Concerning Violence

By Joey Clavette

The following is the entirety of a film review I wrote for this film in my Post-Colonial African History course at uOttawa.

“Concerning Violence” is a 2014 documentary film by Swedish director, Göran Olsson about colonialism in Africa. The film’s narration consists of quotes from psychologist Frantz Fanon’s magnum opus, Les Damnés de la Terre (1961) read by Lauryn Hill, interspersed with Swedish found-footage and interviews. Les Damnés de la Terre was Fanon’s exposition of colonized peoples’ psyche. He was inspired to write it by his work as a war-time psychologist in French Algeria during the Algerian war. Fanon was, himself, a colonized person, coming from the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean.

The film consists of nine chapters and a preface by Dr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The nine chapters explore decolonization in several parts of Africa including Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, the former Rhodesia, Liberia and others. The preface is an analysis by a professor from Columbia University regarding false interpretations of Fanon’s work, and highlighting women’s roles in decolonization movements (which is focused on in chapter 7 of the film). Though the film may seem to some, as the book has seemed to many (including Jean Paul Sartre who wrote the preface for Damnés after Fanon’s death) an encouragement for revolutionary violence, it is, in fact, a dispassionate exposition of revolutionary violence in the decolonization process. As Bhakti Shringarpure wrote in The Guardian, Fanon’s work as a war-time psychologist normalized him to revolutionary violence, he had no conception of inciting it; it already existed all around him.

The film was much more insightful and progressive than anything that might surface in popular culture any time soon. Violence is heavily reported on in the film which in certain ways perpetuates stereotypes of violence in Africa. However, the focus of the film from the outset is violence. Violence is the title. Yet violence is treated differently than usual. The African natives are not mindless violent savages. They are determined, autonomous people struggling against the violence of their white, European oppressor. Songs and dances, clothing, markets, tattoos all hit the screen in a very dignified manner, and the majority of dialogue is given to black voices.

The film explores the idea that it is violent colonialism that incites colonized people to violence. It is the colonized who are appropriating the violent means of the Western culture in order to seek their own self-determinacy. When the FRELIMO take up arms it is because they have learned from the violent colonial domination of the Europeans that violence is a means toward autonomy. The concluding chapter focuses heavily on the sentiment that decolonized people should not follow in the footsteps or morals of the European. The Europeans used violence to secure their states and economic interests in Africa, and so by extension the Africans should not repeat this behaviour. The film concludes by saying “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”.

Lacking was a critical analysis of Arabic and Islamic colonization in Africa. The contents of the film focused primarily on Europe and Christianity, with chapter 6 focusing exclusively on Christian evangelism. The point is made that evangelism is forcing the colonized to admit the inferiority of their beliefs to the colonizer. This is a valid criticism. Yet no equal weight is granted to the Islamic colonization of many parts of Africa.

Historically preceding the current Western hegemony was a hegemony of Islamic Caliphates’ which spanned East to Iberia, West to Indonesia, North to Eastern Europe, and South to Eastern Africa. The Arabian slave trade in Africa was of equal gravity to the West’s, and their colonies were equally rampant with violence, sexism, and exploitation. One culture’s negative influence is focused on while the other is ignored completely. In this way the film says “yes” to African agency only out of a dialectical “no” to European culture, which is also damaging. Defining Africans as an antithesis to Europeans is still defining them in terms of Europeans. In fairness, however, the audience of Fanon’s original book would be primarily white Europeans, and the target audience of the film would be similar. If Fanon’s dialectic is looked at not as a message to Africans encouraging an ideology, but as a wake-up call to Europeans (as it imaginably has been to many) the dialectic is entirely justified.

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