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Foreigners in a foreign land
on 19 January 2011
White Material is vague,obtuse,brooding,inexplicable,lacking psychological detail or narrative structure or plotting dynamic.Entering into a dreamworld of image and sound impressions, we read from the characters and pick up from the landscape the clues we need from the montage of concrete impression and abstract manouever.From the opening running dogs caught in the headlights to the dead body of the rebel leader caught in the torchlight we enter the oneiric door of a disturbing realm.We are in a perpetual present,both timeless and modern,in an unnamed African Francophone country.Isabel Huppert(Maria) runs a coffee plantation for her family,ex-husband, father-in-law,son.Stubbornly, blindly wanting to harvest and process the coffee beans, in the face of civil war,despite the fact her farmworkers are fleeing for their own survival,that her son is bone-idle,her ex-husband(Lambert) wants to leave,her father-in-law just wanders around,not wishing to leave.Things are left unsaid,or we pick up from two native speakers or a rebel DJ that the party is over for white people:"no more drinking cocktails on the verandah". Their farms and possessions are `white material',superficial to the needs of the African people, in the escalating civil war between government militia and wandering child soldiers and rebel gunmen.
Unfolding in flash-backs as Maria scrambles to make her way back home on the back of a bus.Huppert plays her part with steely magnificence and physical perseverence. Maria is determined to stay and with the help of local villagers, carries on alone to manage the harvest,in an attempt to bring the coffee to market.The dehumanising force of violence sweeps everybody up in its psychotic force,especially the troubled Manuel(Duvauchelle),Maria's son.At the centre of the maelstrom is the brooding figure of Boxer(De Bankole),who is wounded,on the run,bleeding away into legend.He's the rebel leader.Hiding out on Maria's farm.This is a journey into the heart of darkness,in a vision of African-set apocalypse.Raw, unfocused,with no coherence,but a fluid logic of consciousness as it experiences collapse and chaos.We experience a world with pitiless intensity: "how being white in Africa gives you a special status, almost a kind of magical aura. It protects you from misery and starvation. But although it can protect you, it is dangerous too. This is what Maria has to learn. The danger for Maria is that she thinks she belongs in Africa because she is close to the land and the people. She cannot return to France because she thinks that it will weaken her. But she learns that she doesn't belong in Africa as much as she thinks. For many white people in Africa this is the reality(Denis)."The sound track by Tindersticks is mesmerizing.The film captures the white colonialists' guilt and bad faith,but also their passionate longing to stay as they are caught in the middle of an African civil war.The rhythm of the film strikes you and the blistering,dry,dusty yet beautiful landscape.