Mama Benz” is an inventively sly docu: In the guise of a bouncy little puff piece, pic argues colonialism in Africa did not die, it just turned corporate. Film chronicles the opening of a wholesale/retail outlet in Ouadougou by the Dutch textile company Vlisco. Firm designs, manufactures and exports “Dutch wax” batik prints prized by African women. Male-owned and operated Vlisco is shown manipulating its way into the existing female-run system of wholesalers, market stalls and large shops. Highly unusual in its jaunty presentation and slow-dawning revelations, docu should play well on fest circuit and find a niche on cable or public television.
Helmer Karin Junger plays her cards close to the vest, seemingly showing no particular bias. Initial scenes of Vlisco setting up shop in Holland and Burkina Faso are underscored with misleadingly happy-go-lucky music. Intercut with company scenes are interviews with a young market vendor, Alice, whom Junger follows on her daily rounds as she talks about her dream of becoming a “Mama Benz” (the generic name given to rich businesswomen derived from their status-symbol Mercedes). Alice has given Vlisco’s advance-men information on how the local businesses operate in the hope of preferential treatment.
It soon becomes apparent that beneath the flattering assurances of Vlisco representatives, their conditions are, in the words of their own director, draconian. Their extremely vendor-unfriendly agenda cuts out the richer and more experienced businesswomen, then intimidates the younger and poorer tradeswomen. High wholesale prices, requisite large orders and fixed sales prices in a bargaining economy leave them scrambling to stay afloat.
The subversive nature of what appears on the surface to be a company-sanctioned near-infomercial sneaks up on the viewer. But, in retrospect, Junger has subtly seeded her docu with warning signals, moments that arouse fleeting unease. Docu opens with a company man explaining the precautions employees must take to avoid being contaminated by the dirty money they handle. Under a phalanx of Vlisco men walking through the marketplace, vaguely Morricone-ish music hints at later sinister showdowns.
Throughout, shots of the glorious batik prints in various stages of design and manufacture illuminate a richness that most people ironically believe to be symbolic of indigenous African industry.