Look through any list of the greatest nonfiction books of all time and you’ll find few that have been made into movies, especially those that aren’t biographies. Most of them don’t involve stories in a cinematically adaptable fashion, and not even documentaries could appropriately give them new expository life in a way that’s worthwhile. The texts are already there and should simply be read, not heard abridged over literal yet random archival materials found in whatever library has the most affordable footage.
An exception can be made, however, for Goran Hugo Olsson’s Concerning Violence, which is based on Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. The film lifts only some of the text from the 53-year-old treatise on decolonization, each excerpt read by the singer Lauryn Hill (credited politely as “Ms. Lauryn Hill”), and it is spoken over old found footage of Africa transitioning from European rule. But it isn’t your average stock clips. As with Olsson’s previous film, The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, the material is all Swedish Television archives that haven’t been seen in decades.
Paired up with Fanon’s words on what imperialism does to the psychology of the colonized and how the Third World should not follow the model of Western society post-revolution but aim higher, this footage is given new context, whether the scenes are interviews with the white settlers, including missionaries and dignitaries, or with prominent black leaders, such as Robert Mugabe and Thomas Sankara, or they’re a less specific visual record of life, rich and poor, in 1970s Africa, from the everyday to labor strikes and rebel activity and civil war. It is footage that can speak for itself, but compiled and repurposed this way results in a striking historical essay that is also relevant now and very likely in the future.
Concerning Violence doesn’t have the easy appeal for American audiences that The Black Power Mixtape has. Not just because this one isn’t about American figures but because colonization is a far more academic topic than the U.S. black power movement. It also has some very startling images, including the graphic killing of a cow by machine gun right at the start. Another visual midway into the film goes down in my mind as one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve ever seen in my life. There’s also none of the contemporary commentary that the previous film has. It doesn’t need any, though, not even to connect the clips and words to current situations around the world.
What I immediately loved about The Black Power Mixtape was its unfamiliar structure, less its content (not that any of it isn’t valuable) than how it presented the material. That film offered a fresh approach to archival footage involving multiple layers of perspectives, and not only does Concerning Violence not have the benefit of newness, in terms of its form, but it also doesn’t play with so many levels of text. This film is less engaging, and the subject matter seems at times rather simple and matter-of-fact to anyone who already accepts the evils of colonial rule and exploitation.
Then again, that is precisely what I’ve heard as a negative response to 12 Years a Slave, that we don’t need films like that because we already know slavery was terrible. It relates to my initial shrugging off of The Act of Killing (which shares a production company with Concerning Violence) because I’d already seen so many documentaries starring genocidal figures, some similarly unapologetic. All of these films are vital to our continued understanding of the past and the present. I have to agree with Olsson that these archives must be out in the world, and there’s probably no better way to share them than as nine chaptered sequences employed as illustration of and pertinent to the six sections of Fanon’s book, and vice versa.
Concerning Violence is hardly a substitute for The Wretched of the Earth and is far more its own entity than most docs based on nonfiction books. The film’s subject matter made me recall the disappointing adaptation of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross from a few years ago. If ever there was a mess of material proving that books of this nature shouldn’t be adapted, that is it. The key is to produce a complementary work, not a full translation of text to pictures or a film that aims to make all the same points as the book. Concerning Violence succeeds as the former and as a separate piece.
In some ways, this film is a direct follow-up to The Black Power Mixtape, the Swedish Television archives focused on decolonization in Africa apparently existing next to those focused on the black power movement in America, chronologically. They make a good pair, thematically, and are equally unique in their construct and how they sort of return these images, taken by white Europeans and locked up in a drawer, and given them back to the voices more suited to provide the material with frames of reference. It’s neat that with Concerning Violence, that voice predates the images it interprets and inscribes.
As far as repurposing archival footage in the creation of new histories, Olsson may be producing the most interesting compilation docs since Esfir Shub, but I do wonder if he will be able to continue giving us this same kind of compilation doc made out of Swedish Television footage again and again and keep us intrigued by what the films are about while we become less fascinated with how.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2014.