The 19th New York African Film Festival: ‘Black Africa, White Marble’

From the opening scenes of Black Africa, White Marble, we learn that Brazzaville, in Republic of Congo, is the only capital in Africa to still carry the name of a European. While Pietro Savorgnan di Brazza’s far more famous contemporary, Henry “Dr. David Livingston, I presume” Stanley, is remembered as the handmaiden who ushered in King Leopold II’s barbarity, this film’s near-hagiographic treatment of Brazza’s life reveals a different direction that the relationship between Africa and Europe might have traversed.

Although Pietro Savorgnan di Brazza’s name is rarely mentioned when we learn about the history of European contact with Africa during the colonial period, his significance to the formative years of the Congo becomes abundantly evident as the scramble to ‘own’ his sainthood in the 21st century is chronicled in this film.

Filmmaker Clemente Bicocchi uses an innovative mixture of animation, puppetry (including shadow puppetry), original documentary footage, and extensive interviews with a key member of Brazza’s family (writer Idanna Pucci). The opening scenes, where Europe’s initial regard of Africans—childlike, savage, and in need of civilization—is narrated by a well-dressed ‘African’ puppet, removing the scenes of didacticism, but adding a joyful irony. As an audience, we feel like a special audience of children-in-the know, complicit in the knowledge that the stupidity of European thought, of that time, was only rivalled by its self serving nature…we also have the irony of knowing that the same patterns of thought, aided by new corrupt and power hungry rulers, shape Europe’s relationship with Africa today. On goes the grasping and greed, with a white marble mausoleum eating the country’s revenue, tainting Brazza’s memory rather than honouring it.

Much of the film chronicles the contrast in Brazza’a approaches to that of contemporary Europeans: just as Brazza almost willed himself, physically, into hitherto unknown geographical locations, he similarly willed himself intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually into unknown ontological spaces. As a young boy, Brazza was fascinated by the word “Macoco”, imprinted on a vast stretch of empty space beyond the charted west coastline at the nape of the African skull. As a young man, when he was employed as a colonial servant in Gabon, he decided to make a journey to this mysterious “white space” in the middle, without a “legion of armed men” to enforce his will as Stanley did, having no weapons and no gold with which to bribe or trade. Instead, he records that he travelled into territories unknown to Europeans as a ‘friend,’ and was received with hospitality everywhere he went. Finally arriving at the mythical White Space that he chased since childhood, he learns that the word “macoco” means “king.”  Meanwhile, before Brazza arrives, Macoco Iloo I has had a couple of dreams of his own: that one man will arrive offering loyalty and respect, the other, riches. He, too, has a choice to make. As fate would have it, proto-hippy, ‘gone-native’ Brazza arrives before the greedy, hand-hacking Stanley, and together with Iloo I, enact a ceremony to ‘bury war.’ Macoco Iloo the 1st agrees to place his kingdom under French protection.

It appears that the French betrayed both Brazza and the Congolese, ignoring Brazza’s report on widespread brutality and macabre acts of the companies that now ‘owned’ the vast swathes of the interior. When the French parliament learns of the atrocities through Brazza’s report, and vote in overwhelming numbers to cover it all up (blaming acts of violence on independent rogue actors), who can fail to draw parallels to the War on Terror? We also realise that the machinations of the late nineteenth century are only rivalled by those of the twenty-first. While Brazza’s family want him to be remembered as the man who sacrificed his life trying to prevent the atrocities that befell the region, the current president, shown as a proper sunglasses-at-all-times dictator with an equally sinister retinue, also want to use Brazza’s remains to amalgamate power.

“Black Africa,” White Marble pits tradition against modernity a bit too heavy handedly, but by using an exciting detective-mystery like approach to how the story is revealed, the filmmaker avoids the pitfalls of making the film a didactic history lesson.


7 thoughts on “The 19th New York African Film Festival: ‘Black Africa, White Marble’

  1. Wow! I’d love to see this. I’d felt as though I had slipped into an old African Writer Series novel. Great story. Hopefully some of these films will make their way to Toronto.

  2. Interesting; a wonderful, humane man in an inhuman era. Would love to see the film.

    I wonder if the fact that Brazza was something of an outsider, albeit an aristocratic one from Udine in modern Italy, had anything to do with his very individual response to Africa (and not being ( well fully) French, German, American or Belgium). Bah, thats probably a fanciful thought.

    Ps: Surely South Africa has a capital named after a ‘European’?

    • @ebele: perhaps even the aristocracy helps. he doesn’t have to establish himself as superior by brutally suppressing others first. A friend who worked at a country club always made a similar observation about which patrons behaved in what manner towards the workers there.

  3. @ebele and kimemiaandy: er. yes, haha. I was thinking of that, too. Perhaps the people who wrote the voiceover comments should say, “…named after a widely-beloved (by black Africans) European.” Hopefully many of these films will become more widely available after runs at film festivals. We’ll keep you updated.

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