Göran Hugo Olsson’s archival documentaries are like shots of political adrenaline. The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 was one of the more interesting hits of 2011, a fiery and fascinating dive into tumultuous American history from an outsider perspective. He has now returned to the Swedish Television archives, this time turning his eye to a much more global phenomenon. Concerning Violence is an adaptation of revolutionary intellectual Frantz Fanon’s towering and controversial last work, The Wretched of the Earth. Published in 1961 during the height of the Algerian Revolution and immediately banned in France, it’s certainly a provocative choice for a subject, even more than 50 years later.
Where Black Power Mixtape was laser focused on a particular movement, Concerning Violence illustrates the already wide-reaching ideas of Fanon’s text with a vast assortment of striking images taken from the most dramatic moments of Africa’s 20th century. The book itself is the organizing principle, with selections read as a constant voiceover by Ms. Lauryn Hill. And just like the much-debated original text, it incites more big questions than it answers. I talked with Olsson about a few of these looming issues, including Fanon’s controversial endorsement of violence, his more hopeful call for a new way of living and governing in the Third World, and what he actually even meant by the “Third World.”
Nonfics: I was struck by one quote in particular, Fanon’s notion of the double realization — that Europeans need to recognize the debt that they owe to colonized nations and that those formerly colonized need to recognize what they are owed. In that context, that there were two audiences for his message, I wonder who you consider the audience for this film.
Goran Hugo Olsson: That’s a very good question, I’m really happy. I had two audiences in mind. The first is people like you and me, maybe. The Western World, which today would be Europe, America and China; the new colonial power and the companies that execute the robbery that we see in the continent of Africa. My first audience, which I know, is the Western audience. And I’m talking to them like the book talked to me.
We have theatrical distribution in five African countries, but I don’t know if it’s going to make any sense to them because they know all of this already.
Nonfics: Much of the film is focused specifically on the independence struggles of Portuguese colonies in Africa. Why such a concentration?
Olsson: That’s what was in the archives. The colonial struggles before that were in the ’50s and ’60s and weren’t caught on film. The 1970s were the last phase of the brutal colonial regime as we knew it. It was unique to have people actually talking in color about these issues.
But it was also a conscious choice because we could have done this film with images from today. I wanted to have a more timeless feeling to it. Some of the images are very beautiful images, those with helicopters for instance, and they look the same today. But you see that they’re old and you can do the math yourself and translate it to today. If you see it in 10 years you can then translate it again, though hopefully the world will be better. I wanted to do a timeless thing, because I think that’s the way you should treat this text.
Nonfics: That’s interesting, because another thing I noticed was that most of the events in the film predate the end of the Cold War. On the one hand there are these timeless struggles but also the film doesn’t touch on the way things have changed in the last twenty years or so.
Olsson: After doing Black Power Mixtape I wanted to do something more accessible and broader, and maybe more commercial. And I ended up with this, and it’s certainly not that film. I was so struck by the text when I reread it two years ago. I took it also as an exercise in seeing. It was also a synaptic attempt to translate the book into film. I wanted to follow the book, and to have the feeling of the book. The book is not flawless and the film is not flawless. There are several different aspects that are strange and not true, maybe. You can interpret it in different ways. I wanted to keep that but I didn’t want to make it ineffective.
For Fanon, I think this is the first book in which he mentions the Third World. At the time it wasn’t really clear what the first and second worlds were. Sometimes in the book he talks about the Western world as the First World and the Communist world as the second one. Sometimes Europe is the first and America is the second. That’s not really clear in the book. Also the text was written very fast and it uses “me,” “we” and “they” in different ways all the time, so it goes everywhere basically. But I think that’s also the strength of the text, that it’s not too specific.
What you’re saying is correct, and I think that’s the fault of the book.
Nonfics: Fanon’s dream is to discover new ways for nations to advance, without using the European model. Do you see anything like that in the world today?
Olsson: I think… Basically, no. But I think there are musicians in Africa today that are. They use their tradition, and then take some Western tunes and transform them to make music that is different and vibrant and inventive. They are also into Fanon very much. I know that because some of them made music for the film. Not on that structural, political level but maybe in the art community, maybe in other communities that are not official.
Nonfics: That’s interesting, because one of the moments I found particularly striking was when you paired up Fanon’s idea that individualism is the primary element of Western society with footage of community dancing in Africa, along with music.
Olsson: I was very moved that our only asset is to believe in individuals, that individuals shut themselves up in their own person. I was moved by that because I think I’m that guy. All my life I was told “you should believe in yourself,” “you should create yourself.” I was struck by that. I’m not saying anything but that we should contemplate. We’re not advocating violence but we have to acknowledge the dynamics behind the violence that we see each day. We have to try to understand it at least.
Nonfics: Perhaps the biggest critique of the book, at least initially, was its condoning of violence, and I noticed that in the film you didn’t actually include that many images of direct violence, in action. There’s the opening shot of the men in the helicopter shooting cows, but less involving human victims. Did the debate around Fanon’s ideas have any impact on that choice?
Olsson: I don’t agree with you, because I think the image with the young mother and her baby is the most violent image I’ve ever seen. She lost her arm.
Nonfics: That’s true, and maybe I’m phrasing it the wrong way. Do you think it’s then more powerful to see the results of violence than the initial act of violence?
Olsson: I understand. I think with the Portuguese soldiers when they are by themselves, when a man is dying it’s kind of violent. I didn’t think of that really, but I know what you mean. And you’re right, I didn’t have any thing like the cows but with human beings.
Nonfics: Maybe this is because I’m an American, but I think there’s an idea we have of violence that comes from big Hollywood depictions of war. I think one of the important things about the book and your film as well is that it reframes how we define violence. It takes a leap to realize that colonialism in the abstract is also a form of violence.
Olsson: Yes. Yes, there is also a dilemma. 12 Years a Slave which is great, but violence to African Americans is always shown as physical violence. But you have Holocaust films that are different, so I don’t know. I wanted to keep it on an abstract level.
Nonfics: With Black Power Mixtape you had a very specific timeline, even including it in the title. Did you ever consider restricting Concerning Violence to a much narrower time period or place?
Olsson: The timeline of Black Power Mixtape was also to tell the audience that we are moving forward. And you know where you are in the film. If you read the book it’s the same, that’s why we have the chapters. We tried to follow the book, so you see that it moves forward. It’s not very even. I tried to use the same technique in giving the audience a feeling that they know where they are in the story.
Nonfics: The film is only 80 minutes long, and manages to cover quite a bit. But were the other events or simply pieces of footage you considered including, perhaps to expand on any of Fanon’s individual ideas?
Olsson: Yeah, always, but that’s the work that you have to do as a filmmaker. There were things in the film in a previous state, but once you lose it it’s gone so that’s the everyday work of making films. That’s nothing special. I’m not thinking about that too much.
Nonfics: Would you make another film entirely from Swedish television archives?
Olsson: You have 10 ideas and some pan out and some don’t , and you can’t really control it. I’m a documentary filmmaker and you never know what’s next. It has to be something that you’re really passionate about because it takes a long time to do these films. You have to live with it, you have to not tire of them.
This interview was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2014. It is being reposted now that the film is opening in theaters.