Zawya was packed as a collection of Cairo’s cultural intelligentsia, activists and artists gathered for a screening of Swedish director Goran Olsson’s Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialist Self-Defense (2014).
We laughed at footage of two missionaries questioning whether Africans had religion before their arrival, or whether polygamy is biblical, and an uncomfortable silence descended on the cinema as we viewed a beautiful, mutilated black mother feeding a mutilated child.
It was almost as though we were watching a separate time and space, not just more footage of recent anti-colonial struggles that have much resonance in today’s Cairo.
The film shows archival footage from the liberation struggles in Angola, Liberia, Zimbabwe, and Guinea-Bisseau, among others, overlaid with quotes from Franz Fanon’s iconic anti-colonial text, The Wretched of the Earth (1961).
There are obvious points on which such an audience might identify with Fanon’s notion of intelligentsia, especially given that this is no ordinary audience, after the experiences of the last few years. Yet the footage highlighted in the film somehow seemed far away from Egypt’s own struggle for liberation.
Fanon had deep contempt for the postcolonial native bourgeoisie as well as colonial masters: “The elite are ambiguous vis-à-vis violence. They are violent in their words and reformist in their attitudes,” he wrote.
There are several passages from Martinique-born, Afro-Caribbean philosopher Fanon that might have spoken more to Egypt’s intelligentsia; his words are still as revolutionary in many ways today as when he first wrote them, and are purposefully disruptive of neo-colonial and capitalist norms. Yet, there are still a few things I find jarring in a problematic way about Olsson’s film.
The selected scenes, although unseen footage from Swedish archives, are reminiscent of many I’ve seen before — racist missionaries, violent natives, striking mine workers and brutalized mothers — but this time combined with Fanon’s eloquent observations on violence, human emancipation and democracy in post-colonial states.
At a recent talk at the American University in Cairo, Ann Stoler argued that the dominant conceptual framework of colonial and post-colonial theories justifies a permanent status quo, reinforcing normative narratives.
Stoler asserted that academics within postcolonial studies have actively studied certain aspects of colonialism and ignored others. She raised the question of Palestine, arguing that Zionism is often omitted from traditional colonial studies — as it is in Olsson’s film.
Perhaps this fear of reconsolidating the status quo is why Olsson, a white male who uses Fanon’s words over footage that in some ways reinforces traditional colonial narratives and re-highlights the European subject in anti-colonial struggles, includes an introduction from Gayatri Spivak. An interesting choice, as Spivak, who wrote Can the Subaltern Speak? (1988), is known for calling out French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault for centering the white male in their writings.
Limiting himself to Swedish archival material, Olsson eschewed footage from African freedom fighters and filmmakers in favor of material from Swedish journalists in Africa over a 20-year period. He could have used footage, for example, from FRELIMO — the Mozambique Liberation Front — who trained local cinematographers to capture scenes that might have added a different perspective to that of white man holding the camera.
“The colonized man finds his freedom in and through violence,” Fanon asserts. In her introduction, Spivak challenges a reading of Fanon that views violence as salvational, and suggests we stretch Fanon, as he did Marx, and consider the silences in his observations on violence, for example the absence of gender.
Apart from the introduction, the film doesn’t really do this.
Olsson, in an interview with British magazine Dazed Digital said, “I wanted to have a more timeless, almost allegorical feel to it … so, you can look at this film in 10 years and still it will look the same.”
I find it problematic that the filmmaker almost appears to take a position of neutrality, as most Europeans have historically tended to do — for example voicing support for anti-apartheid struggles or black rights, and ignoring culpability for racial struggles or immigration politics closer to home.
Olsson flits between violent scenes of liberation wars in three countries without contextualization, reducing his subjects and their individual struggles to a collective, violent battle in the pursuit of freedom.
The representation of armed conflicts in this film as predominantly racial battles, with largely fleeting footage of labor struggles and the complete absence of references to the questionable impact of foreign aid or the legacy of the Cold War, for example, elides complex and nuanced country-specific histories.
So, who is Olsson’s film for?
The decision to have Lauryn Hill authoritatively narrate Fanon’s text and have it simultaneously typed out on the screen adds emotional power, yet also feels didactic. Is it supposed to educate those who don’t know about the horrors of colonialism? — to invoke guilt in those still benefitting from it? — or is it meant more as a call to action, and if so, to whom?
Fanon’s work on violence has had a profound influence on many anticolonial and national liberation movements and revolutionary thinkers, including Ali Shariati in Iran, Malcolm X in the US, Steve Biko in South Africa and Che Guevara in Cuba.
And concerning violence: Does the end always justify the means? Spivak questions this in her introduction. Fanon’s synthesis of violence with politics has been interpreted widely as naturalizing violence in a normative way that ignores its unpredictable nature. But like Spivak and many more recent readers, I read in Fanon many grounds for distrusting violence as a route to emancipation.
The film ends by exhorting viewers to search for an alternative form of societal organization to violent, European-esque democracies — demanding that Europeans stop, in Fanon’s words “playing the stupid game of Sleeping Beauty.” But there is no questioning of what that end is.
What is the result of individuals supporting violent or non-violent resistance to current regimes that incarcerate, subjugate and torture in the name of global capitalism or the “war on terror?” Or of critiquing certain colonial histories or racist acts yet remaining silent on the rights of European migrants or Palestinians, or the problems of “foreign aid” or the classism we live with on a daily basis?
Several of us from Mada Masr re-read Fanon and discussed his work and the film afterwards. We launched into a discussion on whether violence is a necessary aspect of politics or destructive of it. Some interesting points were made, and in the end, we figured it is possibly both.
Some of us were untrusting of violence as an essential route to freedom, but then, cold beer in hand, it’s easy to pontificate on such a matter.