MoMI First Look: Tinselwood by Marie Voignier
Marie Voignier is a French director whose documentaries, International Tourism (2014), and Tinselwood (2017), reflect the situation of being a middle-class French person (her day job is teaching at a college in Lyon) and the baggage of inherited European colonialism. International Tourism registers her trip to North Korea. While its images deliberately explore the locations covered in other nonfiction films where Westerners travel to the country and follow the official guidance of government minders, Voignier wiped the original soundtrack and re-recorded it upon returning to France.
Tinselwood is a slightly more conventional doc set in Cameroon, but it reflects on the negative influence France (and Germany, China and Japan) have had on Africa sometimes by having workers talk about it directly but more often simply by showing them toil. Voignier shows men hacking away at trees and the ground with machetes, putting plants into the ground, nourishing new growth with dirt and panning for gold. A few women appear in Tinselwood, and so the film’s world is mostly masculine. Some of the men’s work is powered by the drug Tramol, which is a dangerous opioid painkiller similar to codeine and Percodan. Tramol gives the user an intense burst of energy, followed by a horrible crash that leads him back to the drug, and reportedly leaves its addicts burnt out by age 40.
Voignier does an excellent job of depicting the forests of Cameroon while avoiding the clichés of … well, international tourism. She showcases nature quite a bit but few scenes are conventionally pretty. One shows the garden of one of her few relatively well-to-do subjects: he owns a house on land carved from 50,000 feet taken out of the forest.) Cinematographer Thomas Favel captures the forest’s range of colors, which veer from leafy green to muddy brown. In an interview in the film’s press kit, Voignier says “I wanted to bring out the botanical aspects in great detail. To render all of the different greens required mastery of a specific camera.”
Previously, Voignier had served as her own D. P. International Tourism had a certain “home movie” quality, implicit in its very name. It’s never entirely clear merely from watching that film why the director re-recorded the soundtrack. The obvious answer would be that she needed to protect her North Korean subjects, yet the film’s visuals don’t capture anything particularly controversial. The film seems steeped in a sense of the impossibility of its own project: trying to understand North Koreans in a Western capitalist culture is always going to involve a great deal of inserting an artist’s own preconceptions into the work, whether one acknowledges it or not. This is true of any filmmaker approaching another culture, of course, but North Korea is a special case as both one of the most isolated countries and the most extreme example of communism left in the world. Yet the U.S. government constantly attempts to bait it, and it’s an object of fascination for directors far less rigorous and thoughtful than Voignier.
Voignier seems more confident about her ability to understand Cameroon. For one thing, this is the second film she has made there. In 2010, she traveled to the country to make The Mokélé-Mbenbé Mystery, a portrait of cryptozoologist Michel Ballot’s attempts to find a mystery animal unknown to current science but that some believe may be hiding out in Cameroon’s vast landscapes. There’s a touch of the paranormal to Tinselwood as well: two of its subjects are sorcerers, and their conversation about foreign extraction of the country’s riches casually drops references to their practices of witchcraft in a way that might seem odd to Westerners.
If one knows the history of colonialism, the point of Tinselwood is not particularly new: the natural resources of Cameroon are being lifted, albeit legally, from Africans by Europeans and, in a relatively recent development, Asians. Near the end of the film, someone says “all of Batouri lies on gold.” The region depicted in Tinselwood has already largely had its lumber taken by the French. Gold and oil are still mostly untapped, but it’s only a matter of time before they are lifted with little compensation to the Cameroonians as well.
That’s one kind of materialism. Voignier opposes that capitalist rapaciousness with her formalist version. She immerses the spectator in the light and colors of Cameroon’s forests and rivers. In particular, the sound design, done by Marianne Roussy, feels incredibly vivid and hyper-real: one never forgets that the director comes from the land of Bresson and Tati (although I am not sure that Voignier and Roussy actually sweetened the mix in post-production.) Tinselwood shows Cameroonians talking about how they and their country have been exploited, but it goes beyond speech, spending the vast majority of time demonstrating the concrete effects of this exploitation. There must be an easier way to make a living than sifting through huge mounds of river dirt in search of a tiny amount of gold. The possibility of a middle-class life seems like a distant, if not completely unattainable, dream for most of Tinselwood’s subjects.