From court hunting to chicha open- air spaces, her definition of We/Us, reminds us of how strong people are to separate from the other rather than joining them in a common definition. A statement that could, maybe, unconsciously explain why so many people went to colonize others without letting them express themselves. Looking at others and listening carefully to them without judging is certainly the defining factor of IDFA’s unConscious Bias program.