Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Africa Addio

I'm currently reading Tim Butcher's Blood River, an account of the author's journey through the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004 during a period of political upheaval and intense lawlessness. With that in mind it seemed as good a time as any to revisit Africa Addio, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's 1966 documentary recording the painful final years of British, French and Belgian rule in Africa in the early sixties. The film, assembled from three years worth of footage gathered throughout the continent is grueling, harrowing and at times shocking. Among the events presented in the film include the handover of power in Kenya and the bulldozing of white farms; poachers brutally laying waste to wildlife in Mozambique; mass graves of Arabs murdered by soldiers of the interim government of Zanzibar1; Portuguese troops fighting rebels in Angola2; Hutu violence against Tutsis in Rwanda3; racial violence in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; the bloody aftermath of a battle between government soldiers and rebel insurgents in the Congolese city of Stanleyville4; and in the film's most infamous episode, an assault on the Congolese town of Boende by mercenary soldiers where two rebels are executed on camera.


Jacopetti and Prosperi have long claimed that their film was not invested with any political agenda, but was made as an emphatic criticism of the colonial powers and the chaos left in the wake of their messy departure from Africa. In the space of a few short years, the continent had made the transition from brutal white rule to brutal African dictatorship, with many of the worst trappings of empire still in place. Jacopetti and Prosperi were quick to seize the opportunity to record this era of Africa history as it was unfolding, but Africa Addio is too steeped in the language of the mondo documentary - a package deal of exotic scenery and shocking incidents, to be a truly important historical document. Seeing the film today, any viewer not familiar with this era of Africa history would have a job finding his bearings. Many sequences pass by with little information about when and where the sequence was filmed and the circumstances of the event. And it's this lack of context that condemns the film to be little more than an atrocity exhibition for the armchair traveler. The extensive footage of animal slaughter in the film is particularly disturbing to watch, and while the Italian narrator laments the activities of poachers, one has to wonder if a scene where an elephant calf is torn from the womb of it's dead mother was really necessary.


Roger Ebert who hated the film, dismissed Africa Addio as "dishonest" and "racist", and while I don't entirely share Ebert's opinion about it being racist, the film will do little to alter the stereotype of Africa as the dark and savage continent. Ebert's assertion that the film is dishonest does require more careful consideration. In his review of the film Ebert took exception to a number of sequences in the film, like scenes of white Boer settlers leaving their farms in Kenya with their belongings in cattle wagons to make the long journey south. Ebert claimed this simply would not have happened in this fashion, the wealthy Boers would simply fly back to the Cape, rather than set out on antiquated horse drawn wagons. Perhaps. More seriously Ebert questions the harrowing footage of animal mistreatment and killing seen in the film, suggesting that Jacopetti and Prosperi might have had the butchery staged for their cameras. In this regard Ebert may well be correct - in an early sequence in the film a Kenyan court is passing sentence on anti-colonial Mau Mau rebels for various crimes against the white settlers, including the maiming of livestock belonging to farmers. The film then cuts to a sequence where cattle are seen writing in agony, their tendons cut, before being destroyed by their owners. Immediately the viewer has to wonder if Jacopetti and Prosperi simply had the good fortune to turn up just as both events were occurring ? It seems unlikely. Authors David Kerekes and David Slater in their 1994 book Killing For Culture were also not convinced that all the scenes in Africa Addio were genuine, singling out a sequence filmed on Zanzibar island which purported to show a beach strewn with bodies of Arabs, recently killed by government forces as being particularly dubious.


Whether the film makers used fakery or sincere factual reconstruction remains unclear. When discussing the film for the 2003 documentary Godfathers of Mondo, Franco Prosperi deflected charges of coercing soldiers into committing murder for the film, Prosperi insisted that it was easier and technically better for the film to fake it. If the veracity of some scenes in the film is questionable, the majority of Africa Addio's scenes of human suffering are distressingly real. The film is filled with scene after scene of corpses in various states of disrepair. Bodies are shown decomposing in ditches, viciously mutilated and burned beyond recognition. In one scene a man points to a pile of hacked off hands, a traditional punishment meted out in the Congo. Two sequences in particular have secured the film's fearsome reputation, the execution on camera of two men filmed in the Congolese town of Boende, during an assault on the town by government-backed mercenaries. In the first sequence a man is shot dead by a firing squad. In the second sequence, a rebel accused of killing 27 women and children is seized by soldiers and shot in the chest and then in the head right before the camera.


Despite the brutality of the images, Africa Addio is often very beautiful to look at. Cameraman Antonio Climati's deep focus Techniscope photography, captures a number of extraordinary moments, like a zebra foal airlifted to safety by helicopter and silhouetted against a brilliant setting sun. In another sequence, Climati trains his camera on a sprawling caravan of Tutsi refugees and their livestock fleeing to the safety of Uganda in the wake of Hutu violence. Another caravan of people is later seen in Johannesburg, this time a crew of gold miners, preparing for the nightshift, the illuminations from their pit helmets giving the appearance of a huge swarm of fireflies. In yet another sequence, a certain joviality creeps into the film with a slow motion montage of cheerful bikini girls defying gravity on the beaches of Cape Town.


Today, Africa Addio has become a footnote in cinema history, the film occasionally revived by Exploitation movie enthusiasts and mondo movie fans. Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi did not earn a single mention in the book Imagining Reality: The Faber Book Of The Documentary, Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins collection of essays on the form. Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi are referenced in Haskell Wexler's 1969 film Medium Cool when Robert Forster briefly mentions Jacopetti and Prosperi's debut film Mondo Cane, from 1962. And interestingly, Africa Addio and Medium Cool feature sequences where the film makers find themselves in mortal danger. In Medium Cool Wexler and his soundman are caught up in a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In Africa Addio, during a sequence filmed in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam, Jacopetti and his cameraman are manhandled out of their car by soldiers (with Jacopetti seen bleeding after the butt of a rifle shattered their car window) and for a few anxious moments were held at gunpoint until they were identified as Italians, not British as originally suspected, and were let go. Perhaps Jacopetti and his crew might not have been so lucky if Roger Ebert was calling the shots...

"Keep smiling!" director Gualtiero Jacopetti advises cameraman Antonio Climati, when both were seized by the army at Dar es Salaam

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Further Reading
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1. Zanzibar Revolution, 1964
2. Angola War of Independence, (1961–1974)
3. Hutu and Tutsi conflict in Rwanda, 1963
4. Simba Rebellion, 1964

4 comments:

  1. Weirdly enough, I was only talking about this film at the weekend with a friend. It's been a while since I have seen it, but I remember it being grim stuff, especially with the wholesale animal cruelty. Reading about it again in Killing For Culture hasn't really made me want to re-watch it, but I might do as I think it will make an interesting companion piece to Goodbye Uncle Tom which I've been itching to re-watch for ages.

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  2. Thanks for stopping by JP…. Oh for sure, very grim stuff, re: Africa Addio and a film one would rarely revisit. I was planning on watching Goodbye Uncle Tom as well, but Africa Addio had supplied enough misery for one afternoon. I must say, I'm not a Mondo fan at all, the Killing for Culture book is about as close as I will get to them. They're a bit unhealthy aren't they ? Interestingly my review of Faces of Death (done as part of a Video Nasties retrospective) is easily my biggest hit, blog-stats wise - I dunno if that particular post has been well linked somewhere or if it’s a testament to the appeal of Faces of Death ? When I think of Mondo I'm reminded of a line in Videodrome where Barry Convex poses the question "Why would anyone want to watch a scum show like Videodrome?" and you could easily substitute any Mondo film in the question, maybe even Africa Addio. Like porn, they're definitely the kind of thing, I'd watch only when my wife is not around.

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  3. Sad to say, I've seen quite a few over the years, especially when I was into tape trading in the late 90's and early 2000's. Not stuff I have any desire to ever re-watch, though for some reason AA is calling me. When I was younger I had a stronger stomach for this kind of thing (hedonistic youth, eh?) but now I can't deal with it at all. Same goes for the viral decapitation videos, etc, that somehow people think I have an interest in watching, just because I like horror films. That's the worst part, I think. I know how that kind of thing makes me feel ,and I will never willingly watch that stuff again. Great quote from Videodrome, sums it up perfectly.

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  4. Yep, I know what you mean JP, but at least with Africa Addio there's an interesting political dimension and I must admit, the film did stir something in me to go and read about the state of Africa since independence. Mondo aside, I've already backed away from some of the more extreme films to emerge in the last few years, headline grabbing stuff like Human Centipede II, A Serbian Film, and Life & Death of A Porno Gang - exactly the kind of films I would have worn like a badge of honor back in my early 20's but nowadays they just depress me. I thought Martyrs was interesting, but its pretentions outran it in the end and it's a film I'll rarely go back to...

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