Saturday, December 4

‘Stop filming us’: can a Westerner portray an African city without prejudice?


Plan of a street in the city of Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Joris Postema and his team follow photographer Mugabo Baritegera with the camera. “Why are white people filming us?” Asks a man. “They make money with us,” he says. “Go away!” Shouts another street vendor. The camera continues recording. The screams that this Dutch filmmaker received help to understand the title of the documentary Stop filming us (Stop Filming Us).

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Postema was for the first time in Goma more than ten years ago with the aim of recording for one of the more than 200 western NGOs in the city. By his account, he could only film from the back of a truck and slept in a heavily guarded compound. He claims that he felt that northeastern Congo was the most dangerous place in the world, an image also fed by movies and the media.

The documentary maker returned a second time with the local organization Yole! Africa and Ganza Buroko, producer of the film. He slept in a hotel and was able to go out freely. His perception changed. “My western image of hell on earth collided with the Congolese reality. Can I, as a western filmmaker, capture this world?” This and other questions are at the center of the documentary, which is screened this Sunday in L’Alternativa, the Barcelona Independent Film Festival and can be seen on Filmin until November 29.

“The representation of the Congolese that we see in Europe almost always comes from Europeans, and it has a lot to do with colonial history and the consequent unequal power relations and privilege,” the director told elDiario.es. “This observation led me to make the film with the aim of creating a certain awareness in Western audiences about the image and the consequences of colonial history.”


The film raises questions about the ethics, the limits, the representation of the African population and to what extent the western gaze perpetuates stereotypes deeply rooted, offensive and far from the reality that the protagonists live daily. Many of them are skeptical, tired of good intentions and, on several occasions, annoyed. “There are a lot of white people who come from Europe and America without taking their privileges into account. They all have a clear conscience, like Joris, who is making a movie called Stop filming usBut why don’t we film him? Who decides what should be recorded? “Asks one of them in a debate.

“These representations are at the root of the racism that is still very present, it is essential to talk about it,” says the Congolese filmmaker Bernadette Vivuya, one of the protagonists, to elDiario.es. “A stereotype that constantly appears is that Africans live in total poverty, waiting for help from Europe. This is totally wrong and does not take into account the reality that many people work to improve their lives and those of their communities, without waiting nothing from abroad. This stereotypical vision is an obstacle to seeing other facets. ”

The documentary combines two parts. On the one hand, it captures the work that Vivuya, the photojournalist Ley Uwera and the photographer Mugabo Baritegera do to show their own experiences in the Congolese city, whose population is often portrayed as homeless, in line with the narrative promoted, many times, by the Western NGOs.

Through his camera, Baritegera wants to avoid the “negative images” of the northeast of the country and show the daily life of the city, beyond the vision associated with the conflicts that the region has suffered. “These images are manipulations because the authors came with the fixed idea of ​​showing the negative side.” The documentary also accompanies Uwera, who admits that with his photographs of displaced people and refugees, closer to the clichés, “he offers what is expected” when working with NGOs, but at the same time makes it clear that there are limits that he would never exceed ” as an African “.

Vivuya, meanwhile, seeks to finance the second part of her documentary on neocolonialism, for which she goes to a French cultural institution, where they ask her if she has a computer. The scene is a small reflection of the difficulties African filmmakers face in trying to obtain external funding, which is in contrast to the recording of Stop filming us.

“Have I done something neocolonial?”

On the other hand, the film turns its gaze to itself in the form of a meta-film, and captures the debates between the director and his collaborators and Congolese interlocutors, who answer in a sharp, honest and critical way to the questions, sometimes provocative, of Postema , questioning his perspective and pointing out his contradictions.

“Should I go?” Asks the documentary maker in one shot. “Have we done something neocolonial these two weeks of filming?” He asks in another. Ganza Buroko gives as an example that once he closed the car door and gave a cookie to a child who was asking on the street. The Dutchman asks why it is not appropriate. “He said to you that he needed food? “, another participant answers.” You do not give something to someone without knowing what they need. Maybe he just wanted to talk, “Buroko responds.

“Realizing that my way of thinking or seeing things comes from my environment – the country I was born in, education, the media – was the most challenging thing to understand,” says Postema. “All the contradictions and the resulting conversations with the local team and the protagonists really helped me to understand (at least some of) these contradictions. And I think that has also been my biggest learning.”

The role of NGOs

Participants also ask themselves questions about the “white savior” complex and the work of international organizations and humanitarian projects funded by the Western world. This Sunday, after the screening in Barcelona, ​​there will be a debate on all these issues with Postema and Vivuya, an event promoted by Doctors Without Borders, CCCB, ACCIÓ> CINEMA and the Photographic Social Vision Foundation.

What needs to change to stop perpetuating negative stereotypes in the West and what is the responsibility of NGOs? “Our society is based in part on our colonial past. A better understanding of history is likely to play a role, the same for NGO people,” replies the director. “The problem with NGOs is that they need to show the problems and the misfortune to get funds. But many images that show they perpetuate the stereotypes and that is problematic because at this point in Europe people mostly consider them to be the truth. Of course that there are victims and problems, but it is not the only story. ”

“The paternalistic side of the cooperation system must be changed,” says Vivuya, who insists that “the same system persists – Western NGO that receives funds and comes to Africa to carry out its projects.” “The funds are not earmarked for local initiatives that respond to local needs and do not challenge donors from the North.”

Up for debate

The documentary opens up big questions and, more than answers, it provides material for a debate that is far from new. It includes the reaction of several attendees to the screening in Goma, who say what they think of the film, question its final objective and put on the table the choice of the place to screen it and the problems related to colonial history and the inequality of power. “Can he be expected to destroy the Western system?” Asks one aide, quoting Malcolm X.

Has the director achieved his goal? “It is not my place to say it. The documentary has been screened a lot and the debates have generally been long and quite intense,” says Postema. “At least, it has given rise to a lot of reflections, which is all I can do as a documentary maker.”

Among these reflections, there are those who have celebrated the film and consider it timely. Other voices have not been so favorable. At New York Times, journalist Devika Girish considers that her critical vision is limited. “The director’s self-flagellation feels increasingly empty, less a reckoning with neocolonialism than a toothless display of white guilt.”

Yasmina Price, a doctoral student in the Departments of African American Studies and Film and Media Studies at Yale University, argues in an article titled Western movies about Africa are neocolonial even when they try not to be that the documentary mixes deep reflections with “disappointing shortcomings.” He believes that it falls short and questions, for example, that it continues to be filmed in the scene in which there are people who do not want to be recorded. “There were better options for such a project. (…) The best that can be said is that it exposes dangerous entrenched colonial tics in such a way that some members of the western white public could see them and gain a modicum of self-awareness.”

Emiel Martens, Professor of Postcolonial Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam, analyzes in an article To wonder if, as a Westerner, one cannot be a “postcolonial filmmaker” while a Congolese director would be capable of falling into so-called “essentialism”. “Postema’s question as to whether he, as a Western filmmaker, is capable of making a non-colonial film in Congo is already answered in advance: he can, as long as he focuses with a critical post-colonial lens on the subject.”

Speaking to elDiario.es, the director answers that question that was posed at the beginning. “A Western filmmaker can make a film about humanitarian and conflict situations in the global South, but audiences must be critical when viewing the film and reflecting on the film and the filmmaker.”

His opinion is very similar to that of Vivuya, who believes that the problem “is rather that a director does not dominate the subject.” “If you do not know the history of a people, of a country, if you do not understand its social structures, if you do not see the initiatives that are developed because they are different from the dominant model, then you cannot talk about it fairly. Meanwhile, there are local filmmakers or journalists who, on the other hand, can speak delicately about a situation. ” And it is important, points out Postema, that there are more possibilities for African filmmakers like Vivuya to find ways of financing to be able to make films that show their perspective.



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