The theatre that I saw The Constant Gardener at preceded it by an advertisement for the World Food Programme, whose logo appears in the end credits. In an African desert an attractive visibly American, young, white woman, who is wearing the UN programme’s T-shirt, lends her binoculars to a group nice of black children. They are watching for a plane which is supposed to drop off bags of cereal. The accompanying commentary sends a clear message: we are feeding these children. Food-drops are a recurring image in the film, since the protagonist takes part in similar missions.
This introduction certainly makes an impression on the audience. It struck me as being in relative harmony with this romantic/political adaptation of John Le Carré’s thriller, published in 2000, as the film portrays an Africa marked by suffering, helpless in the face of international wheeling and dealing. Its director, Fernando de Meirelles, pulled out all the stops to denounce the practices of pharmaceutical groups who use Africa as a testing ground for their immoral and unrestrained experiments. Western countries, made fragile by the terrible events of 9/11, are now questioning the toll their own actions have on the world as a whole. It is easy to share the film’s alterglobalist point of view, and it reveals, for those in the audience who are not already in the know, that everyone, from manufacturer to diplomat, is corrupt, and that the main objective is to get rich and quietly get rid of all opposition.
But here we find ourselves once more confronted with the same line of reasoning as in Darwin’s Nightmare. Reality is more sordid than we could ever imagine. It jumps out at viewers from the screen, but it also paralyzes them, because the acknowledgement that everything and everyone has gone bad eliminates all hope and everything seems lost in this huge mess of a world. In The Constant Gardener, the pharmaceutical lobby is so powerful that it threatens and strikes down all who get in its way, from investigating journalists to German third worldist activists. Within this context, Tessa, the wife of naïve diplomat Justin, played by Ralph Fiennes, is murdered, and the black doctor who accompanies her (Hubert Koundé) disappears, to make it look like a crime of passion. The film does not show the local population’s reaction, and simply portrays a submissive defeated populace and the lack of principle displayed by politicians, who are under the wing of international diplomats. The only possible hope for the Africans in this chaotic situation is the providential intervention of foreign activists and the arrival of purely humanitarian aid to satisfy their immediate needs. This aid takes the form of sacks falling from the sky in a tragic choreography, reminiscent of the crutches that fall in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar. Once more, unscrupulous thugs loot and kill in a mad frenzy, which is filmed in slow motion and smattered with shocking images of children.
Therefore, everything takes place – in the typical Hollywood style of Cry Freedom – as if Africa were incapable of defending itself, and as if the continent were in constant need of others (good, conscious Whites) to enlighten, accompany and steer it – to solve its problems and soothe its pains. Yet, like in other regions, awareness movements do exist in Africa. The media are being mobilised. In the pharmaceutical industry for example, South African activists won their battle against drug companies that were seeking to ban generic AIDS medication, as was shown in It’s My Life (Brian Tilley, 2001). Even though it is fragile in the more difficult situations, there is growing resistance, as opposed to the passiveness of the oppressed inexorably depicted by big-budget films on Africa. This resistance is present in the way people react, in their refusal of every-day life, and the lack of docility characteristic of African cultures.
In the end we are left – yet again – with the image of an enslaved submissive Africa, steeped in misery, whose sole possible redemption lies in the growing awareness of enlightened and charitable souls who will come from distant lands and dare to challenge the flaws in international systems. While The Constant Gardener showcases landscapes that are often seen from the inside of a plane and lingers a moment on the paradoxical peace of flamingos in flight, its portrayal of Africans is reduced to that of a faceless crowd, from which only the eyes of children stand out. This is alternated with « action » scenes shot in Kenya, which provide a glimpse of everyday life on the streets of Nairobi, and which lead the viewer into the nauseating alleys of the poor districts, for a few rare and edifying contact scenes. However, the romantic thriller quickly reclaims its rightful place, because the story’s real interest lies elsewhere – in the criticism of all that these people are being subjected to, simply to fill the pockets of a certain few. To this end, as is the case in most of Le Carré’s novels, there is the usual innocent character, who finds himself plunged into an ambivalent political and/or romantic situation. He does eventually get himself out of the quagmire, and turns out to be a modest hero at the end of the film. Africa’s exploitation provides a rather heavy-handed backdrop to the film, but the veritable plot focuses on how Justin’s character evolves. At first fascinated by Tessa, then disappointed because he believes that he has been deceived, Justin later discovers that he should have been wary of the people surrounding him rather than of his wife. He realizes the immense value of his wife’s sacrifices and then decides to follow in her footsteps. The mise-en-abyme into which the hero is catapulted could also have resulted in the viewer’s questioning the usual naïve vision of the world, and a new determination to look for and uncover the truth.
As in City of God, which put Fernando Meirelles name on the board, and in which his directing style forcefully illustrated the violence of Brazilian favelas, the story’s cyclical style, the breathless rhythm with which the images are shown, the effects of close-up and high-angle shots, the frequent plays on colour and the film’s epic scenes all make it deliberately Baroque, excessively formal and highly exaggerated. This works to the advantage of the thriller, but does it help advance the project? The entertainment aspect takes the upper hand and The Constant Gardener, far from inciting mobilisation, is finally nothing more than an enjoyable film, which is swathed in bitter acknowledgement of the state of decay in which the world now lies.
///Article N° : 5738