Review of Göran Hugo Olsson’s Concerning Violence

Martinique-born anticolonial thinker, liberation theorist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s 1962 text The Wretched of the Earth shows itself to be provocative in the clarity and strength of both its rhetoric and its thorough, nuanced survey of the material and psychological effects of colonialism. Beginning with the chapter titled Concerning Violence and addressing the limits and potentials of violent anticolonial resistance, Fanon’s book lays a detailed trajectory for a decolonising nation and its people. No stranger to using politically and historically-charged subject matter, Swedish documentary filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson has taken on the task of bringing Fanon’s words to life in his latest film Concerning Violence (2014), which premiered at Sundance’s World Competition section this year.

Olsson’s previously known for Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011), a revelatory overview of the Black Power movement in the United States that combined rare news footage from Swedish journalistic archives with oral testimonies from participants to reconsider its social significance. Once again, a fascinating plethora of archival material is presented to us in Concerning Violence – including an interview with Burkina Faso President Thomas Sankara prior to his assassination – accompanied by voice-over narration from Lauren Hill and an introductory foreword from literary theorist Professor Gayatri Spivak. Yet the documentary itself has turned out anything but as dense and academic as that sounds. Olsson chooses footage that illustrates Fanon’s theorisation of anticolonial violence; he superimposes the text itself on screen where a sentence is particularly effective; he edits with a suggestive edge that points us towards the ongoing patterns of exploitation within contemporary global relations.

At times, Olsson’s documentary paints a patchwork picture of colonialism and resistance; his dense collage of journalistic footage, punctuated with Fanon’s more polemical moments, can give a disorienting narrative rhythm. This makes it hard to discern a straightforward progression towards a climactic moment; combined with the minimal historical background to much of the footage itself, Olsson expects much from his audience in terms of sustained engagement and prior knowledge. Jumping from country to country, from fully-fledged resistance movement to more minor but resonant acts of non-cooperation like the 1960’s Liberian miners’ strike, Concerning Violence may be risking the ire of meticulous documentarists and scholars, but this touch-and-go perspective is perhaps exactly what powers the film’s core concept. The restless tempo unifies the documentary’s nine sub-headed sections; an inclusive tone of Pan-African socialism, and a collective emotional pitch of cool-headed anger, emerges.

What Olsson should be lauded for in particular is bringing to light some truly remarkable Swedish archival material. The unsung journalists behind the revelatory footage have captured a tantalising array of firsthand material; most striking of these are the spontaneous interviews from right on the ground. These include a Mozambican female FRELIMO guerrilla fighter speaking on emancipation from gendered representation, as well as a grating interview with a white South African missionary couple holding the possibility of native right to self-rule in genuinely baffled, disbelieving contempt.

From warning against the cultural stagnancy of valorising only that which is pre-colonial and indigenous, to pointing out the covert forms of economic neocolonialism perpetuated by a national bourgeoisie, The Wretched of the Earth emerges as a seminal work of the decolonising thrust of the 1960s and 1970s. For Fanon, decolonisation, including its initial stage of violent resistance, is a process of generative potential; his attempts to theorise it as a period of nation- but also subject-constitution presumes an emancipatory potential is latent in the process itself. Olsson has adapted this vision with no time for niceties, maintaining Fanon’s emphasis on how only anticolonial violence can jolt the material and psychological totality of the colonial structure.

A sure one to do well on the documentary film festival circuit, Olsson’s Concerning Violence brings fresh material to a chapter in human history yet to be fully explored for its evolving and complex lingering effects.

Sarah Jilani

To find out more about Göran Hugo Olsson and Concerning Violence, visit www.story.se.

Credits
1. Göran Hugo Olsson, Concerning Violence, courtesy of YouTube.