The film begins with a Congolese man opening a camera case and turning over its contents. This shot, which could easily be read as a symbolic shorthand for the technology of documentation being in the hands of an African and not a European, is curiously at odds with the film itself.
“Can I, as a Western filmmaker, portray this world?” “Did we do anything neocolonial, Wiro and me, in the last two weeks?” “Should I leave?” These are some of the questions that Dutch filmmaker Joris Postema strings together in Stop Filming Us. The pretext for the story is a self-indulgent investigation into Postema’s positionality as a white European filmmaker and preoccupation with his ability to represent what he refers to as “Congolese reality.” This misses the mark. A more pertinent question would have been whether this quandary required making the film to find an answer. The premise that there even exists a “Congolese reality” is regrettably flattening. Caught up in an oversimplified concept of positive vs. negative representation, the film loses its way chasing the false idea of a monolithic Congolese perspective — which could not be rendered by a local any more than it could be mined by a foreigner.
Despite this, Stop Filming Us is filled with sharp, precise, sometimes illuminating insights, all of which come from Postema’s Congolese collaborators and interlocutors — Ganza Buroko, Mugabo Baritegera, as well as a host of other participants. The problem is that the documentary, as a container for their intellectual contributions, falls short by exposing its own inability to do more than passively record.
In a blue-and-white striped tented space, we see a community screening of Rumeurs Du Lac, a 2015 film by Congolese journalist Wendy Bashi. In the clip, an elder man in a small boat speaks about how the arrival of white colonizers forced an end to certain traditions, particularly ones relating to the land and animals. A likeness of Burkinabé revolutionary Thomas Sankara adorns one wall of the screening space, and the bottom of the screen is emblazoned with Patrice Lumumba’s name in large red letters. Lumumba was a militant anti-colonialist, Congo’s first prime minister in 1960 after the country broke with Belgium, before he was assassinated in a U.S.-backed plot the following year. Along with other independence leaders like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, he was also a vigilant voice against the pernicious encroachments of neocolonial exploitation which followed the wave of African independence movements in the 1960s. Today, that exploitation is manifest not only in the continued economic interests of Western powers and their military presence (such as AFRICOM), but also in countless NGOs, international and philanthropic entities whose claims of help are in fact colonialism with another face.
A group conversation follows the screening, in which the viewers discuss the problem of forgetting histories and the lack of authority over representation. They also speak about how even today, the individual and collective self-perceptions of formerly colonized peoples continue to be conditioned by the violations and dehumanization of colonization. Mugabo, a local photographer and artist, intervenes here, saying, “Our history isn’t only the colonization. We’ve been here for 30,000 years.” He makes a critical historiographic point, that an additional problem of the temporal frameworks instantiated by colonization is the rupture from the time that preceded it — a misguided presumption that colonized people only came into being in their encounter with Europeans.
Betty Vivuya is a local visual journalist and filmmaker who participates in this conversation and several others throughout the film. We see her going to a French cultural institution, demonstrating the difficulties face by African filmmakers in trying to secure external funding. Betty is working on a film about neocolonialism, 21st-century labor, and mining. She lays out her intention to complete the final shoots in Brussels, noting that this rides on her ability to take her Congolese crew. This demonstrates a determination to maintain the connection between the material dimension of the production and the ideological framework of her film.
A similar alignment is present in Stop Filming Us. One early scene is a chilling insight into the colonial power dynamics which it sustains. The crew moves along a crowded street with Mugabo, taking photos. A woman tries to cover her face and makes it clear that she doesn’t wish to be photographed or filmed. The photographer clicks away, and the camera still rolls, a double negation of her refusal. Whatever the film’s claimed project, refusing to honor this woman’s autonomy is nothing but an accurate revelation of how the camera persists in being weaponized as an apparatus of domination.
While entirely forgoing this neocolonial endeavor would be my recommendation, there were still better options for a project like this to pursue. Reports continually surface of sexual abuse by aid workers in the Congo. There are limitations to exposure, which is by itself never sufficient to end exploitative systems, but documenting abuses by foreign aid workers would be a more fitting task for a white European documentarian than attempting to capture “Congolese reality.” The best that could be said is that the film does expose the dangerous entrenched colonial tics in such a way that some white Western audience members might perhaps see them and glean a modicum of self-awareness.
In 1965, Ousmane Sembène — widely considered the father of African Cinema, whose work was informed by anti-colonialist and Marxist thinking — had an exchange with Jean Rouch, the French ethnographer and pioneer of cinema verité. Although Rouch provided material support to certain African filmmakers, here he was an unrepentant apologist for European Africanists and ethnographers. Sembène, meanwhile, offered an eviscerating criticism of both, famously accusing them of looking at Africans like insects. Sembène’s opening question to Rouch was: “Will European cinematographers, you for example, continue to make films about Africa once there are a lot of African cinematographers?” Regrettably, they do.
Stop Filming Us is available to stream via Film Forum.