‘Films About Africa’ often feels like much less of the fairly open ended descriptor that it ought to be, and much more like an advanced and stylized genre, complete with its own rules and conventions; this includes not simply the Blackhawk Downs and Kony 2012s and other easy targets, but even those pieces that take on Hollywood convention directly while unwittingly play by very similar rules.
When I first heard that Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger would be making a documentary about diamonds and corruption in the Central African Republic (I did not know Brügger’s previous work and gonzo+ style yet), I anticipated something that sat somewhere between Blood Diamond and Nicholas Kristof, somewhere in the recognizable constellation of how the Occident tells itself about Africa.
I haven’t seen the documentary yet (it came out August 29th), but from the trailers I’ve seen and from reading about the film around the internet, it doesn’t seem to fit the mold of ‘Films About Africa,’ at all. In the film, Brügger purchases, through quasi-legal channels, the ambassadorship to the Central African Republic from Liberia. In character as an arrogant and flamboyant businessman/playboy/official Liberian ambassador, he sets about to try and purchase and smuggle a suitcase full of diamonds out of the Central African Republic. Here’s the trailer:
Brügger has gotten himself in hot water for the film; Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson (Liberia’s president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate) has called for Denmark to extradite Brügger to face trial in Liberia for fraud and corruption, and many have condemned the process of making the film as immoral and deceptive (I ask: as compared to the truthful and moral cannon of films about Africa?). I don’t want to give Brügger a free pass here, and I’ll be interested in following the worthwhile discussion that comes from the film.
However, The Huffington Post carried a pretty fascinating interview with Brügger (you should read the whole thing if you have the time). A part of the interview sticks out in particular:
If you consider the generic Africa documentary, that they have had some sort of monopoly on how to portray Africa. They have been in control of the whole Africa discourse. Apart from that, I don’t have any grudges against the N.G.O.’s, although I find it reasonable to be critical of how they are working. But my ambition was to make a film which would deviate as much as possible from the typical Africa documentary. Part of the doing-good industry is painting things in blackest black — it’s almost like a pornography of suffering. Which is necessary if the N.G.O.’s are to get funding for doing what they are doing. But that is also the explanation for why people can no longer stand or bear to watch films about Africa.
Michael Barclay reviewed Brügger’s last film (he made it to North Korea as part of a ‘comedy troupe’), The Red Chapel, commenting that “in a time when most lefty docs flaunt their agendas without shame, leaving little mental work for the audience, it’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t filter out its moral contradictions.” Maybe that’s why this film seems so interesting to me. Its provocation is towards thought, contradiction, and complexity – there are no petitions or posters or donations or denunciations or attitudes that are suggested outright. In that sense, it’s not really a ‘Film About Africa,’ but a film that’s just about Africa.