Concerning Violence, a documentary by Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson, opened to a packed theatre at the Sydney Film Festival last week, and despite being a powerful film, it did not close to the enthusiastic cheers and applause that other films had. Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, scholar of postcolonial studies and a legend in her own right, offers a monotone introduction to the film. Spivak’s short lecture on Martinican psychiatrist and anticolonial thinker Frantz Fanon appropriately ushers viewers into the universe of this documentary, which is decidedly academic, theoretical, pedagogical and, to some degree, experimental.
Though a seasoned documentary filmmaker, Olsson’s claim to fame, at least in the United States, was a recent documentary—Black Power Mixtape—that brought together dormant archival footage from the Black Power movement. This documentary was widely reviewed and appreciated partly because of the ease with which the material could be digested and the straightforward collage approach to the narrative. Concerning Violence is a completely different beast.
Relying yet again on possibly forgotten footage from Swedish archives, I have a feeling that it will be generally perceived that the film has been anchored in Frantz Fanon’s controversial essay, “Concerning Violence,” from his 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth. However, I had the distinct impression that we were being provided a visual exegesis on Fanon’s famous, misunderstood and over-read text about violence, and that the images, in fact, served to bolster, or rather, offer, a kind of choreography to the text. Olsson’s interest is in decolonization—that short yet potent moment at the tail end of an anti-colonial war followed by the transfer of power when the new nation comes into being. This has often proven to be one of the most violent episodes in postcolonial history, and Fanon is its most articulate philosopher.
The film’s subtitle, “Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense,” reflects Olsson’s investment in making Fanon’s theory relevant and up-to-date. The opening sequence offers a brief thrill which is immediately appropriated: Choppers whir in the air and soldiers shoot down terrified cows in a vast and lush field. This footage is reminiscent of Coppola’s war scenes in Apocalypse Now, but the illusion is immediately shattered as the camera closes in and holds on the face of a murdered cow, blood slowly trickling down from her nostrils. This is the first scene out of the nine, titled “Decolonization,” and focuses on the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in 1977 as it carries out a stealth attack on the Portuguese-ruled and oil-rich Cabinda province in Congo. This footage is juxtaposed with that of white, pre-pubescent boys playing golf as African caddies follow them around carrying their clubs. A throaty and assertive rendition of lines such as, “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder,” is delivered by singer, songwriter and activist Lauryn Hill, who reads Fanon’s passages on decolonization, nationalism and violence. As she recites, Fanon’s words are also shown as text on the screen in a large serif font.