This week, World On Film visits Cameroon for an unusual commentary on the madness of war. Though filmed in the central African state, its message applies to the continent as a whole, where the locals are in perpetual conflict and their former European overlords are simply:
(2009) Written by Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye, & Lucie Borleteau Directed by Claire Denis
“I’ve nowhere else to go. I won’t give up.”
(You can find a trailer for this film at the bottom of the previous post.)
French film-maker Clare Denis has firsthand experience with the realities of African colonialism, having lived in Cameroon where the film was shot, as well as Burkina Faso*, Senegal, and Somalia during the period when her father was a civil servant in these former French dependencies. As such, while White Material’s plot is entirely fictional, it recreates a world the younger Denis knew all too well: civil unrest, poverty-fuelled extremism, and anger at the nation’s French overlords. The scenario applies to any annexed African state, and Denis deliberately paints her narrative in broad brush strokes, with locations remaining unnamed and specific real-world examples of conflict vague. While this approach achieves varying levels of success, the blurred geographical borders are appropriate to the story since its principal characters inhabit the murky waters of reality, and one is never entirely sure if they too know where they are.
*World On Film previously visited Burkina Faso via Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s acclaimed social commentary, Moolaadé. To read the review, click here.
Chief among them is White Material’s most interesting and most frustrating main character, Maria Vial, in charge of the family’s coffee plantation and determined to keep it operational despite the escalating chaos. France has abandoned the colony, the French army has withdrawn, and even Maria’s ex-husband Andre realises the writing is on the wall. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the business is a lost cause and their continued presence in the country puts their lives at risk, Maria refuses to acknowledge any of this and remains determined to maintain the status quo.
One thing that became strongly apparent to me after viewing the film is that no description of its plot really underscores how atmospheric and disturbing it is. Perhaps this has much to do with the way it lays its emotional cards on the table, yet keeps people guessing right to the end: you know it can only end in tragedy, but precisely how is difficult to gauge. This is further heightened by Denis’s choice of a non-linear narrative, which makes it clear from the opening scenes that the situation is out of control. We begin with a desperate Maria seemingly stranded in the middle of nowhere and forced to hide from an adolescent rebel militia, after which a series of flashbacks show life on the plantation already collapsing. Long-term employees have fled as gangs of child soldiers sweep through the towns and local government is more concerned about its own immediate survival.
“One thing that became strongly apparent to me after viewing the film is that no description of its plot really underscores how atmospheric and disturbing it is.”
Ironically, that same disjointed narrative, compelling the viewer to assemble the story, also undermines its impact. It takes the non-linear approach too far, to the point where it felt as though I were arranging a tile puzzle. It’s hard to maintain a buildup of drama under such circumstances, and felt as though it were being done simply for the sake of artistic complexity. One of the difficulties created, for example, is in placing the actions of the White Material’s many secondary characters, from plantation workers to the many participants of the civil war, in the scheme of things. Ironically, where it works far better is in jumping around the actions of the principal character: the fact that it doesn’t matter where we meet her in the story says a lot for her state of mind.
It would be all too easy to sum up the film’s scenario as simply ‘the madness of war’ – as an excuse for character motivations and the moral vacuum many of them inhabit. Yet, madness is indeed key to interpreting much of White Material’s core message. Possibly the hardest thing for the viewer to accept is Maria’s behaviour, oblivious to the truth and even her own family’s disintegration. If the line were drawn between indomitable spirit and steadfast denial, it is clear that she crossed it long before we met her. The motivation of such a person is borne of even greater instability than the ravaged country in which she chooses to ignore: its collapse is as nothing compared to what the terrified individual must endure if they should ever face themselves, the ongoing denial ultimately robbing them of their sanity.
Unfortunately, Denis chooses to avoid exploring the wider causes behind the conflict itself. In White Material, it seems to be sufficient simply to indicate that white landowners are rich and the black locals are poor, and they’re not happy about it. This, however, is insufficient comment to justify ten-year-old children taking up arms and murdering strangers for money, or indeed a major civil war. Nor are the Vials – the plantation’s owners and only Caucasian characters in the film – seen to mistreat the locals in a manner deserving of such uprising. The result is simply a simplistic painting of the colonial landscape – events happen simply because they are the sort of events that happen in such places. Stereotypes are reinforced and explanations are thin on the ground – ironic, given that this is a film spearheaded by someone who would know the underlying mechanisms of the conflict all too well.
“It would be all too easy to sum up the film’s scenario as simply ‘the madness of war’ – as an excuse for character motivations and the moral vacuum many of them inhabit. Yet, madness is indeed key to interpreting much of White Material’s core message.”
Taken instead as a discourse on the human psyche, White Material fares far better. It is brought to life by an extremely good cast headlined by Isabelle Huppert. So much of the film’s impact centres around the complex lead character and our struggle to understand her motivations that it is not an exaggeration to say that Huppert is responsible for much of its successes. Marie’s blind determination and hyperactivity masking a deep well of fear is precisely what I have encountered in real-world sufferers of the condition, and if anything, Huppert could have taken it even further.
In contrast, Nicholas Duvauchelle memorably portrays the unbridled descent of Manuel, the son. Here is also a complex character, whose long introduction off-screen as a frequently-mentioned source of trouble, lulls us into a false sense of security as to his true nature – a further extension of his mother’s neglect of the world about her.
Ultimately, it is the brightly-coloured painting of that colonial world that Denis wishes to create. The deeper politics of the clash between the cultures and the reasons underpinning the drama that ensues does not interest her in favour of the image the various elements create together. I’ve used words like ‘commentary’ and ‘discourse’ when in reality, ‘snapshot’ or ‘portrait’ would be more apt. However, the detached rationalisation is compensated for by the emotionally-charged interplay. A ‘beguiling ambiguity’, as one reviewer of Denis’s similarly-themed debut film Chocolat, sums up the endeavour extremely well: come in search of understanding and you will be disappointed, yet you will not walk away unaffected. Perhaps this in itself is the message, but I can imagine many viewers still yearning for more at credits roll.
What happens when a film festival stops being an event for the people and becomes simply a profit-driven vanity exercise for the wealthy elite? In 2011, I returned to the Busan International Film Festival, and found it almost impossible to see anything. I’ll be explaining why I may never attend one of Asia’s biggest celebrations of cinema ever again, and what to expect if you do. That’s next time, on World On Film.