Redefining history in its own images, the remarkable hourlong found footage project “Pays Barbare” is less documentary than curated document. Longtime Italian avant garde directors Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi (“From the Pole to the Equator”) assemble material from a private archive covering Italian colonial Ethiopia and read captions to deepen its context, providing a hauntingly intimate look at under-seen persecution. The project is both a form of activism that deepens historical understanding and an instructive rumination on the dangers of allowing it to get buried with time.
With no sound during its first 10 minutes, “Pays Barbare” gradually reveals slow-moving images taken in Milan in 1945 at the tail-end of the Italo-Ethiopian war, which depicts a world of fierce militant control and faces that blur together in murky black-and-white, obscuring the details of the massacres preceding them. The ensuing 50-odd minutes proceed to break them down. As a voiceover informs us that “10,000 Libyans were deported in 1930,” all of whom were shot to death, “Pays Barbare” dovetails into a succession of images featuring Ethiopians at ease during this tumultuous time as well as war-torn shots of death and destruction previously unseen in such stark detail.
With the addition of an atmospheric soundtrack, a mixture of classical piano compositions and more contemporary sounds, the experience shifts into a meditation on the process of turning once-ephemeral material into essential commentary. Alternately reminiscent of Bill Morrison’s archival mashup “Decasia” and “A Film Unfinished” (which resurrected Nazi propaganda films shot in a Polish ghetto), “Pays Barbare” drifts through its unsettling content with a fierce sense of purpose that’s both tough to bear and fraught with meaning.
While the filmmakers exclusively rely on the footage, there’s always a sense of their curatorial vision guiding each sequence. As we watch frightening images of corpses strewn across an empty field, voiceover narration introduces the text from a telegram by Musollini approving the use of toxic gas in Ethiopia. Suddenly, the monotonous rendition gives way to a female voice singing the same morbid orders with an upbeat melody. The ironic juxtaposition calls to mind similar devices used to powerful effect in the newly released “The Act of Killing,” which also opens up a largely misunderstood chapter in genocidal history, although the device feels more transparent here.
Yet “Pays Barbare” barely reaches for sensationalistic overstatement that might overshadow the capacity for the images to radiate with meaning. With a series of photographs from an Eastern African war album covering 1935 – 1937, simply held by the filmmakers in front of the camera, the reality of the incursion sets in. Only in its concluding segments do the voiceovers begin to comment on the ramifications of everything that has come before.
Exploring the concept of “colonial eroticism” as a driving force of fascism, one narration powerfully unearths the lingering effects of that mentality in the limited understanding of the persecution in question today. At only an hour, however, “Pays Barbare” mainly lets the archive speak for itself. If not a fully realized movie, it offers a cogent record of the capacity for the past to inform the present, ending with a fleeting expression of concern for the next stage — and hinting at the chilling possibility that it might one day require a sequel.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Likely to play at experimental festivals with cross-over potential due to its historic value, the movie is too short for a traditional theatrical release but could see some business on DVD.