Sundance Director's Cut: Göran Hugo Olsson ('Concerning Violence')

Another visceral and articulate assembly of archival footage from the director of previous Sundance hit "The Black Power Mixtape", Göran Hugo Olsson's "Concerning Violence" is a stark portrait of the African liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, a film as compulsively watchable as it difficult to comprehend. Repurposing a wealth of independently riveting found footage from the era (ranging from strike footage shot by a Swedish television crew to candid camerawork from indigenous rebel units), and contextualizing the archival material around the text of Frantz Fanon's pivotal revolutionary book "The Wretched of the Earth", "Concerning Violence" is an unflinching look at the systemic evils of colonialism, and the value of violence as a rebellious expression. Through the lens of this inimitable footage – which is overlaid by Fanon's words, read to us by Ms. Lauryn Hill – Olsson's film explores the eternal dynamic between the oppressors and the oppressed, reframing one of history's most toxic questions to see if violence is still the only practical answer we have.

Olsson took a few minutes out of his whirlwind return to the mountains of Park City to hop on the phone and speak to me about the film.

FILM.COM: How’s your return trip to Sundance been treating you? 

GORAN HUGO OLSSON: Excellent. Excellent. I’m overwhelmed actually, because this really needs a festival like this to be successful. It’s not a broad film.

You’re cutting in and out, unfortunately. I don’t think we have the best connection, but we’ll make do.

Where are you, David?

I’m in Brooklyn. 

Where in Brooklyn?

I’m in Williamsburg. 

Where in Williamsburg?

[Provides exact address]

I lived there. I lived for one year on Bedford Avenue.

Oh, really? And do you live in South Africa now?

South Africa? No, I live in Stockholm, Sweden.

[Laughs] I have no idea why I thought you were living in South Africa, I guess after watching your film I just have Apartheid on the brain. Anyway, your film was exceptionally powerful and I was glad to have seen it, despite the fact that it contained several images that I may never be able to shake from my head. How did you come upon all of this amazing footage, and how did you know what you had when you saw it?

I was making another film called “The Black Power Mixtape” which was a huge success, relatively for me, it was in cinemas in 22 countries, but I still wanted to do something more broad. I had some things that didn’t really pan out, I was in Cuba for a long time, I was trying to do something there, but then I read Frantz Fanon’s book “The Wretched of the Earth”. I was just blown away by how important it was, and I was intrigued by the challenge of how you translate a non-fiction book into a film, but still keep the text of the book intact. So it was also a cinematic exercise, how could that be done? The text is far from flawless, and the film has the same problems – it goes here and there and everywhere, and I tried to keep that in the film.

When it came to breaking the film into nine chapters, and the order in which you presented them, were you sticking to the order as it is in the book or were you trying to repurpose them into a new narrative? 

No, actually we just used the first and last chapter of the book. I used these chapters to keep the feeling of the book, and I used the chapter format as a whole to help guide the audience and give them a chance to see where they are, because there’s no narrative structure. So this way they can see “Oh, I’m in the beginning”, or “Oh, I’m coming to the end.” That was a storytelling decision.

It’s very interesting how the first few chapters are quite brief and then they grow longer as the film goes on. Was that deliberate, to create a sense of deepening? 

I wanted to amuse the audience, I didn’t want them to feel like it was too intense in the beginning. The first chapter is more general, the second is very short, and the next comes the most striking one, with the Rhodesian guy by the pool. After that, it becomes more contemplative, with the strike, which is very beautiful but more observational.

Did the Swedish element, the television segment, did that personally excite your interest in making the film? Is there a widely unknown history between Sweden and these African nations?

No, it’s just beautiful film [what the Swedish television crew shot], and I think it’s so universal. I cry myself when I see it.

One of the things that’s especially sobering about the film is how clearly it illustrates that there are only two factions of people: The oppressing and the oppressed. The end of the film calls for a new system, for Africa not to follow in Europe’s footsteps, but in your time with this material did you become at all convinced that there’s a resistive force more expressive than violence? 

That’s the zillion-dollar question. I don’t know. But I think we in the West, in Europe and also China to some extent, have to understand the dynamics of violence. That’s the very least we can do, to try and understand why we see all of this violence. Why are kids killing each other in Nigeria? Why do we have pirates in Somalia? These things are not happening for a random reason. I’m aiming my film to people like me and probably also you, and especially people in Europe, to try and understand.

Obviously, when you look at this archival footage it’s relevant to what’s happening today, and inquires into colonialism are sadly always going to be relevant. But I wonder if you can discuss the intrinsic aesthetic power of archival footage, and how re-editing it might help us learn more from the past.

The reason is I use archival footage is that I want to create more timeless pieces. You could use images from today and layer the same text on it, but I wanted to do something more universal. I wanted to tell an audience that they have to translate these images. I didn’t want these ideas to be explicitly pinpointed to any one thing that’s going on today, but if you don’t think that you have to think about the film when you see it, then the film is not for you. It’s not “Blood Diamond”. Some images… I think of that very beautiful image of the oil rig, you can obviously see that it’s old, from the 60s or whatever, but you can also appreciate that it’s exactly the same as it would be today. And you see the helicopters, those are basically the same. And then of course the cattle look exactly the same.

And the cinema itself feels very contemporary, right from the beginning of the film where they’re shooting those cows from the helicopter, it feels like something out of a modern action movie. Sort of to that point, was there anything that you felt was too horrifying to include, that you felt might be too much for the audience to handle?

No. The image with the young mother and her kid, I think that’s the most disturbing image I’ve ever seen in some ways. I didn’t have it in the edit until very late because I didn’t want to see it because I was so disturbed by it. But then you find yourself in a classic dilemma, where you have this image, and if you don’t show it is is it fair to the mother? Is it fair to the audience? So the answer to your question is no.

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