Interview | Film | Concerning Violence: “There should be a law against filmmakers going to Africa”

Best known for 'The Black Power Mixtape', Göran Olsson's latest documentary, 'Concerning Violence', is a fresh exploration of familiar themes. Ceasefire's Usayd Younis caught up with Olsson and his producer, Tobias Janson, at Sheffield's annual documentary festival 'Doc/Fest', where the film received a standing ovation.

Interviews, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, August 13, 2014 13:02 - 0 Comments

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Concerning Violence

At the Doc/Fest festival in Sheffield, I sat down among a mostly white audience to listen to the powerful words of Frantz Fanon narrated by Ms Lauyrn Hill, all against a backdrop depicting archival footage of European violence in African nations.

This surreal context was occasioned by the screening of ‘Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes From the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense’ the latest offering by Swedish filmmaker Göran Olsson, notable for his last release ‘The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975’ (2011).

Coupled with the fact that Fanon, and by extension Göran, directly challenge Europeans to address their historical context, the new film was certainly unique to watch and experience. After the screening, I met up with Olsson and his Producer, Tobias Janson, to discuss the stylistic and thematic choices of the documentary, as well as the continuing relevance of its subject matter.

CF: Your last three films have all had some relation to blackness; ‘Am I Black Enough For You’, ‘The Black Power Mixtape’ and your latest, ‘Concerning Violence’. What led you in this direction, and why do you, a Swedish man, want to address them?

Göran: It’s a coincidence, basically. When I did the film about the soul singer Billy Paul ‘Am I Black Enough for You?’ that was out of respect and love, that’s a fan film for him. When I worked on that film I discovered the material because I needed archive in the way you usually use archive – like filling up for voice-over interviews and looking back – and I found the beautiful material that made up Black Power Mixtape.

CF: So those two films lead onto each other?

Göran: Yeah, it lead me to the material and I was like ‘oh, this is a new film’ and then I did Black Power Mixtape. Then I wanted to do something totally different, even more accessible, broader, even more commercial. I had different ideas that didn’t pan out – I didn’t want to do an archive film.

The publishers gave me the book ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, I was sat in a cafe and read it and I was blown away. ‘This has to be heard, this is amazing.’ Also a cinematic duty of how do you translate a non-fiction book into a film whilst keeping the feel of the book. That’s why we have chapters and a preface and graphics and the text both written and read. I was into having contemporary images to the text – from oppression, from neocolonialism, from violence of today. But if you have that I was afraid that people would discuss that specific situation in Nigeria, in Palestine or wherever, so I wanted to make it more timeless. I think the text is brilliant but it’s not without flaws, we have to translate it today, which isn’t difficult. You can translate it to a lot of different conflicts, even domestic violence in a way. I wanted to have something that looked almost like an animation, I wouldn’t say cartoonish but like a drawing or something. Like an oil rig, the guns and the cars and the mining – they look the same today. So this was the solution to make it more universal and easier to translate to whatever you feel for it.

I’m from a generation where my first experience of the world was the Soweto uprising, where police shot, not students but school pupils too – young children – because they were striking. When we came back to school that year it was striking. It has less to do with blackness and more to do with oppression.

Tobias: Both those last films I interpret as examining the rules of oppression – and then it becomes not a coincidence but not very surprisingly that it’s white people oppressing black people. These are some of the harsh realities of our recent history and also ancient history. It’s not the one thing starting the investigation of oppression, but rather the investigation of oppression giving the results you see in those two films.

Göran: It’s also that one thing leads to another. If you do a film like the Black Power Mixtape sooner or later you will encounter Fanon. As a filmmaker you don’t pick these things they pick you.

CF: Concerning Violence could be construed as your most radical film yet. It presents the potent words of Frantz Fanon unequivocally calling upon Europeans to rescind their position as colonisers and to reparate for the damage they’ve done. You said that ‘if you have a message put it in there’. What is your message, and are your films taking an increasingly radical perspective?

Göran: As I said in that Q&A, I think if you have a message you should put it in there, put it up and push it. That’s what I did. I can’t take that message and make it two sentences here, because if I could do that I wouldn’t have done the film. The film is directed to people, like myself, North/Western Europeans, Americans, the middle-class Chinese (I don’t know, but it should be). The least we can do is try to understand the dynamics behind violence. We don’t have to appreciate it or try to change anything, I gave up that. We should try to understand the wealth we’re sitting in here has a price. The price is not seldom paid by the third world still. The looting and the robbery goes on with cell phones etc.

The least we can try to do is to understand the minds and the dynamics. I’m not saying that I know that, but I think this text – because he’s a psychiatrist – that makes it somewhat interesting and multi-layered. I think that he combines so many different things in his texts.

CF: You said you made Concerning Violence as a European for an audience from the ‘North’. It is extraordinarily rare for a European to take an introspective approach to storytelling. Normally it’s going into a place and telling somebody else’s story.

Göran: I hate that. I totally hate it.

CF: Do you think a shift needs to take place to ensure that audiences are more directly addressed?

Göran: I hope so, because it’s totally patronising. Of course it’s more obvious when a Swedish filmmaker goes to Africa, I have no idea why anyone should do that, but it’s equally arrogant for a filmmaker from Sweden to go to Sheffield and makes a film about Sheffield. You have to have a strong connection. Especially when it comes to something stigmatised traditionally, like Africa, or South East Asia, or Inuits in Northern Canada. I think there should be a law against filmmakers going to Africa – even attending. I’m serious, there should be a law that you should try to use content produced by filmmakers that have a connection to that community – that country, that city, that problem. If we’re talking about Africa it’s not complicated because you have different sites that organise filmmakers and it’s not hard to get hold of a person with a camera in Congo that could do much better. So that’s important to me.

CF: Fanon’s philosophy ‘Concerning Violence’ isn’t simply about the violence of colonisation, but the necessity of violent resistance on the part of the colonised. How did you go about portraying a notion which is generally considered very controversial in the West?

Göran: I’m amazed that it’s still taboo fifty years after Malcolm X explained it. That government sanctioned violence is okay, so 20% of all our income should go to it. It doesn’t make sense. This is something that you keep repeating – that you must be non-violent. There was a time in Tahrir Square where they said ‘oh we’re non-violent’, but if they start to shoot how could they not react? It’s not violent to react violently to violence. They also mistake non-violence as a method, it’s not a passive thing it’s a very active thing, with Gandhi and so on. It’s almost violent but silent. They mistake the method of non-violence. If we say we don’t use the method of non-violence they say ‘wow you’re advocating violence’. No we advocate demonstration, we advocate books, we advocate education etc. Non-violence is when you are very many.

Like Stokely Carmichael said, your opponent has a heart. You can’t be violent to someone, and then say if you want me to stop being violent to you then you should advocate non-violence and then I’ll stop beating you – it doesn’t make sense.

Tobias: It’s a religious notion that there’s an afterlife that will reward you if you turn the other cheek. I don’t think it’s logical to sign up to that.

Göran: You can have that as a noble goal if you like, but you can’t expect the world to function that way. Read when Malcolm X took the declaration of independence – you have to expect some oppression for some time but if it’s too long it’s your duty to rise up to that power. It’s the same for everyone. An Americanism, it’s ‘freedom’. There is no use for people to live for too long without a limited amount of freedom.

CF: You mentioned that you work as a filmmaking cooperative. Is this an example of an alternative way to making films which takes a less aggressive and commercial approach and focuses on the story and the message that needs to be told.

Tobias: We would of course like to see it that way, but we are also very much a part of the system that is funding one sort of film and not another sort of film. Even if we are trying to radicalise how we are making films we have to adapt slightly to even get into the pitches or to not get our funding applications automatically thrown in the bin. The Swedish system grants us quite big freedom in the beginning, we can actually develop projects for a couple of years without much interference from other people. This gives us a strength that we can, no matter who the filmmaker is, drive the project long enough to force people to at least to say this is important – that there is so much high density thought behind this idea so it’s very hard for people to throw it away. This is a strength of the Scandinavian system of film funding.

The collectiveness is an individual idea that we share within Story that makes it logical for us to produce certain kinds of films. It’s not something we over-discuss but it works naturally.

CF: How did Lauyrn Hill get involved in this film?

Göran: We had mutual friends and I learned that she was into Fanon. That was one year ago and she was in jail, so I wrote her a paper letter and sent her a script. She replied ‘this is amazing’, ‘I’m reading Fanon by myself in jail so I will do the voiceover and the music’. But she wasn’t released until October so we didn’t have time to collaborate on music with her. We had a great collaboration, she was released on Friday and Monday morning she was doing the first take. And then we did six or seven takes to perfect it, because we had really different ideas on how to perform it. I really respect her because we’re doing it in different languages as well. I’ve done the text with other people, but Ms Hill, she really knows what she’s reading. I really respect her, she’s fantastic.

CF: Thank you for talking to Ceasefire.

Usayd Younis

Usayd Younis is Ceasefire Digital Editor. He is a documentary film-maker currently co-directing 'Generation Revolution', a feature-length documentary film about young black and brown activists in London. You can find his website at usayd.com. He tweets at @usayd

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