The colonised is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards.
MUBI's William Klein retrospective
presents a rare opportunity to watch one of his lesser known films, 1969's Le festival Panafricain d'Alger
. Filmed on the occasion of the first edition of the eponymous festival in the Algerian capital which had recently been the set of an historic victory of the anti-colonialist movement, this legendary documentary was produced by the Office national pour le commerce et l'industrie cinématographiques
(ONCIC). The festival celebrated African culture in its emancipatory passage from passive receptacle of Orientalist projections into a proactive agent of self-representation. Much more than an anti-colonialist Woodstock, Klein's film is an ethnographic piece of internationalist agit-prop that traces the significance of the festival from the streets of Algiers back to the history of colonialism.
The hand-held immediacy of the camera pans over the buzzing centre of a city where only a few years prior to the filming the people whom we see celebrating in the streets had to walk like unwanted guests in their own town. Then still trying to build an anti-colonialist alternative to both Western capitalism and Soviet communism (sadly and for many reasons, not all of them internal, things didn't exactly work out), Algeria was the living example of how the battle against imperialism could actually be won. At a time when respectable Western democracies were calling Nelson Mandela and his party a terrorist organization, their members were free and welcome to parade in the streets of Algiers. And so were their counterparts from other African nations, engaged as they all were in the long and painful removal of the chains of colonialism. Klein films the various national delegations marching through the city as onlookers either stare, shy away from the camera or interact with them (not a common occurrence admittedly, as the differences and prejudices diving Arab-speaking North Africa from the sub-Saharan rest of the continent were and still are pretty entrenched).
For a continent that for centuries was inculcated and methodically terrorised into an inferiority complex that elevated European culture as the redeeming civilization in a land of savages, to celebrate its own culture represented an act of militant re-appropriation. “This festival is not general entertainment that would distract from the daily fight. It's part of the immense effort for our emancipation, it's part of our combat,” declares the Algerian president during the opening ceremony. But instead of letting it be just a slogan, Klein articulates and contextualizes it by exhuming from the archives of history the most damning evidence. With slides, intertitles and images of head-chopping colonists, the director illustrates the political economy of colonialism which Marx himself didn't hesitate to describe as the very engine of capitalism. Violence and exploitation necessitated though a form of cultural validation so that the manifest destiny of genocide and plundering would come across in all its edifying legitimacy. The obliteration of traditional African culture was in fact an instrumental part of the colonizing process whose goal was to monopolize natural resources on the one hand, and to impose European “values” on the other. What the documentary captures is the re-activation of culture, something one creates rather than being merely subjected to. It chronicles the present struggles through the cultural devices of a tradition long suppressed. At the same time, as the poet and future president of Angola Agostino Neto is keen to point out, the Pan-African Festival of Algiers should not forge a new negritude, an alternative set of stereotypes and aesthetic clichés to be trapped by and find refuge into. “The revolution” he says, “is the only possible literary act.”
There is no exoticism to be found in Klein's documentary, which in effect overturns the iconographic commonplaces we still associate with Africa by showing what they occult and where they originate from. A joint statement issued by the liberation movements present at the festival reads: “the liberation war we are fighting is what allows to exist culturally.” Art, be it theatre, music or dance, is not lived and practied as a supplement to political militancy, but as its constituent element. The armed struggle itself is seen and carried out as a creative act, one that would reshape African societies and forge a new, emancipated wo/man. Klein's documentary captures the creative forces behind the anti-colonial struggle at their peak, when the image of an emancipated Africa was slowly starting to get into focus. But Western powers just couldn't afford to let the richest continent on earth go its own way and so the lethal forces of counter-revolution were unleashed onto Africa like a biblical plague. Revolutionary leaders were brutally taken out and replaced by neo-colonialist puppets, the few who survived often betrayed their original cause or were prevented from implementing the justice of the oppressed. Aid, which Klein's documentary presciently denounced as the tool of neo-imperialism, would replace colonial armies in the subjugation of African states so as to secure the theft of their resources. But that night in Algiers none could know, and when the American saxophonist Archie Shepp got on stage to play with Algerian raï musicians, the prospect of a free Africa didn't sound that far after all.