« The Little Story »: Darwin’s Nightmare, Hubert Sauper; Les Saignantes, Jean-Pierre Bekolo

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Russian pilots fly in cargo to Mwanza, Tanzania, and fly out containers of Nile Perch filets for Europe. It is a lucrative trade, and Sauper recorded the devastating impact of the fish harvesting and processing on the city. He also spent months trying to ascertain what was the cargo which the Russians were flying in. In the end he got this admission from the Russian pilot:
« Africa brings life to Europe. It’s a source of life, like food or young people, black people. Y’know, I have two flights from Europe to Angola with big machines, like tanks. I bring this to Angola. My company I think took the money, and after that I went to Johannesburg to take grapes and cigarettes back to Europe. So my friend told me,’Children of Angola received guns for Christmas day; European children received grapes.
This is business.
It’s a little story from me.
I want all the children of the world to be happy. But I don’t know how to do it….So many mothers…. »
This paper is a series of 22 reflections on Sauper’s Darwin’s Nightmare, followed by 10 reflections on Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s latest film, Les Saignantes.
Reflections on Darwin.
1.What does Europe bring to Africa…
2.What does Africa send to Europe…
3.Russian pilots ferry goods between the two
4.Sauper, the European filmmaker, produces images and brings them to us
5.Sauper’s film connects flight into Africa with flights out.
6.Sauper brings us a little story about 2 million people in Europe eating 500 tons of Nile Perch from Africa every day-that is, half a pound of fish daily; and the story of 2 million Tanzanians facing starvation when he shot the film in 1999.
7.Sauper takes the entire film before he gets to the story of the Russian pilot admitting to arms sales. « So many mothers… »
8. Europe makes weapons, exports the conditions that make possible scarcity; export business conditions, and then profits from war by importing natural resources like diamonds, gold, coltan, and fish, and exporting weapons.
9.In the process of doing this, the « little story » gets to be created and sold as well. The story of Europe, that is the EC, promoting the fish business; businessmen in Tanzania denying the arms for fish, arms for natural resources, denying the advantages they enjoy from the trade, or the advantages to the Indian owners of the fish processing plant. In the meantime, the Mwanza story shows street children sniffing glue made from the plastic packaging produced by the Indian factory owners to wrap the fish.
10.Africans with Aids, starving; Africans as guardians of the plants, and in particular one, Raphael, who had been a soldier before, and is now too old; but wanting the war to return because it is good for business, good for making money; African children in the streets as orphans. African farmers desperately turning to fish the Nile Perch by diving in Lake Victoria and attempting to drive the fish into nets, the divers being bitten and sometimes killed by crocodiles. Every « little story » is the same: Africa is the site of death. The prostitute Eliza we see at the beginning dies; the aircraft that crash on botched landing dies; all the fish in Lake Victoria are eaten by the Nile Perch and die except for the Nile Perch; then they turn cannibal and eat their young, and the lake slowly loses its oxygen and dies. We see a funeral, graves, poisoned arrows-even Raphael got his job since his predecessor was killed. Every scene, every shot is hedged by death.
11.Every story is about death, from the opening shot where the air controller is trying to swat a fly while a plane is landing to dead lives: the images behind the scenes, as of the street children, handicapped or maimed in body and mind.
12.This is Europe’s gaze at Africa, Europe’s construct of Africa. Not so much what Europe turns Africa into, but what Africa turns Europe into: one who watches over the dying.
13.The problem isn’t that Africa is dying. Some Africans are, but this is a film noir documentary, and balance is irrelevant when the real choice is of the images-dark, neo-baroque images-rather than of verisimilitude or mimesis. Every shot, every angle, every interview is given piecemeal, with a high or low angle, or wide angle closeup, so as to piece together a series of distortions, a contorted Real, not a series of closed scenes. The piecework and commentary require little work to be interpreted-they are interpreted for us. We hear the little story that has been elicited for us.
14.It’s not that this film is less than honest, or more than honest. Honesty is irrelevant; shocking the viewer is irrelevant. Beauty is irrelevant-even if all these effects do occur. The problem lies elsewhere.
15.African suffering; Europeans profiting; globalization and the arms for resources trade; the new Scramble-these are all pieces of the little story. But what lies behind the little story are not the dirty secrets of globalization, but the conditions of possibility for the construction of the little story itself.
16.It is not a question of the conditions that made it possible for Sauper to make this film-though you can Google that if you want-but the conditions that make it possible for the European, the outsider, to see Africa, to see Africans, to make sense of Africans, and to make little stories about Africans: these are the epistemological paradigms that are secured by euro-assumptions, euro-ideologies.
17.The conditions that make that act of construction possible are what makes it possible for the European to see death, because it is death in all its forms that becomes the substance of the European vision of Africa, and it marks the vision of Africans living in Europe and revisioning Africa as well.
18.Europeans eat Nile Perch, unaware of the price Africans lay to make that fish available to Europeans. Europeans eat the flesh, Africans the heads and bones-Europeans become too fat, Africans too thin. In order not to see the fat being linked to the thin, the European turns the African producers of the fish into victims, the ones being eaten by the fish. The story of death, then, is one that needs its victims so as not to have to see what makes that need to see victims possible.
19.The question is not why Europe sees death in Africa, constructs a little story of rich Europeans and moribund Africans, but why Europe needs to see death, and what that vision/sight occludes.
20.The « little story » is the fruit of Sauper’s attempt to unveil the truth. So this notion of unveiling truth is what accounts for the need to see death. We’ve passed from notions of unveiled truth as a passage to life, say with Plato, Christ, or Voltaire, to a notion of unveiled truth as having the skeletal form of death.
21.We might then ask whether the conditions of the production of truth in the west are not dependent upon a site of death. To be able to stand there where truth can be seen is to be in the position to view death.
22.Europe’s production of Africa is now that of the one who watches over a death in order that it can see. And all it can see, in one form or another, is death-which it calls the truth. Sauper’s account of this is based on the structures of neoliberalism. But that doesn’t account for his own vision, his own perspective, his own images, his own site of enunciation, his own needs, his own hauntings, his own spectres. But we can recognize them, just as we construct similar versions of his little story, as marked by the spectre of death, of the void, our own void, our own hidden absences. It is such absences that provide the foundation for Truth, what Truth needs to become visible, to be heard.
Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Les Saignantes
23.This is what Africans living in Europe borrow from. So that, when Bekolo makes a movie about corruption in Cameroon and the need for change, he must image it in death.
24.The scenes of death are equally macabre and baroque, but they are also informed by a sense of the transgressive, something no longer present in the postmodern European gaze.
25.For Bekolo, the transgressive consists in turning our gaze on the vagina, whence Muvungo, and the opening scene of vagina power, with the death of the government official.
26.But also the scene of the undertaker who eats pieces of the body of the dead official, who saws off his head and then reattaches it to another body, and who embodies the role of the diminished patriarch. The government minister combats the two young women, and loses to them, the two Saignantes, the bloodettes as Bekolo calls them in English.
27.There is death at every turn in Les Saignantes, and darkness, transgression, and abjection. But much as the film pushes us to join in the levity of the two tough, young Saignantes reshaping the face of the future for Africa, there is, in the final analysis, only critique, and not Truth.
28.If this differs from the images of Africa generated from within the continent, it is not because there is no critique from within, but rather it is because the western gaze of death has now turned the outsider or cosmopolitan African creator’s vision into the macabre.
29.It is filled with the dance of the macabre; the anguish of the macabre; the pseudo-death of the corpse, of the decimated and eaten body. But also the sense that the conditions that have produced that corpse-like image depend less upon Truth than its simulacrum, which turns the image itself into its own world rather than being the reflection of the meaning of the other.
30. For Sauper, « Darwin’s Nightmare » is the real world, the world of our creation. For Bekolo, Les Saignantes are in the image of our desires-desires that can be seen in the warp of patriarchy’s conceit or in the woof of a feminist resistance.
31.Death haunts both sets of images, but it is not the same death, in the way that the truth of death is not the simulacrum of death. But it would seem that whatever the difference, there remains an inevitable stain that marks them both, and it is the stain that marks the little stories that start out in Europe, and pass through the African other, so as to return with a cargo that to the European gaze will seem familiar. Or should we say, both heimlich and unheimlich, the uncanny depending upon both, being both, just as a « familiar » is also a ghost or a spectre, something we must both recognize as our own and disavow.
32.Like Marx, we can say that once again the spectre is haunting Europe. In Darwin’s Nightmare it is the spectre of death, and this is a spectre that the European based Bekolo cannot escape.
1.What does Europe bring to Africa…
2.What does Africa send to Europe…

///Article N° : 4686

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