Sweden 2014, 1h 30min.
«Decolonisation can never go unnoticed. It affects people’s inner being and changes it completely. From being a spectator constricted by his own insignificance, he becomes the main character thrust into the limelight of history. It is almost a heavenly experience. Interacting with new people, a new language, a new way of being human, gives the ‘I’ a new rhythm. In reality, liberating a colony creates new humans. This creation is not due to supernatural forces. From being a thing, the colony slave becomes human whilst simultaneously liberating himself. »
These harsh and bold words by Franz Fanon are found in the remarkable book The Wretched of the Earth (1961). The text directly addresses the oppressed inhabitants of Algeria, who, when Fanon penned this, remained a French colony kept down by brutal force. But, in reality, he speaks to anyone suppressed, everywhere, and at all times. He also «speaks» with all freedom fighters – not least the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, a personal friend of Fanon – and the philosophy publication Les Temps Modernes to which he contributed.
Resistance logic. Fanon was born in Martinique, but worked in France as a doctor, philosopher and author. The focus of all his work was his attempt to describe the psychopathology of colonialism, and more importantly, how the suppressed can liberate themselves from hegemony. Fanon supported Algeria’s war of independence with France, and was a member of the national Algerian liberation front. Since his untimely death of leukaemia aged 36, the same year as The Wretched of the Earth was published, his work has provided inspiration for the suppressed worldwide, among them Palestine and South Africa.
Fanon was highly educated, and used his knowledge both to understand the logic of the colonial masters and to find a powerful enough language, and as mighty, or even mightier, method for the suppressed. The Wretched of the Earth, but also earlier work such as Black skin, White masks (Peau noire, masques blancs, 1952), are considered sacred to the current colonised world. What makes his books unusual, is the way he uses the suppressers’ – the Europeans’ – own thinkers against the colonial masters themselves. For example, the nationalistic Hegel’s ideas around master and slave are central to Fanon’s counter-hegemonic conceptualising of the colonisation problem. In his view, the master does not recognise the suppressed, because he does not see them at all. He or she is an object, a mass, indistinguishable and uninteresting. Later, the philosopher Susan Buck-Morss continued the reading of Hegel in her Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009), in which Haiti’s blacks are the designated owners of the French revolutionary mind set.
The necessity of violence. Fanon was a radical in the original sense of the word. He went to the root, the «radix». His defence of violence, for instance in the famous first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, first published in Les Temps Modernes in 1961, prior to the book being published. But Fanon does not defend violence for the sake of it, but as a last – and a necessary – link in a suppression chain which can no longer be endured. Violence is a language which heralds a new human being, says Fanon. Because when the suppressor leaves no space for the suppressed to speak – when this no longer exists, a form or frame which creates dialogue – the suppressed must break down the language which has stolen his ability to talk, and create a new one. Fanon writes: «Colonialism is not a thinking machine, a being equipped with common sense. It is pure violence, which will only pull away for even more vicious violence. »
Fanon was highly educated and used his knowledge both to understand the colonial masters’ logic and to find a powerful enough language and a method which would be as mighty, or even mightier, for the suppressed
This part of the book is the starting point for the Swede Göran Hugo Olsson’s Concerning violence. Olsson is a distinctive director: His documentaries are, as he terms it, «non-recording-films». Everything is post production, as both this and his previous film, The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, are exclusively based on archive cuttings. Most were found in the SVT’s archives, often taken from documentaries and 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and 80s news bulletins. Olsson’s current film also features quotations from Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, narrated by Lauryn Hill, and sometimes excerpts are accompanied by the read text, spelt out across the atrocious images.
Nordic lens. We see black freedom fighters positioned against the luxurious living of white, cigar-smoking loafers only concerned with Boccia or fine wines. But Olsson’s Fanon-montage is anchored by 1950s and ‘70s documentary excerpts showing Swedes in Africa. Some are outright colonial masters, gorging on riches with their black servants, whilst others are missionaries. These clips function as a lens sharpening the film’s focus; it establishes an orientation point, a viewpoint, and an angle drawing the comparisons together. Mid-film, we meet a quiet married couple who explain that the Christian message and building churches are the most important things. In the background we spy black workers digging up the ground for the foundations of the House of God. As the interviewing journalist asks them if they would like to help build hospitals and schools, and implies that these are more important, the Christian couple answers «these are in any case secondary». In another excerpt, we follow a Swedish company and witness how their leaders treat their striking workers. They appeal cynically to the local rules which enable them to treat their staff like dogs. In the end, the most rebellious ones are sent to a prison which, the film tells us, very few return from – or, if they do, are traumatised for life due to prolonged torture and inhuman conditions. Others are forced out of their homes and driven into the jungle, like Robert Jackson, who ends up in the wilderness without any money or anywhere to live. His entire family are standing outside among the trees, carrying their beds, closets and night tables under the open sky. The soldiers who drove them there leave them to the twilight and the nature. The contrasts between the white and black, using a Nordic filter.
Teoretical film essay. Concerning violence is part of a tradition based on filmed theoretical nonfiction. Little is found within this genre, but one such example is Guy Debord’s film version of his own essay La Société du Spectacle and Alexander Kluge’s Nachrichten der ideologischen Antike, which is an implicit adaptation of Karl Marx’ Das Kapital. Olsson’s adaptation of The Wretched of the Earth even features a sort of preface – «authored» by Gayatri Spivak – providing the spectator with a quick introduction to Fanon from his office, from behind a pile of books, at New York’s Columbia University. The connection between text and image is from one perspective mutually enlightening – the copy gives the images direction and historical respite; the images offers the text colour, light and face. Despite this, it is through the excitement between these layers that the film speaks; in the frictional space between what is being said and what is showed. No extenuating narrator pieces it together for us, instead there are two parallel stories developing simultaneously, though never fully coinciding.
Concerning violence works in the spirit of the montage, even though the dialectics between its layers are less distinct compared with the masters of montage, Eisenstein and Godard. The images are not opposites, instead they «slide alongside each other», creating a space which the spectator must inhabit himself by undertaking the role as narrator of both stories.
We see black freedom fighters positioned against the luxurious living of white, cigar-smoking loafers only concerned with Boccia or fine wines.
Western values. Fanon’s problem is the potential romanticising of violence and righteousness which may catch on to his uncompromising decolonising method. Where exactly is the end of the revolution? When is violence no longer appropriate, and who decides where this limit is? This point is incoherent, which is decisive for evaluating Fanon, but which does not ruin the attempt to critique or nuance Fanon’s thoughts, instead seeking to expose their power. What is vital, is that this process which Fanon describes as colonising and decolonising, is not behind us, it is constantly happening. He point out, as does the film, that the Western values – democracy, freedom of speech et cetera – are used as universal human and societal standards, and that all that deviate from these are considered primitive. These values are used as an excuse to «help» countries and people who are not on the same level, «developmentally», as the West, whilst in reality, this «humanism» is led by completely different interests. This «help» almost always carry a colonial sting which penetrates the body or society of the subordinate, either to claim raw materials or to design a holiday paradise using willing slaves. «The settler creates history. His life is epic, an odessey. He is the absolute beginning: «This country was built by us, » writes Fanon, read by Lauryn Hill. Does this sound familiar?
Concerning violence is unique – beautiful, despite its fervour, but simultaneously refreshing in its ability to describe a dissimilarity which not only belongs to the colonies, but also to our inner beings. And it is here, against ourselves, that everything points, because the life of the individual is connected to the life of the nations. If we are able to see this link, this fantastic film will not only spur us into thinking of certain habits differently, but may also lead us closer to recognising the Earth’s wretched both in ourselves and others.
Concerning Violence is out on DVD, and also streamed on Amazon Instant Video.