Monday, April 18, 2011

Three African Films

In the past week we have watched three amazing films set in Africa. Two were French and one was South African. All three focused on white characters, and so they were all about colonization to some extent.

The first, and by far the best, was Of Gods and Men, about a group of eight Trappist monks living on a mountain in Algeria who decide to stay in their monastery despite the utter certainty that they will be killed by rebels. Or, by the government-- in the end it doesn't matter, because the film is not at all about the political situation in Algeria. It is about what martyrdom means and what it means for these men to follow their vocation. Theirs is a Benedictine vocation, which puts great store in commitment to a place and a community.

This is the best film I've ever seen about monastic spirituality. It may very well be the best film I've seen about Christianity. During this time of Lent, as Christians consider the meaning of the crucifixion, it is the most meaningful expression of what it means to follow the way of the cross. One thing you will not say after seeing this film is, 'Why didn't they just leave when they could?' Without preaching or blaming or any kind of self-aggrandizing behavior, in full consciousness of the consequences of their choice, they live out their vocations. And I do believe anyone watching will understand them and neither pity nor particularly admire them afterward. They did what they were called to do. The honesty of the portrait is what cuts to the bone, and what is also transcendent.

The second film was Claire Denis's White Material. Set in a French colonial country in Western Africa, probably Cameroon, where her first film, the wonderful 1988 Chocolat was set, the film explores the post-colonial situation of white settlers being removed from their farms. Again, the film feels very real, very honest, and not as political as it obviously has to be. The rebel children soldiers moving into the area frighten the workers-- frighten everyone, in fact, but the fierce French woman who runs the coffee plantation and her son, a man-child who is unfortunate to be born white in Africa after colonialism has run its course. As one character says, "He is African, but he does not look like Africa."

The government soldiers are equally brutal and frightening. It is not, in the end, the "sides" that matter. In this case, the French should have obviously gotten out of the country when they could, but like the monks in Algiers, where, after a lifetime in Africa, would they go? The film is beautiful and compelling, with surprisingly little dialogue throughout, and paints a complex and again, non-judgmental drama of people and a land.

The third film, Stander, is South African. Set in the 1980s and based on a true story, it tells of a white police captain who, fed up with the actions of the riot police and the corruption within the force, starts robbing banks. Again, the politics is confused. The man at the center of it all, Andre Stander, is 100% white masculinity. He likes to be naked, has a gorgeous wife he knows how to seduce, and is loved by men and women alike. He's a good shot, can handle himself on a rugby field, and is utterly reckless. Lucky for him, the state of affairs in the police force is such that they just can't catch him.

He is a lost man, really. His is a moral conundrum. He wants to pay for having shot an unarmed man while on riot patrol. But the government doesn't even recognize this crime. In the end, it's hard to know what to make of him or his actions. Unlike the other characters, he has the least purpose, and that has great consequences for South Africa.

Two of these three are now available on Netflix. Stander was released in 2003, and White Material in 2009. And if watching White Material makes you want another Isabelle Huppert fix (and let's face it, why wouldn't you want to see more of her?), follow it up with the movie Home, a black French comedy about the effects of a road expansion.

1 comment:

Alison said...

I've got the first two films on my to-see list already and will add Stander. They all sound well worth a viewing.