[…] Is Gardi’s patronizing attitude, together with his inability to self-criticise, simply the expression of his (Swiss) naiveté? This is an important question to raise, as through this question – and the negative response I would like to give to it – we can really appreciate the power of «African Mirror».
[…] Under the attractive clothing of the fascination for the pure, the natural, the simple, we find the real truth of colonialism: the conviction of the inferiority of the other.
[…] Mischa Hedinger’s journey into Gardi’s powerful imagination is not only a political journey into our relationship with Africa, but also a journey throughout filmmaking and its political consequences.
A film on Switzerland
The prologue of African Mirror, like a bomb, allows all the themes of the film explode – due also to the intelligent use of silent images. Anticipated by Achille Mbembe’s quotation as exergue, there is the theme of colonial Africa as the place of (Western) imagination, a fantasy of purity, or of liberation from the social codes of bourgeois modernity. More than referring to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage, we can recognize the stoic naturalism of Albrecht von Haller, the Bernese erudite who wrote Die Alpen (1729) in René Gardi’s vision of Africa. This poem, still today, is probably the deepest source of “Swissness”, at least insofar as this one would be connotated by the paradoxical combination of anarchic spirit and social control. Two Arcadias compete and reflect each other: the one of the “uncontaminated” Mafa people in Cameroon and the one of the brave camaraderie of the people in the Swiss mountains. This striking parallelism will evolve during the film, where the images will focus on the African side and its reception by Gardi’s experiences, while the Swiss side will almost disappear from the screen and be completely assumed by Gardi’s commentaries and point of view. The entire imaginary of African Mirror will reveal itself to be the result of a European projection or, more accurately, the mirror of Switzerland and its phantasms – the dream of having a colony included.
For generations of Swiss people, René Gardi has exerted a huge influence through his constant presence on TV, somehow building the first perception of Africa in popular culture. Even if we did not belong to these generations, we cannot but feel a partial empathy for this experienced amateur advocating against the wrongdoings of colonialism. His sharp criticism of the bigotry of certain bourgeois values will gain our sympathies, therefore exposing us to the successive deception in our discovering Gardi as the dreamer of a better colonialism, as the believer in the (happy) cultural inferiority of Africans, even as a paedophile – and, moreover, in discovering how these aspects are intimately connected…
Pioneer of neo-colonialism
Is Gardi’s patronizing attitude, together with his inability to self-criticise, simply the expression of his (Swiss) naiveté? This is an important question to raise, as through this question – and the negative response I would like to give to it – we can really appreciate the power of African Mirror. Through its protagonist, we are not just witnessing an outdated approach to Africa, somehow gentler than the predatory one of bad colonialists, we are also challenging ourselves over a deeper prejudice that still haunts our confrontation with people living in a tribal way (and probably just in a different way). Under the attractive clothing of the fascination for the pure, the natural, the simple, we find the real truth of colonialism: the conviction of the inferiority of the other. This paves the way to systemic discrimination, which is by far a worse evil than occasional exploitation.
The love of wilderness, when tamed and organised within the frame imposed by the patronizing connoisseur, is nothing but the core of the philosophy of the English garden. A philosophy that has widely dominated the neo-colonialist Western world, where protection and help have substituted direct exploitation, with an apparent reduction of physical violence but an increase in asymmetry and discrimination.
The making of the images
Now, it is of immense relevance that African Mirror approaches this neo-colonialist shift through the parallel history and evolution of the documentary images. In the time span of just one film career, we pass from the direct shooting – that resembles stealing – to the staged recreation of the original setting (for a movie), up to the touristic ceremonies of taking pictures. Following this evolution of the images, we follow the evolution of African “cultural” colonisation, of which René Gardi will correspondingly be a (more resigned) critic – and also a timid self-critic. Mischa Hedinger’s journey into Gardi’s powerful imagination is not only a political journey into our relationship with Africa, but also a journey throughout filmmaking and its political consequences. African imitations respond to European projections, and Hedinger cannot but feel the need to document the effects of the documentary gaze on Africa.
For this reason, his perceptive and meaningful editing is much more than just a gesture of deconstruction of the public iconology of Swiss Africa, through mirroring our projections and distancing ourselves from their images. It is also the proposal of reading History through a particular history of filming. It is akin to the emergence of a gigantic afterimage, which is simply our becoming aware of the construction, of the making of the images, of the making of Africa.
This is why the silence is so important in African Mirror. The muteness of the images conveys the possibility of seeing them as artefacts, and then the possibility of making us aware of their afterimages. The last silence of the film – fourteen seconds of white screen, ironically introduced by a question René Gardi himself addresses to us viewers – brings us directly into play: our neo-colonialist hidden soul, our patronizing humanism, or our readiness to make another film of Africa, a completely different one.
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: November 15, 2019