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Hassouna Mansouri: "Waiting for Robin Hood" - A Review of the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA)

In this review of the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA), Hassouna Mansouri takes a critical look at some of the well-intentioned films by European directors about Africa and asks: In how far can European filmmakers substitute their colleagues from Africa in speaking about the realities of the African continent?

Hassouna Mansouri: "Waiting for Robin Hood" - A Review of the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA)

At the end of a screening at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA) a lady took the microphone and invited people to buy plastic bottles which were for sale right at the exit of the theatre. It was an initiative of an NGO working in the field of improving access to drinking water in Africa. The goal was to collect money to supply a village in South Sudan with clean water. I try to imagine the reaction of the audience. Some should have thought: again some charity for our poor friends from Africa. Isn’t it enough that the government pays millions every year from our taxes to help the third world countries. Some others thinking it would be a noble action to let wealthy Europeans pay few Euros and give hundreds of families access to the viable liquid. At the end the ones will indifferently walk away the others will buy some battles. And this happens a lot in festivals. But whether it would change something in the world or how far, this remains another question.

You could witness this at the occasion of the screening of Hinterland a documentary made by Dutch director Albert Elings. He followed a former Sudanese child soldier who came to the Netherlands 11 years ago as an asylum seeker making his trip back to his country. That’s why the full title of the film is Hinterland-A Child Soldier’s Road back to South Sudan. The production properly began in 2002. Kon Kelei was then starring in Tussenland (Between countries) a feature film by Dutch filmmaker Eugenie Jansen who won one of the three Tiger Awards at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. At that time, documentary maker Albert Elings started to follow the expatriate. After the independence of the country and the peace agreement between Khartoum and Juba, he goes back home. The film follows him on this first trip to his birthplace where he has plans to open a school and insure drinking water to his community. It tells one of those stories we hear more and more in our times and which are the dream of millions of young people in the South, but at the same time they are the nightmare of the western world.

Kon fled Sudan more than a decade ago when he was recruited as a child soldier by the rebels. After a long trip in a containershhip he ended up in the harbour of Rotterdam. Since then his life would never be the same. As a refugee in one of the asylum camps in the Netherlands, he could go to school and graduate in international law. Now he is back with a master in his pocket and a lot of dreams and plans to develop his new independent country South Sudan. The documentary follows the metamorphosis of the young man during quite ten years, from the moment he was admitted in the asylum camp until he goes back home to his motherland. The film shows Kon Kelei in the camp, then during his graduating ceremony at the university of law in Nijmegen, and finally when he goes back to his family and his village in the deep inlands of South Sudan. It is definitely not more than the story of a young refugee who grabbed the opportunity of success.
However the film points, unconsciously, to the gap between two worlds. Following Kon in his trip you see two ways of living; on one side the life he lived all these years in exile, on the other side the life of his family lives but also the life he would have had if he didn’t run away. Then you see how absurd is the difference of chance and the iniquity between two worlds. This feeling is much deeper in the Netherlands where the naïf and optimist message of the film is in complete contradiction with the actual debate about the policy toward underdeveloped countries. European countries are indeed facing a terrible economic crisis. In addition to budget cuts in fields like culture and public services, they find the solution by reducing budget allowed to international development which means retrenchment in the policy of sustain to the weak economies.
At the same time recently the case of the young Angolan Mauro Manuel, opened a very animated debate about the decision to send him back to Luanda after ten years of exile and even though he has no more family in the African city. The fact is that Mauro is a very special case and even too complex for an emigration law that reduces human beings to numbers. The eighteen year old man came to the Netherlands as a 8 year old boy. His mother dropped him in an airplane to spare him poverty, misery and civil war. In the European country he was welcomed by a family who tried to adopt him for two times without success. Still, the kid grew up in Dutch society quite like any other young boy: going to school, playing in the courtyards and hanging around in the parks. Now that he is mature, the very rational society wants him to fit somewhere. Such a case is not predictable by law. The boy went to Dutch school for ten years, he speaks the Dutch language like his mother tongue, he has Dutch friends and dreams about making a living in the only one society he knows.
Unlike Mauro Manuel who is still young (only 18), Kon Kelei is more grown up. He finished his master degree, and a brilliant future is waiting for the young expert in international law. He is teaching at the newly born university of law and will probably embrace a political career. Like him the film shows many other south Sudanese young people who are still finishing the process of qualification. They are the incarnation of the dream of many young African men: go to the North, learn, make money and go back to serve the family, the tribe and the country. We are put back to the sixties an seventies when African students were sent to Europe to graduate in different fields and once back, take care of their people. Can we ever forget that this strategy led to all kinds of post-colonial regimes? Dictators that peoples in Tunisia, Egypt and other African countries are struggling against, are all well educated and somehow graduated in Europe and the USA. All African ruling elite learned how to govern their people in Europe whether they went there physically or not.
From that point of view there is a very naive idea about the way the North is giving back something to Africa. One could not see this film without thinking about the political and economic background of the refugee phenomenon. Such a film, even when it is made apparently with a lot of good feelings, is then part of a widespread practice in the western world which aims to give people a good conscience: Getting out of the film, you can buy a plastic bottle from a humanitarian organization which is collecting money to develop drinking water in South Sudan. For few Euros, people get the opportunity to clear their conscience and feel in peace spiritually. At the same time they let their governments send asylum seekers and immigrants back to the misery which they create with their unfair policy.

Worse is that there is a big dilemma in this kind of situations. If you participate to the humanitarian effort you are accomplice to a certain neo-capitalist system that you support indirectly. If you don’t do anything, you will not help the situation of millions of people getting better or, let’s say, at least not getting worse. That’s how the neo-liberalist rulers of the world by a perverse effect use humanist values of solidarity and trap citizens in order to use their need of spiritual peace and mercifulness to spare themselves the obligation to fulfil their duty.

In this kind of situations the nice mythical figure of Robin Hood crosses one’s mind. The NGO is taking money from the riches to give to the poors. Not bad, one could say. But there are two counterarguments to this naive configuration. First, NGOs are not steeling. Second, people who buy the plastic bottles mostly are not really the richest of the western world. Those who are steeling and the modern aristocrats profiting from the privileges of the neo-liberalism are the multinationals and the banks. At least one could see in the young former refugee an incarnation of the modern Robin Hood for whom the wealth he made thanks to his exile could be seen in a very subtle metaphor as a taxes imposed to riches that he uses to help his/her poor people. This latter was robbed by the imperialist western companies and rulers.

Unfortunately this is not the idea we can find in this film neither in another The Sacrifice (Yoole), a documentary by Moussa Sene Absa from Senegal who points to the illegal migration on the coast of the Atlantic ocean. Asylum seekers or illegal migrants could be seen as the Robin Hoods of our times. Their plan is in fact to take the money of the richest and give it to the poor. But it in the legend of Robin Hood, the hero is of aristocratic blood. That’s why I see the myth of the good thief more in these European filmmakers who stand against the iniquity of the neo-liberal machine milling everybody and everything in its path; the poor would then be the Asian and the African peasants as well as the worker and the petit bourgeois in the wealthy European societies. But the work of this kind of rollercoaster is more obvious in continents like Africa where the absurd contradictions can be easily verified. That’s why even if African cinema is not well represented in western festivals, African subjects nourish a lot of documentaries made by northern directors.

The 24th International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam opened with a The Ambassador, a film about the Central African Republic made by Danish filmmaker and journalist Mads Brügger. Already before the kick off of the festival and the screening of the film a polemic started between the filmmaker and one the protagonists, the Dutch businessman Willem Tijssen who asked the festival (via a letter) to withdraw the film from its program. Tijssen is running a company called Diplomatic Services Africa and helped the filmmaker to get a Liberian passport. He was paid for that service a modicum sum of 50.000 US dollar. 3/4th of the amount was used to corrupt African officers, admitted the man, while the whole salary was supposed to reach the 135.000 US dollars. It was not explicitly said whether he was contesting the way he was showed in the film or because he was not paid the rest of the promised money. But this prologue gave already the LA of the whole concert.

The journalist went to explore the milieu of diamond traffic in Central African Republic. This is one of the most mysterious businesses in the world to which it would be impossible for an African filmmaker to enter. To do this it is not enough to find diamonds. The most difficult is to be able to take them out of the country. Or the only safe way is to be a diplomat and be sure not to be searched by customers when you are leaving the territory with few diamonds in your Samsonite hand suitcase. Because it was not possible for him to pass as a western diplomat, the journalist, a blond and tall Danish man, enters the central African territories as a Liberian official. After some adventures and dirty dealings he establishes his business. The whole process is filmed by a minuscule hidden camera. That’s how we enter a world of corrupted officials in the high and dark spheres of euro-African diplomacy.

There is a lot to learn from these stolen images. We are taught for example that after the fight for the control of minerals in the seventies, France and China are nowadays working together to spoil African soil. We learn how French secret services were involved in the provocation of Central African rebellion(s). We are told that Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her minister of Foreign Affairs were on the list of persons not allowed to hold any high official position because of their involvement in the civil war. We are taught how a lot of European diplomats are part of a corrupted network serving as intermediaries in the illegal commerce of diamond. They bring you in touch with officials who will provide the false diplomatic passport, and with the local officials who will help you infiltrate the market of whatever you want. At the end we will come to the conclusion that the big white people are earning hundreds of millions of dollars using the mines and the work of the poor and short height pygmies. The filmmaker doesn’t hesitate to show himself always standing with his two local pygmies whom he took as assistants. Therefore he cynically visualizes the relationship of power and spoliation that weighs too much on Africans.

This documentary is part of a whole tradition of successful films about Africa. The same festival opened in 2008 with a film about Congo called Enjoy Poverty by Dutch video-maker Renzo Martins who explored the insane networks of foreign organizations working in this country. He showed how United Nation’s and Humanitarian NGO’s work in an area where lifes of Congolese are wasted while westerns are making wealth selling everything : photos of corpses to newspapers and press agencies, medicines to sick malnourished children, diamond and minerals to international traders, development plans to politicians. A couple of years earlier, Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper investigated the business of Nile perch fish in the Tanzanian’s Lake Victoria. He depicts the impact of hyper-production on the life of the locals while the tasty fish dishes lands on the plates of European consumers. Can these filmmakers be associated to the image of Robin Hood ?

This brings me to another question in fact: Is it an African destiny to always be something to be talked about and never something that talks? The weak, the subaltern of our times is the one who is not able to talk, to represent himself. That’s the philosophy on which the policy of hegemony was built since ages. Confiscate the right of the other to talk is a part of the strategy to dominate it and to despoil it. But if the subaltern cannot represent itself, it must be represented. That’s how many European filmmakers can play an interesting role: give back the rightful owner something that has been unfairly taken away from him. Unfortunately in this case filmmakers can do nothing to bring back all the diamonds and mineral stolen by the westerns. What they can restore is an image of what is happening. From that point of view they operate on the field of media and representation of the other. Hopefully will the films somehow help denouncing the inhumane practices and hence reduce the suffering of millions who could not do so in another world.

In how far can European filmmakers substitute their colleagues from the South? Not everybody can be Robin Hood but those who have the wealth, the blood, the know-how and the education. In one word and in our modern context, one needs to be rich enough to be able to rise his/her voice. Production circumstances as a matter of fact can be so heavy that Africans can be less free than a European filmmaker. Hence it is not always obvious that an African filmmaker will talk about his/her continent better than a non African. S/He would never be able to do what the Danish director did. Not only because it is a huge financial operation, but also because an African diplomat who is blond is a so unexpected ironic situation that it is the most eloquent one to show how African context is absurd, and how far the “White” can go in the process of dispossession of the other from its most primordial identity.

Our world is definitely a tragedy and doesn’t fit with the legend of Robin Hood which is more like a fairytale ending happily with reestablishment of the good prince in the joy of the people. None from the 1% of the human being will dare espouse the cause of the other 99%. The latter are perhaps occupying the squares like the legendary thieves were hiding in the woods. But the good prince who will lead them to fight the iniquity is unfortunately from another time and will probably never come back. As far as we don’t consider that filmmakers are dreaming of changing the world by helping the poor and denouncing the real thieves as modern avatars of Don Quixote fighting against some windmills.

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