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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Jacopetti and Prosperi, "Africa Addio" (1966) and the Power of Images

I'm not sure how exactly I became interested in the films of Jacopetti and Prosperi. It may have something to do with the fact that nearly every book I've read on exploitation or cult movies (at least the non-genre specific ones) has mentioned the duo. The two will go down in history for inventing the "Mondo" film and have to be among the most controversial filmmakers of all time.

I think it's the fact that their films provoke such a strong reaction from people that has attracted me to them. No one I've read is neutral to the violent and dark films Jacopetti and Prosperi lensed. Critics either find the two as visionaries documenting life in all it's beauty and evil or racists appealing to the basest human instincts and exploiting death for dollars.

A few years ago, Blue Underground released "The Mondo Cane Collection" featuring all of the pair's movies (except "Mondo Candido",) two rare director's cuts and a documentary "The Godfathers of Mondo." Recently, the set, which was a limited edition and expensive, has been split in two, minus the director's cut discs, and is available again as two three disc sets, each available for less than $20.

I recently picked up the second collection (Shockumentaries Vol. 2), as it contained the documentary, which is what I was most interested in seeing. "The Godfathers of Mondo" is a well done documentary that basically lets Jacopetti and Prosperi tell, in their own words, what they were trying to accomplish with these films. Modern film historians are also thrown in the mix to give context and help paint the big picture.

Overall, the documentary was very interesting and, as I'd already read a lot about these films, it helped me understand what would possess someone to head out with film cameras in search of death and destruction. However, seeing the documentary first has tainted my view of the duo's work and I'm not sure I can approach their movies as they are without considering what the filmmakers claim they intended.

Trying to figure out what Jacopetti and Prosperi intended was a big part of my experience of watching "Africa Addio." In fact, I hadn't planned on watching the film at all, but curiosity go the best of me. I knew what it was about, post-colonial Africa in the early to mid 60s, and I knew there were lengthy scenes of slaughter, both human and animal. The filmmakers had even been taken to court and charged with allegedly staging the on-camera execution of a rebel.

That the filmmakers were acquitted of the murder charge doesn't change the fact that one can not watch this film without wondering how much of it was manipulated for the benefit of film making. There are a couple light hearted scenes that are clearly fake (such as the Zulu beach party scene) and I couldn't help but wonder how much of the rest of this allegedly objective documentary was staged for the benefit of the cameras.

Of course, this is one of the age old problems with documentary films. The very act of putting a camera and crew in a situation changes the dynamics of the situation. The difference in "Africa Addio" being, the situation is a country sliding into anarchy with foreigners, rebels and government groups all making a grab for power. It's absolutely astonishing to watch the variety of atrocities people are willing to perform in front of the camera but I can't figure out if the crew being there encouraged people to behave better or worse.

Another thing I can't quite put my finger on is deciding if this film is racist or not. Reading opinions on-line, I have to wonder if we've all seen the same movie*. I've seen the entire gamut of opinion, some people finding it racist against blacks, some finding it racist against whites, and some people finding it even handed.

For the most part, this film seems willing to spread the blame for the atrocities around. I didn't feel "Africa Addio" was blatantly racist, but, at worst, I did notice a slightly condescending attitude towards the black Africans ability to govern themselves, at least at the point in time covered by the film.

Of course, there is the issue of presenting images of Africans and Arabs being killed for entertainment as being racist, if you assume that's what Jacopetti and Prosperi were intending to do. The ad campaign for the film ("Shocking! Savage! Raw!",) and even the title of this reissue collection ("Shockumentaries!",) certainty has a freak show come-on ring to it.

Watching "The Godfathers of Mondo" documentary, Jacopetti and Prosperi make it clear this was not their intention. They insist the more exploitive qualities were added by their US distributor and the political overtones of the film were toned down so as not to inflame Civil Rights era African-Americans. Two versions of a scene, one from the English cut, one from the Director's Cut, are given as an example and do make a point.

Still, it's hard to deny that the filmmakers tend to linger on the gristly images longer than necessary to make a point. It's also very easy to debate if certain scenes in the film are even necessary to show the kind of chaos Jacopetti and Prosperi seem dedicated to documenting.

However, it's these unsettling and morally questionable scenes, and their juxtaposition with stunning scenes of beauty, that give "Africa Addio" it's impact. I have never seen a film that has made me think about the power of images in the way this film has. Though I didn't intend on approaching this movie from an analytical standpoint, every scene made me question why it was there and what Jacopetti and Prosperi were trying to say by putting it in the movie.

More interestingly, I found myself very aware of my own reactions and what these images were saying to me. "Africa Addio" made me very aware of the way images can be used to manipulate, as Jacopetti and Prosperi are masters at taking the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster using the editing of their films.

Footage of unspoiled nature leads to scenes of a slaughter. Totally gratuitous shots of pretty girls on trampoline is followed by Zulus quickly adapting to the modern world. The way this film is put together, (and if nothing else, it's technically brilliant,) will make your head spin with everything it's throwing at you.

In the end, I'm still not exactly sure what Jacopetti and Prosperi were trying to accomplish with "Africa Addio." They claim they wanted to shed light on the mess the British and French left by pulling out of the country and it's certainty true that, at the time, sights like these were quietly swept under the rug. A premise like that, however, doesn't imply much faith in Africans to control their own destiny nor does it give much hope for this land the film makers supposedly loved.

"Africa Addio" almost serves as a celluloid Rorschach test as the simple act of choosing to watch this film says something about the person watching it. What it says, I'm still not sure. This film has put more questions in my head than answers.

* in fact, we may not have. At least three different versions of this film exist: the English version I've seen, the "director's cut," which is longer and supposedly contains more political context and explanation, and a drastically shorter cut which removes almost all the politics and was released as "Africa Blood and Guts." This last version supposedly double billed with "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." So much for not being inflammatory.


Fred Ut said...

I'm just researching an article on Africa Addio for my Norwegian movie site, and came across excellent post. Thanks for helping me out.

Anonymous said...

I saw it just recently. I think it's hard not to see as it as a bit racist, generally through its choice of juxtaposition, and the narration especially. I mean, it's one thing to suggest that post-colonial Africa immediately had problems with good governance, but it's another to continually revert to South Africa as a paradigm (the filmmakers even call it 'the most hated nation on earth' - which sounds more like reactionary garbage than an honest opinion).

One of the main problems is it views blacks as one homogenous lump. Everything from dress code onwards is treated as a 'one size solution' - i.e the film sees them as all the same.

I'm also still in two minds about the critical distance the filmmakers had or didn't have, and how they've manipulated events for us. How do we know they didn't encourage (pay) kids to squat crap in the bath at the mansion reclaimed from the white Kenyan? When the turf of another mansion is bulldozed, why does the sound of the bulldozer come in so suddenly only when it's in view? When the mercenaries attack a village, why is the camera in a completely exposed standing position (we never do see an armed enemy)?

The film pulls no punches - very few films will show a merc grenading a hut AND go in to film the grizzly remains afterwards - but the question is does that make it more honest (which is what most of its ardent fans say)?

Rob G. said...

Thanks for the excellent comment, whoever you are. :)

You pretty much summed up my feelings. Ive been thinking about this one a bit more lately as I was talking with a co-worker about Cannibal Holocaust. Though I haven't seen that film, I think both bring up similar issues about the power of images and how they are used to manipulate the viewers.

That doesn't really have anything with what you're saying though. Heh.

Yeah, I really think the film comes off racist for reasons you mention, but again, I don't know if this is the doing of the US cut or the original (which I haven't seen) is more fair.

All I know is it's a pretty depressing film to watch, though it is very powerful and not without beauty. I still haven't gotten around to watching the other Jacopetti and Prosperi films. Maybe some day I will, but have to steel myself for them and I don't know if I'll ever quite be ready for Goodbye Uncle Tom.