Docutopia: Concerning Exploitation—5 Sundance Docs for the Anti-Imperialist Defense

What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be. – Frantz Fanon.

The signs were everywhere in Park City. Though you wouldn’t know it from the snow-topped mountains or masses of privileged white people watching movies, the colonialist-style exploitation of Africa, developing nations and other working people is alive and well, and is the most dominant theme to emerge from this year’s Sundance docs.

Though written more than 50 years ago, Frantz Fanon’s 1965 anti-colonialist polemic The Wretched of the Earth seemed to hover over several Sundance docs like a ghost. Most notably, we can thank Swedish filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson (The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975) for reintroducing audiences to Fanon’s theories, which ring out like a deafening alarm in his festival highlight Concerning Violence, which is subtitled “Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense.”

Like The Black Power Mixtape, Concerning Violence is composed entirely of archival footage from the 1960s and ‘70s, yet this time Olsson layers over images of colonizing military forces and wounded African people with the fighting words of Fanon, both as text on screen and as voiceover by singer Lauryn Hill, who effectively channels the author’s intellectual indignation.

The film’s argument is provocative, but fairly simple: Violence is an acceptable and inevitable rejoinder to colonization, which has had a long and violently oppressive history in Africa and must finally come to an end. Olsson echoes the occasional bluntness of Fanon’s language (“this is when the niggers beat each other up”) with the inclusion of equally harrowing clips. During the film’s provocative opening, men shoot cows sniper-style from a helicopter; one fallen animal is filmed with blood spraying from its nose. One grotesquely beautiful image—arguably the most memorable of the festival—is that of a pretty young African woman with a bloody stump for an arm and a baby suckling her breast.

Recalling such revolutionary montage-makers as Sergei Eisenstein, Fernando Solanas and Santiago Alvarez, Concerning Violence operates like a clarion call from the past that resonates in the present. It also stands out as a refreshing antidote to the conventionally made social issue docs—predictably composed of talking heads and illustrative clips—that are ubiquitous in Park City.

The best parts of Alex Gibney’s Finding Fela, an examination of the life of legendary Afro-Pop musician Fela Kuti, directly connect with Fanon’s political and historical moment of upheaval. In one memorable bit of archival footage, for example, Kuti rants against the “colonial stupid fucks” that have subjugated the African people. Though Gibney’s film is bogged down with an extended look at Bill T. Jones’s staging of the Broadway production Fela!, the singer-activist’s fight against his country’s corrupt political leaders eventually comes to dominate the story, via discussions of his 1977 musical critique of the Nigerian military, Zombie, and the violent attack against his compound which lead to the death of his mother.

Darwin’s Nightmare director Hubert Sauper’s profoundly bleak We Come As Friends acts as a veritable sequel to Concerning Violence. Some sequences directly mirror Olssen’s found footage: both films, for instance, show Western companies excavating the country’s minerals and Christian missionaries indoctrinating the locals’ minds. The film specifically recalls Violence’s 9th and final section, “Raw Materials,” which argues against the capitalist exploitation of natural resources and decries the way Europe has been built “on the sweat and dead bodies of Africans.”

We Come as Friends is a bit of a loosely structured mess, however. What starts out as the filmmaker’s more impressionistic take on Sudan’s surreal devastation, as if an alien had landed on a ravaged planet, becomes sidetracked by a more general interest in the politics of the region, the corruption of its leaders, and the destitution of its people.

Nonetheless, Hubert captures the blatant ignorance of remarks by Hilary Clinton, who is seen declaring, “We don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa.” Judging from the Chinese oil drilling substations and U.N. development projects, which stand side by side with mounds of toxic waste, undernourished people and incessant cycles of civil war, it’s clear that Clinton’s warning has already been ignored.

Mark Grieco’s Marmato is another vivid example of the West’s exploitation of the developing world. Set in the Columbian mountain town of Marmato, home to one of the world’s richest gold deposits, the film chronicles a Canadian mining conglomerate’s campaign to exploit the town’s resources, even if it means leveling their homes and destroying their way of life. Unfortunately, the documentary’s best character—an alternately naïve and knowing Canadian corporate gringo, who befriends the locals and speaks of their inevitable demise—disappears mid-way through the doc.

Putting Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters under Fanon’s epigraph might seem like a stretch. The film is set in the U.S., not the developing world, after all. But take a step back and Fanon’s message of exploitation resonates even here. While the film is ostensibly a portrait of a caring Lutheran pastor named Jay Reinke, who is more complicated and self-interested than he at first seems, it’s also about the throngs of downtrodden men he seeks to help—men who have traveled from all over the country to an oil-rich North Dakota town in search of work. One young man, who has left his wife and infant child behind, is all too happy to have a job, even if the chemicals involved do some undefined damage to his skin.

The Overnighters is not about just one thing—it encompasses a wide range of problems, involving the economy, race, class, sexuality and religion. For in many ways—and this is what makes The Overnighters importantthese interrelated issues are necessary to consider where we are as a people, and how 99% of us, from Pastor Reinke to the convicts and unemployed he seeks to help, are all oppressed and defeated by the hegemonies in place. Anti-imperialist defense, indeed.

Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.

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