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'Concerning Violence' Is a New Meditation on Africa's Struggle for Freedom

We talked to Göran Hugo Olsson, the director of the new documentary—narrated by Lauryn Hill—that brings Frantz Fanon's thinking to the big screen.
November 24, 2014, 6:00pm

Frantz Fanon's  The Wretched of the Earth has been a bible for revolutionaries the world over, from Che Guevara to Malcolm X to anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. Written while Fanon was dying of cancer, the book breaks down the psychology of imperialism—colonial regimes are built on violence, says Fanon, and dehumanize the colonized through weapons like language. The only way such power structures are overthrown is through more violence, and Fanon outlines the ideological conditions that can facilitate this kind of revolt. For this Fanon has had his share of detractors—those who read him, simplistically, as glorifying and promoting violence.

Now a new film by Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson, Concerning Violence, puts Fanon's words alongside rarely seen footage of people who lived through the African liberation struggles of the 60s: female guerrillas in Mozambique, Christian missionaries, and a young Robert Mugabe. Olsson's aim is to "promote Fanon's ideas" to the next generation.

I spoke to Olsson over the phone to find out more.

VICE: How did you come across Fanon's writings and what impression did they make on you?
​**Göran Hugo Olsson:** I have a feeling I read Fanon as a young person, but about two years ago a publisher gave me a copy of The Wretched of the Earth. I went to a café, read the first chapter, and was blown away by it. Fanon wrote it in the last days of his life so it goes in many different directions. He talks about, "you," "me," "we." I love that it's diverse and disparate; it's not a fine text that someone contemplated for a long time but a mishmash.

What's the strongest theme for you?
Structural violence and what living under that does to you. The clearest example of this is what we've seen in Gaza. This text answers the question of why Hamas is shooting those—in my opinion—worthless rockets into Israel and why Israel is reacting with violence. Also, what will happen to the kids growing up in that environment.

What were the challenges in translating a nonfiction book to screen?
I only used the first and last chapters of the book. At first I thought, Who am I to make that decision? Then I heard that Penguin Books does a series called Great Ideas and that they'd done the same. I divided the film into chapters to keep that book-like feeling. In this kind of film there's no natural movement or arc, so you have to create the narrative.

The book came with a debated preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. I didn't like it. It seems like a misunderstanding, like he wrote it in an evening, too fast. I had Gaya​tri Spivak do my preface. In it she criticizes Sartre, Fanon, and the film. It's unusual for a film to have that kind of self-criticism, but it helps the viewer to see between the lines.

My edition has that preface by Sartre, too, but I read that in 1967 Fanon's wife, Josie, asked for it to be removed because of Sartre's support for Zionism.
Yes, that's true. But I know they sell more books with Sartre's name on the cover as well.

You mentioned Gaza earlier, but how do you feel Fanon's ideas relate to other current issues—the rise of Islamic State, for example?
IS is an extreme, so it is hard to say. But I think that, in one way or another, it reflects the violence that's been put on some people over a very long period of time. It was such a mistake [for the US and UK] to invade Iraq. I was in London on that march with a million people. We were saying, "We don't support these people. Please think again—this isn't the right method." And they said no. I hate Tony Blair for that. He could have said to Bush, "I have to wait because the people in my country aren't with me on this yet." But he chose not to.

Are there ways in which the text has dated?
It's obviously an old text. There's a gender issue to it. He uses "man," and Europe is described as a "she." But this is like a text from Freud or Marx—obviously it doesn't apply exactly to today, but you can start with this text to analyze what is happening.

Lauryn Hill voices Fanon's words in the film. How did she come on board?
We had mutual friends, and through them, I knew she was into Fanon. She was in prison at the time for tax problems. I wrote to her, and she responded immediately saying, "I'm reading Fanon in my cell every evening."

She was released on a Friday. Monday morning she went into the studio. She did several recordings. At first she read too fast-paced—that's partly down to the the hip-hop background. I told her she had to read slower. She said, "When I read this text it's a revelation. It's like 400 years of oppression being released, and that's a celebration. A celebration is always uptempo."
​ ​She thought it was the same as when John Coltrane and Charlie Parker discovered their African roots in jazz. I said, "You're 100 percent right, but, in a text, you can read at your own tempo. You have to trust me."

And she did?
Yes, but it took some convincing.

Fanon has been read as an advocate of violence—were you trying to readdress that?
Yes. Ultimately what makes this text so great and timeless is that he [Fanon] was a psychiatrist. He tried to heal the wounds of violence as a doctor in Algeria—on both the Algerian and the French sides.
​ ​

Your last film, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, also used found footage. Why do you use this approach?
Some of the footage in this film has a colonial viewpoint. But there is no reason for a European filmmaker today to travel to Africa to film stuff. I hate that. I think people within communities should make their own images. Then you can collaborate on films, putting the images in context. I consider myself a non-recording director.

Did you always think this would be an archive film?
No. At first I was looking for contemporary images. I also had an idea at one point to do animation, but it was too specific, too made-up. I tried to find footage that was kind of universal and good quality. The guns, cars, oil rigs, and helicopters look old, but not too much, and the mining machines look basically the same today. I got all the material from Swedish broadcast companies. I knew we had fantastic archive from this period.

What's the relationship of this footage to the text? Does it illustrate or expand on it?
Both, at different times. I learned from Ingmar Bergman that no matter how serious your film is, you have to have a laugh. And you have one in this where the missionaries confuse their own morality with God's scriptures. You need that comic relief.

It's also about narration. Sometimes it's to exemplify, sometimes it's to diverge, and sometimes it's just beautiful images. But for me this film is the text. I'd love it if someone one day would take my film and download it—not yet, but in a year or something—put different images to it and see what happens.

_Follow Rachel Segal Hamilton on _​Twitter.

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