Concerning Violence, a documentary by Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson, opened to a packed theatre at the Sydney Film Festival last week, and despite being a powerful film, it did not close to the enthusiastic cheers and applause that other films had. Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, scholar of postcolonial studies and
a legend in her own right, offers a monotone introduction to the film. Spivak's short lecture on Martinican psychiatrist and anticolonial thinker Frantz Fanon appropriately ushers viewers into the universe of this documentary, which is decidedly academic, theoretical, pedagogical and, to some degree, experimental.
Though a seasoned documentary filmmaker, Olsson's claim to fame, at least in the United States, was a recent documentary—Black Power Mixtape—that brought together dormant archival footage from the Black Power movement. This documentary was widely reviewed and appreciated partly because of the ease with which the material could be digested and the straightforward collage approach to the narrative. Concerning Violence is a completely different beast.
Relying yet again on possibly forgotten footage from Swedish archives, I have a feeling that it will be generally perceived that the film has been anchored in Frantz Fanon’s controversial essay, “Concerning Violence,” from his 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth. However, I had the distinct impression that we were being provided a visual exegesis on Fanon’s famous, misunderstood and over-read text about violence, and that the images, in fact, served to bolster, or rather, offer, a kind of choreography to the text. Olsson’s interest is in decolonization—that short yet potent moment at the tail end of an anti-colonial war followed by the transfer of power when the new nation comes into being. This has often proven to be one of the most violent episodes in postcolonial history, and Fanon is its most articulate philosopher.
The film’s subtitle, “Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense,” reflects Olsson’s investment in making Fanon’s theory relevant and up-to-date. The opening sequence offers a brief thrill which is immediately appropriated: Choppers whir in the air and soldiers shoot down terrified cows in a vast and lush field. This footage is reminiscent of Coppola’s war scenes in Apocalypse Now, but the illusion is immediately shattered as the camera closes in and holds on the face of a murdered cow, blood slowly trickling down from her nostrils. This is the first scene out of the nine, titled “Decolonization,” and focuses on the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in 1977 as it carries out a stealth attack on the Portuguese-ruled and oil-rich Cabinda province in Congo. This footage is juxtaposed with that of white, pre-pubescent boys playing golf as African caddies follow them around carrying their clubs. A throaty and assertive rendition of lines such as, “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder,” is delivered by singer, songwriter and activist Lauryn Hill, who reads Fanon’s passages on decolonization, nationalism and violence. As she recites, Fanon’s words are also shown as text on the screen in a large serif font.
The chapters that follow build on a variety of themes using quotations from “Concerning Violence” and “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” the first and last chapters of The Wretched of the Earth. Olsson provides emotional and psychological theses on African decolonization, such as “Indifference,” in which a young South African professor speaks of five years spent in jail and the lack of feeling that liberation produced in him; “That Poverty of Spirit,” in which a Scandinavian missionary couple sheepishly holds forth on changing African culture and values under the thin veil of Christianity; and then “Defeat,” which graphically shows Portuguese soldiers suffering heavy casualties in the Guinea Bissau War of Independence.
There are also chapters dedicated to places and political parties, such as “Rhodesia,” featuring an infuriating interview with a white man in what is now Zimbabwe as he basks in unabashed racism while referring to his man servant as a “stupid thing,” all the while holding forth on the impending end of white privilege and his fears of a violent reckoning. In “LAMCO, Liberia, 1966,” Olsson introduces suspenseful footage of a strike in the Liberian town of Nimba where the Swedish firm LAMCO (Liberian-American-Swedish Minerals Company) is using coercive measures to stop its employees from striking. Meanwhile the Liberian government has decided to encircle the workers’ quarters with heavily armed soldiers. The chapter entitled “The Fiat G.91” pays heed to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s commentary on the role of women in liberation wars, in which we see rare interviews with women freedom fighters from the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), who are in the midst of countering napalm attacks by NATO G.91 aircraft.
There is a strong focus on decolonization in Lusophone spaces such as Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique, though these countries constitute only a fraction of the global anticolonial movement at a time when most colonies were dominated by Great Britain and France. The filmmaker’s native Sweden did support the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), led by the dynamic Amilcar Cabral, who also visited Sweden in 1968. That same year, Sweden supported a UN resolution calling for self-rule for the Portuguese colonies in Africa. Perhaps this explains the ample availability of footage from those regions, and also Olsson’s special interest in it. I was certainly grateful for this particular quirk of the film given the general dearth of images and debate about Portuguese colonialism and António de Oliviero Salazar’s authoritarian regime, which fought hard to retain a hold over these places.
As images of war flooded the screen in Concerning Violence, I became anxious about the possibility that this would be yet another work turning Fanon into a “prophet” of violence, a reading of his work which has held sway, at least in academia, for decades now. There is no doubt that Olsson wanted to mark his territory in this discussion as well, choosing, as he did, to focus on decolonization’s intricate and intimate relationship to violence.
Fanon’s posthumously published The Wretched of the Earth has often been viewed as a call to violent action against the colonizer, as a radical militant anthem for all oppressed peoples, and as a deeply controversial ideology of resistance. Deathly ill with cancer and fully aware that this was to be his legacy, it seemed that this book was his attempt to make a larger contribution towards a theory about colonialism in the African continent. It was in the anxious haste of a prodigal ten weeks in which Fanon composed and dictated The Wretched of the Earth to his wife, Josie.
Though Fanon was a spokesperson for Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), an ardent radical writer for El Moujahid (a revolutionary Algerian newspaper), a psychiatrist for fighters and tortured combatants and a staunch critic of the French left, Fanon’s posthumous fame became focused on his one singular observation about violence during decolonization. He wrote that decolonization “fundamentally alters” the colonized man’s sense of self: “It infuses a new rhythm, specific to a new generation of men, with a new language and new humanity. Decolonization is truly the creation of new men.” This observation about the new men formed through the use of violence has been consistently viewed as a detrimental and dangerous idea. The Wretched of the Earth was banned in France as soon as it came out and copies were seized from bookstores. Prominent French left-leaning intellectuals of the time, such as Jean Daniel, author of La Blessure, and Jean-Marie Domenach, editor of Espirit, were disgusted by Fanon’s theories on violence and felt that they reeked of revenge.
According to Fanon, colonial violence begins with the colonizer, who “does not alleviate oppression or mask domination. He displays and demonstrates them with the clear conscience of the law enforcer, and brings violence into the homes and minds of the colonized subject.” During decolonization, it is this unchecked, destructive and tireless violence that is “appropriated” by the colonized. Using a generalized psychological analysis for colonized people (a population he frequently treated as a psychiatrist and knew intimately), Fanon explains the process that leads an oppressed individual to employ violence. He creates an emblematic portrait of the colonized man living in an atmosphere where a reservoir of repressed fury is beginning to manifest itself consciously, and the desire to be a “man” instead of the “thing colonized” is omnipresent. He writes: “The muscles of the colonized are always tensed. It is not that he is anxious or terrorized, but he is always ready to change his role as game for that of hunter. The colonized subject is a persecuted man who is always dreaming of becoming the persecutor." In fact, even the dreams of the colonized are infused with a physicality, action and “aggressive vitality.” Through these, he subconsciously frees himself.
I find that it is Fanon’s biographer, David Macey, whose detailed reading of Fanon gives the controversy some breathing room and a more generous space for Fanon’s writings by elaborating the chain of events that led to dissemination of his ideas about violence.
In Frantz Fanon: A Biography, Macey writes about the way in which philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s misreads Fanon in his preface: “Sartre wholeheartedly endorses the thesis that violence can be cleansing or even therapeutic, and that the colonized man cures himself of his colonial neurosis by driving out the colon by force of arms.” For Fanon, however, there was nothing mythical about violence in Algeria. It was simply a daily reality. Sartre’s scandalous preface thus overshadowed Fanon’s actual work. Jean Daniel and many other thinkers from the French Left gave it far more attention than they did Fanon’s actual book. The preface had taken on “a life of its own,” and when Sartre officially supported the Zionist cause, Josie Fanon asked for the preface to be omitted from all future editions of The Wretched of the Earth.
Macey does not falsify Fanon’s thesis on violence and admits that it did exist at the crux of his work, and that his limited political experience often led him to commit all kinds of strategic blunders. He writes:
"Fanon does not “glorify” violence and in fact rarely describes it in any detail: there are no descriptions of what happens when a bomb explodes in a crowded café and when shards of glass slice human flesh. The violence Fanon evokes is instrumental and he never dwells or gloats on its effects. In a sense, it is almost absurd to criticize Fanon for his advocacy of violence. He did not need to advocate it. The ALN was fighting a war and armies are not normally called upon to justify their violence. By 1961, the violence was everywhere. It had even seeped into the unconscious. A schoolteacher ‘somewhere in Algeria’ set his pupils, aged between ten and fourteen, the essay topic “What would you do it you were invisible?” They all said that they would steal arms and kill the French soldiers. The children of Algeria dreamed of violence, and two of Fanon’s young patients in Blida acted out those dreams. Our prosperous societies do not have nightmarish dreams of massacres in Sétif or Philippeville or torture in their schools. Algeria had been having those nightmares for over a century."
Here, Macey reveals the reverse manner in which Fanon’s work had been received. It was not that Fanon issued a call for violence and it occurred. Violence was everywhere in Algeria, and he wrote of it as inevitable to a revolution in which he had a profound faith.
In the documentary, Olsson builds layer upon layer of images showing abject poverty, racism, over-worked people, crude guerrilla warfare countering slick European planes, places where natural resources like oil and diamonds are being unearthed with appalling living conditions for workers, and hospitals overflowing with wounded women, children and men. In so doing, he taps into the primary violence of colonizer, rather than of the colonized, falling definitively into the camp of thinkers who believe that Fanon was not propagating violence but merely understanding it's effects and uses.
Close readers of Fanon’s work will be surprised by an ominous absence in Concerning Violence—namely, Algeria, the place where Fanon’s understanding of colonialism, his practice of psychiatry, and his scholarship came full circle. I found Olsson’s detachment from showing Algeria or, in fact, anything biographical about Fanon, including even a photo of him, to be refreshing. There is no hagiography at all in this film, only a commitment to the subaltern histories. There is sporadic footage of lengendary revolutionary figures like Amilcar Cabral enjoying FRELIMO festivities or a clip of Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara in a typically bold, smiling and articulate interview; these were leaders on the cusp of being assassinated since the Cold War games were in full swing. As such, their endearing cameos come with sense of gravitas. By de-contextualizing Fanon’s writing from its more personal foundations, and by grounding colonial brutalities and the responses to those injustices in the visual, the phenomenon of colonialism attains a larger and more global significance.
Concerning Violence ends on a powerful note bound to leave you with a knot in your stomach. Lest our daily brush with the news, with the forces of globalization, consumerism and capital, with all this new interconnectedness and our (undoubtedly valid) criticism of the imperial United States distract us, Fanon reminds us that Europe is at the root of all our problems today, and it is Europe to which we are ideologically and materially enslaved. The camera moves swiftly through the center of a massive gathering of people in tattered clothing, emaciated, looking expectantly into the camera—the wretched of the earth, literally—as Fanon’s most damning words appear on screen:
"From all these continents, under whose eyes Europe today raises up her tower of opulence, there has flowed out for centuries toward that same Europe diamonds and oil, silk and cotton, wood and exotic products. Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks of Bordeaux and Liverpool were specialized in the Negro slave trade, and owe their renown to millions of deported slaves. So when we hear the head of a European state declare with his hand on his heart that he must come to the aid of the poor underdeveloped peoples, we do not tremble with gratitude. Quite the contrary; we say to ourselves: “It's a just reparation which will be paid to us.”
And then, finally, this below, which is doubly powerful coming from a European filmmaker who reminds us all of our complicity and our latent Eurocentrism:
"We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe."
In the darkness of the movie theatre, a mirror was held up to all of us in the audience. It was no wonder, then, that when the film ended, no one was cheering.
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, Reprint Edition, 2005.
David Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Biography. Verso, Second Edition 2012.
James LeSueur, Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the Decolonization of Algeria, University of Nebraska Press, Second Edition 2005.
Bhakti Shringarpure is Editor-in-chief of Warscapes.