Thursday, March 10, 2011

Entrenching Africa's Misery

I somehow think that, having spent half a century in Africa, I am more entitled to criticize and defend that (choose your adjective: beleaguered? savage? beautiful?) continent than others.

It’s a ridiculous notion, I know, since in my home country of South Africa I am not even considered an indigene because of – irony of ironies - the colour of my skin. This by those who are working very hard at making Alan Paton’s worst nightmare become a slow reality.

But isn’t it strange how the latest Oscar winner for a foreign film has a white doctor helping all those suffering Africans while his marriage falls apart back in one of Hamlet’s industrialised hamlets?

Is this all Africa will ever amount to for Europeans: being the background scenery to their angst or, even worse, their patronisingly good intentions?

Susanne Bier's In a Better World falls into the first category, which is just another form of colonialism. Every time a film like this is made it further entrenches the notion that all Africa will ever amount to is a place of poverty and misery - though with lots of rhythm.

Films that fall into the second category usually have white men dying in Africa to somehow expurgate their historic guilt. Think Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener, John Hurt in Shooting Dogs - just dying to, well, die in and for Africa, thank you, thank you.

The filmmaker’s argument might go that this is what happens in Africa, it’s real, and therefore it can be shown. Fine. But let’s look at one “real” little situation. Our good doctor Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) has to treat a local warlord, who happens to be a Muslim, and the doctor’s helpers tell him that he should let the bastard die.

He can’t, of course, because there’s something called the Hippocratic oath and back home he’s been teaching his son and his friend that revenge is a bad thing. (The original title of the film is, in fact, Revenge, but you’re not going to win Oscars with a negative, vigilante or ironic title like that, are you?)

But when the warlord really goes beyond the pale, as such, our doctor quite understandably loses it and thereby causes the village to vent its less civilized urges on a man who has been raping and slicing up their daughters.

End of that story - except that one warlord will replace another and the revenge on that village/camp will be swift and very bloody – and Muslim, the film implies – a la Darfur. But the film is too busy solving the problem of revenge back in the rotten state of Denmark to worry about this one, meaning - probably quite unintentionally, which is worse - revenge is somehow endemic in Africa, but can be dealt with back home.

Africa, it seems, can never be considered an equal and therefore praised, criticised or ridiculed - unless one of its tinpot dictators acts similarly to tinpot dictators everywhere else.

If that was the only problem with this film one could put it down to romantic or political na├»vite, but it also asks us to believe that a European boy who is angry about his father’s response to his wife’s death by cancer will drive said boy to assault a bully, threaten him with a knife and then blow up someone’s car – just because the owner of that car bullied his bullied friend’s father, our good doctor Anton.

Maybe, but not necessarily. Perhaps the boy, vastly privileged, just has that killer instinct to become a future Chief Financial Officer of, say, a Danish furniture franchise. Why he feels the need to add nails to that bomb when all he wants to do is blow up a car is another matter.

Think of the clarity in another film, Heaven, playing with the same kind of themes. Think of Cate Blanchett planting a bomb in an office to kill a businessman who has become rich by selling drugs and destroying lives. Only problem is, he leaves his office before the allotted time and in walks a cleaner lady – and that’s only the beginning of Tom Tykwer’s masterly interpretation of the late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s profound script.

But what happens to our two boys? They survive, they’re contrite, all is forgiven, and all live happily ever after in Europe. Cut back to Africa and see just how happy those snotty little children of the earth (cheap clothes, dusty faces) are to see the resolved doctor bwana coming back to resume his good work amongst them.

After the film was over an old duck loudly said to a friend of hers about five pensioners down the row: “Trish, that was a thought-provoking film.” And she was right. It was exactly that, but if those thoughts were seductively presented they provoked a certain nausea in at least one of the few members in the audience that day.

Neil Sonnekus

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