One of the most troubling things about colonialism is its language. Colonisation implies a degree of tentativeness and impermanence as though colonies are fragile attempts to implant humans into a landscape that has yet to support them. Colonisation assumes unoccupied space just as discovery assumes that the thing being discovered has never been found before. Jyotsna G. Singh addresses this semiotic baggage in the introduction to her book Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues (1996):
Since the early modern period, this discovery motif has frequently emerged in the language of colonization, enabling European travellers/writers to represent the newly “discovered” lands as an empty space, a tabula rasa on which they could inscribe their linguistic, cultural, and later territorial claims. – Pp. 1
What is offensive about the notions of discovery and colonisation is the fact that most of the lands discovered and colonised by European settlers were actually inhabited. How can one discover land that is already well known and colonise places that are already inhabited? Easy… by making the people who were there first disappear. As a result, one should perhaps speak not of lands being ‘colonised’ but of their being ‘occupied’.
A different way of looking at this question is to point out that ‘colonisation’ remains a useful term precisely because of the moral and conceptual absurdity of its connotations. If one speaks of lands being occupied rather than colonised by the British Empire then one allows for the fact that all human inhabitation is morally neutral because nobody has a natural right to the ownership of the land they inhabit. We all occupy the land and time brings with it no legitimacy. The crime of colonialism was not that the Europeans laid claim to land that was not theirs, it was that they laid claim to territory and then used those claims to justify the exploitation of the people who were occupying the land when they first got there. Colonialism is not a crime against the land; it is a crime against people. All land is occupied. From the perspective of the land, we are all colonists.
Claire Denis’s White Material examines the process of decolonisation without the assumption that there is such a thing as legitimate ownership of the land. Denis’s film presents Africa as both perpetual virgin territory and eternally dried-out, exploited and ancient wasteland.
As I wrote in December 2010, Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson’s documentary Mugabe and the White African (2009) is a troubling film. What is troubling about the film is that it accepts the idea that the white settler Mike Campbell has an absolute claim to ownership of his land. As a result of accepting this idea, the film portrays attempts by the Mugabe regime to force Campbell and his family off their land as inherently unjust. Indeed, Mugabe’s men are referred to as ‘Farm Invaders’ and the documentary’s cinematography presents them as a hostile and savage incursion from the outside. Regardless of how one feels about Mugabe’s use of intimidation, his government’s land seizure policies, or the importance of respecting property rights during the decolonisation process, there is something profoundly unsettling about a film which suggests that, even in Africa, Black people are interlopers on White land.
Made around the same time, White Material shares a lot of Mugabe and the White African’s iconography. It is a film filled with decaying farm-buildings, machete-wielding Black people and dusty roads from here to nowhere. However, where Bailey and Thompson depict Black people as trespassers on African soil, Denis presents everyone as equally unwelcome in a land that seems oddly unsuited to Human inhabitation.
White Material’s most obvious cinematic precursor is Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Loosely based upon the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic (1972), Stalker is set in and around a place that has been touched by an alien presence. A presence transformed transformed a simple industrial landscape into a terrifying and mystical Zone where the laws of cause and effect no longer function in the expected manner. The Strugatskys’ Zone is a human space rendered inhospitable and incomprehensible to humans. Tarkovsky communicates this unexpected Otherness through two famous sequences;
The trip into the Zone by train in which the characters seem both terrified and uncomprehending despite the fact that the landscape looks like nothing more unusual than an industrial suburb.
The scene in which the characters rest by a stream littered with artefacts of human civilisation that seem somehow stripped of all context and meaning.
Much like Tarkovsky, Denis films a collection of run-down and half-abandoned plantation buildings in such a way that she Others that which should be familiar. When the mother of the family (Isabelle Huppert) arrives at the plantation to find her workers fleeing, she does not seem to be returning home so much as discovering fresh territory. One way in which Denis achieves this estrangement from the landscape is by making it impossible to determine whether the plantation buildings are run-down or half-built. Indeed, the family who operate the plantation are small and their harvest is tiny but they seem to inhabit buildings that are built on a scale entirely inappropriate for a small and impoverished family of farmers. At one point, a man in his seventies (Michel Subor) describes the family home as an old pile and claims that he was born there. Indeed, the grand double doors and generous veranda are certainly what you would expect from a traditional colonial mansion but the building materials are decidedly modern. Breezeblock walls and metal window frames. When the civil war arrives, it is unclear whether it is stunting the growth of a promising business or killing off an ailing operation that was already at death’s door.
Denis also muddies the waters by having everyone approach the plantation as though they were the first humans ever to set foot there. Child soldiers creep up tentatively (a world away from the swaggering confidence and angry sense of ownership displayed by the child soldiers in Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog) and when local kids decide to break in they look upon the contents of the plantation with genuine incomprehension. Showers are met with fear and incredulity. Jewellery is fingered nervously and ignored in favour of a far more comprehensible chicken. At one point, a stolen lighter is handed in tribute to a military commander who dismisses it as ‘white material’ in much the same way as he might talk of an alien artefact or an Egyptian relic. The plantation is both old and new. Both tired and fresh. Both used up and unconquered. Africa does not belong to anyone and as a result it is ceaselessly reinvented and made anew each time a new wave of occupants passes through.
White Material’s characters also serve to undermine the idea that there can ever be such a thing as legitimate ownership of land. Marie, the principle character (Isabelle Huppert) works tirelessly to get the harvest in and keep the plantation going despite the arrival of the civil war. Her husband Andre (Christopher Lambert) takes money from the safe and approaches the local mayor in an attempt to buy free passage from the country. Their elderly father (Michel Subor) looks at the changes impassively and seems happy to wait things out. Their son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) reacts badly to being robbed and shaves off his head in order to ‘go native’ with the local rebels as they raid the farm’s supplies and try to get fucked up on their stocks of medicines. By having each of her white characters react to the civil war in completely different ways, Denis is cutting across the message of Mugabe and the White African: There is no legitimate ownership of the land and there is no moral obligation to protect it or abandon it in favour of someone else. There is only habit and habits are all too easily forgotten and abandoned as time and change brush aside petty human concerns leaving only the immortal and uncaring land.