Lately it has become en vogue to create documentaries from the (visual) archives of the 20th century. This genre is often undertaken with a degree of artistic liberty that undermines the historical documentary value, and African Mirror – which had its world premiere in this year’s Berlinale – is a prime example of this.
Archival footage, letters, news clippings and diaries are sampled into what the director Mischa Hedinger calls a film essay that portrays the gaze, mindset and popular impact of the Swiss travel writer, photographer, filmmaker and public speaker René Gardi (1909–2000).
Unnamed, unspecified and voiceless
Throughout his career, Gardi travelled extensively in the African continent, particularly the part that is now the Republic of Cameroon. As in other documentaries in this genre, however, the viewer only far into the documentary realises where in the African continent the footage is from, and very few details are provided about the actual locations. The native people on display in Gardi’s footage – who appear without comment or credit in the film essay – remain unnamed, unspecified, and voiceless, whereas the colonisers populating the footage, and thus the film essay, are named, their merits specified, and their opinions and world views are given voice.
We see the colonisers perform and talk about their practices of census and tax collection for which insubordination is punished by burning down the houses and farmlands of the native population.
Native populations are not only denied their own voice but assumed to be voiceless in their constructed primitivism.
In other words, those who speak and those who observe in African Mirror are, once again, the white Europeans, thus reproducing the colonial gaze and the power of representation. This composition dismantles any kind of critique of …
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