Le malentendu colonial (The Colonial Misunderstanding)

By Jean-Marie Teno

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After Africa, I will fleece you and A trip to the country, Jean-Marie Teno wanted to pursue his reflection upon the common History between Europe and Africa. The Colonial Misunderstanding (initially entitled Allez dans le monde entier/ Go Forth in the world when first broadcast on Arte in its more condensed 68-minute long version) seeks to understand the reasoning of Europeans as regards to their relation to Africa. It thus focuses on the German missionaries in Namibia, where the Herero Genocide took place in 1904-1907, for which Germany has just officially apologized. Teno does not reconstitute: he questions those still alive, for example this old German man who, living in Africa since 1937, confides: « They know more about you than you do ». He goes to Wupperthal to trace the origins of the Wupperthal mission (1830), near Cape Town or of those in Namibia. This toing and froing is very instructive: « Though the missionaries’ work was focused on languages and people, the doors of the culture remained closed to them », an old missionary confides in him. A Cameroonian, Teno also explores the missionary adventure in his country, discovering that the first were former Black slaves even though the emblematic figure most people recall is the first White missionary, Alfred Saker. There is quite a big difference as Saker advocated conforming to the Western model. People are offered help but not to be autonomous: the old ambiguity of cooperation. The mission is in keeping with state colonialism.
For Teno, the source of the colonial misunderstanding lies here, in this union between missionary will and the colonialist’s gun, between Christian ethics and mercenary interests. Using archives from the period and interviews, he documents this relation with the example of the Herero, that the authorities tried to annihilate by driving the survivors into the desert or penning them in in the first concentration camps (already named as such). Heinrich Vedder, a missionary authority, supported Apartheid, thinking that separation was better to encourage autonomous development, without realizing that it was also a system of exploitation.
But you can’t change the past: Africa is on its knees, and lacking the means to resolve its situation. The NGOs’ charity helps perpetuate the colonial logic while Africans are being divested of their free will. Teno’s conclusion is a bitter one. This meditative commentary that accompanies all his films isn’t an elaboration of a thesis but the sharing of a reflection, a call to evolve. He is not pessimistic but lucid: it will take a long time; the reconstruction is colossal. Analysing, putting things into perspective, fighting the erosion of Black consciousness, finding self-respect again, being lucid (cf. Alex’s Wedding), dismantling hierarchies (cf. Chief!), reappropriating education (cf. A trip to the country): all these are necessary. Teno contributes to this with his work. This desire is manifest in this complex and dense film in which discourse is intense. The complexity of the historical future of the Continent cannot be reduced to a single film but simple ideas are brought out. Teno is of the same opinion as Sembène’s Gwelwaar: fighting injustice to make charity unnecessary, refusing food aid which places Africans out of the field of humanity (cf. the fine example of Namibia in Jihan El Tahri’s documentary The Price of Aid).
Therefore, The Colonial Misunderstanding is not an impeccable demonstration based on years of research: it is one stage in a filmmaker’s understanding who questions History to grasp the present but it is also a form of protest. For Teno, the manifesto is inseparable from analysis. Its radicality also places the spectator in an uncomfortable but mobilizing position. It is not sterile because it is not a slogan: it offers the spectator a shared exploration, a friendly relation. Hence the commentary, Teno’s trademark, at a time when the tendency is towards erasing this in favor of the image, and his expressions such as: « An interior voice reminds me that… » plus a certain irony. The whole in a mise en abyme because the subject is indeed the crisis, that of a people and of a filmmaker faced with the scandal of the world.

Translated by Céline Dewaele///Article N° : 6673

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