Written by Rachael Johnson
Claire Denis has made remarkable films about both French colonial Africa and the immigrant experience in post-colonial France. In White Material (2009), Denis returns to the continent, to an unnamed, post-colonial, Francophone country in the throes of civil war. Interestingly, the script was co-written with French author Marie NDiaye. Although of different race, background and generation, both the writer and director have a close connection with French-speaking Africa and an intimate understanding of otherness: Parisian-born Denis grew up in colonial Senegal and Cameroon while Franco-Senegalese NDiaye was born and raised in France.[caption id="attachment_8252" align="aligncenter" width="460"] A singular presence[/caption]
White Material is about Maria Vial, a white Frenchwoman striving, in the face of mounting hostilities, to secure the coffee plantation she manages. French troops are assigned to evacuate their nationals but she refuses to leave the land she considers home. Superbly played by Isabelle Huppert, Maria is a profoundly complex character. Whether hanging on to the back of a bus heaving with humanity, or applying red lipstick as the world around her goes up in flames, her tenacity is shown to be incontestable and remarkable. Maria is, however, a deluded single-minded woman. Her flaws are rooted in both her privileged white European background and singular personality. She may feel an attachment to African soil- indeed, she feels she belongs to the country- but we know that her struggle to save “her” coffee plantation shows supreme self-interest. She shows concern for a worker’s sick child but disregards the fears of those fleeing her plantation. Equally revealing is her willingness to let her employees stay in unpardonable living quarters.[caption id="attachment_8253" align="aligncenter" width="400"] Claire Denis[/caption]
Maria’s dismissal of the concerns of others, particularly those of her ex-husband, André (Christopher Lambert), and refusal to acknowledge the dangers encircling her adolescent son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), may strike the viewer as unrealistic. This capacity for denial is improbable but may also mask a racist assumption: namely, the belief that her white skin will protect her. The viewer is encouraged to read Maria’s commitment as a white fantasy of belonging and possession. This post-colonial white woman may have had a romantic relationship with the local mayor, and may be contemptuous of other whites, but her mindset is considerably colonial. Note that Denis does not judge her central character in an obvious way. Her approach is to observe rather than condemn. It is up to the individual viewer to interpret Maria.
The film is primarily about the position of white people in Africa. The expression “white material” refers both to white people and their possessions. It is wittily employed by the local radio DJ who provides sharp political comment on the conflict: “As for the white material, the party’s over. No more cocktails on shaded verandahs while we sweat water and blood. They’re deserting. They’re right to run scared.” Although Maria’s extraordinary energy and audacity are constantly highlighted, Denis appears to underline that her very presence on African soil is incongruous. This is accentuated by the striking image of her pale-skinned, red-haired character standing, all by herself, on a dirt road in a pale pink dress. Maria is presented as an idiosyncratic anachronism. As it did for the European colonial male in the past, Africa, for Maria, represents opportunity and romantic self-realization. She asks the Boxer, a wounded rebel leader holding up on the land (Isaach de Bankolé), “How could I show courage in France? It would be absurd…I’d slack off, get too comfortable.” Interestingly, it is the Frenchmen of White Material who embody white European decline. Her ex-husband is in debt to the mayor, Cherif, her father-in-law (Michel Subor) aged and ailing, and her son slothful and unstable. Degraded by child soldiers, the latter self-destructs in disturbing ways.[caption id="attachment_8254" align="aligncenter" width="334"] Co-writer Marie NDiaye[/caption]
It is to both the child soldiers of the land–“the fearless young rascals”–and Marie that Denis dedicates her film. The former are portrayed as children. We see them play with toys in Maria’s home and we also see their throats slashed by government forces as they bathe and sleep. Although Maria’s commitment to the soil is emphasized, the director’s sympathies rest with the orphaned child soldiers. Their tragic fate is portrayed in an unsettling, heart-breaking manner.
The representation of African political unrest in White Material is troubling, however. The country in question is never named and nor is the viewer given a background to the war. This universalizes the African conflict experience and, unhelpfully, portrays the continent’s wars as incomprehensible, colossal nightmares. The filmmaker’s impressionistic, elliptical approach is problematic too. Africa still needs to be demystified in the Western popular imagination. The continent’s diversity is extraordinary–as the writer and filmmaker undoubtedly know–and, as any thoughtful student of modern African history knows, its wars are invariably politically engineered and highly calculated and organized.[caption id="attachment_8255" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Child soldier[/caption]
The narrative approach of White Material also serves to generalize the contemporary European expatriate white experience in post-colonial Africa. It may seem obvious but the global audience needs to be reminded that there are many different kinds of expatriates across the continent–of all races and socio-economic backgrounds–as well as white expatriates–and citizens–who are not colonial in their mentality. White Material is specifically about privileged white people who still farm African land in a post-colonial French-speaking country. Further, one may question whether a family so singular can represent the French post-colonial mindset. Manuel’s fate is, to be honest, quite bizarre. The apocalyptic resolution befits a classical tragedy but it is frankly absurd. If it is meant as a searing condemnation of the colonial mentality–and I hope and trust it is- the message is lost in all the strangeness.[caption id="attachment_8256" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Troubled son[/caption]
Razor-sharp remarks about European exploitation of black Africans ring true in White Material. The DJ mocks those “who rip us off and use our land to grow mediocre coffee that we’d never drink.” However, both the script and story lack clarity. What to make of Cherif’s remarks about Maria’s son, Manuel? He observes: “Extreme blondness brings bad luck. It cries out to be pillaged. Blue eyes are troublesome. This is his country. He was born here. But it doesn’t like him.” The remarks are striking but somewhat cryptic. They have political intent and resonance in the sense that they force Maria to confront her whiteness. She is reminded that her ancestors were not African. These somewhat obscure words also appear to indicate a belief that whiteness is somewhat demonized in the popular black African imagination. This is worrying as they arguably serve to reinforce Western associations of Africa with superstition. The character of the rebel leader, the Boxer, is, equally, opaque. Before finding refuge, The Boxer roams the scarred land on an abandoned horse like a kind of phantom. Suffering a stomach wound, he also appears to symbolize African stoicism. The portrait is, therefore, a somewhat mythic one.[caption id="attachment_8257" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Under pressure[/caption]
White Material thankfully lacks the exoticism of Hollywood films about Africa. This is unsurprising, of course, considering the filmmaker’s background. Nor does it adopt a didactic approach. Although not without interesting ideas and striking images, it ultimately, though, does not provide great insight into African politics or conflict. Due perhaps to its obliqueness and opaqueness, White Material is neither sufficiently stirring nor powerful. It is an interesting rather than impressive work by the veteran director. What is unusual about White Material, however, is that it has a single-minded, risk-taking, ideologically dubious, deeply flawed complex female character at its center. What’s more, it elicits important discussions about white European femininity and entitlement.