An Inextricable Cultural Tangle in 'White Material'

Claire 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.

White Material

Director: Claire Denis
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Isaach de Bankole
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: n/a
Year: 2009
Release date: 2011-04-11

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.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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