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January 17, 2014 5:15 PM
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Sundance Review: Colonialism Is Explored As You’ve Never Seen It Before In Mesmerizing 'Concerning Violence'

"Concerning Violence."

Swedish documentarian Göran Hugo Olsson’s “The Black Power Mixtape” provided a revelatory overview of the black power movement in the United States through the unique perspective of rare news footage gathered from a Swedish archive. More than a clip show, “Black Power Mixtape” combined many of its scenes with contemporary black voices ruminating on the significance of the movement. Olsson’s follow-up, the bracingly unconventional “Concerning Violence,” contains a radically different focus and tone. However, Olsson’s non-linear, found footage snapshot of African colonialism mirrors “Black Power” for its similar use of preexisting material repurposed to strengthen its modern significance. Viewed together, the two movies offer a wholly unique process of interrogating history.

For “Concerning Violence,” Olsson draws on the fiery text “The Wretched of the Earth,” West Indies psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s sharply-worded tirade against colonialist tendencies published in 1962, the same year as his death. Olsson blends haunting and immersive visuals of the African liberation struggles of the sixties and seventies with excerpts from Fanon’s text, read aloud by singer Lauryn Hill and printed on the screen. The approach takes time to settle in, but has been expertly crafted by Olsson and his fellow editors to maintain an immersive rhythm. Fanon’s declarations about the underlying motives of colonialism and the victims of its power-hungry participants coalesces into a searing indictment that cuts through the limited dimensions of the visuals with the alacrity of the written word onscreen.

Divided into nine sequences, “Concerning Violence” stretches from images of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola and a Liberian miners strike from the sixties all the way through the contemporary struggles of Burkina Faso. Once again, Olsson’s project is empowered by a wealth of content from Swedish archives, resulting in a spectacularly dense collage of protests, battles and their grisly aftermaths in both color and black-and-white. Oppositional voices come and go, with snapshots of the struggle threaded together by a moody jazz score and the persistent ire of Fanon’s declarations.

Olsson’s project takes on an illustrative dimension that’s simultaneously emotional and withdrawn. Rather than playing up individual characters, it threads them together as cleanly expressed ideas. Fanon’s assertion that colonialism “is violence in its natural state” takes on horrific dimensions with the devastating image of a mutilated woman breastfeeding her mutilated child, the obvious victims of machete attacks. Likewise, Olsson empowers Fanon’s description of “the cold, plundered creature which is the native” by repeatedly highlighting colonialist disdain: One of the more shocking interviews finds a white South African expressing contempt for local blacks who aspire to obtain wealth.

Through this unfiltered process of unwrapping racist assertions, “Concerning Violence” appropriates their words for shrewder ends, to the point where it almost seems as though the victims of such hatred get the last laugh. The book’s polemical attitude as it comes up throughout the film portrays colonialism in fully abstract terms, making the precise focus of the movie less relevant than its overall outlook.

One of the great filmmakers to investigate African colonialism, Jean Rouch, did so with highly inventive documentary-fiction hybrids that told the story of colonialist oppression through embellished stories constructed by its native stars. “Concerning Violence” contains a similar degree of sophistication by repurposing material crafted for journalistic purposes into a grander artistic statement on the roots of civil unrest. The quality of the footage fluctuates to the point where it’s difficulty to point out a single climactic moment that brings the full weight of the movie’s purpose to light. Yet the concept remains strong throughout, not only paying tribute to Fanon’s arguments but resurrecting them as they’ve never been seen before.

Criticwire Grade: A-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Premiering in Sundance’s World Documentary competition, the movie may have a hard time standing out in the festival environment but should remain a popular favorite on the documentary festival circuit. It may land a limited theatrical distribution deal for its historical significance, but its main audience lies in ancillary markets, and may find an especially supportive audience from the educational market.


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