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Review: Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense directed by Göran Olsson (2014), Review by John Kegel

This documentary uses material from the Swedish Film Archives combined with the philosophy of Frantz Fanon to draw attention to some of the most important events unfolding today. It is directed by Directed by Göran Olsson, the same Swedish director who brought us the Black Power Mix Tapes. Even though Concerning Violence focusses on the 1960’s and 70’s and the struggles for independence in Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Zimbabwe – which are skilfully combined with other topics like labour rights in Liberia and missionaries in Tanzania – the message is timeless.

One of the most interesting scenes is found in Chapter 1, ‘With the MPLA in Angola, 1974’, in which MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola) fighters move through the bush to ambush a military camp at dawn. What is so fascinating about this scene, and indeed the entire film, is that we see events, including armed conflict, from the African point of view. Here the narration is provided by Gaetano Pagano, the Italian journalist who made the original film that Olsson borrows from. Pagano narrates the unfolding attack, step by step. What the documentary does not explain is the rather interesting background of Pagano himself, which led to his being able to accompany the MPLA. Pagano was born into the Neapolitan aristocracy and accompanied his father, who was a diplomat for fascist Italy at the time, to China in the 1930s. After the murder of his father by the Japanese, Pagano ended up fighting with the Chinese Communists; later, he became a member of the inner circle of Fidel Castro, who called him ‘Mr. Solve Everything’. Pagano was in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961, and it is Cuban support for the MPLA that would have given him access to the organisation during its armed campaign.

In spite of its African perspective, the documentary, like The Battle of Algiers, does not strip the colonisers of their humanity. On the one hand, we are shown the fanaticism and open racism of colonists who wish to remain in Rhodesia, as well as the collaboration by the Liberian government in the suppression of strikes at a Swedish-owned mine. On the other, our attention is drawn to the fact that in several cases people across the divide between coloniser and colonised have much in common. One of these, clearly spelled out, is the fight for women’s rights. Within the FRELIMO (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique) liberation movement we see how women have attained equal status with men, but we are also told that the status quo of gender relations was re-imposed after the end of the conflict. While that is not the entire story – 40% of Mozambican MPs are female – women in Mozambique do indeed face severe problems today. They are underrepresented in education and the use of contraception remains very low.

Another comparison across the coloniser-colonised divide – only hinted at this time – is that it is not always the people who profit from colonialism, or indeed independence, who do the dying for their respective causes. In Chapter 8, ‘Defeat’, we witness a terrible scene, as a clearly mortally wounded Portuguese soldier is attended to by his comrades as they await medical evacuation. One cannot help but wonder: was he a conscript? A victim of colonisation just like the colonised? Whereas the freedom fighters we see throughout the documentary are fighting for something they believe in, the soldiers fighting for colonial regimes often were not.

The philosophy of Frantz Fanon, one of the great anti-colonial thinkers, is superimposed on these vivid scenes and images. It seeks to explain violence in all its forms, especially non-physical violence perpetuated by rules, regulations, economics and racism. Towards the end, the viewer is met by Fanon’s challenge, “Let us decide not to imitate Europe; let us combine our muscles and brains in a new direction. Let us try to create the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth.” However, fifty years on, it seems that Africa has not met this challenge either. Borrowing from the words of Fanon, the film insists that “The Third World does not mean to organise a great crusade of hunger against the whole of Europe. What it expects from those who for centuries have kept it in slavery is that they will help to rehabilitate mankind, and make man victorious everywhere, once and for all. … To achieve this, the European peoples must first decide to wake up and shake themselves, use their brains, and stop playing the game of Sleeping Beauty.” Here we find the main explanation given in Concerning Violence for the failure of Fanon’s dream. Europe never woke up and has continued to play the game of Sleeping Beauty by means of neo-colonialism.

Several criticisms can be levelled at the documentary. First, while (neo-)colonialism undoubtedly remains one of Africa’s major problems, was this really the main obstacle to Fanon’s dream (can mankind, anywhere, truly create the “whole man”)? Second, viewers are thrown in at the deep end, receiving little in terms of context for the series of liberation movements and countries that are addressed. Finally, modern ears may also be struck by the highly gendered nature of Fanon’s language, for instance “the colonised man” where one would more likely use “colonised people” nowadays, especially in a film that repeatedly shows women as active participants, including in combat. None of this fundamentally detracts from the power of the images or of Fanon’s visionary philosophy. The film is a must watch for anyone interested in colonialism or Africa, or indeed in any of today’s major challenges.