Concerning Violence: Sundance Review

Sundance Film Festival
A tough and cerebral but finally illuminating documentary about the decolonization of Africa.

The new documentary from "Black Power Mixtape" director Goran Hugo Olsson looks at decolonization in Africa and is narrated by Lauryn Hill.

The new film of documentary director Goran Hugo Olsson, Concerning Violence, goes back to the same Swedish TV archives that nourished his 2011 non-fiction hit The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, and this time looks at the often violent struggles that would lead to the decolonization of Africa after WWII.

Like Mixtape, Danny Glover is on board as a co-producer, and also like that previous film, Olsson’s latest features a wealth of varied 16mm footage, much of it previously unseen. To tie his often extraordinary clips, which cover various countries, situations and time frames, together, the writer-director relies on excerpts from Frantz Fanon’s stirring and analytical 1962 book The Wretched of the Earth, with quotes frequently on-screen and heard in a voice-over from songstress and activist Lauryn Hill

It's a tough and cerebral but finally illuminating film, which, paired with Olsson’s name recognition, should not only guarantee plenty of festival bookings but also generate buyer interest, though this item’s an even more high-end arthouse item than his previous work.

The film’s full title, Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes From the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense, already suggests it’s presented in nine chapters, with segments covering things as varied as a nighttime stealth attack on a Portuguese base in what is now Angola (easily an early standout); a woman with a hacked off arm that disturbingly makes her look like a black Venus de Milo; a miner’s strike in Liberia, a wounded fighter being operated on in the jungle in Guinea Bissau and even interviews with people such as a then-young president Mugabe of Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia).

What was and wasn’t available in the archives obviously played a large role, though the mosaic structure of the film, together with the superstructure provided by the quotes from Fanon, a Martinique-born, Algerian-French psychiatrist and philosopher, ensures that a big picture does emerge, even if it’s not the most nuanced (quotes lack the larger context of the book and context for the specific scenes shown is also lacking).

But the spirit of Fanon, both lucid and rightfully angry as it defends the use of violence by those who are oppressed, sets the tone -- "Colonialism is violence in its natural state and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence” -- and infuses the whole work from start to finish. Another common thread between the scenes is how the Swedish interviewers and cameramen often seem to naturally side with the locals, such as when they interview a Swedish couple doing mission work in Tanzania. “What about the African religions?” the unseen reporter asks, or “Where in the Bible does it say that a man can only have one wife?” referring to local traditions being dismantled by the arrival of Christian missionaries.

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The couple look more than a little embarrassed before trying to answer the question and Olsson, who was also one of the four credited editors, often ensures there’s a metatextuality to the material that reveals different layers of truth about not only what’s being portrayed but also who’s portraying it and even who's watching it. Contemporary viewers will be disgusted by some of the racist remarks casually made by white settlers here and paradoxically, it’s almost a comforting notion, in a film filled with such purposeful violence, to know that mindsets can be changed in as little as a generation.

In the home stretch, Fanon's words suggest that Africa shouldn’t ape or try to keep up with the First World but should instead find its own ways of doing what it feels is important. This is certainly a valid idea but it nonetheless seems like a rather odd point to finish a film that’s made very much in the European arthouse tradition, complete with Portuguese-language songs and a jazzy score.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Story AB, Final Cut for Real, Helsinki Filmi Oy, Louverture Films
Director: Goran Hugo Olsson
Producers: Annika Rogell, Tobias Janson
Co-producers: Joslyn Barnes, Danny Glover, Monica Hellstrom, Miia Haavisto
Director of photography:
Art director: Stefania Malmsten
Editors: Michael Aaglund, Dino Jonsäter, Göran Hugo Olsson, Sophie Vukovic
Sales: Cinetic Media / Films Boutique
No rating, 83 minutes.