Sunday, July 18, 2010

White Material

Its interesting that White Material, directed by Claire Denis (Chocolat) and starring Isabelle Huppert (as Maria Vial), has enjoyed favourable reviews in various quality publications. I saw it in London the week before last and thought it was one of the most awful French films I have seen in years, and certainly one of the worst European films set in Africa in recent times.

The key artistic crime was an utter lack of context. Huppert plays the tenacious wife of the owner's son who tries to hold on to the coffee plantation as civil war takes over. We are not told which African country it is; however, everything is in French. My first thought was Cote D'Ivoire, but then isn't cocoa the main export product there? Perhaps they meant Cameroon (they definitely have arabica there, I've drunk it).

The civil war consists of government troops (we can see the uniforms) and "rebels" - including the obligatory child soldiers - who are dressed in shabby uniforms they have presumably stolen. The course of the film is the slow descent into Hell via tedious flashbacks. The brain has to spend vital time trying to work out how the flashbacks fit together. Maria's disaffected son goes native, descending into the irrational and hanging out with the rebels. Its corny beyond belief.

The New Statesman calls it a "subtle post-colonial drama". It is not. It is cliched in the extreme. It creates the most bastardised, de-contextualised version of Africa possible. It is Heart of Darkness thought-out by too many white people smoking Gitanes in Paris.

I was left thinking: this is why France is so messed up on race and on Africa. The country seems to be stuck in 1970s repeat mode. The French view of Africa: anonymous black bodies cancelling each other out without sense, while the white heroine tries to save the place from itself. Don't waste your time or your money on a dreadful film.


L-VII 10:07 pm  

I could not have said it better myself. It was a complete and utter waste of my time to be honest.

Mugizi 5:22 pm  

Sad, I quite liked Chocolat. Which doesn't mean it was great, just not particularly offensive.

Chris,  1:05 pm  

I have not seen the film, but some of the violence and depiction of the horrors of war may be based on fact. Most of Dennis’ films contain autobiographic elements; the rebellion in the film is most likely based on the UPC Maquis of the late 1950s/60s.

I enjoyed Chocolat, which was filmed in a village through which I used to commute to my Peace Corps post. Several years later, I returned to that small village in northern Cameroon to conduct oral histories of military veterans. Many were involved in suppressing the UPC rebellion against Ahidjo; I imagine the film is based on this uprising in the Bamileke Highlands, where there we indeed French coffee plantations.

The veterans I spoke to admitted how they finally put the rebellion down through extreme measures. Several reported that they decapitated rebel dead and stacked the heads in markets, often with cigarettes or glasses added. My nephew who rose to a position on the Presidential Guard verified the brutality on both sides. The horrific depiction of the rebellion may be based on fact and may not be just an offensive caricature. War is ugly and unspeakable acts occur.

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