Tagged: Film and neo-colonialism

Heading South (Vers le sud, France-Canada 2005)

Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) with Legba (Ménothy Cesar)

This is the third cinema fiction feature by the French auteur Laurent Cantet. I recently wrote about his film L’atelier (The Workshop, France 2017) and this blog also carries entries on Ressources humaines (France 1999) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Heading South is both a slightly different kind of production and one that proved controversial. Cantet and his co-writer (and editor) Robin Capillo worked on a script together as usual but they used as inspiration three short stories by the celebrated Haitian writer Dany Laferrière who fled the country in 1976 during the notorious Presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier (‘Baby Doc’). He settled first in Montreal and later Miami. The film narrative is set in the late 1970s and it includes some location shooting in Haiti before the shoot became too dangerous and was moved to the Dominican Republic (the other 2/3rds of the island of Hispaniola).

Brenda heads straight for the beach when she arrives, looking for Legba

The title refers to a group of single women from the North who travel South to Haiti in search of sun and sand, but mainly sex and companionship. The thematic background here is ‘sex tourism’, something usually featuring men travelling to Asia or Africa to find young women or young men. Almost as if to signal the controversy, Cantet cast Charlotte Rampling in the lead role. By 2005, Ms Rampling had moved into the second phase of her long career, taking roles in both British and French productions. Earlier in her career she played in several high profile films challenging audiences including Visconti’s The Damned in 1969 and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974. Challenging the idea that women over 50 couldn’t be involved in narratives about desire and sexuality, here she plays Ellen, a university professor of French Literature living in Boston. Ellen is British and the character is slightly younger than Rampling, at 55. But the first traveller we meet is Brenda (Karen Young) a woman in her late 40s from Savannah, Georgia whose marriage has failed and who is picked up at the airport by the manager of the beach resort hotel. On arrival Brenda makes straight for the beach where she finds Legba, the beautiful young Haitian man who she met three years earlier as a younger teenager. Brenda hasn’t been back to Haiti until now and she is unaware that Ellen is the Queen Bee on the beach and that the beautiful young men are meant to be shared around rather than monopolised. Brenda soon realises the power play here. There are several white women on the beach but the only other one who is picked out in the narrative is Sue (Louise Portal), a warehouse manager from Montreal aged somewhere between Brenda and Ellen. The three central characters are all well-known actors but most of the rest of the cast comprises non-professionals as in Cantet’s productions generally.

Ellen and Brenda with another tourist and the boys on the beach. Note the problem for the photographer in finding the right aperture and lens setting for both black and white skin against a background of white sand

Cantet’s regular theme concerns a character who is in some ways distant from or antagonistic towards a group. Brenda is that character here since Ellen and Sue have adjusted to their position re the young men they take into their beds. Brenda’s actions are more disruptive. Legba (Ménothy Cesar) is the only Haitian character with whom we spend any length of time and through him we get a clearer picture of what is really happening in the country. I won’t spoil the narrative but what happens to Legba creates the film’s climax and final ‘resolution’. Cantet’s usual methodology works well here so he doesn’t engineer the plot to make obvious statements but instead allows relatively minor incidents along the way to build a sense of the neo-colonial society in which North American tourists have replaced the 18th century French colonialists (Haiti having been the first Black European colony to stage a successful revolution – a ‘slave rebellion’ in 1791). In an early dinner conversation about the male white tourists in the resort involving all three women, Sue and Ellen contrast the white men with the young black men. Sue admits that there are many black men in Montreal she could date, but she says that she never thinks about doing it. In Haiti all three women lust after the young black men. Brenda isn’t sure why this might be but she suggests that they seem “closer to nature” and “more gracious”. This seems like an expression of the traditional racial trope of the ‘noble savage’. Ellen cuts across this by declaring that the young men are attractive because they are shirtless most of the time and she urges Brenda to “go for it” as they are “a dime a dozen”. This is very provocative stuff. As well as the seemingly racist remarks, however, it is also ‘shocking’ to hear middle-aged women discussing the young men much as teenage boys might discuss girls.

Ellen treats Legba as a lover

At one point it seemed fairly clear to me that Ellen was a rather unpleasant character as indicated by some of the comments above, but later it seems that the most dangerous character is possibly Brenda because she is unaware of how her actions look. At one point she demands that Legba be served in the resort’s dining room. The young men on the beach are not allowed into the restaurant but Brenda insists and embarrasses everyone, but most of all the Haitian hotel manager Albert (Lys Ambroise). We learn a couple of things about Albert which suggest he is very aware of his position as a form of intermediary between the white tourists and Haitian culture generally. In some ways he is the classic ‘subaltern’ character in a colonial text – situated here between the local community and the white tourists.

Sue during her ‘to camera’ monologue

The formal aspect of Cantet’s approach in this film includes direct-to-camera pieces by the three women and a voiceover by Albert, each announced by the character’s name in a title card. I’m not quite sure why Cantet includes this device, except that what they reveal about the characters feelings and their relationships in the context of the beach resort would be difficult to insert into dialogue or to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Sue comes across as a warm human being, Ellen as self-centred and Brenda as naÏve. What she tells us about would also be an illegal act in the UK. It is Albert’s thoughts that pin down the neo-colonialism as he contextualises it by telling us that his grandfather fought American occupiers in 1915 and he was taught to never trust white people.

I hesitate to say I enjoyed the film but I do think that it stands as an important film in opening up debates about the legacy and return of colonial attitudes. I note that the reviews of the film are divided into those that dismiss it completely (some are shockingly ignorant about the details of the plot) and those few that properly ‘get’ the discourse about colonialism. Some criticise Cantet’s indifference towards period detail, but he isn’t concerned with authenticity in the conventional sense. He’s more concerned with the naturalism of performance and the energy of scenes. I have to say also that I did enjoy the location photography very much and I was reminded of the breathtaking beauty of Caribbean beaches. I would recommend the film.

Laurent Cantet makes clear in the Press Notes (which are in English despite what the link suggests) that he doesn’t judge the characters in his films. He sees Brenda as the most optimistic of his characters in his three films by 2005. As I’ve indicated, I’m not sure I agree.

Mercenary (Mercenaire, France 2016)

Soane (Toki Pilioko) and his younger brother on his home island

Soane (Toki Pilioko) and his younger brother on his home island

Mercenaire is the first fiction feature by writer-director Sacha Wolff. While it isn’t anything very unusual in terms of narrative structure or presentation, it scores heavily in introducing a new world for many filmgoers. This is a family drama and sports drama set in the context of post-colonial/neo-colonial French society. The central character Soane is an 18 year-old living in the Wallis Islands, an ‘overseas collectivity’ of France often considered to be part of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. One day he is spotted playing rugby (union) by ‘Abraham’, an agent who plans to ‘sell’ him to a French semi-pro rugby team and thence to take 10% of what he earns. Soane isn’t sure about this arrangement but he needs to escape from his abusive father and he duly sets off for France. But when he arrives the French ‘collecting’ club decide he is too small (though to most of us, like many players from the islands, he seems like a colossus). All Soane can do is to seek out a cousin and join a more desperate club who pay him peanuts but also find him a part-time job. Now he has his father and Abraham (who paid for his airline ticket) as enemies while he struggles to make a new life. How will it all be resolved?

The two generic repertoires provide the narrative with some familiar elements, but there is enough different/unusual material to make this a worthwhile watch and the central performance by Toki Pilioko, a genuine Wallis Islander, is a standout. As the director points out in a Cineuropa interview, most people in France have little or no knowledge of New Caledonia. Soane is therefore treated as an immigrant and his teammates assume he is a Maori and call him an ‘All Black’ (a New Zealand international rugby player). Because of French colonial policy, New Caledonia is part of Metropolitan France and Soane speaks French. He does find himself in a multinational team however. One of the pros is a 35 year-old Georgian, forced to keep playing in the fourth tier (?) of French rugby in order to send money home. These ‘imports’ are treated very badly – paid little and forced to take illegal supplements to add weight and muscle. In a sense they are treated like cattle, similarly pumped with drugs. One ironic consequence of bringing in islanders to act as beefy props is that Soane appreciates one of the local young women who hangs round the team. She sees herself as a ‘fatty’, but Soane thinks she’s beautiful.

I think the family drama is there to broaden the appeal of the sports drama. It is interesting as a narrative but I would have liked a bit more about semi-pro rugby as a business and a culture. The hot bed for rugby in France is the South-West and that’s where the film seems to be set. There is also a semi-pro rugby league structure in the region and I wonder whether this has the same problems with exploitation of islanders. Rugby league in the UK has recruited players from the islands (Fiji, Samoa, Tonga) and I don’t know if they are subject to the same kinds of racist colonialist attitudes. Most Pacific Islanders join teams in Australia or New Zealand and that is another story, beyond my knowledge. Sacha Wolff in his interview says he doesn’t know any other rugby films. Someone should introduce him to This Sporting Life (UK 1963), Lindsay Anderson’s classic British film in which a young miner (Richard Harris) is recruited by the owner of a professional rugby league team precisely because he demonstrates ‘spirit and aggression’ – something Soane has to learn both on the field and off it. More sporting dramas around these kinds of stories would be welcome. I’m not sure if Mercenaire will get any kind of international distribution, but I would recommend it.

Original French trailer:

Excerpt dealing with Soane’s arrival in France (with English subs):

French TV clip with a report on the whole issue of recruiting Polynesians into French rugby.

The Act of Killing (Denmark, Norway, UK 2012)

act of kill

This is a documentary directed by Joshua Oppenheimer that presents events in Indonesia in 1965 through the eyes and memories of active participants in large-scale killings. The film was released in 2012 and is currently available in two versions. A theatrical digital release that runs for a 122 minutes and a Blu-ray release of a director’s cut which runs for 159 minutes [and apparently there is also a version that runs for nearly three hours]. The film has garnered favourable reviews though these also warn that this is a disturbing film. The sense of disturbance stems from the director’s decision to ask the protagonist to restage the brutal massacres in which they were involved. During the documentary we se interviews with these men [women are all subordinate characters]: we see them preparing and filming restagings of the events of 1965: and we see and hear comments by them after the filming. After the screening the audience members I spoke too were impressed but also disturbed. How to judge an approach which is clearly critical but also seems in some ways to condone the killings. One point was at a couple of pints the re-enactment footage is screened for the children of the family of one participant!

The film’s title, which includes the definite article, clearly sets out the agenda of the filmmakers. We are invited to watch certain historical events, but these are treated as an exemplar of what can be described as war crimes, brutal almost psychotic violence, and even genocidal policies. “a new form of documentary that combines re-enactment with its preparation as a way of showing what these events mean to you and your society; a kind of documentary of the imagination rather than a documentary of everyday life.” [Oppenheimer quoted in Sight & Sound July 2012].

In a Sight & Sound review Tony Rayns took the film to task. “The near-total absence of context, either about the historical facts or about the production process itself, definitely doesn’t help us understand what we’re seeing or how we’re seeing it.” The accompanying synopsis completely oversimplifies that history. Indonesia had achieved independence from Dutch colonialism in 1950. In 1957 Achmad Sukarno became President and inaugurated a left-leaning government. His policies and the influence of the Indonesian Communist Party [PKI, the third largest Communist Party in the world] alarmed the imperialist powers, especially the USA and Britain. Both were involved in nefarious activities and in 1959 there was a CIA-inspired army rebellion.

The events of 1965 commenced with a coup by left-leaning army officers; and there is strong evidence that the coup was designed to prevent a planned anti-Sukarno coup. The bulk of the military, led by General Suharto, prevented the coup. They then blamed the coup on the PKI and instigated a large-scale repression. In this they were aided by conservative religious and ethnic forces. Possibly more than a million people died, and as many were imprisoned and frequently tortured. The massacres bear some resemblance to the more recent events in Rwanda. Whilst many victims were members of the PKI, many were not. Religious, ethic and economic motives led to people being identified as victims: there were particular attacks on the ethnic Chinese population. Whilst the records are murky or secret there is no doubt that the UK and US administrations had some involvement in what can seriously be identified as a holocaust.

Much of this history does not appear in the film. It does present the extreme violence and the particular violence perpetrated against civilians, including Chinese citizens. But this is entirely based on the recall of the perpetrators and victors. Suharto was President until 1998, and [like Franco’s Spain’] the victors’ account was entirely dominant. Even now over a decade on the events have not been addressed in Indonesia. At one point in the film we see the protagonists interviewed on an Indonesian Television channel, in what seems to be a quite jovial and uncritical manner. Internationally the events have received minimal attention. One interesting example is the film The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) set in Indonesia in 1965. The actual events are as little explained in that film as in the new documentary, but even so the film was banned in Indonesia until 1999. An Indonesian production from the 1980s seems to perpetuate the notion of a ‘communist conspiracy’.

Rayns also notes that “the emotionally manipulative use of some of the material … raises all kinds of questions about veracity.” I wondered during the screening exactly how the footage that we se participants watching on video compared with the completed film circulated here. Is there an Indonesian cut? The end credits are filled with ‘anonymous’: indicative of how a repression till controls this subject in Indonesia. Both Tony Rayns and Nick Bradshaw (Build My Gallows High, also in Sight and Sound refer to other films including one by Rithy Panh featuring member of the Khmer Rouge] which have parallels with The Act of Killing. These however are easily assessable in the UK. Oppenheimer himself refers to cinéma vérité. However to take to key examples from this movement, Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un Été, 1961) and Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai (The Merry Month of May, 1962 – now restored in a new 35mm version), both films have a sharp and developed sense of the context, which includes the French colonial wars in North Africa. And both films have a reflexive approach: despite the vérité approach in The Act of Killing the film does not seem reflexive. In fact, I found it more like the British fly-on-the-wall approach.

Act Kill

One context that does affect Oppenheimer’s film is cinema and Hollywood. Several of the participants refer to their love of Hollywood films. One especially grisly method of execution is apparently copied from some film: [I thought they referred to The Godfather Part II but that is some ten years later, 1974]. When you watch these re-enactments and also their celebratory musical extravangza which ends the film these seem distinctively Indonesian. Oppenheimer suggests that “our use of stories to escape from the reality of our lives.” I find this a somewhat debatable notion. But what is do think is that making these the central imagery in his films does allow the film, and the audience to the degree that it buys into the film, to escape the historic reality that was Indonesia 1965.