Progress or Exploitation?
That last reference is to King Leopold of Belgium, who ran (or exploited) what he called the Congo Free State from 1885 to shortly before France’s acquisition of much of the area. Early in the 20th Century, widespread exposure and criticism of Leopold’s rubber harvesting in the Congo created possibly the first modern anti-colonialist movement, recruiting such writers as Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle. Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (1902) belongs to that legacy of critique and influenced Gide’s desire to make the trip.
A recent book on the topic is Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (Mariner Books, 1999), which has inspired a documentary. (See “White King, Red Rubber, Black Death“, by Michael Patrick Brady, PopMatters, 3 May 2007).
Allégret’s documentary has none of this, or does it? Why does it offer a brief and somber glimpse of people from various villages coming to have their baskets of rubber weighed? Is this intended as a sign of progress or exploitation? The film remains notably mum. Do we only imagine that the Africans regard the camera with unease?
Why does the film waste a few frames praising the governor’s fine new roads and showing a map of them, and then make a point of saying that the filmmakers travel on foot to the several villages of its interest? Why, at the very end, does it briefly show the “civilization” of what’s pointedly identified as a Protestant girls’ school as the only visible sign of French pedagogy or engagement anywhere in the documentary?
The opening sequence takes place on the ship approaching the Canary Islands. We’re shown local people arriving in a rowboat to greet the ship and being hoisted aboard in what are described as uncomfortable baskets while fashionable Europeans look on. Since this has nothing to do with the later Congo trek, why is it here? Could it be an early signal to watch out for baskets such as those containing the “crepes” or “pancakes” of rubber? Most of all, why does the film’s running time offer virtually nothing but village lyricism, in which inhabitants are shown clearing farmland, digging vegetables, grinding millet, and otherwise engaging in traditional (and vanishing) practices since time immemorial, seemingly with no interest or input from their French rulers?
This film gives the impression of fully functioning cultures that require nothing from France and receive no “civilizing” of benighted primitives. Instead, everyone is presented as healthy, beautiful, and harmonious, even if “exotic” in their colorfully costumed dances and near-nudity. A couple of foreign officials are barely glimpsed in one or two scenes, never at center stage for the camera. The film isn’t interested in them, nor in promoting Frenchness.
In other words, the imagery in Travels in the Congo is both a counter-program to the French agenda, the one where we can imagine a governor giving permission to film if his nifty new roads are extolled, and also a complete ignoring of the problems the filmmakers discovered amid tears and dismay. Gide would write about it explosively, but the film shows none of it. Its value lies in pretending as much as it can that the French don’t exist, the better to show traditional cultural practices unspoiled by a collision with outsiders like the filmmakers.
That value isn’t small. Allégret’s especially impressed by the domestic hand-built architecture of straw or clay, which creates communities that look like gorgeous beehives or hay huts. These irrefutably signal an ancient artisanal tradition and the farming and hunting traditions and the cultural traditions of music and dance, all of which bespeak nothing of the colonial rule.
He’s also interested, as he could hardly avoid, in the potentially erotic content of mostly naked people, sometimes going about their business and sometimes putting themselves on display in public rituals and festivities. These elements are front and center, a part of the culture. The members of that culture are used to seeing them as a mundane part of their landscape. The foreign viewers, conscious of the “strange” (as in foreign) and beautiful, see something exotic and forbidden.
A bit of ethnographic anecdotalism is contrived to demonstrate how a bride is an object of negotiation who must be traded for livestock by the groom. The bride knows her place in colluding with this tradition and has, in this little drama, even instigated the affair. This, too, is traditional culture. To what extent are citizens complicit in their culture, and to what extent does it reflect wider historical parallels of trade and property?
One brief passage shows a dead hippo being pulled on shore, its mighty carcass rolled by many men prior to carving up the spoils for days of luxury. Again, this is “merely” an anthropological detail, yet we can’t help deriving symbolic implications in regards to what the film isn’t saying explicitly.
If one thing Travels in the Congo isn’t saying is colonialist crimes, another thing it isn’t saying, or only gives the barest nod, is colonialist progress and praise for bringing European values to a “savage” society, which was the common tenor of European colonial documentaries. This is more a private and personal exploration of what caught Allégret’s eye as worthy of value, worth preserving on film.
We can’t help wondering if any of the women he photographed include his lovers. The anecdote of the bride includes a scene where she’s comforted by her sister, or so we’re told. The bride-to-be lies down with her head in the lap of the alleged sister, who strokes her breast before the scene abruptly cuts away. The intertitle prepared us by announcing that the sister uses a “naive gesture”.
7The notes conclude, “the film that emerged from their voyage stands as a singular account, through its images and their subtext, of the complex and uneasy power dynamics inherent in erotic exchange, between men and women, the young and the old, the photographer and the subject, the colonizer and the colonized”.