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The Empire in Africa

Film One Star

I was surprised at how harrowing this film was, sure there were warnings on the Edinburgh International Film Festival site and in the brochure, but it doesn't prepare you for how tough it really is. There's your warning, so be prepared.

It's sad because I want to say this is really good so I can try and get people to go and see it and understand even a little of what is going on in Africa. However it's got to be said that this isn't as effective as reading something like Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, this film is manipulative, too shocking and for most of the time too confusing.

The Rwanda book works so well because it is personal and appeals to you on that level. It's accessible and quite independent, and obviously with a book the violence and atrocities are in your head rather than shown graphically on screen.

There are some real issues with this film, and straight off you are struck by graphic content. It opens with someone running along the street and being shot, and when he falls he's shot again. There's your other warning, you're going to see people die on screen, and it isn't pretty.

The next thing you'll be struck by is the poor choice of voice over for the documentary. The inflections of the voice are quite annoying and off kilter, and it seems against the rhythm of the film. They also have a way of breaking the sentences in the wrong places and this makes it even harder to understand the already complex history. The voice drones through the story rather than compliment the telling of it.

For that is what you'll get for the first half of the story, a complex and hard to follow history lesson, made even harder by the voice over.

This first half feels far too passive in the telling of the history and doesn't show us anything visually. We see interviews and spliced in footage, but some of it doesn't seem connected with what is being told. Whether that is down to me not understanding what is being explained, or footage just being placed in to keep the audience interested while the history is told, I'm not sure.

Even in the second half this problem and mainly with the graphic scenes. The voiceover chats away and then we're thrown into an extremely graphic scene which doesn't seem connected. Perhaps it is, perhaps some of the footage we are seeing relates directly to what the voiceover is telling us, but it's hard to tell and does feel like we could be seeing footage from anywhere in the war.

This latter half of the film is the strongest and the more understandable, it's also the most the most disgusting and harrowing to watch.

Amongst the footage we are shown mangled corpses destroyed by cluster bombs, we see people being shot at point blank range, a child being beaten and, possibly the most grotesque and unnecessary image, a man lying on his front taking his last gasps for air as he dies. What does the camera do in this situation? It zooms in as his head slowly lowers to the ground.

So why do we need to see that to understand how bad it is? How can I get more understanding and be moved more from the book about Rwanda than these disgusting images? Not only is it disgusting for me to watch, but there's an aspect of humanity that's missing here, we're watching someone else die, haven't we just infringed their right to watch them and publicise it?

As you can tell I didn't really agree with these scenes and felt that they really weren't needed in the movie. They are far too graphic and in fact detract from the actual story that needs to be told, the plight of these people still living and in desperate need of aid.

I wish I could recommend this to watch so that people can learn the plight of those in Sierra Leone, but I just can't. The film has some very important things to say, but mixed through that is a confused history, a droning voice over, and some completely unnecessary and inhumane images.

The Empire in Africa
Filmstalker EIFF 2006 coverage
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