Berlinale 2014: Colonial visions

Africa’s subjugated pasts are far from past in two new films in this year’s festival.

Ashley Clark

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Concerning Violence, a new film from the director of The Black Power Mixtape

Concerning Violence, a new film from the director of The Black Power Mixtape

Although native African cinema is preciously thin on the ground at this year’s Berlinale, two formally fascinating nonfiction films have broached the subject of colonialism – and anti-colonial resistance – specifically with reference to African countries.

Playing in the Panorama Documentary section, Göran Hugo Olsson’s Concerning Violence (the Swedish director’s follow-up to The Black Power Mixtape) is another collage of absorbing archive footage, much of which has been sourced directly from Swedish news television. As explained in a diegetic preface by cultural theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the film is inspired by The Wretched of the Earth, the provocative 1961 analysis of the roots and effects of colonialism by Martinique-born French writer Frantz Fanon.

The prescience of Fanon’s words is amplified by the choice of footage, which ranges from boots-on-the-ground conflict reportage to infuriating interviews with arrogant colonials in Rhodesia and Tanzania. Among many highlights, the sequence featuring interviews with the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) stands out because we get to hear directly from the mouth of the resistance. The most recent footage dates from 1987 (a poignant interview with Thomas Sankara, the soon-to-be-murdered president of Burkino Faso), but throughout the viewer is invited to draw their own connections between the onscreen images and today’s geopolitical situation. To be immersed in the film is a consistently stimulating intellectual experience.

Its nine chapters unfold with a stark, unfussy clarity, while singer Lauryn Hill – whom Olsson approached while she was in prison for tax offences – punches out Fanon’s words in a voiceover narration of rich, sonorous authority. As if to double up on the force of Fanon’s already astringent words, the text is often simultaneously printed onscreen. It’s an artistic choice that somehow avoids feeling overly didactic and, according to Olsson (informative and generous in a post-screening Q&A), was influenced by such diverse sources as Jean-Luc Godard and the music video for Prince’s 1987 song Sign o’ the Times.

N – The Madness of Reason

N – The Madness of Reason

Equally formally adventurous, yet vastly divergent in tone, is Peter Krüger’s N – The Madness of Reason, playing in the festival’s Forum strand. Its subject is Raymond Borremans (1906-88), a Frenchman who felt drawn to Africa and used the access offered by colonialism to eventually settle in the Ivory Coast, where he became a lepidopterist and writer – the title comes from Borremans’ inability to advance past the letter ‘N’ in his encyclopaedia.

“We began before words and we will end beyond them”, reads Nigerian author Ben Okri’s opening onscreen epigram, so it’s appropriate that Krüger holds so much stock in visuals. We’re treated to a lavish series of present-day Ivorian panoramas shot by Rimvydas Leipus, over which a sort of dialectical, supernatural conversation between a beyond-the-grave Borremans (framed in the above photo within the frame) and present-day inhabitants of the Ivory Coast plays out via competing voiceover.

I enjoyed the film, but grew frustrated at the extent to which Borremans’ “I know best about Africa and its inhabitants”-esque approach was ultimately validated and indulged, even if it was refreshing to see it challenged on occasion. It’s a slippery, sometimes seductive work, which is dense with ideas and information; I’d like to see it again before making my mind up about it.

Unlike Olsson’s film, which fits into the resurgent trend of archive documentary (Let the Fire Burn, The Stuart Hall Project), and boasts the Lauryn Hill factor and the prior success of The Black Power Mixtape as selling points, it’s difficult to see the esoteric N: The Madness of Reason finding a wide release. Rather it’s likely to crop up in smaller festivals and specially-themed programmes. It’s one to keep an eye out for, particularly for its innovative, convention-denying approach to form.

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