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A parachute landing in the mission archive

The savior
Regissør: Morten Vest

Documentary Morten Vest came across the archive of the Danish branch of the United Sudan Mission, mixing parts from there with interviews from today. The result is an interesting but ahistorical tale.


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The Redeemed tells the story of how a small group of Danish missionaries created a large Christian congregation from their base in the Numan Bachama area, which is today located in the western part of Nigeria. The story in the film is structured around the diary notes of the missionary Niels Brønnum from 1913. At the beginning of 1913, he and his pregnant wife Margaret Brønnum made their first trip to "dark Sudan," as part of the United Sudan Mission – an international (US-dominated) project.

At the beginning of the film, we meet the last Danish missionary in the area, Rikke Vestergaard, who doubts that someone will replace her when she retires soon. Mission is no longer what it was. Although age has begun to weigh on her, her strict sense of duty ensures that she is unable to leave her job in Sudan. Every time she visits Denmark, she always seems to wonder: "What are you doing here where no one needs you?"

"Christianity would not have been Christianity without the mission."

It is Vestergaard who in the opening of the film articulates a sub-theme, the agreement that in her opinion can never be concluded: that the Muslims drop their "holy war" and that the Christians abandon their missionary duty in return. Christianity simply would not have been Christianity without the mission, she argues. After Vestergaard's speech, the film goes to archive records that reveal the true purpose of the United Sudan Mission: From the beginning, this mission was aimed at preventing the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa.

Problematic witness statements

In light of the current Boko Haram movement in Nigeria, a documentary on the colonial missionary history of Christianity in this specific area is highly relevant. It is nevertheless characteristic of the film that it does not contextualize this particular feature of the United Sudan Mission; rather, we get the (incorrect) impression that Brønnum and Vestergaard's fight against the spread of Islam is a fundamental part of mission as such. The material from the present also includes interviews with authorities such as the local archbishop and the king of the Bachama people, as well as named persons who are presented as "witnesses". This seems like a bizarre categorization – witness to what? History, perhaps. But everyone knows that it is white people who created these historical categories, by presenting the others either as witnesses to the story or victims of it.

According to the director, the film's archive material consists of footage from the 1920s onwards, but the film's narrative vantage point is Niels Brønnum's first year in Sudan / Nigeria in 1913. This construction makes the “witness” narratives rather mysterious – as when the film cuts directly from reading Brønnum's diary entries from when he was on his way to a small town with major alcohol problems, to present an interview with a woman who says that she made a living by selling alcohol there. She's not a young sheep, but she's certainly not 120 years old, either.

The documentary generally does not provide any details about such things as time references, places or the context of the archive recordings. This in turn has two consequences: the viewer is left to speculate on the relationship between the narrator, recordings and interviews (the "witnesses" are at best witnesses to something other than what the narrator refers to) – and the random picking from the archive ends up in line with notions of «the timeless continent»; it obviously does not matter if something takes place in this or that village, this or that decade – the whole thing is Africa, no matter what.

Self-confidence and empathy

The director has apparently failed to contact one of the most obvious sources who could inform him about the current context – namely the historian Niels Kastfelt, who has Danish church and mission history as his special field. The Bachama people and the United Sudan Mission are precisely his area of ​​research (he has even published comments on the collection of Brønnum's letters). Moreover, when Kastfelt was engaged in field work in Numan in the 1980s, there were still some in the local population who had become Christians through the meeting with the generation Brønnum belonged to.

The portrayal is done with great loyalty and empathy.

There is a widespread tendency among journalists as well as documentarians to believe that by making a parachute landing in any context – and in a more or less elegant way putting together the sources you stumbled upon into a dramatic narrative – you can produce historical accounts of something as complex as missionary work. Such confidence in one's own skills may be necessary for media workers, but it can also be an expression of an underestimation of others' professions – and an overestimation of your own.

It is clear that Morten Vest has worked hard on both the archive material and the collection of relevant interviews with people in or related to the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria (as the congregation of two million people is called today). Everyone in the film is portrayed with great loyalty and empathy – no matter what the director may have actually thought about them. That's one of the great strengths of this movie.

Black Christ

Perhaps the most thought-provoking character is (the former) Archbishop Nemuel Babba. Between spontaneous laughter and intense seriousness, he says that if it was up to him to judge a particular side, he would judge both – and started with "the white man". He claims that what the church accepted was neither Brønnum nor any other missionary, but Christ "who was born for us." That is what the missionaries should have taught them, says Nemuel Babba. The Bible is for everyone and should be used as people see fit – in their own context. "I came to Christ as a black man; I came to Christ with all that I am. If they say that is not what Christianity wants, then I say: To hell with Christianity. "

The goal of the United Sudan Mission was to prevent the spread of Islam.

It would have been interesting if the film had explored this perspective more thoroughly, and related it to how Brønnum and his missionary colleagues saw their own role, task and theology. Instead, West places the archbishop's statement at the end of the film and then rewinds to archive footage. Unfortunately, such overly symbolic gestures do not make anyone wiser.

The film can be ordered as Blueray DV.
See the film's website for more information.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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