Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
AFRICA: A Dutch filmmaker looks to dissect the mechanisms underpinning the dominance of Western perspectives of the Congo and the African continent.

If you close your eyes and think of the Congo (DRC) – or by extension, of any place in Africa that you have never visited – what is it you see? And, if you’d have to describe them, what would you say? In that imaginary portrait or in the words that make your description, is there ever an image of normal life, of happy people, of smiles, and of love? Does thinking of people’s lives there have any similar coordinates to how you would describe your own?

Following a group of young Congolese who photograph, document, and tell stories about their own country, Joris Postema’s new film Stop Filming Us (awarded at the Netherlands’ Movies That Matter festival this year and available to watch on Vimeo) confronts us with the realization that what we know and how we imagine Congo is a one-sided story, a framed narrative. In the western media, and by that in the western imagery, the country is defined exclusively by poverty, sadness, suffering, and war. That understanding is a selective reality. And because of this, the question is – is that reality at all?

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Stop Filming Us, a film by Joris Postema

Selective narration

The answer depends on what you understand by the term «reality». The images that populate our minds, that reach us and have been doing so for a long time through the media, as well as through NGO’s campaigning, depicts something that is true. The question is how much context has been left out? The sum of these images builds a narrative that is lucrative. Suffering sells and can serve to justify an organization’s existence and presence in a place. But showcasing the same kind of images again and again, while leaving others out, ultimately cancels the possibility of true understanding and relating. This selective narrative creates the illusion of knowing, making us define those places through it, unquestioned. Beyond the true problems a country like the Congo faces – to which the West has contributed significantly, if we look at their roots and our countries’ interests in the game of power and resources unfolding there – there is the realm of real life, one far more complex and vivid than what we usually see. And there are smiles there too, and bonds, and meaning; a complex human existence that we simply never get to see.

Postema’s film is not the first attempt to challenge the ways in which we tell these stories. But even though others have called things by their name and rang the alarms before, for some reason, a new approach never seems to gain momentum in the West. Defining the narratives about a place is in itself a game of power. And questioning such narratives means questioning who creates them and who exactly do they serve. Are we truly willing to do that?

In her well-known TedX talk titled The Dangers of a Single Story, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns about the risks of a critical misunderstanding of people and places if we only hear a single kind of narrative about them. So what would happen if we’d finally face the fact that, despite the problems, people in countries like Congo do smile, do take charge, do own businesses and make plans? What would happen if we added some critical reflection on our role in what is happening to them and how the same narratives we preserve serve us? In short, can we question how preserving those narratives serve our organizations and economies?

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Stop Filming Us, a film by Joris Postema

The poverty commodity

Showing how poverty is something of a commodity from which everyone can profit except the poor themselves, Renzo Martens’s 2008 documentary film Enjoy Poverty caused a stir when it opened that year’s IDFA edition in Amsterdam. The film felt confrontational, direct, and unapologetic, an eye-opener to the many interests at play in both developmental aid and the media, and how it is in no one’s interest that the poor become less poor.

Postema’s film adds new elements to the understanding of this complicated reality. Remembering a project he had worked on in Goma, Congo years back – when he was only allowed to film from the car, lived within the confines of a compound location, and generally felt unsafe – for Stop Filming Us, he steps into the streets of Goma to look at people and at life as they truly are. Following the stories and the work of local young people deeply involved in decolonizing the world’s mind of all the misconceptions about their city, he ultimately opens up to face his own preconditioning and understandings. And by doing that, his film challenges ours.

Suffering sells and can serve to justify an organization’s existence and presence in a place.

The image of the «white saviour» – the white man coming to solve Africa’s problems – has been already challenged and criticized. A white man giving – whether money or food or something else – is something of a cliché, reinforcing a long-term relationship of dependency and of subordination. The impact of what this mentality feeds goes deep. Being expected to give on one side, and expecting to be given on the other, are two faces of the same coin. It gives a temporary fix yet, at the same time it numbs the possibility of self-empowerment. When the locals call Postema out for offering cookies to children in the street that never even asked for cookies, the immediate impact and thoughts behind that gesture become an illustration of the banality of such exchanges, and of how deeply rooted in the subconscious their dynamics are.

The ways we portray the local population are an extension of this same mentality. Capturing the local stories through the angle of poverty and suffering almost seems like a duty. The western eye constantly looks for pain and finds it. And what is surprising in Stop Filming Us is the awareness people have to being photographed. They are photographed so often, that they know that western people photographing them eventually profit from those photos.

Redefinition

Angered by this constant search for the aesthetics of suffering, the local photographers and filmmakers’ featured in the film long to tell a different story and claim back the power to show the world who they truly are. They no longer want to be defined by outsider eyes. They no longer trust those eyes to tell the truth. But surprisingly, by claiming their right to depict their own lives, they take those stories to a different kind of extreme. By acknowledging and defying this disbalance that rests too much on the side of the negative, what they seem to end up doing is rejecting suffering as a reality altogether. Their understandable and much-needed drive to tell something different about the Congo, turns into the desire to cancel yet again the possibility of looking at the complexity of the place, with good and bad, with its very real difficulties but also with its beauty and wins. They feel the need to create a narrative focused on the good found in this place they love, but by focusing on the good only and denying the realities they label «NGO mentality», the balance is still not restored, it’s only a different kind of one-sided story.

The western eye constantly looks for pain and finds it.

Postema’s film opens up an important conversation, one that starts in the Congo but can be expanded to our entire understanding of the world. We desperately need to look at both the world’s struggles and its authentic beauty, not only for the sake of truth but also to relate and put justice and responsibility into a real perspective. To clearly see our faults and our responsibilities, and to be able to help and give support without disempowering others, we need to start by taking a critical look at the stories we now tell. We need to make space and listen to the local voices, while also questioning our own. It is a long-term project, but the first step is exactly what Postema did in making his new film: he took a step back, opened his mind, and listened. And he embraced the possibility that he might in fact know nothing at all. He let the others show him what the world looks like through their eyes. And by accepting that he didn’t know, he opened up the possibility of actually seeing much more, and let the new narratives guide him and surprise him, with all the new insights unfolding in front of his camera.

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