The colonial narrative (re Chocolat (France/ West Germany/Cameroon 1988)

I sense some tension in the group around whether or not we can take melodrama seriously. This is a pity since it is an important issue when considering films made by western filmmakers about stories set in African countries. Chocolat creates a familiar colonial narrative about the relationship between a white woman (the coloniser) and a black man (the colonised). This is the basis for the colonial melodrama which focuses on the emotionally explosive mix of sex and race. Interestingly, it more often features a white woman and black man than a black woman and white man — perhaps because the former is more threatening to the colonial/settler family. I’m not suggesting that Claire Denis sets out to make a colonial melodrama, but she consciously chooses its narrative and works to oppose it stylistically from what I saw in the extracts. In the films I have seen by African filmmakers, the colonial relationship is not dealt with as an emotional relationship — the colonists are simply there as representatives of oppression. There are several African films (mostly made by men, I’ve only seen one film by an African woman) which focus on the women as central characters and these are often careful to explore the status of women within distinct local communities.

Kim Longinotto attempts not to impose her sense of narrative on the events she records, even if she has to select and edit from her material. The melodrama that I found inherent in the court proceedings seemed to me to come from the performances of both the lawyers and their clients. Longinotto’s feel for the universal human stories she witnessed is certainly impressive, but I wonder how much her film was still an outsider’s view. I thought that the Denis and Longinotto extracts were very useful in posing questions about how women are presented in ‘African stories’.

If anyone is interested in the kinds of films which circulate in West Africa as part of Nollywood, there is an interesting UK centre for ‘Nollywood Studies‘ which offers a number of fascinating links.

3 responses to “The colonial narrative (re Chocolat (France/ West Germany/Cameroon 1988)

  1. I realise I ended up making a comment in the group session that I don’t really agree with !! I mean I had a certain point to make but I drifted off-topic… I think I ended up suggesting that Longinotto was using stylistic elements such as those of melodrama in a way that might hamper her audience in engaging with the serious content of her film. I didn’t mean that really, as in fact I didn’t personally find anything in her style that didn’t serve the powerful content. Ultimately what I think is that unless we’re watching a film, fiction or non-fiction, that’s distractingly incompetent (and so far we haven’t seen any of those in full or part on the course!), then as viewers we have a choice of the weighting we give to style or content in allocating our attention. So melodramatic elements aren’t a reason not to take a piece seriously anyway.Does that make sense?!

  2. Thanks, Roy. I hadn’t considered how ‘Chocolat’ is melodramatic in its structure fully, because I was so taken with the ‘look’ OF the film and the ‘looks’ IN the film, between Protee (their servant) and France’s mother, Aimee. What I like about Denis’s film is that it does not play on those stereotypes of ‘dark continents’ – using the African character(s) as a metaphor for a powerful, ‘dark’ sexuality – instead, it critiques the colonial ‘masters” belief in this and the desire for it in Aimee and other colonial characters. It shows their inadequacy, their need that draws them towards a place and a people they are so ill-equipped to communicate with, let alone master.I feel that Denis makes it emotional, without being sentimental. She sets out all the different situations in a series of scenes, just as the extract showed, that gives us a feeling of getting to know the characters naturally, and relating to them as real people. That has some connections to documentary, except without the difficulty or importance of everything being strictly accurate.I don’t mind Longinotto constructing all her hours of footage into something that is like a melodrama, a fiction film. I have to trust her, that this helped her get to the truth, (emotionally) of the situation she was representing.

  3. I’m relieved to hear you say that, Sally – because on a course it’s easy to feel like we are picking apart, for the sake of picking apart. I think it’s ultimately very useful to have an appreciation of how the film has been constructed, and the different elements that have gone into that. These elements are part of how those films make an effect on us, but I agree – at the time of watching, we can still allow ourselves to be drawn into the narrative itself and forget the way it’s been formed.And, additionally, I agree that the use of melodrama shouldn’t ‘weaken’ the value of the film – it’s part of the undermining of those texts that are seen as ‘women’s texts’ (in one way or another) that Roy outlined has been happening, unfairly, for decades.

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