My week themed around African cinema has focused on films by African filmmakers dealing with their own history, political issues and lives, whether in Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad or Mauritania (and, in my previous themed week of Arab-language cinema, in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia as well). However, when looking at cinema about Africa it’s impossible to avoid Western voices. Even in many of the films that I’ve looked at, most notably La Femme au couteau (1969), the coloniser is an unseen but powerfully abusive presence throughout. Therefore, it’s worth pointing out that this documentary about Ghana is by two Austrian filmmakers, and while the subject may be on an environmental catastrophe largely wrought by Western demand for consumer electronics, it also perhaps betrays a certain way of looking at Africa, which you can also sometimes perceive in films by auteurs like Claire Denis, who frequently deals with Black and African bodies, given her upbringing in colonial Africa, or Bertrand Tavernier in Coup de torchon (1981).
This documentary is filmed in Agbogbloshie, an area of Ghana’s capital Accra where electronic waste is dumped and recycled by an itinerant community which has sprung up around this former swamp land. There are some rather thin statistics that start and end the film (translated indifferently into English), which hint at Western complicity in this very literally dirty business, but most of what we see is just the tangible sense of this lived reality. The sense I get of what the filmmakers are trying to do is the kind of epic cinema of fallen humanity as in, say, Herzog’s Lektionen in Finsternis (Lessons of Darkness, 1992), for this film really privileges the visuals over any kind of contextualising or historical research. And like Herzog’s film, this Austrian film could also be critiqued for its white European gaze on a treacherous African hellscape, but when dealing with Africa on film the European gaze becomes inevitable to deal with at times.
That the area, nicknamed “Sodom” by its inhabitants, is polluted is evident in every frame, and the many fires which are set to strip valuable copper wiring of their plastic must account for much of the health risks. We also hear from a number of people (I’m not clear if they are the voices of the people themselves, or of actors, as they are overlaid on the soundtrack), but the stories are more than just your standard ones of people living in poverty: these are people who have chosen for various reasons to come here, and who despite the horrific reality of life have found value in living and working there. We hear from a gay Jewish man who has fled his native Liberia and is living on the margins to escape persecution, from a boy who resists the identity he was assigned as birth, and prefers the manual labour of the men in the camp. We see plenty of the women too, many of whom are engaged in cooking for the camp, or transporting packs of water in chilled buckets on their heads, which are used by the men tending the fires to keep themselves and their wires cool.
It’s a very tactile film that goes big on the senses — and there’s some rather catchy hip hop music being produced by inhabitants of the area too, which breaks up the action a little — but don’t expect to learn too much about why this area exists or what’s being done to mitigate its evident environmental dangers. This is a cautionary tale intended to make us think about our own use of consumer electronics and where they ultimately end up.
Directors Christian Krönes and Florian Weigensamer; Writers Roland Schrotthofer and Weigensamer; Cinematographer Christian Kermer; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha Dochouse), London, Sunday 17 March 2019.