Nina Trige Andersen is a historian and freelance journalist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
COLONIALISM: It is hard to tell if the archival documentary African Mirror is a rehabilitation of a colonial mind, a critique of colonialism or a piece of essayistic nostalgia over the colonial gaze. Probably it is a mix, and as such, nothing new.

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.

African Mirror.Director: Mischa Hedinger

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 colonialism that may or may not have been part of the director’s agenda. It is hard to see what kind of legitimacy such a distribution of the colonial gaze ever had, and, even more so, what kind of legitimacy a re-distribution and – in essence – rehabilitation, has today.

Manipulated documentation

In African Mirror the spectator is taken along on the travels of René Gardi, who laments that his native country Switzerland does not have its own colonies and thus does not contribute to the – in his view – at once noble and destructive task of civilising black populations in foreign territories.

African Mirror  Director: Mischa Hedinger

The interesting feature of the film essay is the time journey that shows how the popular European reception of Gardi’s work changed from celebration and high demand to scrutiny and critique for its colonial and increasingly . . .

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