Durban film festival: It is all black and white when working outside the colour lines

it’s nothing more than light, colour is political. Think of the way socialism is universally synonymous with the colour red, or how the palette for African imagery in global media has been mostly limited to the rusty ochres and dusty browns. Colour has meaning. It has power.

It took three decades for Technicolor to become standard in the film industry. Filmmakers were slow to adapt because of the magnitude of the shift it represented. The language of cinema was fundamentally changed by the introduction of colour. Where geometry, light and plot once ruled forms like film noir, the film-making process came instead to serve chromatic harmony foremost, and aspired above all to make imaginary worlds believable, in living colour.

After the 1960s, black and white film became specialist, and since then film-making conventions have evolved in relation to the full spectrum, developing a vocabulary of colour that is as ideological as words are. To exclude colour, then, could be a disruption to this seamless polychrome simulacrum, which makes it a powerful tool for decolonising film and exploring new film language.

With digital cinematography, monochrome is back on the table and a handful of films at the Durban International Film Festival this year have gone grayscale, each presenting a unique challenge to the kaleidoscope that has become normal in a hypermediated world.

Embrace of the Serpent, from Colombia, is one of the most striking films of the year so far, and its use of black and white is ingeniously complex and self-reflexive. Set on the Amazon at the turn of the 20th century, the destructiveness of the colonial encounter is allegorised across series of dense episodes at landing points along the banks of the dark, velveteen river.

The film is sombre parody, and the image is constructed to evoke early colonial ethnographic studies. While black and white films are often nostalgic pastiche, Embrace of the Serpent turns that nostalgia in on itself by shifting the gaze to the perspective of indigenous Amazonian communities. The film does colour – once – in a dazzling call to enlightenment that asks us to reconsider history.

Namibian director Perivi Katjavivi’s brilliant and refreshing The Unseen takes place on the other side of this era. His characters negotiate forces of neoimperial homogeneity in the present, while trying to make sense of the past. Also episodic, we witness a series of conversations among Namibians that function like philosophical dialogues, in which diverse characters weigh up possible perspectives, possible identities, and everything in between.

It’s a pensive film in which silence means as much as words. It’s also self-aware, reflecting on its own relationship with high art values. One character, a filmmaker, explains his plans to shoot his film in black and white. “Art. This is art,” he says. In this way, the black and white both embodies and critiques an ironic millennial detachment. But make no mistake, this portrayal of life in the impact zone of post-colonialism and post-modernity has real substance and weight.

If The Serpent speaks in the past tense, and The Unseen in the present, then Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s film Naked Reality speaks in the future tense, pushing into the territory of visual experimentalism on an Afro-futuristic quest. The geometric shapes, the organic movement and long stylised transitions are part of an exploration of a new aesthetic could only have worked in high contrast black and white.

All these films are thoroughly philosophical, and the choice to forsake colour provides critical distance from many of the conventions that have dominated cinema since the 1960s, and liberates film from an over-definition of the simulacrum. Unlike colour, black and white is not a pretence at reality, but a pointing towards reality – it is not as suffocatingly literal.

In the 1950s, dream researchers believed that our dreams took place in black and white. This perception that seems to have had a strong correlation with the black and white film of the time, because today a far greater proportion of people report dreaming in colour. We seem to articulate and understand our dreams in relation to our visual culture. One explanation could be that perhaps dream colour remains indeterminate unless a particular detail is described, like in a novel?

Andrei Tarkovsky notices the same thing about film. “On the screen colour imposes itself on you, whereas in real life that only happens at odd moments, so it’s not right for the audience to be constantly aware of colour.”

So then, if films are indeed like dreams, which is an analogy that has been made many times before, perhaps black and white film allows our dreams to be less determined and more open to the possibility of change?

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