“You can keep saying that you want a really cheap phone, or that you want to buy your fruit for almost no money, but to then act surprised when Boko Haram is wreaking havoc is just… There are so many people who have shown that this is the result of the current world order.”
Göran Hugo Olsson gesticulates impatiently, seated at a lunch table in the offices of his production company Story. Sooty glass walls facing a quiet Stockholm street are covered with posters from the films they have produced, most notably the award-winning Black Power Mixtape, Olsson’s remarkable 2011 documentary about the African-American freedom struggle between 1967 and 1975 as it was seen by Swedish journalists. Thanks to footage from the vast Swedish public television archives, the film featured a lot of material that had never before been shown to an international audience, including an interview with Angela Davis in jail. Contemporary cultural and political icons like Sonia Sanchez and Talib Kweli commented on the events. Olsson now once again returns from the vaults with a new documentary: Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defence, portraying the African fight for independence.
With two found-footage documentaries under his belt, Olsson is increasingly establishing himself as a master of the archives. But his interest in the past is not merely historical. Concerning Violence takes its title from the first chapter of the anti-colonization bible The Wretched of the Earth, written by Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born psychiatrist and revolutionary, who died just months after the completion of this his last work, only 36 years old and thus robbed of his chance to see the end of the Algerian revolution he supported so fervently. Olsson has tried, he says, to create a “Fanon for beginners,” a work he hopes will draw attention to the parallels between the situation in the 1960’s and current oppressive practices.
The result is a striking and surprisingly accessible film in nine chapters that chart the evolution from colonialism’s total destruction of the minds, bodies, and communities on which it descends, to inevitable uprising, and ending, finally, in a call to reconstruction. I sat down with Olsson and assistant director Sophie Vukovic to talk about violence, the political responsibility of the artist, and how to turn a difficult book into an arresting film.
OLSSON: After The Black Power Mixtape, I absolutely didn’t want to do another
archival film. But then I read Fanon’s book, and I was completely blown away.
It wasn’t a given that we would use found footage, but with contemporary images,
the film would have gotten dated much faster. And the discussions sparked by
the film would have become different, much more focused on whether
representations of current conflicts were accurate or not. With archive
material, it’s almost like a cartoon or an animation – the image of an oil rig,
for example, is just a symbol for raw material extraction. You can see that the
footage is old, but an oil rig still looks basically the same, which turns it
into something like animation. That makes it easier to get the message instead
of getting caught up in specifics.
There are other ways you anchor the images in a more general argument about violence—obviously Fanon’s text, read in a voiceover by Lauryn Hill, is one way of doing that. How did you get her on board?
VUKOVIC: Göran had heard that she was a fan of Fanon. She was in prison at the time [for tax fraud], so we sent her a book with the manuscript and images from the film. We couldn’t bind it, not even with strings, because that was considered too dangerous. So we sent the loose pages in a package. And she was really excited, she even wanted to do the music first but didn’t get out of prison in time.
OLSSON: It worked out so well. It’s a difficult text, quite sprawling and written in different narrative modes, so it’s hard to read – it took six attempts before we got it right. First, she did an uptempo version, and it was impossible to follow. She was like, “Göran, when I read this, it’s like a revelation, it’s 400 years of oppression that are just swept away with these words. And that gives me the same feeling that Charlie Parker and John Coltrane had at the end of the 1950’s, when they found the African voices in music and created bebop. It’s joyful, it’s festive, and that’s uptempo to me.” And I said, that’s true, but people won’t follow. So finally she did a slower version. I think she really adds authority to the text.
VUKOVIC: It also changes the way you think
of a voiceover in a documentary. In England for example, Kenneth Branagh is in
every documentary. But we are doing a number of different language versions,
and all are read by women.
OLSSON: It’s really easy to transpose Fanon’s argument onto other situations, not just colonialism. But at the same time, it’s clearly written in a certain time period, which you can see for example in the gender thing. Man is the universal and Europe is “she”. We have tried to compensate for that in some ways, but it’s built into his style of writing.
The problem with gender in Fanon is brought up in the foreword, written and read by Gayatri Spivak…
OLSSON: Yes, that’s one of the reasons we brought her in, but her inclusion has many functions. She’s a master of the preface, for example. And her reading compensates for Sartre’s preface [to the first edition of The Wretched of the Earth, which has been criticized for over-emphasizing the liberating aspects of violence]. She also criticizes the text broadly, and the film itself. I don’t know a lot of other movies that include this kind of explicit self-criticism… Haha. Of course it’s also a way of defusing criticism, since you’re already doing it yourself.
Spivak mentions one scene that is particularly striking—a hospital scene, where a young woman sits bare-chested atop an examination table, her right arm completely blown off by a bomb. Her infant child is in the clip too, with his leg cut off, and she is talking but there is no translation so we don’t know what she is saying. It turns her into an anonymous symbol, which perhaps echoes the way women are frequently turned into symbols for the motherland, for example, in war. Spivak calls her the Black Madonna, which is in itself universalizing…
OLSSON: That’s the only angst I have around this film. We tried so hard to find out what she said but she speaks a very particular creole between a Guinean dialect and Portuguese…
VUKOVIC: It took a really long time to find someone who could translate.
OLSSON: She’s talking about what happened, about the bomb. Had she protested against being filmed we wouldn’t have included it. But I’ve had such horrible angst over that clip. I can hardly even talk about it. It’s an awful image—you can see that she was breastfeeding as the bomb went off, because her arm is cut off right where the baby’s leg is cut off. You know, people might be upset that we are showing this, and it is upsetting, it’s terrible. But on the other hand, that’s what it’s like in war. It’s not a Western, it’s not Jean-Paul Belmondo slowly collapsing on the street in Breathless. It’s horrible. Horrible. But it’s just like when people are up in arms about rape in war—rape is a part of war. There is no war without rape. And so, if you’re going to show war, then you have to show rape.
VUKOVIC: We talked so much about this being a difficult and problematic image. But like Göran says, it does show what war is like, and it also shows what war is like for women, which is different than what it is like for men, of course. But we also talked about how her gaze meets the camera head-on. And that makes it really strong, because it turns the viewer’s attention back onto him or herself.
OLSSON: It’s so fucking strong. It’s also that the child is completely silent. They are both so calm. If the baby would have cried it would have been difficult to watch, but now it’s unbearable.
Have audiences been upset?
OLSSON: I’m actually amazed by the positive response. For a film that doesn’t just have a content that is politically and emotionally hardcore, but that also has a form that is hardcore—people have been crying at screenings, and it’s being showed in the cinema in 17 countries. I would never have imagined it.
VUKOVIC: Young people especially have been excited, because these things still happen today, and there is a broad interest in being critical, and in thinking about systemic oppression. Of course this film is about events that took place in Africa in the 1960’s, but you can apply the same model of violence and oppression on a huge number of different contexts.
Decolonization processes are, of course, complicated affairs, something Fanon makes clear in his text. And it is not necessarily clear that one should put one’s sympathies unequivocally on the side of all the anti-colonialist movements portrayed in the film. The first chapter shows the MPLA in Cabinda, 1974. Rifles slung across their shoulders, they weave through a field of tall grass, leaves slapping across the camera lens before the foliage closes behind the procession. The reporter says he’s never seen a guerrilla movement that is so much like a fish in the water as this one. The Portuguese pulled out of Angola that same year, but violence continued, where the conflict was not between the colonized and the colonizers, but, rather, between different anti-colonialist groups like the MPLA and FNLA. Later, we see a young Robert Mugabe speaking about the future tolerance of his party once independence has been reached. These examples can be read as a testament to some of the finer points in Fanon’s text: first, that the suppressed rage of the colonized can easily find an irrational outlet. Second, that establishing a new regime is not necessarily going to change the fundamental facts of the situation if the new government continues to be extractive and violent. But, perhaps in a concession to the film medium, these parts of the text are not included. What Olsson gives us is a clean outline of the bare mechanics of oppression. Making the film has been an editing process in multiple ways: not only in terms of the cutting and rearranging of the archival film material, but also in working with the text. Olsson and Vukovic have heavily reworked Fanon’s long and sprawling text, using a combination of the French original, the two primary English translation, and one Swedish version. Their edit ends with Fanon’s call for the African countries to choose an alternative path—something better than the two options available in the Cold War era. This includes a call for reparations to be paid by the colonizing countries, which have built their wealth on the backs of Africans.
The discussion of reparations was recently sparked again in the U.S. with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article “The Case for Reparations.” The words in the film are Fanon’s, of course, but is this something you agree with?
OLSSON: I think reparations are great, but I don’t think it’s the most important issue. I mean, we could also just stop doing what we’re currently doing before we give a compensation for what has been. The world needs to decide: either we have a free trade system, where Lundin Oil [Swedish company with the Swedish Foreign Minister on the Board of Directors] can own the world’s largest copper mine in the Congo and bring in Sri Lankans as labourers. But if we choose to operate on that system, we can’t have the only exception to the rule be that people are not allowed to move from the south shore of the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Either we close all borders completely, and then we can’t extract the raw materials of the South. Or I can go there and take whatever I can and they can come here and take whatever they want. But that’s not the case today, it’s this weird mixed system that makes no sense.
Like The Black Power Mixtape, Concerning Violence is a highly political film. Is it the role of the artist to be political?
OLSSON: We are filmmakers. What separates us from artists is that we have an audience in mind all the time. We keep asking ourselves, is this boring? Do we still have their attention? Artists don’t think that way. But fifty percent of all of our decisions have their basis in things being too boring for the viewer. That said, it’s not like someone calls you and asks whether you want to start a debate. That’s something that just happens.
VUKOVIC: But we hope for this film to have a long life. We want it to exist in schools, not just movie theatres.
OLSSON: Of course we want it to create a debate. I don’t have any illusions, but if you live in this part of the world, the least you can do is to try to understand what suffering and backlashes that come out of the current world order. This film is part of that. We haven’t made it for those who live under oppression, because of course they know what it’s like. We have made it for people like ourselves.
Kira Josefsson is a Swedish-born, New York-based writer and translator.