Infested Images: An Interview with the Director of “African Mirror,” Mischa Hedinger
René Gardi was a popular Swiss traveler, writer, and filmmaker who fell in love with Africa in the early 1950s. For decades, he brought his experience and knowledge of the continent to European audiences. His vision of Africa as a pre-modern place full of beautiful “savages,” however, was deeply troubling, as Mischa Hedinger’s new documentary, African Mirror (2019), shows us. Made exclusively from archival material, the film deconstructs Gardi’s work, highlighting contradictions and meanings that might have gone unnoticed. René Gardi’s Africa is a fantasy, the film argues, and the images he created need to be understood as part of colonialism.
After its premiere at the 2019 Berlinale, African Mirror then screened at Viennale and IDFA. In September, I met with Hedinger at IFF Cinematik in Piešťany, Slovakia, where we talked about Gardi, deconstructing racist imagery, and the legacy of colonialism that is still around us.
Gardi was not the kind of racist that hates Africans; he sort of admired them and their way of life. But at the same time, they were obviously of lesser value to him. Is it an important distinction?
You could argue that René Gardi often employs what could be called a kind of well-meaning racism — he gives stereotypical attributes to people even in cases where he is praising them. He sees romantic or idolized versions of people that have nothing to do with the people themselves. It’s more of a projection and a white man’s idea about so-called others.
My film is full of contradictions, just as our post-colonial situation and our colonial thinking is. One of the contradictions in Gardi’s life was that he found his personal freedom in his so-called dreamland in north Cameroon, something he couldn’t have gotten in Europe. But this freedom was completely based on the oppression of native people. Then, when they became independent, he couldn’t be free.
We can see this myth of simple life; he repeatedly talks about how easier and better life without Western “progress” is. Obviously, it’s a very distorted and colonial perspective of Africa, but why did he choose this point of view? Why was it so fascinating for him?
I think it’s part of the 1950s spirit, when people started to realize there was no going back. They could see that industrialization and consumerism were here, and they began to long for a life that was simpler and not so modern. The interesting thing is that these ideas haven’t been abandoned. Right-wing populists talk about going back to the ‘50s when, in their opinion, people in Europe or the United States had far better lives, which would mean going back to “René Gardi land.” I didn’t want to directly address our current situation, but we are looking at the images from today’s perspective, which immediately creates links to the present.
A lot of people are also attracted to the concept that there must be paradise somewhere else, where we could live a better life. There is one scene towards the end of the film in which we address the problem of tourism more explicitly — especially the back-pack tourism of looking for remote areas that still have a “simpler” life, and of being in touch with nature. These tourists often don’t try to understand how local people live there.
That seems to be the case of Gardi, too. From what we see in the film, he observes native people always as “the other,” even when he’s close to them. There is even a moment when he says how great it is to meet people when traveling, and it’s so obvious that he means white people.
That’s probably due to the fact that, during his visits, he never spent more than three months in a row in northern Cameroon, where he recorded people from the Mafa ethnic group. He also couldn’t speak their language, and his whole lifestyle was completely based on colonial infrastructure. He was working with translators, he was mostly with Europeans, and what he knew about the Mafa came mostly through them. He was completely surrounded by white knowledge. Maybe he tried to find a different perspective, and it was too difficult for him to do it. In the end, I really think he just wasn’t interested. He had an idea of what this part of the world should mean for him, and that’s what he was looking for. And if the place wasn’t the way he imagined, he tried to stage it to find his own paradise.
There are two scenes in the film where he’s staging some situations. It seems fake, and the protagonists even refuse to work with him, or don’t understand why he wants them to do some things.
The interesting thing is that he wrote about the staging in one of his books; he wasn’t denying it. And it was as if he was saying, “I know these people so well that I even know their traditions better than they do and that allows me to stage some situations.” He implied a very colonial way of thinking. But there was always some resistance from the natives; they didn’t want to fit into his ideas about them. That’s why these scenes are important for me.
I understand that he considered himself to have a great knowledge of the area and local people, but he wasn’t a scientist, right?
He was not a trained scientist or ethnologist; he was a teacher and a writer of youth novels, mostly with scouting topics — his whole approach was based on scouting. Then he started to travel and write travel books, becoming obsessed with finding this idyllic kind of paradise. Sometimes he worked with ethnologists, but he was never that precise. One of the most absurd things was that he always imagined himself as being an observer who was objective. He was never thinking about his own position in this system.
He was a media person working in radio and television, writing for magazines and newspapers, writing books, making films… It was the beginning of the age of mass media, so his influence was far greater than any scientist could have. In the end, he was stuck, because he couldn’t really catch up with progressive people who thought he dramatized and idealized too much. At the same time, there were films around that were way more of a spectacle.
What is your approach to Gardi’s work? Weren’t you afraid of falling into the same trap of being an “objective observer”?
The film is my subjective view of him. His archive is really huge, and I chose material that I thought fits into my reflection of his work. Not everything he produced ended up in my film. I reuse his material and, at the same time, deconstruct his work. I’m looking for a meaning in his work that wasn’t clear for audiences at the time and maybe still isn’t. There is a lot of material in the film that was never published, and I think it helps to create these other meanings in my own film.
For example, I was looking for material that links Switzerland to colonialism, because we have this idea that, since we didn’t have any colonies, colonialism has nothing to do with us. I tried to show, among other things, that Gardi was deeply invested in colonial thinking, that image-making is a form of colonialism, and that he relied on colonial infrastructure. So, it’s not only about Gardi. He is a tool for me to say how deeply colonialism infected our bodies and minds. But I don’t want to take myself out of it. I am not immune to racism or colonial thinking; I was brought up with it, and it’s all around us.
Your film is based solely on archival material, and you are not commenting on it explicitly, only with editing. How do you show racist imagery without being racist; is it even possible? For me, the film is clearly critical towards Gardi and his image-making, but when I saw it in Berlin, part of the audience was saying the film doesn’t clearly denounce racism.
This is the most difficult question to answer: How can you show racist or “infested” material without reproducing its racism? I think it’s very difficult, you will always reproduce it in a way. But the material is in a new context in my film. And I also tried to find gestures of resistance and emancipation in this so-called colonial archive of Gardi’s. That was very important to me. But the question was always there if a project like this can succeed in deconstructing Gardi’s work.
It will always be there while discussing my film, and for the right reason, because I’m not sure if my film has the right solutions or does a good job. It was interesting to research my own white history and to try to understand it. I didn’t want to say that I’m a good liberal person and that it has nothing to do with me. Not to mention, I’m not the right person to completely change the picture or give you a completely different perspective. That is something maybe a Cameroonian director could give.
In the first half of the film, Gardi is basically saying what a nice life native people have. But once the African nations start to gain independence, the way he talks about them changes, and he is openly racist. When you were researching his archive, was this some kind of turning point in his life and career?
The structure of the film is loosely based on a historical timeline, from when he first came to the Mandara Mountains, a region in northern Cameroon, in 1952, through the independence movement, until the wave of tourism that, for him, meant losing his paradise and even his interest in filmmaking. When I went through his archive, it was interesting to witness all the changes and historical events, but his own approach didn’t really change.
The worst racist rant we hear is directly linked to the independence because, after 1960, Swiss radio asked him about his opinion on the movement. He couldn’t really understand why they wanted to be and why they should be independent. That’s when these horrible comments came out. He got frustrated because he was losing something that was “his.” In the end, it was all about power issues and power relations.
There are multiple moments in the film that deal with clothes. For example, we can hear him saying something to the effect that native people are not civilized because they are not wearing the right clothes or are naked. And then later, after the independence movement, there is a beautiful scene when we hear him criticize natives for not wearing traditional clothes anymore, while we see t-shirts with the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, or with political messages on them. What is it with clothes that he — and you — kept returning to them?
I think moments like these just show how the whole concept of who is and isn’t civilized is completely absurd. There are a lot of scenes in the film that deal with clothes and nakedness — and his projections obviously have some sexual undertones. The interesting thing is that, later in the film, when he is afraid of hippies attacking him, he describes them in a similar way, as not wearing the right clothes. They are too colorful, self-made, and strange, reminding him of homeless people that he saw after the war. The film is full of such details and small metaphors.
The market scene is very important, because I could point out my own position better than in any other moment. Shortly before, we see Nkrumah proclaiming independence of Ghana, which was the first decolonized African country. And now Gardi talks about clothes that are un-African while we see people wearing t-shirts with images of Nkrumah and the independence.
At the end of the film, there are a couple of interesting moments. He mentions tourists are now coming and just taking pictures, even though he was doing basically the same thing; he complains that films shown in African cinemas don’t represent the “real” Europe; or he muses that how we see the world is actually a reflection of ourselves. These moments are very self-reflective, but at the same time, he just doesn’t really get it.
He realizes the tourists look like him, but he still hates them. It is a colonial trope as well; he wants to be the first, the only one, the owner of this area. And when other people come in, he’s not interested.
The moment with cinemas was important because my whole film is about image-making and how he creates images. Suddenly, he’s critical towards what kind of films people are shown, and that they might get the wrong idea of how it is elsewhere. It’s really absurd; he’s only talking about Africans and how they will get the wrong image of Europe. So, I use his own words to turn them against his image-making. And then at the very end, it is probably the most intelligent sentence I let him say, because it’s one of the topics of my film: how we portray something has mostly to do with ourselves and not with the people or the place we film.
Mischa Hedinger’s African Mirror premiered at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival.