Conrad reviews Africa Addio
here. Since I prodded him to this, I suppose I should say a few words.
Of course this is a lovely review—what more could one expect? Conrad’s choice of screenshots is excellent—revealing the cinematic achievement that is Africa Addio. If not for the content and the title font, it’d be almost impossible to believe this documentary was made in 1966. Merely as moviemakers, Jacopetti and Prosperi (directors of the more famous Mondo films, although they consider Addio their masterpiece) were far ahead of their time.
Addio is not merely a movie, however. It is a historical document. And this is where I must fault Conrad slightly, because the problem is, he is misleading you a little. It is a very pardonable reviewer’s trick. The trouble is that he wants you to watch the movie (the Google Video copy has been pulled, but it’s easy to find on DVD), and so he makes it sound a little bit like a National Geographic Special.
And you almost certainly don’t want to watch this movie. If there is any good reason for the world to have an MPAA, Africa Addio is it. In fact, I don’t think an NC-17 would really do Addio justice. I think it might well be something like an NC-40. Certainly, if you are between the ages of three and ninety-three, there’s no chance you will ever forget the experience.
Let me put it this way. In Addio, you see two men killed onscreen. (These executions are almost certainly not faked—I don’t believe any of the footage is, although clearly some of the events, such as charismatic megafauna being hunted with spears, are orchestrated rather than incidental.) But what’s really appalling is that by the point at which you see this, which is toward the end of the film, it hardly bothers you at all. It seems, really, almost normal.
The genius of Addio is that it sweeps you into the welter of stupendous tragedy that was Africa in the ’60s, engaging your senses and forcing you beyond any conceivable denial. If you saw Hotel Rwanda or Last King of Scotland, perhaps you got a small taste of this experience. But both of these were, of course, fiction.
For example, Addio contains the only footage of actual genocide that I know of. And it’s not just footage of genocide—it’s 35mm film, shot by one of the leading documentary cinematographers of his generation, from a helicopter, of a genocide which I had never even heard of.
The genocide is the murder of the Arabs of Zanzibar in 1964. It’s briefly mentioned on this page, which gives a death count of 5000, a number which anyone who sees the film can tell is understated. You see almost that many people on screen, and that’s just the rolls they used. Murdering 5000 people barely counts as genocide these days, and it hardly requires the use of large, preprepared, mechanically-dug mass graves.
(My guess is that the memory hole in this case is due to the fact that the Arab ruling class of Zanzibar was generally aligned with the British Empire, and the African party which sponsored the coup and genocide was aligned with Tanzania, which Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika to form three months later, and which was a longtime darling of the Western left.)
Allow me to set the scene. After trying to land in Zanzibar, and being forced to make a quick takeoff when their plane is shot at and a companion plane is burned on the landing strip, our filmmakers rent a helicopter in Kenya and fly over the scene at a reasonable height. We see a line of people, dark-skinned men, women and children in white Arab clothing, walking single file as far as the eye can see, toward the aforementioned mass graves. The soldiers guarding them occasionally look up and take a potshot at the copter, but it’s too high.
Cut to a shallow tidal flat, where hundreds at least, probably thousands of Arabs have been literally driven into the sea. Small boats are collecting a few of them. The rest merely stand around in water up to their ankles, presumably wondering what in the hell to do. There is no answer. The mainland is not in swimming distance. The next day, the helicopter returns, and where there had been people, there are now bodies—still in the same white robes.
Have you ever wondered how, if the Nazis had invented some miracle wonder-weapon in 1944 and actually won the war, they would explain the Holocaust? Because I’m sure there would be a way. Hitler never ordered it. It was war, things happen. It was the Allies’ fault for not accepting Jewish refugees. The British and Americans bombed city centers, boiling Germans alive like rats in tunnels. The Soviets did all kinds of crazy horrible things. All of these and more, I’m sure, would be deployed.
But if the Nazis knew one thing, it was how to distort reality. It’s often forgotten that when Hitler wrote of the Big Lie, he meant—of course—the lies of others. He, Hitler, was debunking these lies, offering truth to the people. But of course he was projecting, and how better to present his own Lie?
And so all educated people on the planet today learn that there was something called “colonialism,” that “colonialism” was evil, and that its death was a “liberation.”
And when I tell you that, in reality, this “liberation” amounted to an orgy of tyranny and murder which surely at least competes with the achievements of Stalin, Hitler or Mao—that the transition from “colonialism” to “postcolonialism” amounted to a transfer of the Third World from one Western faction to another, from Optimate to Brahmin, Revelationist to Universalist, from indirect rule at the local level to the same at the national level—that it replaced governments whose quality of service was generally indifferent to good, with ones whose quality of service was disastrous to mediocre, but whose officials at least had the right skin color—who are you to believe? Me, or every educated person on the planet?
Perhaps I am just like Hitler. After all, Unqualified Reservations has basically the same goal as Mein Kampf—to convince the reader that he has been fooled, that the world he thinks he lives in is a simulacrum, a fiction, a faked documentary. True, I don’t attribute the disparity to the international Jewish conspiracy, or to any conspiracy at all. But at least Hitler’s readers knew his real name.
And this is why I treasure a film like Africa Addio. Because it’s 40 years old and the things it shows happened, and because the men who made it were mad geniuses, who could turn some of the world’s ugliest history into undeniable beauty, whose work can still command our eyes when no sane man should want to see. Again, believe me—you don’t want to watch Addio. On the other hand, if you don’t believe me, you are free to watch it. At least for now.