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An Inextricable Cultural Tangle in ‘White Material’

Postcolonial studies tend to emphasize, perhaps above all else, the inextricable cultural tangle that has been caused by generations of imperial enterprise. Can any colonial subjects be encountered without a deeper consideration of the role of imperialism in their identitarian makeup? Can we really study the colonial “period” without appreciating the distinct and insidious ways this “period” persists?

One of the classic starting points for such a discussion – in my classrooms, anyway – is to address the issue of “Africa”. What is “Africa”? Is it a thing, an entity that we can point to as an example of anything? Can we ever speak of “Africa” in toto? If we can, how much is that a reflection of our residual framing of the “dark continent” as uniformly lesser, generally failed, mostly in need of Western aid and advice? (Recall the infamous cover story in The Economist 11 years ago which referred to it as the “Hopeless Continent”.)

Why do stories and movies tend to employ “Africa” as their setting rather than an actual country? Is it the weight of a confusing historical backstory? The problem of simple ignorance? Or is it about something deeper, some Western refusal to let go of the idea of “Africa” as a construct, a space onto which we impose our impressions, ideas, and wills?

French auteur Claire Denis’ White Material has a knack for dividing audiences and critics alike. Perhaps the most divisive thing seems to be that, although this film is fairly clearly a denunciation of the lingering effects of colonial presence in former colonies (something about which she knows a great deal), it takes place in an unnamed, geographically indistinct nation in “Africa”, and is most interested in the only white people in an overwhelmingly black population.

As the country descends into a civil war (about which, politically, we learn nothing much) in which children, neighbours, and former friends turn on one another with searing violence, one white family remains on their coffee plantation, determined to harvest their crop for some reason. (I mean, who do they expect to sell the stuff to? How will they transport it? Is this all just a metaphor for colonial stupidity and lack of foresight?) Eventually, the war will come to them, and the plot of the film, such as it is, considers their path to an inevitable destruction.

Positioning white people at the centre of a story on the catastrophic aftermath of a rushed and poorly executed de-colonization effort is problematic on its own. But, to then fail to develop any of the surrounding characters (all non-white) in any meaningful way is to appear to jump headlong into the old trap of colonial authors from Kipling to Cooper to Conrad to Greene. Like those old stories – and this film shares much with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – this is a movie about white people who have come to live in, and love, “Africa”, but are being forced to leave while the “Africans” who surround them kill each other mercilessly.

Denis’ film is temporally disjointed, opening in the present and flitting from there to the past and back again on what almost feels like random whim throughout. Confusing in a disorienting way, the thin plot is rendered almost incomprehensible until, as we near the climax, it becomes apparent that there wasn’t much to figure out to begin with. People get killed, though it isn’t exactly clear why or by whom. In one key instance, there is no way to know who is being killed, even though it would seem to be pretty relevant information.

Though there are scenes of uncompromising violence, there are long stretches of inaction which test the patience. Who are these people? What motivates them? What, beyond the desire to keep their coffee plantation and remain in “Africa”, keeps them anchored despite all of this overwhelming evidence that they are soon to be massacred?

Though shot in Cameroon, and making several references to France as the former colonizer, Denis’ film quite deliberately positions itself in the precarious spot of existing outside of history. While much of the decolonization process that seems to be taking place here – an early scene finds a French army helicopter circling over a white woman (Isabelle Huppert, who is characteristically excellent), admonishing her to leave now because the army is pulling out – has historical referents, most of these types of events date to the ’50s and ’60s. Yet this film appears to take place now, today.

Leaving aside the significant problem that this type of de-historicized colonial narrative is a clear example of the way Westerners use their role in the colonial process freely, as though it were a metaphor and not an actual series of events which had actual physical and material effects on living people, this is merely one of the many confusing things going on here. Alternating between scenes of elliptical poetry and harrowingly blunt brutality, Denis’ film offers a message so mixed that one fails, finally, to appreciate just what he is being asked to consider.

Denis is a seriously talented filmmaker, to be sure – her past work has been exceptionally interesting, and her ability to place the viewer at the centre of the action is astounding – but White Material is a deeply disappointing misfire. Or, as David Denby at the New Yorker framed it so matchlessly: it is, finally, “Dreadful, in an aimless, intentionally disjointed way that some people have mistaken for art.”

This edition has been produced by the Criterion Collection, and comes with a lengthy booklet featuring rapturous praise (and some interesting contextual material) from film writer Amy Taubin, a few interviews with Denis, Isabelle Huppert, and Isaach de Bankole, and a few other tidbits.

RATING 4 / 10