They say that the arc of history bends toward justice, but it’s difficult to reconcile that platitude with the colossal horrors of colonialism; terrifying injustices which languidly crawl across the screen in Goran Hugo Olsson’s Concerning Violence, a compelling visual essay which explores the psychopathology of colonisation and decolonisation, and justifies directed violence as a response. Olsson, who also directed The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, has mastered the form of film is critique, and he uses a startling melange of archival footage excerpts to form a confronting sociopolitical collage. It is a incisive piece of philosophy which inspires rage through its measured presentation, and the impact of its message sheds new light on the continuing injustices of the world.
The film pivots around Afro-French critic Frantz Fanon’s seminal 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth, which drew up the topography of oppression in colonised Africa, and examined its psychopathological effect on its people. Key passages from the book are read by singer and activist Lauryn Hill, who placidly recites Fanon’s words over footage which gradually escalates in violence. Critical theorist Theodor Adorno wrote his book Notes & Sketches as a series of disconnected vignettes out of a fundamental disrespect for the stoic narratives of modernity. Olsson seems focused on a similar path – dividing Concerning Violence into nine distinct parts which explore numerous African locations and conflicts as isolated thematic constructs. Dates are shown, and Hill’s narration appears as clear onscreen text, but the scenes are deliberately timeless. We’re invited to apply these disparate messages to modern conflicts and power struggles.
It would help to approach this film with some appreciation of the structures and theatres of African conflict. There is no backstory; no context provided. You can appreciate the brutality of the Guinea-Bissau civil war without knowing much about it – stark footage of amputee mothers with amputee children are likely to resonate with anyone – but the locus of the film’s message is in the barely elucidated political context. It’s a piece of history as much as it is a philosophical tract, and an understanding of surrounding events wouldn’t go astray. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the film essays of Chris Marker, to whom Olsson clearly owes much inspiration. Marker’s films (especially Sans Soleil and A Grin Without A Cat) feature the same critical eye, use of archival footage and interviews, and historical fixations.
The message of the film unfurls slowly but becomes readily obvious: colonialism is violence, and any violence redirected toward settlers and occupiers is justifiable and necessary. The stage is set for this kind of revolutionary spirit from the outset. We’re shown footage of European settlers enjoying the luxuries of the Africa on their estates as the staggering beauty of the continent is slowly revealed behind them. A Dutch settler living in Rhodesia at some nebulous point in the late seventies proclaims that he would rather burn his car than let it fall into the possession of an African. A pair of missionaries speak candidly to the camera about the construction of a church as African slave labourers dig pits behind them. The fragmentary narrative lacks obvious direction but centralises around the implicit and explicit violences of European exploitation of Africa. It’s a mesmerising exercise.
Much like The Black Power Mixtape, Concerning Violence provides essential exploration of the underlying tensions of race politics both historically and in the present. The lessons of the film are, to the detriment of our world, still relevant. The final chapter presents a grim warning for Africa and its people. Do not become like Europe, Fanon warns in his text. As we watch stunning footage of vast swathes of the continent being torn up by European mining equipment, its hard not to agree.
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