How do you tell a story about African liberation through the lens of an outsider? Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense, the 2014 documentary by Swedish filmmaker Göran Olsson, attempts to answer this question through presenting a sequence of episodes in the struggle for liberation in colonial Africa. Consisting exclusively of footage drawn from Swedish film and television archives, the film traffics in our nostalgia for a time when media were simpler – analog, bounded by national and territorial borders. The footage is frequently brilliant; the images, at times, visually lush.
Here’s the trailer.
The first chapter opens with a dramatic march through the jungle as the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) rebels from Angola as prepare for a pre-dawn attack on a Portuguese base in Cabinda. The footage, shot in 1977, is reminiscent of reportage from the Vietnam War – or Apocalypse Now – and seems quaintly retro when compared with the images of conflict that we now consume, from Iraq or Syria, where the targets, and heroes, are more elusive. Elsewhere, we see and hear the women of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), reciting Marxist doctrine with precision. This is vintage guerilla-core, a look and feel aided by the film’s deliberate focus on armed struggles in settler colonies (those where Europeans moved in) in the 1970s and 1980s.
The footage from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), organized by a single, perversely lucid, interview, is a tour de force. An embittered white man abuses his black servants while discussing his plans for emigration on the eve of race war. “They want our cars, can you believe it?” Few treatises on colonialism expose more eloquently than this clip the entanglement of capitalist and white supremacist ideologies at the heart of Europe’s colonial projects in Africa.
But the seeming simplicity of these alliances, in which class struggle takes the form of race war–as it did in a handful of African countries for a few fleeting decades (longer in South Africa)–is deceptive. The film’s focus on these late armed conflicts does little to illuminate subtler and more enduring complexities in the struggle for liberation in Africa. Struggles over labor, oil wealth, foreign aid, the legacy of the Cold War and of US-sponsored assassinations surface only briefly in the footage, and sit uncomfortably within the larger narrative frame.
The first thing Olsson might rethink is his approach to Fanon, to whom the film is a cinematic homage. Dense theoretical passages from The Wretched of the Earth unspool across the images–in type so large that it obscures them. The pairing of text and image can be provocative, but when Fanon’s text is intended as a commentary on the images, both are shortchanged. Fanon was deeply engaged in revolution, but at a point much earlier than any of the struggles we see depicted here. To reduce his legacy to one of prophecy is to truncate it radically. It is also to deprive viewers of the more nuanced analysis of decolonization that this footage cries out for.
The second is his decision to confine his research to the Swedish archives. Among the many distinctive qualities of African freedom fighters in this period was their appreciation of cinema as a weapon of revolution. FRELIMO in Mozambique and Amílcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau famously invited film teams from Soviet-aligned countries to train local cinematographers. The projects that emerged from these collaborations transcended propaganda to become radical explorations of the political potential of avant-garde cinema. In the 1970s and 1980s, African cinema became a veritable lab for the production of “militant images.” These materials have become increasingly available in recent years, but they are absent here.
A more ambitious treatment of African struggles for liberation would have expanded our perspective beyond that of a single European archive. Without any mention or consideration of the militant images produced by Africans precisely in the context of these same revolutions, the film stops short of its promise, to show us “scenes from the anti-imperialistic self-defense.”
* The film recently screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. The images are stills from the film. In the final image, the filmmaker poses with the actor Danny Glover, whose production company backed the film.