In the last quarter century, the end of colonialism and the perpetuation of modernity have brought about the concept of transnational cinema. In definition, a nation is usually considered a specific geographic area where the people within its borders share common culture and ideology. Benedict Anderson, a professor emeritus of International Studies at Cornell University, calls the nation an “imagined community” because most of the people residing in it will never meet each other, but in their minds live “the image of their communion.”
Nationalism therefore invents nations where they do not exist. Although these spaces may be imagined, this does not stop people from becoming territorial and trying to claim certain spaces as their own while ostracizing others who do not seem to belong. In the world of cinema there is often conflict or debate over where a transnational film comes from. If the director is French should it be called a French film? If the same film is produced by a German company is the film German? Should we consider the ethnicities of the actors? All of these questions have spurred debates and there has been little agreement over the answers. Globalization is blurring identities and thus begins the emergence of transnational cinema.
Because colonialism spread people outside of their geographic borders, many began calling more than one place home. Others, such as the French in Africa became outcast in their native land, even if they were born there. Because of the fact that they were white, many blacks did not see it fitting for these people to call Africa home. White Material, a 2009 film by French/African Director Claire Denis tells precisely this tale. The film is semi-autobiographical about Denis herself and portrays one woman’s determination to stay on her coffee plantation against all odds.
The specific details of the conflict in White Material are not directly addressed in the film, but the basic premise of the story is not too convoluted. Maria Vial (played by Isabelle Huppert) is a French-speaking white woman living in unidentified African state. It is unclear how long she has lived there but nonetheless she determinately calls the place her home. Conflict erupts around her and her coffee plantation, and it seems that things have gotten so bad that the rest of the white people living or working with her have fled to France. These people beg and plead for her to leave; others try to force her out, but Maria stays on her land. The unidentified conflict seems to be a type of civil war and rebels attack any sign of colonialism. At one point some men treat Maria as if she is a colony that they own, and charge her money to use the road to get to town. Maria believes that the militia will protect her and her land, but there seems to be no evidence behind this belief.
The conflict and threat to her land continues to rise and she eventually comes into contact with a rebel leader called The Boxer (Isaach De Bankole). She then offers him a place to rest because he is wounded. However, none of the tensions are resolved by their interactions and soon the land is overtaken by soldiers and child rebels. Chaos erupts in the end and there is hope for liberation. Her family is killed and her home is burned.
It is debatable whether or not Claire is a likable character and whether or not she should be praised for her stubborn desire to stay on her plantation. To some extent it is honorable that she has such a determined soul and she fights to stay in a place that she believes is rightfully hers. However, throughout the film she seems to have an elitist attitude toward everyone around her and expects power in places where she has not earned it. For example, she expects the military to side with her and protect her and her land from the destruction of the rebels. Why she expects this is unknown, they do not owe her anything nor is her plantation of concern to them. Seemingly, she is used to a position of privilege because she is a white woman from the territory that colonized the African state. She emits an air of superiority. One reading of the film can illustrate that Claire is punished for this attitude in the end: her home is destroyed and her son is killed because she did not leave when advised. However, none can argue that she did not show remarkable bravery along the way.
As well as being a transnational film, White Material also shares a few characteristics with Third Cinema. Third Cinema emerged in Latin America in the 1960s and spread throughout third world countries as a critique of neo-colonialism. Its main goals are political. Third Cinema attempts to draw attention to the oppression of a colonial attitude and attempts to rewrite history in a way to show things from a different perspective. Third Cinema embraces the concept of “imperfect cinema” in that it emphasizes a handheld camera, use of multiple film stocks, a lack of visual polish and an anti-spectacle component that opposes the hegemonic viewing practices. This is where White Material is set apart from Third Cinema. Although it possesses its anti-colonial message, White Material was a big budget production that is polished and looks aesthetically like a film from dominant cinema.
Overall, although there are some distinct problems with Denis’ film, White Material does illustrate the conflict and dissolution that is cause by colonialism and people thinking that they are superior to others just because of skin tone or privilege. More importantly it is not a glamorizing film, it does not wish spectators to watch for simple enjoyment. Instead, it invites criticism. Moreover, there is a potent anti-hegemony message underlying the images of conflict
in the film.
Review by Emilee Prado
Anderson, Benedict. “Imagined Communities.” Corrigan, Timothy, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Pages 910-915. (Print)
Solanas, Fernando and Getino, Octavio. “Towards a Third Cinema.” Corrigan, Timothy, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Pages 924-939. (Print)