Film Review: ‘Concerning Violence’

Archival footage provides a damning indictment of European imperialism from the director of 'The Black Power Mixtape.'

Concerning Violence Sundance

“The Black Power Mixtape” helmer Goran Hugo Olsson doesn’t make documentaries so much as incendiary devices, diving deep into Swedish film archives for vintage clips that have sat like so much undetonated ordnance all these years and coupling them with politically charged audio to make a provocative new statement. In “Concerning Violence,” Olsson adds the nuclear heft of Frantz Fanon’s treatise “The Wretched of the Earth” to that cocktail, pairing passages read by Lauryn Hill with gut-wrenching eye-witness accounts of imperialism gone wrong, resulting in a festival hot potato engineered to rile even the most progressive arthouse crowds.

Picking up where “Mixtape” left off, Olsson’s latest debuted at Sundance with the subtitle “Nine Scenes From the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense,” making a nearly year-long world tour before opening at New York’s IFC Film Center on Dec. 5. While not exactly a sequel, this follow-up docu reflects the shifting focus of Swedish activist filmmakers during the mid-’70s, who grabbed their cameras and traveled to the front lines of African independence, observing firsthand the fall of apartheid and liberation of a people who’d been exploited by white Europeans for decades.

In searching for a mechanism to unify this incredible footage, which has gone largely unseen by the general public ever since, Olsson seized upon Fanon’s 1961 tract, a controversial anarchist cookbook which analyzed the psychology of occupation and identified violent upheaval as the only means to overthrow colonialism — a system Fanon referred to as “violence in its natural state.” First published in 1961 and subsequently banned in France and the U.S., the book now seems less ominous than prescient, having accurately anticipated the bloody upheaval that many Third World countries underwent in order to shake off their white oppressors.

Attitudes have shifted considerably over the past half-century, allowing Olsson — operating in the mode of a provocative veejay — to find powerful new use for both Fanon’s words and a wealth of disturbing 16mm archival material, organized into nine case studies. From the oxen machine-gunned for sport in the opening sequence to the aftermath of the Mozambique Liberation Front’s resistance strategies, writ upon the face of an armless young mother as she nurses her badly injured infant, these are punishing yet necessary images for the Western world to consider.

Compared to the more humanistic depictions of Africa seen in recent decades (from Sally Struthers’ anti-hunger campaign to character-driven Hollywood movies), it all tends to feel a bit cold and academic: articulately reasoned, and yet strangely dispassionate given the sheer shock value inherent in so much of the footage. Acting as an extension of those courageous reporters who did the original filming, Olsson lets the colonizers damn themselves, as when a white man looking for sympathy as he’s forced to leave Rhodesia speculates, “I could take out four Affies before they take me out.”

This interview, which takes place poolside while a black servant serves beers, reveals the sort of racist attitudes, once prevalent, that seem inconceivable to younger generations (as the relatively tame outbursts by George Wallace and other characters in “Selma” may to some skeptics). But they were once the norm, and nothing illustrates it better than cold, objective archival footage, serving as a sort of time capsule to the past.

There can be no rational debate with such people, entrenched in the illusion of their own superiority — which of course is Fanon’s point, a direct contradiction of Dr. King’s nonviolent tactics. Here, read by Hill and emphasized in bold white lettering onscreen, Fanon’s words reinforce the fight against the bullies (the acceptable word when what might otherwise be called “terrorism” originates with those in power), as seen in the jungles of Angola and Mozambique, or in an extended chapter in which a Swedish television crew happened to observe a Liberian mining strike.

With not nearly enough signposts along the way to indicate where we are, either in time or place, it’s an intimidating argument to follow, despite Olsson’s rigidly organized structure. The film all but assumes a working knowledge of Africa’s complicated colonial history, while overlooking those areas (South Africa, Rwanda, the Congo) with which Westerners are most familiar. And though Fanon’s words serve to justify the seemingly unconscionable — violence — the film ends with a very different call to action, one that stresses the need for “new concepts,” as if trying to calm the blood the film has brought to a boil over the dense and daunting 80-odd minutes that have come before.

Film Review: ‘Concerning Violence’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2014. (Also in Berlin, Goteborg, Busan, Vienna film festivals, Hot Docs, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.) Running time: <strong>86 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary - Sweden-Finland-Denmark-U.S.) A Story AB production with support from Swedish Film Insitute, Finnish Foundation, YLE, Danish Film Institute, DR K, Nordic Film & TV Fund, Media Programme, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Project. (International sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Produced by Annika Rogell, Tobias Janson. Co-producers, Joslyn Barnes, Danny Glover, Monica Hellstrom, Miia Haavisto, Otto Fagerstedt, Ingemar Persson.
  • Crew: Directed by Goran Hugo Olsson. Based on "The Wretched of the Earth" by Frantz Fanon. Camera (color/B&W, 16mm-to-HD); editors, Michael Aaglund, Dino Jonsater, Olsson, Sophie Vukovic; music, Neo Muyanga; art director, Stefania Malmsten; sound designer, Micke Nystrom; associate producers, Corey Smyth, Susan Rockefeller.
  • With: Thomas Sankara, Amilcar Cabral, Tonderai Makoni, Robert Mugabe. Narrator: Lauryn Hill. (English, Swedish, French, Portuguese dialogue)
  • Music By: