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Colonial voyeurism re-visited

African Mirror
Regissør: Mischa Hedinger
( Schweiz)

It is difficult to determine whether the documentary African Mirror – based solely on archival material – will rehabilitate a colonial consciousness, criticize colonialism, or rather be an essayistic nostalgia for the colonial gaze.


It has come into fashion to create documentaries based on the 20. century (visual) archives. This genre is often performed with a degree of artistic freedom, which undermines the historical-documentary value, and African Mirror – which had its world premiere at this year's Berlinale – is an example of this practice.

film Essay

Archive footage, letters, press clips and diaries have been sampled for what director Mischa Hedinger calls a film essay that portrays Swiss travel writer, photographer, filmmaker and lecturer René Gardi (1909-2000) and his gaze, perspective and popular impact.

Gardi traveled life throughout the African continent, especially in the part that is today the independent republic of Cameroon. However, as in other documentaries within the genre, the viewer first gets a good deal of information in the film about where on the African continent the footage is from, and only a few details about the specific places and times are given.

The most interesting thing about African Mirror is the time travel we are taking.

The locals exhibited in Gardi's footage – appearing uncommented in the film essay – remain unnamed, unspecified and without their own voice, whereas the colonizers who populate the footage (and thus the film essay) are named, their merits are mentioned, and they put words on their attitudes and worldview.

We see the colonial administrators execute and talk about their census and tax collection practices, and hear about how locals' resistance is punished with house and field burns. Those who speak and those who observe in African Mirror, are – as usual – the white Europeans, and in this sense, the colonial gaze and the colonial representation power are reproduced.

This instructor's choice basically dismantles any form of colonial criticism that may or may not have been part of the instructor's agenda. It is difficult to realize what legitimacy the distribution of the colonial gaze has ever had, and even more difficult to realize what legitimacy a re-distribution – and by extension rehabilitation – has today.

African Mirror. Director Mischa Hedinger

Without consent

I African Mirror the viewer is taken on René Gardi's travels, where he regrets that his homeland does not have its own colonies, and thus does not contribute to the – in his view – at once noble and destructive mission of civilizing black populations in foreign countries.

The most interesting thing about the film essay is the time travel that we are taking, which shows how the European reception of Gardi's work changes from tribute and high demand to scrutiny and criticism of Gardi's colonial and increasingly pensive looks. Gardi's pictures and voiceovers are most reminiscent of animal recordings; locals are shamelessly exhibited in their most intimate moments and without consent, commented by the person behind the camera. They are not simply denied their own voice, but are assumed to be without a voice at all in their constructed primitiveness.

The degree of artistic freedom in documentaries created on the basis of 20th-century (visual) archives often undermines the historical documentary value.

By dedicating extensive and uncommented space to rendition of Gardi's work, Mischa Hedinger commits the classic crime of repeating the assault on the people on display. Whatever the meaning, there is no good excuse for such a choice.

If the point is to investigate the colonial gaze, Gardi's archives should be moved to Cameroon and made available to filmmakers and scientists there. If this type of footage belongs to anyone, then it must be the descendants of the people who were so disrespectfully made the subject of a self-impressed Swiss camera owner's nostalgic hobby and career.

Colonial fantasy re-imagined

One of Gardi's techniques was to persuade the locals – sometimes with some sort of (lousy) payment – to put what he imagined was their authentic traditions in front of the camera. If they refused or objected to his notions of what their traditions consisted of, he did not respond with reflection but by insisting that they follow his ideas.

It has some value in revealing how people who were once perceived as truth-witnesses to "the other's" exoticism used these types of techniques. But in the form that manufacture has African Mirror, the ridicule remains tied to the objects of colonial voyeurism.

Knowingly or not, African Mirror contributes to supporting the unequal representation power, and as such, the documentary is first and foremost a mirror of its own.

Late in the film essay, we hear a tormented Gardi – presumably reconstructed from letters and diaries – speculate on what has become of "his" authentic freedom paradise in what has meanwhile become the Republic of Cameroon, which at the time is flooded by European tourism and exposed to post-colonial exploitation while at the same time the inhabitants of the country trying to build their self-respect and self-determination; attempts that were widely perceived as ridiculous by both Gardi and former colonial administrators.

The lost place and the lost time that Gardi longs for is a place and a time where he had the freedom to submit to the locals his (knowing) desires and fantasies, and to impress his European audience with imagined insights, interpretations and representations.

While the legacy of Gardi and his like-minded people, the colonial administrators and the enlightened white European public, still weighs on the state of the world, contributing African Mirror – conscious or not – to support the unequal representation power, and as such the documentary is first and foremost a mirror of its own.

 African Mirror had its world premiere at the 69th Film Festival
in Berlin in February.


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

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