Saturday, 21 April 2018

Welcome to Gondwana (dir. Mamane, 2016)

In order to legitimise his hold on power, Gondwana's long-serving president acquiesces to a UN observer mission to monitor the latest election. The youngest and most idealistic member of the team, Julien (Antoine Gouy), falls for Betty (Prudence Maidou), a member of the activist group Mungaji (We're fed up'), who questions his beliefs and forces him to confront the hypocrisy of western intervention in Africa.

When he accidentally uncovers the government's plot to rig the election with international backing, Julien finds himself drawn into Betty's fight to free her country from the dictator's grasp.

Niger-born comedian Mamane's first movie Welcome to Gondwana is a dark comedy about Africa's relationship with the (western) international community.  A portmanteau of tactics and episodes from various rigged elections, the movie is a hilarious subversion of the white saviour narratives Hollywood releases around Oscar season.

It is s fascinating viewing experience because Julien is the entry point, but his agency is never privileged over anyone else's. Despite being our 'protagonist', Julien is constantly reacting to events and people around him - he is never an active participant in advancing the plot, at least until the climax. He is just a well-intentioned but ignorant white man stumbling into a situation he cannot understand without making (a lot of) mistakes.  

This is a movie about Western colonialism, and how the economies of the former coloniser remain intertwined with their former colonies, perpetuating their power imbalance and preventing the democratic reforms that Julien, our 'hero', believes he is helping to secure.

While Julien and Betty's relationship forms the basis of the movie's critique, the supporting cast of incompetents provide the film's biggest laughs. The UN team's government minders, Gohou (Michel Gohou) and Digbeu (Digbeu Cravate) 
Gohou and Digbeu 
Their ongoing argument about what the term 'international community' means is brilliant, as Julien and his gormless boss Frederic Delaville (Antoine Dulery) are increasingly incapable of providing counter-arguments to the duo's paranoia about Western intentions and hypocrisy in thinking they can be the bastions of human rights.

On the surface, these characters are engaging in a game of 'whataboutism' to discredit the UN and show their support for the government. But they are also puncturing the idea that the Western Powers underwriting the mission are paragons of virtue - like the president of Gondwana, they are more concerned with maintaining the status quo so that they can take resources and capital out of the country, rather than serving the people.

Frederic Delaville
No one exemplifies the pointlessness of the UN mission more than Dulery's Delaville. A French MP who is more concerned with winning his next election than ensuring the legitimacy of this one, he spends the movie trying to sell his region's only major agricultural product, white asparagus. 

In this movie, none of the movie's supposed heroes are doing anything in Gondwana for the reasons they are ostensibly there: the French want to put an offical stamp on the Gondwanan president's reign so that they can maintain the economic benefits; the UN team are more interested in the size of their hotel rooms; and Julien is no different - he becomes interested in Gondwanan independence because he fancies Betty.

About halfway into the movie, I became depressed. After last year's festival, where I was unable to find the films on any kind of home media, going to these movies feels weirdly precious. I am really hoping this movie finds its way onto Netflix, because it is really great (and I want to watch it again) 

The movie manages to be extremely specific and incisive, yet it never feels niche - I saw the movie with a crowd of mostly old white people and they were laughing pretty hard throughout. If you can find it, Welcome to Gondwana is a fun, smart comedy that deserves a wide audience.


Review of the 2017 Festival

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