Introduction film program 'Friction Building’

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Hallo iedereen, bonjour à toutes et à tous, hello everybody - Welcome to this  evening called “Friction Building” - referring to the growing tensions that surround our country’s colonial heritage. 

We will start with a brief introduction to the program, that will take about 15 minutes. Than we will watch 4 short films. We know that there are at least a few people who don't speak Dutch, so we’ll do the talk in English. We hope that’s ok with you.

As an introduction, we’ve organized a number of unfinished thoughts concerning the program in 6 paragraphs, which I will read to you now:

(1) Friction is Building

When in 2015 the “Rhodes must Fall” movement was kicked off, or at least accelerated, by the disfiguring and removal of a colonial statue at Rhodes university in Cape-town, South-Africa it caught the attention of mainstream media worldwide. At the time, it didn’t spark much reflection on our own colonial heritage in the Belgian press. Newspapers reporting on it described a remote event, far removed from our national borders. Little or no connection was made to local issues.

When in 2017, however, Charlottesville’s protesters topled confederate statues, the event was addressed differently. Practically all popular newspapers referred to the debate on Belgium’s omnipresent colonial monuments. The question was raised whether it wasn’t time to face our own colonial past and its present continuations - amongst which, the many physical manifestations on squares and streetcorners.

Attention to these issues is not new. In Belgium, activist groups like Memoire Coloniale, Présence Noir or Decolonize Belgium have been questioning the presence of colonial statues for many years. Their concerns, however, usually don’t make headlines. How come that this time newspapers that we’re reporting on an event in another continent were also referring  to Ostend, Antwerp and Brussels? 

Do we, as Belgians, maybe just identify more easily with social struggles in the United states than with those in South-Africa? Or does the increasing visibilty of phenomena like refugee crises and different forms of extremisms, together with the continued efforts of activists, make reflection about colonization inevitable, and are we really experiencing a slow shift in our collective understanding of coloniality? The many events on decolonial thinking that are being organized, the publications that are being made, the many social movements that are born…sure seem to suggest that a collective urge to break the silence on past and present forms of colonialism is growing.

(2) so what to do with all those buildings

“Tear them down to the ground, store them at the museum, put up signs as big and heavy and detailed as the constructions they’re contextualizing or maybe even erect new monuments displaying different histories…”, many people have suggested ways of actively dealing with problematic statues. Others have warned for the obsession with symbols and objects. They claim it to be a superficial discussion distracting from the invisible legacies of colonialism. Isn’t not getting a job because your last name is “Harrak” a far more pressing issue than some old stones nobody cares about?

On the one hand I’d say yes, I think it’s important not to overestimate the monument. It is an outdated form, and it’s presence goes unnoticed most of the time. The monument just offers a way in – it present us with a concrete, almost practical starting point for an abstract and layered conversation. 

On the other hand, these images do carry a violence within them, sometimes explicitly, as in the statue of Pater De Deken, sometimes implicitly. It’s not unlikely that even though we may claim not to notice them, unconsciously these depictions do find their way to our perception of life, and of relations between people. Maybe we don’t perceive monuments as harmful, because we experience them as natural, banal and unquestionable extensions of the city. But doesn’t that give them great potential for making their political messages seem just as natural, banal and unquestionable? 

Furthermore, if a group of people feels excluded from public squares, isn’t that in itself enough to just get rid of them all, or at least transform them into something new?

(3) a privilege to be bored

The spreading of awareness on these issues seems inevitability to go hand in hand with weariness, with fatigue.  More than once I heard my friends say “Really? again, with the post-colonial stuff?”

A few months ago I was talking to another friend. She told me that, shocked as she was by the events in Charlottesville, she was also excited with all the attention it directed to Belgian colonial monuments. I remember saying “yes, ofcourse”, but also telling her that I was worried about how to seize the moment, how to use the momentum that the events had created. How to make sure that we, as citizens, can have a profound conversation and really come to the core of the issue, without becoming fed up with it, bored by repetition.

She responded: “what a luxury to be fed up with it. As if it is a only a thought-exercise, and not a very real, constant expression of violence. I don’t care about it becoming boring, we need to repeat this over and over and over.”

(4) who else is coming? 

We are Anne Reijniers and Rob Jacobs. We are two white, Belgian artists and researchers, who work together with Congolese artists and researchers, that is the position we’re speaking from. Tonight, however, it’s not only us talking. Although it was practically not possible for them to be here, Andrés, Ana and Mamadou will speak through their artistic work. This evening is an attempt to have a conversation between artists in different places, who grew up on different sides of colonial history, and who are involved in different social struggles as a consequence of those histories. 

(5) a cinema of exclusion and inclusion

The development of documentary filmmaking itself is closely intertwined with colonialism; ethnographic film evolved as a method to document, study, classify and thereby control the colonized. The history of political and artistic documentary, however, shows us that the medium can also be a powerful tool to accomplish quite the opposite: to unsettle categories, to destabilize stereotypes and create images that contradict dominant discourses.

But when making a program of political and artistic documentaries, questions concerning inclusivity and exclusivity arise. Isn’t this event, for example, designed with a very specific audience in mind: one already concerned with issues of coloniality, interested in the arts, having access to the media communicating about this event and understanding the codes used in that communication?

I’d say yes, this is a problem, but in my opinion it does not make it illegitimate. I stand by the point my friend made: there’s a need to repeat this over and over and over. And doing so, we can test out different forms: some forms will speak to some audiences, some forms will speak to others. I don’t think the academic article is irrelevant because it is too dense, nor are the slogans shouted in the streets useless because they’re too superficial: I think we need it all: and the academic articles, and the rally’s, and the experimental film programs, and the guided city tours, and the political parties, and the community meetings, and the online fora, and the art centers for refugees.

What is important is that we strive towards a situation in which people in all those different realms have a safe space to speak and to be heard, and that we keep on looking for ways to loosen up boundaries between those realms. 

This Saturday at 14:00 there's an event taking place at Globe Aroma in Brussels, a community art center where lots of newcomer and refugee artists work. The event is called "one alarm, many voices”, it is a reaction to last Friday's police raid at Globe Aroma. I think we should all go.

(6) four films in conversation

Four films, made in four different contexts, show us contemporary uses of remnants of a violent past. The films address material remains of colonialism (like Lisbon’s statues of proud explorers in ‘Occidente’), as well as immaterial consequences (like the loss of a language in ‘Ciudad Maya’), and the intricate ways in which those are intertwined.

But Anne will tell you something more about the films.

I will tell you something about the two first films. After we screened them, I will present the two last films.  After all the films we can have a conversation with you. 

1 - Mamadou Khouma Gueye - Kedougou (2017, 23’)

Kedougou is a city located south east of Senegal 750 km from Dakar. After Senegal obtained independence, a power struggle broke out between Senghor and Mamadou Dia, two members of the ruling party. Mamadou Dia was tried for high treason and exiled to Kedougou. Since this event, “Kedougou” symbolises prison in the collective imagination.

In this film we follow Ibrahima who takes up residence and works inside the ruins of this famous prison. In his selfmade foundry, he makes pots, pans and other kitchen utensils. We follow him in one of his working days, while prison walls tell the story of the dark hours of Senegalese post-independence politics.

2 - Andrés Padilla Domene - Ciudad Maya (2016, 24’)

In the city of Merida, in Mexico, a group of young urban Maya, operate mysterious technological instruments to do some sort of archaeological survey of a ruined site. However, the monuments they are scanning are not ancient, but modern replicas. 

The film adresses the resistance of urban Mayans today to colonial fantasies. It shows urban Mayans studying the colonial imagination by looking at images in a foresaken Maya-themed restaurant. They use techniques of etnography and archeology in a playful way. Doing so, they bring the authority of scientific accounts of Maya culture into question. At the same time we see and hear a Mayan computerspecialist translating computer related terms to Maya. In a very constructive act of resistance, he updates a language that runs the risk of becoming lost.

3 - Anne Reijniers & Rob Jacobs - Échangeur (2016, 33’)

Échangeur, this is the film Rob and I shot in 2015.

In the streets of Kinshasa, young Congolese imagine their version of the colonial past. An empty pedestal that used to carry a Belgian monument functions as a junction, a point of intersection that connects different interpretations of the colonial past, displayed in artistic performances.

For this film we worked together with Congolese artists. It is one form of output of a larger project, an ongoing exchange between young people in Belgium and DRCongo, who are looking for ways to relate to the colonial past. At this moment we are working on a new film about politically engaged performers. In this mid-length film, all script-writing, directing and editing is done by us, side-by-side with Congolese cineasts Paul Shemisi and Nizar Saleh, whom we met during the making of Échangeur.

4 - Ana Vaz - Occidente (2015, 15’)

A film-poem that speaks of colonial history repeating itself. The oppressed become masters, antiques become reproducible dinner sets, exotic birds become luxury currency, exploration becomes extreme-sport-tourism, monuments become geodata. A spherical voyage eastwards and westwards marking cycles of expansion in a struggle to find one’s place, one’s sitting around a table.

'Occidente' is an experimental film, that comes from a desire to bring separated things back together, a collagist impulse to approximate that which has been disassociated through power, logic and reason. The film reacts on a narration of history in which things are smoothed out, and linearly organized. 'Occidente' tries to disorganize, to run away from this logic.

Friction Building is a program of short films dealing with colonial heritage, that was presented at Extra-City, Antwerp on 15/02/2018.