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Is there role for white people in post-colonial Africa? If you ask some African leaders, they’ll tell you that the legacy of white colonial power on the continent has established an oppositional, almost dialectical relationship between white (read: Western) opinion and action; nations pay lip service to the civil wars, famine, poverty and diseases that have plagued the continent while continuing to exploit Africa’s resources, political corruption, tribal rivalries and large scale suffering for their own gain. The reality of post-colonial exploitation has fostered a rather brilliant form of populist demagoguery that foments anti-Western, anti-white sentiment and points the finger at the impact of so-called economic development (The World Bank and IMF) while simultaneously allowing a class of elites to profit wildly from private corporate investment and charitable largesse. In a few rare instances, residential white populations living in nations like Zimbabwe have come into direct conflict with the government for maintaining economic control of resources even after the colonial dominance of their families has ended. Earlier in the decade, in an attempt to repatriate the farms of Zimbabwe into the hands of black citizens, President Robert Mugabe sparked outrage among many Westerners for inspiring violent clashes between his supporters and the wealthy whites who, despite making up only 2% of the population, controlled over 60% of the arable land. As these difficult, graphic images will verify, this story does not end well for anyone involved. But many would argue it did not end well for Zimbabwe either; deprived of the white farmers’ generations worth of expertise in large scale farm management, the use of the land was handled poorly, resulting in famine which persists to this day and, ironically, has ended up destabilizing the Mugabe regime. Meanwhile, the violence and intimidation continue, seemingly unabated. All of these years later, race and the colonial experience are twinned, intertwined in new, complicated knots.
In White Material, Claire Denis takes inspiration from the continent’s hot spots of social upheaval and violence to explore the dissolution of a way of life. Maria (Isabelle Huppert) is the matriarch of a family of white French farmers whose African coffee plantation comes under threat during an unnamed civil war. Desperate to maintain order in the face of a seemingly abstract enemy, Maria’s mission is the engine that drives the film forward; despite the impending arrival of rebel forces to the family plantation, Maria will seemingly do anything to maintain the life she’s built on the farm. Maria hires a band of day laborers to work the land when her employees abandon the cause in the name of safety and ignores her family’s repeated pleas to get the hell out of there. But there is more to Maria’s need than just the quixotic quest for normalcy; blind to the racial tension at play, Maria is shocked when her long-term relationships with black friends and neighbors start to come unravelled, only to realize that her own family (and her own mind) are almost certain to follow suit. At that moment, it is already too late; a small, renegade band of child soldiers arrives, murdering and pillaging, wiping away the old order before running into big problems of their own.
Denis, working here with cinematographer Yves Cape (who also shot Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch, also playing at the New York Film Festival) in the absence of longtime collaborator Agnes Godard, manages to create images that reduce the expansive forests and hills of the Cameroonian countryside into a claustrophobic geometry of impending doom; roads that seem to go on forever suddenly segmented, fraught with enough danger from former friends and new foes to render them useless, the rows of trees and open fields offer just enough privacy to harbor violence and humiliation. Cape’s images operate very much in Denis’ tradition; close-ups and pans that keep important information outside of the frame, only to return later in the story, finally pulled back to reveal the full horror on display. For Denis, the repetition of images is crucial to her elliptical brand of storytelling, providing keys to her narrative and allowing the viewer to establish a chronology while fostering reconsideration, the constant need to re-examine the meaning of the image in light of subsequent revelations. As such, Denis’ films often get misunderstood as “narrative puzzles” that require the viewer to put them together, but that metaphor seems wrong to me. Instead, I think of her films in the way I think of looking at a painting or a mural, only, instead of starting from across the room and slowly making my way up close to see the detail, Denis reverses the process and places the close-up details first, slowly guiding the eye across the frame and story, each image building upon the others until the full film is assembled in the mind and the viewer is able to step back at last and contemplate the whole.
In order for that strategy to work, Denis must do more than simply play games with the structure of her storytelling; she is required to create beautiful, dramatically compelling moments that keep the eye and mind eager to know what might come next. Thankfully, no one understands these requirements better than Denis herself. She is an absolute master of balancing narrative tone with cinematographic beauty to produce revelation and, in the case of White Material, she can’t lose; she has Isabelle Huppert at her disposal, after all. Huppert seems to me the perfect embodiment of Denis’ vision of a stubborn colonial tradition; she is an actress that can drive you away with the upward tilt of her head and the subtle twist of her jaw, only to draw you back in the moment her eyes flash an ounce of the pain that seems to flow like mercury beneath her skin. Huppert uses her diminutive stature like no other performer; her fragility, those tiny arms and legs, only deepen the confusion over the fact that she dominates every frame she occupies. There is no performer more brave than she (I truly believe she would do anything at all in service of the truth in a character) and Denis uses Huppert’s innate tension, this frail threat, to great effect. Huppert’s Maria longs for a normalcy that evaporates before her very eyes, a normalcy that also includes nonchalant exploitation; terrible living conditions for her workers, a flippant disregard for the safety of her friends, workers and family, all of which comes back to bite her in the ass and then some. And yet, despite the knowledge that you’re watching a pushy rich French woman act incredulous that black African workers don’t appreciate an unlit hovel to shelter themselves for the night, you know that Maria is suffering, too; Huppert moves you to tears and scares the absolute shit out of you all at once. For all of the politics and pain on display, Denis’ White Material is ultimately reduced to the slow fracture behind Huppert’s defiant eyes. The film couldn’t be in better hands.