Notes on Postcolonial Theory as Cinematic Fantasy by Serubiri Moses
The genesis of this inquiry on the aesthetics of post-colonialism really lies in the struggle to define functions of violence, or political uses of violent action in recent episodes of African history. Coming from the viewpoint of art criticism, it became pertinent to pull away from reality and look at the cinema, and its notions of violence. Of course, there is the inescapable influence of Hollywood in this regard. Commando (1985) is not only a film about a death-defying assassin, it also uses an Arthur Rimbaud character to dramatize violent action in a geopolitical paradigm. It also reminds us of the gaze of the viewer, positioned in Cold War politics. Looking at violence within cinema, brought out some difficult issues. How does one reconcile fantasy and reality? What differentiates cinema and history?
In his essay on the Black Audio Film Collective, Kodwo Eshun struggles with the notion of postcolonial theory in film. He labors with postcolonial descriptions of the BAFC in relation to 1980s Britain, finally dismissing the hypothesis. Handsworth Songs (1987) does not visualize postcolonial theory, Eshun writes. Unlike in a photo album, its cinematic treatment implies violence. Likewise, this treatment of violent action bears an unconventional distance. The link to post-colonialism is made through reference: an interview with Paul Gilroy, and archival images from anti-colonial history. By describing the film as a landscape between present and postcolonial, Eshun suggests that anti-colonial history is a poignant sketch in an psychological landscape.
"The implications of this double rupture may be seen if we adapt Irit Rogoff's astute argument that 'struggles for Independence pierced the fabric of European and American political culture, and ruptured the 20th century in the middle so that events taking place in Africa did not follow those taking place in the West but preceded them, and made them position.'"
In John Akomfrah's Peripeteia, symbolism is beyond narrative. In its larger than life installation, the film is cinema placed in an art context. All I could write in my diary was that the landscape is harsh. The wind blowing the trees is an emotional image, conveying meaning without dialogue. So much of the film relies on subtext. The film's aggressive attempt to rescue two characters from behind the wall of history, itself a form of humanism. Previously two Moor heads from Albrecht Dürer's sketchbooks, a man and woman appear aimlessly wandering, searching, and longing for each other. This peripatetic experience is akin to a postcolonial aftermath. On one hand these subjects wandering through the landscape go about life as if it were their home. And yet their urgent longing and searching gives us the impression that they are displaced into perpetual exile, or that they belong elsewhere.
Going by Kodwo Eshun's description of Akomfrah's methodology as 'a phantasmic landscape that complicates the distinction between the amnesiac present and the postcolonial aftermath,' I am tempted to describe the entire film as cinematic fantasy, bearing the urgent sense of distance in the photo album. Contrary to conventions of 20th century aesthetics, the work is very sentimental. Such sentimentality is characteristic of humanist theory and philosophy in the late 20th century. The sense of longing characteristic in George Lamming, the searching sensibility in Stuart Hall, and the hawking eye of Edward Said. The very re-reading of Durer by Akomfrah is a sentimental process not unlike going through an old family photo album.
Cinematic fantasy, an abstract reflection on historical violence, repositions us to violence through its tangential and transitory processes. The Last King of Scotland (2006) is based on the life of Uganda's former president Idi Amin Dada in the 1970s. This film earned Forest Whitaker an Oscar in the role of Best Actor. Yet besides an elaborate film production on location in Uganda, the film did not restore Amin's memory. In Uganda, Jaffar Amin, the former president's son, was still campaigning with little success for the restitution of his father's memory, along with returning Amin's body to the country of his birth for a state funeral. The fantasy was for Hollywood, Amin's body has never come back home.
The film is a superfluous spectacle whose cinematic fantasy appeals to the European and American audience that saw Amin on the cover of Time Magazine. For many Ugandans who never saw these explosive articles and press reports, the film's aesthetic treatment of a violent past is removed from the complex nature of postcolonial violence, one in which Amin is not an extraordinary case.
To look away from postcolonial theory towards manifestations of violence and protest in place and time becomes a relational and psychological act in itself. Our perception of violence is mediated through images, narratives, and archives. One can hardly look at an image of a slave without the humanist encounter. As a result, looking at violence becomes an analytical process. In some way, we've lost the ability to see violence through images. The interpretation of violent imagery has transformed the purpose of looking into a duty. As modern subjects we feel duty-bound in our looking at violent images, engrossed in spectacle. This gross conflation of philosophical analysis and violent spectacle is one of the modes of humanism in the neoliberal sense.
The archive and its geography stand out the most in Hugo-Olsson's Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense, a film following Franz Fanon's philosophical exegesis The Wretched of the Earth. The amount of attention paid to geography in the film has an ontological relation to colonial methodology. Geography is central to imperial expansion, as the foremost tool of colonial navigation. The focus on the archive is similarly obsessive, giving the illusion that all anti-colonial movements in Africa occurred at the same time. This point of view is admittedly skewed. Irit Rogoff's prediction that these anti-colonial movements in Africa ruptured the historiography and political culture of America and Europe is useful in contemplating Concerning Violence. The genesis of these many events is hardly narrated.
Instead, the film uses the sentimentality attached to Africa by its imperial conspirators, and a fond nostalgia for the 1960s. On a second and third look, the images of protest here appear as they would have in the Western world on television news broadcasts. They are part of the spectacle of the political culture of America and Europe. The Africa of this political imaginary is justified by the geographical distance to the viewer. The archival footage of news tapes from the sixties and seventies, relates to that idea of something old and almost forgotten. It becomes quite cinematic. The looking is conditioned by the nature of the archive, as a medium beyond the present, perhaps even beyond memory.
In the 1960s, the spectacle of social conflict was an aesthetic medium that justified the forceful domination of the Global South. This spectacle was evidence that functioned practically: as countries in Africa, the Asia Pacific, and South America sunk into civil war, these images served as visual prompts for industrial powers to re-colonize, to re-establish military power.
"First of all the existence of an alternative 'world-system', that of Soviet Communism, meant an overarching 'East-West' superpower conflict that immediately 'internationalized' social conflict within the Third World. In this context, the eschewing of direct political rule in no way ruled out direct intervention, both political and military whenever powerful Western interests were threatened: in Brazil, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, the Congo, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, and Indonesia, to name but a few examples."
This side of the story is missing from Concerning Violence. Fanon is more or less visualized as a rallying call to the colonized native to carry out protest and violent action. But what of the geopolitical aspect of guerrilla movements? All through the film, this dance between North and South goes unchecked, while our gaze is squarely fixed on what were called young countries in the 1960s. The film's perpetual isolation of guerrillas in difficult terrains: wading in swamps, climbing steep hills, or hiding in dense forest avoids the economics and geopolitics of anti-colonial action.
On a second and third look at the images of guerrillas in hermitage the question moves beyond the film and on to Fanon. It is impossible to understand the collaboration of imperialism and anti-colonialism through Fanon's Wretched of the Earth. It profoundly analyses the postcolonial psychosis, lenses through which multiple postcolonial societies can self-reflect.
The romanticism in Fanon that empire has come to an end is rampant. Today, we need only to look at the Arab Spring to see the inner workings of neo-colonial domination. Fanon appears, again, trans-local in the context of Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and across the Mediterranean in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, where his battle cry widely resounds. Yet this dramatic oeuvre hardly imagines the aftermath: the drones, the migrations, the thousands drowning in the Mediterranean sailing on small boats and so on.
"Above all the efforts of Third World leaders to join together in challenging Northern dominance and interference in the Non-Aligned Movement that originated at the Bandung Conference of 1956, were systematically opposed by the North."
For Fanon, and therefore for Hugo-Olsson, why is the Bandung Conference, which is of the same time as Mau Mau in Kenya, not considered as anti-imperialistic self-defense?
In cinema, a dimension of fantasy and desire, it is not the absence of violence but rather its distance that matters. However, what is distant to some is near to others. The fascination with violence in the cinema has to do with the spectacle of political culture in Europe and America, one whose late neo-liberalism has failed to achieve its humanist mission. Late neo-liberalism has not only failed to suppress civil war in young countries, but it has led to gross inequality. The "we" that desires this cinema is fragmented in a globalized world. While some claim to consume violent images as a duty and a responsibility, others collaborate in the production of these images in order to gain accept to global capital. Even more today, this relationship between the North and South is blurred along the lines of a post-colonial and late neo-liberal humanism.
Cinematic fantasy is as meticulous as in the photo album. When we pass our eyes over old photos, we do not ask what malheur is missing. Those things are always too sensitive for the photo album, and its problematic sense of caring.
Serubiri Moses is an independent writer, scholar and curator based in Kampala. Hecurrently explores iconography and coloniality through panel discussions, exhibitions and publications in East Africa.