The prefatory first few minutes of Concerning Violence offer little more than Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of the world’s leading philosophers, sitting in her Columbia University office discussing the work of Afro-French psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon. Even more than preparing us for the film we’re about to see, however, this opening scene, to a considerable degree, offers an indication of director Göran Hugo Olsson’s aesthetic approach. Here is a film that isn’t afraid to risk didacticism in order to put across its vision—inspired by Fanon’s landmark 1961 political/philosophical tome The Wretched of the Earth—of the debilitating physical and psychological effects of colonialism and the sometimes brutal ways third-world denizens overcome their first-world oppressors.
Divided into nine “chapters” (as per its subtitle, Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense), Olsson’s film is based almost entirely on recently unearthed 16mm footage captured by a bunch of radical Swedish filmmakers in various African countries, all in the midst of upheavals during the 1960s and ’70s. These historical episodes are held together by Lauryn Hill’s recitation of passages from The Wretched of the Earth, many of the words appearing in large white text on screen above the footage the words highlight. This approach may sound academic, both stuffy and insular, but Concerning Violence exudes a quiet anger underneath its analytical surface. Though Olsson is hell-bent on bringing Fanon’s political and psychological insights to a wider audience, he isn’t too much of a firebrand to operate on mere incendiary passion alone; he also wants to make sure we understand how Fanon’s ideas can be applied to real-world history. In some ways, Olsson’s method recalls the stylistic purity of Jean-Luc Godard at his most polemical: His use of on-screen text, especially, is somewhat reminiscent of Godard’s more aphoristic use of this literary quality in films like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, La Chinoise, and, more recently, Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language.
Olsson isn’t quite as interested as Godard often is in dialectics though. The film’s fusion of text and image is generally put in the service of a consistent perspective: a Marxist view of class and racial struggle that exudes an overt skepticism toward European settlers and their attempts to spread their ostensibly more civilized culture to African natives. The footage tends to evince a clear sympathy for the oppressed Africans, most tellingly in a Tanzania-set interview sequence in which two Swedish plantation owners stumble when asked by an interviewer about where in the Bible it talks about polygamy being a sin.
In the end, though, Concerning Violence transcends such political differences. If Fanon’s text remains mired in intellectual abstraction, Olsson intelligently draws from history in order to make Fanon’s ideas more concrete, thus renewing their power. And Fanon’s words are hardly the only aspects doing the thematic heavy lifting here. Olsson’s footage occasionally includes talking-head interviews that buttress Fanon’s insights, most notably one scene in which a Mozambique FRELIMO rebel articulates how European settlers deliberately deny natives an education so they can’t be knowledgeable enough to question their power. And once in a while, an image will cut through the film’s cerebral nature, lending Fanon’s arguments fleeting emotional heft. One particularly devastating image—of a one-armed Mozambique woman standing in a Black Venus-like position as she breastfeeds her one-armed infant, both victims of a European-sanctioned napalm-bomb attack—says just as much as, if not even more than, Fanon does about the dangers of imperialism and the possible necessity of violent decolonization.