There’s an ongoing debate about what kinds of films nonwhite filmmakers ought to make. Haven’t we see enough slave, genocide, and colonization narratives? Has a spring of rom-coms and movie musicals been duly earned in the wake of such suffering, both onscreen and off? On its face, it would seem preposterous to demand that artists satisfy the sensibilities of some amorphous public (or a random assortment of hypervocal Twitter users). On the other hand, it’s true that movie executives seem eager to market the suffering of Black and Indigenous people, and fairly indifferent to depictions of joy, play, or simply something in between.
This past week has brought us three films and one hybrid docuseries that take opposite yet complementary approaches to depicting Black and Indigenous life and history across the globe. The docuseries Exterminate All the Brutes and the South African film Moffie offer unflinching depictions of suffering—walking us through historical moments of white patriarchal violence and connecting them to the present. The documentary Maɬni—Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore and the feature This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, meanwhile, are both lyrical art films that use ancestral storytelling techniques to share experiences of Indigenous living and political resistance. Instead of presenting two opposing arguments, these works exist in the same continuum, offering a vision for how thoughtful film curation may be essential to appreciating—rather than lamenting—the often stark differences in how Black and Indigenous artists share their ideas about land, empire, and the self.
Raoul Peck’s four-part Exterminate All the Brutes, debuting April 7 on HBO, comes in hot. In the first episode, or chapter, we review—through archival footage, documentary, and reenactments featuring professional actors—centuries of genocide conducted or organized by white Western empires and enacted upon various ethnic minorities and Indigenous populations. The series is adapted from the book of the same name by Sven Lindqvist; for fictionalized scenes of Native American genocide in the U.S., Peck turned to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.
Early in the first chapter, Peck—who both appears on camera and narrates the series with his fittingly dramatic and gravelly voice—states that in previous films he made about political radicals, from Lumumba and I Am Not Your Negro to The Young Karl Marx, he sought to remain hidden, “objective.” But when it comes to this question of extermination, of powerful countries like the United States systematically eliminating undesired groups (often Black, brown, and/or Indigenous), there was no way to keep up that distance.
It’s a relief that Peck has put aside the posture of directorial objectivity in order to engage more intimately with such a tremendous subject. Exterminate communicates the unbearable proximity Peck feels to its themes in part through a relentless depiction of colonial violence. Peck, who is Haitian by origin, immigrated to New York City as a boy before moving to the Congo, where his father worked in the country’s newly formed, turbulent post-Lumumba government. The arc of history, as he knows, rarely bends toward justice, because its most powerful manipulators—Western monarchies and governments—have continually chosen violence.
As a boy, he moved through the world in the shadow of this violence; it’s not far-fetched to guess he became a director in part so that he could show the things he has witnessed. The series takes a curious, almost childlike perspective, using clips from On the Town (1949), An Outpost of Progress (2016), and Shoah (1985) to illustrate the subliminal reach of racist propaganda as well as reflections on that propaganda throughout cultures. Like the young, so many of us are impressionable, fragile, and naive when it comes to understanding what our world is and how it came to be. Peck allows us to reexamine images we may have taken for granted in the hopes that we might adjust our gazes toward an apparent truth.
Oliver Hermanus, a director of mixed racial background known for hard-to-watch films that connect interpersonal and systemic violences in South Africa, is up to a similar task in Moffie. The film, which takes its title from a South African gay slur, came out in virtual theaters April 2. It follows the drafting and training of a young, white, closeted gay man, Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer), in the South African army during the South African Border War, a conflict also known as the Angolan Bush War or Namibian Independence War, which lasted from 1966 to 1990.
It’s a severely beautiful film. The brutality these drafted young men, all white, face at the hands of sergeants and lieutenants is set against the piercing backdrop of South Africa’s dazzling coastline. For that reason, the film has drawn comparisons to Claire Denis’s Beau Travail—but Hermanus’s film is much more troubling. These new soldiers are told that their enemies are “commies,” “n-ggers,” and “f-ggots.” They are not to show sympathy or mercy to any of the above, especially not before they’re shipped off to Angola to thwart the communist government its Indigenous people wish to install. Over the course of the film, Nicholas goes from observant and (mostly) obedient to tough and emptied. The army, in South Africa, is not merely a training camp, but a reeducation camp. These English- and Dutch-origin white boys, whoever they are, will not leave it intact.
Both Exterminate All the Brutes and Moffie take an aggressive and sweeping approach to revealing the gruesome details of colonial and fascist violence. They both focus on how whiteness as a construct (i.e., a made-up category with real social and historical significance) has been shaped over time through brutality. And in both works, white people—usually representatives of empires like Great Britain, Belgium, or eventually, the United States—enact violence on both some chosen “other” (whether Native American, Black, Jewish, Roma, Asian, homosexual, communist, Muslim, etc.) and themselves (via military training, child abuse, homophobia, and the like). Peck and Hermanus turn the viewer into a witness rather than a receptacle; you do receive a bevy of historical information, but mostly, the filmmakers just ask you not to look away. Yes, this sort of thing is hard to watch, Peck says, but ignorance won’t save you from the far-reaching consequences of these events.
In the course of such reckonings, various connections are made and several repetitions occur. Moffie’s lieutenants impress upon their charges the ugly repercussions for getting caught engaging in homosexual activities; Josh Hartnett, playing a ruthless colonizer/slave owner in Exterminate, murders and mutilates without hesitation. White people, powerful and impoverished alike, project their insecurities upon an imagined other that Black bodies are typically made to symbolize.
So after watching all that, what does one do? Go to bed depressed, or step out into the world with a revitalized drive to change things? How can those of us who descended from historically “othered” ancestors muster the energy to fight for a world where brutal dominance has always had nearly insurmountable sway? Two films released April 2, Native American director Sky Hopinka’s Maɬni—Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore and Lesotho director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (available on Metrograph and in virtual theaters, respectively) mount subtle arguments for life beyond—yet in acknowledgement of—generational trauma for Indigenous populations who have survived on colonized land. Neither film is a direct response to colonial violence, but neither denies its enduring presence, either. Instead, both allow their subjects’ and characters’ lives to bloom onscreen, in moments of reflection, joy, and—especially in the case of This Is Not a Burial—grief.
Hopinka, a member of the Ho-Chunk nation and a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, was born and raised in Washington state. Since graduating with an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he has made several critically acclaimed short films focusing on Indigenous language, landscape, and modern Indigenous life. Maɬni is his first feature, and like his other films, it foregrounds Chinuk Wawa, a language indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin.
Hopinka narrates the film in Chinuk Wawa, following two of his friends through the Pacific Northwest’s forests and coastline. One, Sweetwater Sahme, visits a waterfall for a blessing. She’s pregnant, and in English (with Chinuk Wawa subtitles) she shares her philosophical and spiritual outlook on birth and death, motherhood and childhood. Fully clothed, she steps into the waterfall, hands open towards the sky. Another friend, Jordan Mercier, speaks with Hopinka in Chinuk Wawa, reflecting on the effects of assimilation he sees on children in his community—who cut their hair rather than wearing it long in order to avoid sidelong comments from white people.
Mercier himself is often taken for white, and growing out his hair has, in some ways, allowed him to outwardly express his Native American identity and culture. He’s also been building a canoe, another traditional practice that, he says, has given him a sense of strength and self-knowledge. Hopinka frames his conversations with Sahme and Mercier with a kind of spoken prose poem, a series of open-ended ideas and reflections on existence, permanence, and impermanence. Watching Maɬni a day after finishing Exterminate All the Brutes, I felt a sense of replenishment. Catastrophizing in the face of the world’s cruelty is an understandable impulse—but while confronting those truths, it’s crucial to develop a concrete understanding of what’s worth preserving and creating a future for.
Mosese is also interested in what comes next for the traditional communities that get edged out for modernity’s sake. Lesotho, the very small country entirely contained within South Africa, exists in a state of extreme vulnerability. Mosese accentuates the grandness of the hilly Lesothan landscape and pastoral culture as a way of introducing the bold yet observant Mantoa (played by the late Mary Twala Mhlongo, who also appeared in Beyoncé’s Black Is King movie), who lives in a small cottage and is regularly visited by a local priest who lost his wife not long ago.
Death rebounds for 80-year-old Mantoa; she has also lost both her husband and her son, and is ready to pass on herself. But a different kind of death stops her. After her son’s burial, the villagers learn of a dam being built nearby, which means she and the rest of the inhabitants—even those who reside in the village’s enormous gravesite—will be relocated. Mantoa knows, however, that not all the bodies can be accounted for; there has simply been too much death. She pushes past the village chief in order to put up a fight against their assimilated government representative, and manages to organize her village—including its leaders—around the cause.
Mosese takes an alternately explanatory and subtle approach to revealing the systematic disenfranchisement of villagers in Lesotho. The priest is a talented writer; the villagers choose him to voice their demands to the government in a letter. Sitting with Mantoa as she cares for another elderly villager who is ill, the priest becomes introspective, monologuing about the change in religion and culture his people have experienced throughout history. Mantoa doesn’t respond kindly to his idea that these changes are profound and defining. To her, the losses she and others have experienced as a result are “meaningless.”
Yet despite Mantoa’s near atheism, a thread of magical realism runs through the film. Lush visuals and textured fabrics pop through the screen; images fade in and out, events sequenced not according to chronology but feeling. A griot of sorts tells Mantoa’s story from inside a shadowy Lesothan club, likely in the city. Mantoa defiantly sings from the hilltop, beckoning her neighbors not for another funeral, but for a meeting. This Is Not a Burial gradually reveals the ways in which cultures within cultures have been erased in the face of globalization, and how the only way to carry on our most life-affirming traditions is to honor what and who is no longer present.
Films can tell us about anything, and Black and Indigenous directors have the right to woo or disturb us. Of course, there are cynical and clumsy approaches, those more attendant to shock value or term-paper hypothesizing than to working out ideas. Exterminate All the Brutes and Moffie come close to crossing this line, with almost relentless approaches to depicting systematized terror and destruction. Yet both manage to transmit lucid and rigorous thinking about our past and current conditions. For the dominant narrative to be challenged, its distortions have to be laid bare.
Maɬni and This Is Not a Burial, though, refuse to frame their ideas through the lens of white patriarchy. Black and Indigenous people have indeed lived, have built communities and pooled resources, rebelled and refused, charted a course to life beyond survival even against the grimmest circumstances. We need to be reminded of this.
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