Claire's Africa

in 34th Toronto International Film Festival

by Hynek Pallas

The name of Claire Denis’ new film White Material is a pejorative expression for white settlers in Africa. The main ‘white material’ here is a white plantation owner, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), who refuses to leave her plantation even as a civil war seems to be drawing closer, and the French army is moving out of the unnamed African country where the story takes place. Amidst groups of rebels, child soldiers and an increasingly hostile environment, Vial remains – perhaps wilfully – ignorant.

Even though White Material does not comment on post-colonial issues in a straightforward way, these issues are very much the core of Vial’s ignorance.
“We have been rooted here for years” she says; an argument that is sharply contrasted to Denis’ clever montage with a radio-DJ who, over soft reggae-songs, propagates against the white settlers and urges black people to take their country back. (As his voice is heard on radios throughout the film, radios carried by child soldiers or playing in stores, one cannot help but think about the central role radio stations similar to this one played in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994).

Vial fails to see that all her relations to non-whites – either the mayor of the village or the workers at the plantation – are based on economical transactions. Yes, she and her family have been rooted in this place for years, but because of the on-going, brutal, toppling of colonial power-relations in the country – something she fails to understand – they are as easily uprooted. As one of her workers says in reference to the French army’s last attempt to get Vial to leave – before leaving the plantation himself – “That copter didn’t come for us, it came for you”.   

But what makes White Material a powerful and sensually overwhelming film lays not so much in the political material of the story, but in the stylistic storytelling. Edgy but beautifully shot and edited, the introduction of Vial and her relationship in the film’s first fifteen minutes explains her love for the place, this Africa, where she lives. The camera, at times hand-held and often in a close-up of Huppert’s profile, takes in the landscape as through a hazy lens; Burnt ground, green hills, a misty sky. Vial walks around in silence or rides a motorbike enjoying the wind.

The soundtrack – created by long time Denis-collaborator Stuart S. Staples of the Tindersticks – is hauntingly beautiful. At times eerily dissonant with the pictures, sharpening the edged of the dirty beige ground (not unlike the score in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood), at other times creating a soft counterpoint to menacing scenes. One of these is also the film’s most beautiful: as a group of child soldiers slowly emerge through the woods with machetes and guns, the soundtrack plays a soft tune consisting of flutes and strings.

The contrasts create a rich texture to the photography in White Material. Tactility is something reoccurring in Denis’ films and she goes about creating it in different, interesting ways: In one scene, government soldiers are cutting the throats of sleeping child soldiers. Denis lets the atrocities take place off screen, but amplifies and prolongs the horrible sounds of it and thereby making it impossible for us to escape them. In another, Vial lovingly submerges her hand in a basket of red, brown and black coffee beans – wonderfully filling up the whole screen – as we hear the sound of the beans rattling. One cannot help but think of the equally sensual kneading of pizza dough in Denis’ film Nenette and Boni. Yet, in contrast to the sexuality in several others of Denis’ films, the sensuality in White Material is restricted to the beans and to Vial’s relationship to the place.

It is by creating this sensual relationship between Vial and the African country that Denis rises above judging her. Even if she puts Vial in a colonial context, especially in the dialogue and in the surrounding events, she shows that whatever political issues are at hand – Vial is also an individual in love with this place. It makes for a wonderfully complex portrait, and for a beautiful film about tragic events.

Edited by: Steven Yates