Sunday 11 July 2010

White Material (Claire Denis, France | Cameroon, 2009)

An unnamed country in post-colonial Africa: economic stagnation, civil conflict, political violence, child soldiers. All the signs are gathering of the onset of a failed state. Dangerous ground for a European filmmaker. And director Claire Denis dares further, she focuses the narration on the character of Maria Vial, a white plantation owner. Accordingly, White Material is primarily a film about the exploiters as exploiters; not the exploited as exploited. An exemplary moment comes when Maria shows her newly hired field workers their lodgings. It is night, a single torch is shone around bare concrete cells, with dirty bedding discarded on the floors. The workers look on in disgust. Maria is oblivious, she points out the amenities (a water pump); then retires to her beautiful, vast, whitewashed villa. The structure of this society is not simply divided racially, essentially racist, but also has concomitant feudal and capitalist dimensions: land-owners and peasants, bourgeois and proletariat. In other words, the antagonisms have complex and particular social, economic, political, historical and racial co-ordinates. But everything is about to change. Violently.

White Material is organised so we feel the imminent nature of this change, the approaching paroxysm. The film’s ‘present’ finds Maria stranded on a dirt track before continuing with an uncomfortable ride back to her plantation in a rusty old bus. During the trip, Denis uses a flashback structure to describe the events of the previous few days... For Deleuze flashbacks ‘insert themselves between stimulation and response,’ are the instrument of ‘psychological causality’ (C2:47). The flashback is marked in transition ‘it is like a sign with the words: “watch out! recollection”’ (C2:49). Deleuze calls this destiny: the way in which the past inexorably saturates the present. And we can designate strong and weak types. Strong destiny: in which cause and effect are unequivocally linked, where the past returns to explicate the present in full. Weak destiny: which retains elements of the strong form (explanation, causality, linearity) but is instead concerned with integrating ellipses into memory, history and the past. Accordingly, the weak form is a more radical mode of flashback than the strong...

To read the full exploration of White Material through the Deleuze's sign of 'weak destiny,' see Deleuze's Cinema Books: Three Introductions to the Taxonomy of Images...

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