25 July, 2007

Africa disappears

The black Africa of tribal dances, of swollen breasts offered to the glory of nature, survives only on movie sets. According to Sergio Rossi, that is. He's narrating a scene in the middle of Africa Addio (1966), the notorious documentary allegedly about the decolonization of Africa. (Mencius put me onto it two months ago. I responded with Salo—but Salo isn't online. Africa Addio was, until recently.) Rossi is talking in his stern, deadpan Italian, over a shot of a Zulu village and its dancers, and a white crew is filming them all. 'Come on, come on, more action!' the director shouts. Rossi continues—
Today, Zulu maidens come out of the academy, speak excellent English, and receive union wages for putting on nylon underwear and dancing the dance of their grandmothers. During their breaks, the ancient rhythm of the tom-tom gives them a few variations on the theme.
The Zulus rush into a mud hut and pull out a piano. A drum-kit and saxophone materialise out of nowhere:

Reality has been suspended, and mingles freely with fantasy. It hardly matters. Africa Addio compels belief by the sheer force of its imagery—and that's art, isn't it? Truth is grounded in the past, in expectation: it is a historical phenomenon. But Africa Addio flattens the past into a single moment of presence, feigning history—Zulus pretending to be savages for the camera, offering their swollen breasts and 'dancing the dance of their grandmothers'. And so it goes on:
The African female has discovered that she is a woman, and is beginning to behave as such. She wants to be modern because she feels the past is against her. . .
Africa Addio is about the disownment of the past, about a moment in which man revolts against tradition and authority in the most violent way imaginable. The film is flush with images of mutiny, murder, slaughter, dismemberment (a pile of severed hands), execution—possibly staged—drowning, explosions, and so on. Animals come in for their share of brutality. Natives fix a rope between jeeps and cut down fleeing wildlife; they chase around a mother elephant until she is too exhausted to protect her young; the camera pans for minutes over fields strewn with the skeletons of slain game. Old foxhunters have no foxes to hunt, so instead they hunt a man running with a piece of meat on a string. Thus there is always the suggestion of the pretend and the fantastic. In one scene a wounded zebra is airlifted into the sunset:

This is the Addio vision of what happened when the whites left the savages to their own devices. One reviewer, while admitting that the film is a 'masterpiece', calls it 'morally disgusting, despicably racist and consistently reprehensible'. Roger Ebert, that bastion of mediocrity, labels it 'brutal, dishonest, racist'. Sound familiar? Perhaps any cultural product that elicits such howls of moral outrage is worth taking seriously.

. . . When she was naked, she had two mammary glands. Now that she's clothed, she has two breasts. She does not want to display herself. She wants to be looked at, to make you guess what's under her alluring clothes. Naked she was prey, like a black female. Clothed she is a tyrant, like a white woman. Africa covers itself consciously, and all wrapped up in the veils of its consciousness, Africa disappears.
The dark continent has eaten of the apple, and lost all her innocence. She has transformed from an animal, part of the natural world, into a human, who triumphs over nature. She has become ironic, a fit subject—or object—for the ironising eye of documentary, casting away, in its lumen siccum, the rich shadows of the past. Hence she simultaneously 'wants to be looked at', and 'disappears'. It is the same in Sudan—
In the southern regions of Sudan, thousands of pairs of underwear, all one size, are distributed to the tribes in the interior by the "Legion of Decency". Among all things to hide, underwear covers what's most urgent. That's enough to decently begin to march toward the conquest of further dignity.
That last sentence, unless you're not concentrating, possesses a beautiful little irony. The narration accompanies a vision of naked locals lining up to receive white pants, yet another surrealist juxtaposition of raw and cooked:


All lies, of course—all lies and fabrications. But is Africa Addio not an allegory for itself? It is a rebellion of the documentary against its own form, a disownment of the past. It rejects the criteria of truth and accuracy: it is a triumph of rhetoric over logic, and so enacts the changes in intellectual fashion of the mid-60s. It is a lament for past values, whether real or imagined, but at the same time it is complicit in their demise. Africa, in Africa Addio, is not naked, but she pretends to be naked, and invites the gaze with astonishing images.


Anonymous said...

You take my breath away. This is exquisite on every level I understand and doubtless on others I can only imagine. I wish I'd written it too.

"Salo" to Mencius? I'm SO impressed.

I prostrate myself at your lotus feet.

Anonymous said...

I am agog. I remind myself that if I were to impose upon my schedule some religious ritual it would have to include a regular visit to your site.

I was a child in Africa in 1966. I lived on a mission school where fundamentalists transformed high school students from tribal bush-people into God-fearing American protestants who could take the Cambridge A - levels and sing "Amazing Grace" in four part harmony. It was a full-time job.

On Thursday afternoons I would sometimes help my mother sell Colgate toothpaste, Lifebuoy Soap and Ponds face cream from a non-profit store.

I wish I could have seen the movie. For in one sense I am sure that what we judge bizarre about Africa or about this take on it might equally well be interpreted from the point of view of another culture as something bizarre in our own tastes and expectations.

A photography site I have visited from time to time has photos by a woman named Goodman. The Zulu children in her photos have primal, beaming smiles that seem impossible in western culture. There is a loss of innocence that accompanies any learning of sophistication. The loss of the smile and the acquisition of underwear all have something to do with this process.

Where I lived, in a mid-zised railway town found on most maps of the nation, the indigenous children did not wear underwear in 1966 - not even the sons of an the principle of the boarding school who was educated in the US. It seemed a bit odd to me, but I was the outsider there - the odd person out.

Too often it seemed to me that what we, as Americans had to offer was face cream and soap. The Brits brought the idea of responsible civil governmentment and rule of law. We did not understand what was happening when our political ideas were expressed in the vernacular political language. Beyond these small western contributions, for each advantage western civilization could offer, there seemed to be an offsetting disadvantage.

Technological change, perhaps, came faster than the cultural institutions could accommodate it. Decolonization was necessarily painful; for it was the adolescent stage for many African nations. An age of change, of taking on new responsibilities, of rejecting old ties. Under the best of conditions this is painful. But usually, bad things happen: and when things happen to adolescents there is plenty of blame to go around.

I never saw scenes like the ones in Rossi's movie. Nor did I hear stories of such things. In my estimation they were not typical of life and times in British Colonial Africa. Yet there is something about the images that strikes me as getting at the sense of the place: its cruelty, its beauty, the tumult that comed from rapid change and clashes of culture.

Telling the truth with lies. that is the essence of art, No?

Conrad H. Roth said...

My, what terrific comments. EGB, thanks. And Steve, I'm grateful for you taking the time to share your own experience of this time and place. It must have been remarkable. Curious that you should refer to it as the 'adolescent stage', and reminiscent of the opening of Africa Addio, which compares the colonial withdrawal to parents abandoning a child before it is old enough to control itself.

Mencius Moldbug said...

My meta-review is here.

(And I will get to "Salo" at some point, I promise. My girlfriend doesn't want to watch it, but she wouldn't watch Addio, either!)

A potential misconception: the people shown hunting zebras with two jeeps and a rope, a truly awful scene, are not "natives," at least as that term is usually understood. Their skins, at least, are white. (Their hearts are certainly black.)

Conrad H. Roth said...

I'm afraid I know nothing about witchcraft etc. Salo is interesting, indeed; Mussolini's entire career is interesting. And Chibuku sounds completely bizarre; I'll have to try it sometime.