What is the bond between a tribe of Ethiopian cattle farmers, dandy gentlemen parading themselves on Brazzaville streets, and the Kinshasan fetish wrestlers who appear in 35 Cows and a Kalishnokov in the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam’s (IDFA) competition this year? To propose a documentary about such a bond, an act of synthesis would be necessary, one which first deconstructs the rites and peoples exhibited, creating a web of meaning that would link the rituals.
Or, as in 35 Cows and a Kalishnokov, one could make a purely aesthetic film whose theoretical basis is but a shared continent, exotic landscapes and black skin. What director Oswold von Richthofen’s documentary offers up to its (inevitably) Western viewers is an image of Africa that is all color and form—rippling musculature, exotic hues, pierced faces, wild cries—regurgitating as always the same Western myth of Africa, a myth which makes of the continent a safari for the hunting of exotic imagery.
Each ritual depicted in 35 Cows and a Kalishnokov—the wrestler’s animistic prayer; the Surma’s body-painting; the Gentlemen's attire—is a one filmed to become pure spectacle, spectacle emptied of significance. The goat’s head fetish, the colorful suits, and the decorated bodies are on display as chromatic circumstances representative of a false image of ‘natural beauty’. Through the pretense of naturally representing the purified plasticity of the Dark Continent, we are expected to believe both that this imagery is divested of ideology and that an understanding will emanate automatically from this distilled aesthetic. Whereas in fact the myth of Africa’s exotic primitivism is strengthened through a deformation of its images. The Surma people’s ritual stick fight donga, depleted of its social and historical significance, is presented as a folkloric truth, a preserved (and culture-less) naturalness. Through the chicanery of beauty, the so-called ‘primitiveness of the savage’ is provided as a natural achronism rather than a condition of history.
It would be a mistake to consider this aesthetic perspective which glorifies a ‘natural beauty’ as either a passive seeing or an innocent appreciation. This ideology of reduction to pure form serves a purpose—to reduce Africa to a source of imagery that is nothing but colore and plasticity—meaning a place from which politics, history, society and economy have been all forcibly extracted.
Richthofen’s Africa is not so different, unfortunately, from Riefenstahl’s, only that his film reproduces this selfsame myth of an exotic savagery four decades later. One could have hoped that in the ensuing time the image of Africa, if not at very least the cinema about Africa, would have developed a more solid ethic, especially since this depleted colonial aesthetic has already been critically deconstructed in the 60s and 70s (see Gerhard Richter’s critical re-painting of one of Reifenstahl’s Africa photos). Yet, the myth of seamless primitiveness prevails here, and this purposefully deceptive image of Africa perseveres—the decontextualized cattle farmers and dandies and fighters, which all arouse a vague strangeness without ever offering the viewer an alterity.
We see tribal the Surma paint themselves and dance. But, why are they dancing? Why are they painting themselves? Why these colors? Why does one wrestler choose chains as a fetish and another choose a goat’s head? Why do the Brazzaville dandies parade themselves in the streets exposed to the scorn of the others?
But Hier gibt es kein Warum - Here there is no ‘why’—to quote Godard in Adieu au langage quoting Primo Levi in his critique of the insubstantiality of images. In that film Héloise Godet recounts the story of the young Primo arriving at Auschwitz, bursting into tears at the horrific sight of the world which awaits him. In a cry of confusion he —Warum? Why?—to which the SS Guard’s reply is the most appropriate truth. Perhaps though, it is disingenuous to wait for an answering when the questions are purposefully obscured by the (well-funded, well-shot, well-cut) documentary’s substanceless surface.
Yet the greater sin of 35 Cows and a Kalashnikov is that in presenting us vacuity, it would have us take it as plenitude. And like all myths the object of this apparent emptiness is utilitarian—to efface centuries of enslavement, plunder, missionarism through a celebration of the superficial image of what has been destroyed. The wounds are painted over with lacquer, history is drained from the image, and the only expectation is that the audience clap their hands and utter ‘how pretty’ at yet another iteration of the same expected images.
Aesthetics here allows a double larceny to be enacted—the beings filmed are given sound bites in order to be stripped of voice; images in order to be robbed of substance. Likewise, the viewer is fleeced of meaning, and provided only the poor substitutes of detached color and ephemeral motion.
Not that aesthetics must be obfuscatory sleights of hand. The Masters section in the IDFA revisited Jean Rouch’s The Lion Hunters (1965), a study of the Gao, hunters of lions by bow and arrow, at a moment at which this tradition was on the verge of disappearance.
The Lion Hunters opens with the image of gleeful children before a campfire, as a voice (Rouch) recounts the legend of those who hunt lions with bow an arrow, and of their voyage through Le Pays de Nulle Part, the Land of Nowhere; of their courage and fear; of their knowledge and skill. Rather than sound bites and decontextualized images, from the very start we are granted access to the image’s purpose (and in many ways its ethics). Aesthetics are used not with the pretense of prettiness, but emerge as a form of memory; a method of preservation; a technique of narrative—a witness to a legendary yet real practice, the communal hunting of the lion in the bush.
The hunters, Rouch tells us, are hunting a lion, a large male who has been terrorizing the bush, and who has broken the pact with the farmers by killing not for food but pleasure. The villagers, explains Rouch, recognize the lion by the sound of his roar, by the look of his tracks—they recognize him, and name him The American, for his terror and his force. This act of naming is a crucial normalization of what we would otherwise take to be exotic, and is one of Rouch’s techniques granting us access to the Goa’s tradition, whilst preserving their otherness.
Issiaka, Wangari, Tahirou. These are the names of the heroic bow-hunters; their names given to us with the same nonchalance as he would present a Jean, a Pierre, a Thomas. The poison, boto, which the lion hunters prepare with ritual care once every five years, retains its name whose syllables contain the magic of its properties. To name is to recognize, to allow the being to emerge from the shallow surface of the image. To name is also to recognize alterity, before accepting it. As the opposite of mythmaking, naming grants access to meaning rather than concealing it—contextualizing the hunt, transforming something that might seem to Western eyes to be exotic (or barbaric or primitive) into something granted its own narrative normalcy and latent logic.
The legend of the Lion Hunters which Rouch recounts fulfills a cinematic purpose, making use of cinema as a repository of both storytelling and memory, unlike 35 Cows and a Kalishnokov, which misappropriates the image of the other only to create an exploitative consumable—a chromatic postcard book targeting Western clichés of a savage continent. The Lion Hunters desires to explain, to render visible, granting its viewers access even to the inner, spiritual life of the Gao people: As when Rouch explains how the hunters rub leaves into the killed lion’s orifices in order to liberate the lion’s soul into the bush, lest the soul take possession of the hunter’s sanity. Rouch’s explanations, though imbued with knowledge, often take the form of doubt, poetry, acknowledging their own limits—he suggests rather than tells, conjectures rather than insists, for example that the spoked-wheel symbol found traced into the rocks on the hunting grounds by Les Hommes d’Avant (the men of past times) might an ancient magical symbols, or perhaps a wheel, if not territorial markings.
“There is,” instructs Pasolini’s Centaur in Medea, “nothing natural in nature.” To lay bare the logic behind the ritual, as Rouch does, is to reinsert the practice into history, to reconnect it to geography, time, economic laws, ethics. A lion hunt, a ritual dance, a fight or circumcision, no less happens of its own volition than do a juridical inquiry, a Christmas sale, or a doctoral exam. Which explains why Rouch needed seven years to film each step of the hunt’s preparation - because this was the only way to leave the hunt in its natural temporality, a temporality which grants us access to the rite’s significance—the poison’s concoction, the bow’s selection, the arrows’ forging, the spirit’s preparation.
Likewise The Lion Hunters lays bare the economic conditions that allow the hunt to take place—a tribe of cattle farmers which calls the hunters to their aid when needed; a second tribe 500 kilometers through the bush which prepares the lion traps; another to which they will sell the lion’s heart. This superficially ‘barbaric ritual’ becomes a coherent one, stretching hundreds of miles across tribes and nations, connected to a local and global economy.
By providing us with the historical and linguistic context, by immersing his film in a tradition of epic poetry, Rouch offers a perspective, an opening, which the spectacle of 35 Cows and a Kalashnikov conceals. Rather than an obfuscating aesthetic insisting upon the fallacious chicanery of the exotic Africa’s natural and eternal state primitiveness, Rouch offers us a legendary story of a heroic people. And by closing the film as he opened it, with the joyous faces of the Gao children listening to the legend before campfire, he declares also his allegiance, as much to the future of those he has had the privilege to film as to those who have the privilege to understand.