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.
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All drama is a process of digestion. The peristaltic processing of information and emotional states resulting in change. It is an on-going process. It never stops. The best dramas are those that choose their moment carefully, setting up the cameras or lighting the stage just as the emotional bowels twitch or the psychological constipation ends. For all of her tendencies towards hard-hitting topics and enigmatic story-telling techniques, Claire Denis is a genuinely world-class dramatist. Films such as 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and The Intruder (2004) are heady examinations of sudden changes that come after long periods of emotional constipation.
In The Intruder, we see an old man who has lived life entirely upon his own terms – his past a catalogue of burned bridges, old enmities and shady deals – suddenly realising that he has to reconnect with his estranged son. In 35 Shots of Rum we are introduced to a family that exists in perfect emotional balance. The son and the daughter live together while the father’s old girlfriend and the upstairs neighbour orbit round the household in enigmatic patterns, part of the family and yet denied any clear role in it. Both films deal with the inevitable change that must afflict these delicate psychological ecosystems. A process of change that is, according to Denis at least, a mixed-blessing.
The ending to 35 Shots of Rum can be read as either a wedding or a funeral. The father’s announcement that the time has come for him to drink the 35 shots can be seen as either a capitulation to unwanted forces or as a moment of spiritual rebirth. Like the Death tarot card, the film marks the end of a period of stasis, it does not explain whether this stasis is broken by an ending or a new beginning. Similarly, the ambiguous moral character of The Intruder’s protagonist cloaks his eventual death in dramaturgical vagueness. Is it sad that he never got to know his son? Or was his death deserved for the crimes he committed in order to artificially extend his own life? For Denis, this process of emotional change can also be terrifying, as demonstrated in her take on the vampire film Trouble Every Day (2001). In that film a doctor nails his wife up in her bedroom because she has changed into something Other while an American who harbours terrible violent fantasies stalks the world desperately trying to find a cure. When the pair come together it is erotic and terrifying, natural and unnatural, to be applauded and avoided.
Denis’ Beau Travail, an adaptation of Melville’s unfinished novella Billy Budd (1924) set against the backdrop of the modern-day French Foreign Legion, continues Denis’ interest in the complexities and ambiguities of emotional change and emotional constipation, demonstrating them with her characteristic grace and lack of pity.
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Recently, Ruthless Culture has become somewhat fixated with films that deal with alienation, death, misery, insanity and violence. Fixated enough that I think a bit of a change might be welcome and I can think of no better a vehicle for change than Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums (2008).
35 Shots of Rum is a warm-hearted but utterly uncompromising drama revolving around a somewhat extended family grouping. Lionel (Alex Descas) lives with his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) in a block of flats that also serves as home to Lionel’s old partner Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) and old friend of the family Noe (Gregoire Colin). If I use vague terminology such as ‘partner’ and ‘friend of the family’ it is because, initially at least, many of the relationships in 35 Shots of Rum are unclear. This lack of clarity is not only intensional, it is one that continues throughout the film as Denis tries to place us in the same position as her characters… we know how we feel but we do not know where everyone stands.
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