Sep 4, 2014
One of the greatest things about the truly singular oeuvre of South African auteur Aryan Kaganof (Kyodai Makes the Big Time, SMS Sugar Man) is that you never know what to expect when watching one of his films for the first time aside from assuming that it will be in some way an aesthetically and thematically subversive experience that tests the bounds of the cinematic medium. Naturally, when I received a copy of Kaganof’s experimental documentary Western 4.33 (2002), I knew I would by seeing something that totally transcended the nonfiction format as demonstrated by the director’s previous S&M-addled experimental documentary effort Beyond Ultra Violence: Uneasy Listening by Merzbow (1998), but I did not realize it would manage to turn an ancient colonial slaughter into a elegantly nuanced celluloid poem that ties the past to the present without looking ridiculous or pathetically postmodern. Deriving its name from the classic Hollywood film genre and the best known composition by American experimental composer/Zen Buddhist mystic John Cage, Western 4.33—a Dutch-Namibian co-production shot in Namibia that was funded by a grant given by Nederlands Fonds Voor De Film and has go on to win tons of prizes in both Africa and Europe—is simultaneously a contra Karl May anti-western, transcendental historical re/search project, posthumous collective necrology for the Herero people, and a visceral atavistic expression of the post-colonial Europid geist from a filmmaker with a rather idiosyncratic cultural background. Notably, regarding the western genre, Kaganof once stated, “The most cinematic genre in film is the western genre; there is no precursor in theatre or literature and therefore it is most closely tied to what movies are […] I have always loved the genre and as I studied it, I realised that it was a propaganda machine to substantiate genocide.” Indeed, while Kaganof’s daunting avant-garde doc features an arid desert, a foreboding atmosphere, and even a ghost town of sorts, there is no honor for any white man—be he a stoic cowboy or otherwise—as a meditation about an unflattering Teutonic colonial past that does not feature a single Aryan subject. A ‘metaphysical documentary’ about the tragic deaths of tons of negroes at a German-run Namibia concentration camp during the so-called ‘Herero Genocide’ between 1904 and 1908 that was sparked after the Herero people decided to revolt against their Aryan masters (somewhat ironically, the revolt was largely led by German-Lutheran-educated king of the Namaqua people, Namibian Hendrik Witbooi, whose tribe often fought with the Herero people and other Namibian tribes), Western 4.33 attempts to conjure up a meditative and entrancing atmosphere of doom and gloom as opposed to dwelling on sterile statistics that people have a hard time identifying with. Shot on Super-8 film stock that was later blown up to 35mm and featuring a hypnotic musical landscape featuring an eclectic collection of songs by rather diverse artists, including Alec Empire, Sun Ra, Macy Gray, Calexico, Friedrich Nietzsche, Robert Schumann, Harold Budd and various others, Kaganof’s ritualistic doc ultimately manages to do more to honor the memory of the Herero Genocide in 32-minutes than Spielberg’s sappy sentimentalist epic of Zio-ganda excess Swindler’s List does in its nearly 200-minutes of aesthetically insipid sensationalism.
Beginning with a gritty black-and-white shot of a shadowy highway sign at sunset with an inter-title crediting voices to Zola and Blixa Bargeld, one probably would not assume Western 4.33 is a ‘documentary’ about the Herero genocide upon watching the first couple of minutes of the work, as it initially seems like some sort of lost avant-garde Ozploitation flick, which is only further accented by dreary shots of a deathly dry desert highway that is surrounded by dead bushes and scorching rocks. Of course, that all changes when a headshot of a seemingly melancholy negro sporting a Fila beanie appears. The black man in question is a young truck driver named B.T., who is more or less a symbolic cipher, and he driving from Johannesburg to Luderitz in Namibia in his big rig. Among other things, B.T. is dwelling on the loss of his girlfriend, but he is also thinking about the premature death of his great-grandfather in a German concentration camp on Shark Island off the coastal town of Luderitz. Of course, the viewer will not be able to tell this while B.T. speaks in a South African dialect, as auteur Aryan Kaganof chose not to subtitle these scenes, with his reasoning being: “The Germans never took the trouble to understand what the Herero were saying.” Indeed, the viewer will not learn about the fate of the Herero people until at about the 22-minute mark during a completely silent 3 minute and 44 second long scene that is meant to unnerve the Hollywood-lobotomized filmgoer where tri-language subtitles (English, German, and Afrikaans) scroll across an iconic image of starving members of the forsaken tribe. As the subtitles reveal: “There were five concentration camps in Namibia, then called German South West Africa, between 1904 and 1908. In January 1904 war broke out between the Herero Nation and the German colonial administration in Namibia. After the Battle of Waterberg the Herero Nation either succumbed to the desert or were picked up by German patrols and put in concentration camps. The official morality rate in all five camps was 45% […] Missionary reports put the death rate at between 12 and 18 a day. As much as 80% of the prisoners sent to the Shark Island concentration camp never left the island. Cold, hunger, thirst, exposure, disease, and madness claimed scores of victims, and cartloads of their bodies were carted every day over to the back beach, buried in a few inches of sand at low tide, and as the tide came in the bodies went out, food for the sharks.” With no sound or music during this insightful scene, the viewer is forced in an awkward situation where they are forced to develop their own emotions regarding the facts, though the other scenes in the film make it quite clear that it is not exactly a comfortable feeling, but one of ghastly dread and trauma.
In the only color sequence featured in Western 4.33, protagonist B.T.’s (ex)girlfriend walks alongside a blood red building in slow-motion while provocatively sucking on what seems to be a red popsicle. Apparently, this scene is supposed to be a metaphor for the “rich menstrual blood” of the African woman, who represents “mother Africa” to the human race (of course, the Out-of-Africa Theory has been more or less debunked, not least of all because, unlike Eurasians, Africans lack Neanderthal DNA and contains signs of ancient interbreeding with extinct hominid species). Personally, I found this scene to represent how little ancient genocides matter to lovelorn young men with carnal lust, for with every holocaust there is at least one woman to regenerate the race and move forward with history because although a good percentage of the Herero people were starved, shot, and slaughtered, they ultimately persevered whereas the Germans disappeared from Africa not long after the genocide. Of course, the Germans found no true Heimat in Africa, hence their failure to tame the Dark Continent and its perennially rooted inhabitants. Indeed, much has changed since the days when the Germans were briefly involved in colonial conquests yet the scars still remain in the form of dilapidated concentration camp ruins. Kaganof has attempted to reopen these scars and they bleed throughout his film. Most of Western 4.33 is comprised of elegant yet raw static shots of the ruins of ancient German concentration camps and an old kraut mining town, including a beauteous scene of a seemingly glistening Lutheran church, which is reflected in a small pond in the foreground and represents the faded dream of a New Germania in Africa. At the conclusion of the film, a rich black-and-white shot of the sun setting over the ruins of a concentration camp is juxtaposed with foreboding ambient noise. Ultimately, the film lets the viewer know that the ghosts of the past live on today, even if were are too blind or apathetic to see them.
It should be noted that the Herero Genocide was not officially recognized as a genocide until 1985 when United Nations' Whitaker Report classified it as such. While the German government apparently recognized the events in 2004, they still refuse to meet the Herero people’s demand of paying reparations (with all the money the Germans have paid to the Jews and Israel, who can blame them?!). Recently, meta-subjective Teutonphobic books like The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism (2011) have attempted to follow in the hysterical Hebraic Daniel Goldhagen tradition of depicting Germans as bloodthirsty and innately genocidal maniacs, but of course compared to the French, British, and Belgians, the Krauts only caused minor terror to the Dark Continent. Of course, the so-called Haitian Revolution also demonstrates that genocide is not exactly a distinctly “white thing,” as the cultural Marxists, Afrocentrics, and ethno-masochistic white cultural cuckolds will have you believe. One also cannot forget the current ethnic cleansing of white Afrikaner farmers by blacks, which has been completely ignored and denied by the black-run South African government. Indeed, what Kaganof’s Western 4.33 reminded me was that the tables have turned when it comes to ‘Lebensraum,’ with the ghosts of the colonial past making black Africans even more determined to rid themselves of the ‘white plague.’ Unquestionably, Kaganof has achieved the seemingly impossible with Western 4.33 by making a pleasingly preternatural doc about a nonwhite tragedy that does not seem like a pandering piece of self-righteous swill, Trotskyite agitprop, or nihilistically neurotic ethno-masochism. Indeed, a sort of work of hypnotic ‘humanist horror’ (and I am mean ‘humanist’ in a positive way), Kaganof’s film almost seems like the visceral expression of the Herero collective unconscious, which is no small accomplishment considering the director is a white man. Somewhat interestingly, the film became more popular shortly after its release in 2002 due to the fact that a Herero group living in South Africa sued both the German government and several German companies for reparations, thus demonstrating Kaganof’s revolutionary vision as a filmmaker. Indeed, if there is a filmmaker that could make a film about the holocaust that does not seems like it was designed as pro-Zionist agitprop piece and/or to coerce European countries into paying reparations (like Switzerland), it is Kaganof, who somehow managed to turn the little known story of how negroes tribesmen were made into shark food into one of the most artful, poetic, expressionistic and visceral documentaries ever made.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 4:00 AM
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