I have two questions.
1) How was Swedish television gathering so much amazing footage of current events in foreign countries during the ’60s and ’70s?
2) How was so much of that footage just plain lost until Göran Hugo Olsson dug it up?
Concerning Violence is the second documentary that Olsson has made by editing together such materials, the first being 2011’s unfortunately underseen The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. Judging by the limited coverage of this doc at Sundance so far, it may go equally overlooked. That’s a shame, because Olsson and his team of co-editors (Michael Aaglund, Dino Jonsäter, and Sophie Vukovic) have proven themselves masters of cinematic nonfiction construction.
In a just world, pretty much every yearly film editing award would go to a documentary. Even the least impressive docs have to cut hundreds of hours of footage into a coherent narrative. It takes a special kind of mind to look at a bunch of unrelated old news reports from Africa during its decolonization period and think, “I can make something out of this.” It takes an even more daring kind of mind to set said news reports to Lauryn Hill reading excerpts from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, thus turning them into a treatise on colonialism.
It’s an experiment that pays off. The documentary as essay is an uncommon beast. Colonialism and Frantz Fanon are not populist subjects (which is ironic, given the whole Marxist angle), and digging into colonialism also means that there will be reams of human ugliness (the movie opens with a cow being graphically machine gunned to death), which is rarely a draw for audiences. On top of all that, the sections quoted from The Wretched of the Earth mainly contain Fanon’s arguments for violence as an effective means of revolution, something a lot of people are not comfortable with. Remember, the message buried under a lot of praise for Nelson Mandela is, “He gave white people the forgiveness they deserve.” We don’t like watching black people attack white people, no matter how much the white people really, really deserve it.
Concerning Violence is, in other words, one of the least audience-baiting documentaries to come down the pipeline in some time. It’s also brilliant, bouncing across the globe and between time periods. Through images of shantytown life, African servitude to whites, labor strikes, missionary work, violent uprisings, and more, the doc illustrates and reinforces Fanon’s thoughts on the dehumanizing effects of imperialism, and how violence can act as a catharsis through which an oppressed people can regain their dignity. The film also elucidates Fanon’s entreaty that a liberated proletariat not follow the example of their capitalist masters, and instead chart their own course for the betterment of all humanity.
Challenging and impeccably made, Concerning Violence is one of the best documentaries to hit this year’s Sundance. It also acts as an excellent companion piece to We Come As Friends, another great doc about imperialism in Africa that’s been playing the fest. It stands alone both as a work of history, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Plus, it has Lauryn Hill reading The Wretched of the Earth like poetry. What’s not to love?