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War by Documentary
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War by Documentary

War and documentary cinema have been intimately associated for over a century in the form of war documentaries and newsreel and television footage, recordings of and testimonies to violence around the world. In what follows, however, I will examine not images of war, but a colonial war and a war for independence conducted on and by film in the region often referred to as Francophone Africa. The history of documentary film in West and Central Africa over more than a century can be divided into three major periods. French colonial documentary begins with the newsreels of the earliest years of the 20th century and continues with the colonial adventure films of the 1920s and 1930s. The 1940s saw the rise of French colonial ethnographic documentary and then, in the 1960s and 70s, a postcolonial ethnographic response from the first generation of independent African filmmakers. In the early 1990s, a new generation of postcolonial African filmmakers began to experiment with documentary style and form, rejecting ethnography in favor of reflexive nonfiction film. In a range of modes, African documentary filmmakers have fought back against a colonial filmic tradition, rejecting the images that had been created of them and their continent and transforming a genre that had as its goal the capture of Africa on film.

Documentary film was, from its earliest years, employed in the service of French colonial domination in Africa. European cameramen appeared in sub-Saharan Africa soon after the colonial armies, eager to record images of newly acquired assets. An article published in La Critique cinématographique in 1931 would go so far as to argue that the French conquest of Africa would have been more successful had cinema been more effectively deployed in the colonial wars:

Les armes les plus redoutables ne peuvent que semer la mort, couvrir la terre de ruines, faire lever dans les cœurs la haine qui engendre, à son tour, de nouvelles tueries. Le cinéma, au contraire, est un instrument de pacification. Il nous permet de pouvoir, sans heurts, tout en distrayant, instruire, façonner les esprits, imposer notre culture, faire connaître notre civilisation et [End Page 409] ses bienfaits . . . Qui sait si la fameuse formule de la “pénétration pacifique” n’eût pas été plus tôt une réalité si le cinéma avait été mieux employé; s’il avait fait partie de notre plan d’organisation; si l’appareil de projection avait suivi la construction des routes et des écoles; si l’opérateur était arrivé par le même convoi que l’instituteur chargé d’instruire, de façonner les jeunes cerveaux et que le médecin chargé d’établir le règne de l’hygiène?

Film is presented here as the colonial weapon par excellence, capable of subduing unruly subjects without inspiring resistance or revolt.

There were Lumière shows in Dakar, capital of French West Africa, as early as 1900, and in 1905 the major French studios, competing with companies from Great Britain, Belgium, and the United States, began sending cameramen south of the Sahara for documentary footage in the form of actualités or newsreels. The 1907 Pathé catalogue contains two films shot in what was known as black Africa, Panorama en Guinée and Au Congo. In the very same year, Pathé sent a Belgian cameraman named Alfred Machin to the Sudan. Over the next twenty years, Machin made a number of trips to Africa, and Pathé released, among others, Chasse à l’hippopotame sur le Nil bleu (1908), Chasse à la panthère (1909), Chasse aux éléphants (1911), and a collection of footage from 1910 and 1911 entitled Voyages et grandes chasses en Afrique. Machin called himself and other European cameramen “image hunters” (chasseurs d’images) and “film hunters” (chasseurs de films). He wrote articles for French periodical Ciné-journal in which this hunting metaphor merges with a more military vocabulary, with titles such as “Le cinématographe dans le désert, Comment s’organise une expédition cinématographique,” “A coups de fusil et d’objectif à travers l’Afrique Centrale,” and “Le cinématographe et la conquête...