Using Fanon in vain?

Steve Kwena Mokwena’s Driving with Fanon tries to interrogate the reality of post-war Sierra Leone but fails in most regards

A few months ago, in the Mail & Guardian pages, columnist and Black Consciousness scholar Andile Mngxitama dismissed Driving with Fanon, a documentary directed by Steve Kwena Mokwena, as “a film [that] simply uses the name of [Frantz] Fanon as a marketing ploy”. In typically sulphuric accents, Mngxitama moaned that “we wait to drive with Fanon but the man simply never arrives”.

The result is that “we are subjected to the distortions of Fanon’s ideas by a filmmaker who is either a Buddhist or a Ghandian, with no capacity to appreciate Fanon’s creative and liberating conceptions of revolutionary violence”.

At the time I thought that was a rather harsh verdict but, after watching the shorter version of the film, I was inclined to agree with Mngxitama. I felt the shorter version of Driving with Fanon—shorn of about 20 minutes of important archival footage—has nothing really to do with the Martinique-born thinker.
Without this footage the film felt too cerebral and somewhat self-indulgent; it contains the reflections—occasionally riveting, frequently revealing, at times humdrum—of three people. It features a journalist, a poet and the film’s narrator as they drive through Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the civil war in which 100 000 people died and tens of thousands lost their limbs.

The precise details and context of this notorious war are not entirely clear to many in South Africa, but some of its gritty glitter is finding its way to us from The Hague courtrooms, where warlord and Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor is on trial. We have heard of “dirty looking stones” that, in the middle of the night, were passed on to model Naomi Campbell during the former president’s visit to South Africa. Not only is the world witness to this trial, its lexicon has been enriched by the phrase “blood diamonds”—words straight out of the blood-soaked earth containing the gemstones.

Mokwena visited the offices of the M&G to drop off a longer (and much better) version of his film and we sat down for an impromptu interview.

“Do I invoke Fanon to market my film or is there a place for a deeper conversation with Fanon about violence?” he asks. Of all revolutionary theorists, he argues, Fanon seems the most “fantastic companion to travel with in this conversation”, because he appreciated the value of violence for a subject people trying to dislodge the colonial oppressor.

The genesis of the movie, he says, goes back almost a decade ago when Mokwena visited Sierra Leone in the company of people working on a project for HIV/Aids prevention among African youth.

What he encountered on his “risky little excursion” shocked him—he discovered that a society sloughing its layers of violence is always keen to don its accustomed robs. “Violence is always on the surface,” he says. “One of the residues of protracted violence is the easy resort to violence.” The longer film is a collage of decade-old footage, Mokwena’s poetic incantations, co-producer and journalist Lansana Fofana’s rather (at times) inane commentary and Oumar Farouk Sesay’s not-so-great poetry.

I found some of Fofana’s musings infuriating. For instance, he asserts that the memory of most Sierra Leoneans is limited because they are uneducated and also bemoans the ransacking of his house and the loss of his Mercedes Benz during the war. Put it into proportion, man—100 000 people lost their lives!

When Mokwena got to Sierra Leone the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. South Africa was celebrated all over the world for its relatively peaceful transition. Freetown, on the other hand, seemed to be a city that had been struck by and barely survived both an earthquake and a tsunami.

The footage from a decade ago is beautifully shot in black and white and features Mokwena sporting a crop of short dreadlocks. It contains touching interviews with amputees and raped women, which is then merged with footage he shot in 2009. After watching these disturbing images, it’s difficult to believe that the Revolutionary United Front rebellion started off as an ideologically sound collective, rightly nauseated by the excesses of the incumbent government.

As he journeyed through a ravaged Freetown (so named because it was founded in 1792 as a home for freed African-American slaves), two questions bothered him. The first one was the “inevitability of the fact of violence and oppression in Africa” and, secondly, what Fanon, were he alive, would make of the conflict.

Responding to those who accuse him of using Fanon’s name in vain, Mokwena explains that “this isn’t really an interpretation but my imaginative travels with” the theorist. The idea behind the film—for which he got R150 000 from the Gauteng Film Commission—was to “drag Fanon into an argumentative discourse about the present”.

His premise is that Fanon isn’t sacrosanct, a deity who lives in an unapproachable cloud and whose work can’t be interrogated. One can’t disagree with that, for many of Africa’s problems arise from our failure to question our liberation aristocrats.

Catch the action
The Encounters South African International Documentary Festival, which runs in Cape Town at the Nu Metro V&A Waterfront Complex and at the Labia on Orange until August 29. It runs in Johannesburg at the Bioscope on Fox Street from August 18 to 29

Percy Zvomuya

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