Project White

This project involved reading an essay White  by Richard Dyer (Evans et al, pp 457) which is about the illusive nature of  ‘Whiteness’. Dyer is a Professor of Film Studies at Kings College London and as such his discussions take films as his texts. The project then required me to watch at least two films: Simba  which is British film from the mid 1950s which is a colonial adventure film centred on the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya; and The Battle of Algiers  which is an award winning Italian film by director Gillo Pontecorvo which is about events during the 1954-1962 Algerian War against French Rule.

Simba  is organised around a rigid opposition of white  and black with white standing for modernity, rationality, order and stability and black for backwardness, irrationality, chaos and violence. Dyer demonstrates how this is played out through the film’s mis-en-scene. Emphasis in the film is on this division which is depicted as visual and bounded. Everything about the native black people is visually  primitive, dark and threatening, whereas the white characters are generally depicted as reasonable and conciliatory. The film could be seen as an endorsement of the moral superiority of the white values but also suggests a lack of confidence in whether this will prevail. The Mau Mau uprising is represented as an unstoppable dark force.

The Battle of Algiers is altogether a different kettle of fish. To begin with it is a much better film. Simba is predictable and amateurish. The Battle of Algiers is intriguing and moving. The latter is in black and  white which gives it a sense of gravitas, almost like one is looking at newsreels from the time.

The Battle of Algiers takes a completely different slant on the issue of whiteness. White in the form of the French are presented as the barbaric oppressors. Black in the form of the Algerian revolutionary movement the FLN is represented as the wrongly oppressed. The French gendarmerie are depicted as racist, sexist bigots and the Algerians as devout, law abiding Muslims. In order to put down the guerilla forces of the FLN the French bring in the paratroopers under a commander Mathieu. Mathieu uses a range of oppressive measures to root out the leaders of the FLN, including curfews, bombing and  torture . Mathieu is also shown manipulating the media to mobilise public opinion in favour of his actions. Towards the end of the film he appears to have suppressed the uprising, when all of the leaders have been captured or killed. However there is an interesting postscript which shows the mass public protests which took place two years later. These eventually lead to the Algerian independance. So once again the inevitability of the eventual collapse of colonialism is represented. Curiously this postscript reminded me of the recent uprisings during the Arab Spring which of course were directed at oppressors in the form of corrupt dictators and military juntas.

Evans J. & Hall S (eds) (1999) Visual Culture: the reader  London: Sage