Tag Archives: slavery

Vénus Noire (2010)

Some stories need to be told, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that those stories–transcribed to film–result in an enjoyable or entertaining experience. This of course brings up the whole question of just what we expect when we place a DVD in the player. I know that I want to be entertained. If I’m educated in the process, then that’s great, but while Vénus Noire (Black Venus)  tells an incredible story, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. Am I glad I watched it? Yes.

Vénus Noire begins in France with a scene of eager young doctors at the Royal Academy of Medicine. It’s 1815 and this is a lecture hall filled with young men studying medicine. The lecturer proceeds to hand around a jar containing the unusual genitals of a “Hottentot” woman, and he also has a life size cast of the woman’s body. The upshot of the lecture is that the Hottentot woman resembles the baboon–rather than the human. That sort of gives you an indication of what you are in for with this story.

Vénus Noire is Saartjie Baartmann (Yahima Torres), a former servant from the Cape who in 1808 travelled with her entrepreneur employer, Hendrick Cezar (Andre Jacobs) to London. Lured by the promise of riches and the possibility of owning her own farm in the Cape, Saartjie becomes a highly successful draw and a big moneymaker. Hundreds squeeze into the shabby little theatre and watch the so-called Hottentot Venus who is dressed in a sheer costume, paraded around in chains like a wild animal, and managed with a whip. Off the stage, Saartjie smokes cigars, knocks back booze and even shops followed by two black attendants, but Saartjie and Cezar’s performance outrages certain members of the African Association (Britain saw the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807) who see Saartjie as horribly exploited. Saartjie and Cezar end up in court with both of them arguing that she performs of  her own free will. She’s not a slave, and yet due to racial inequalities, it’s easy to argue that the act which is in extremely bad taste, also exploits Saartjie–after all what other choices does she have?

When Saartjie is more or less forced to leave England due to the messy trial, things go downhill. They hook up with animal trainer Réaux (Olivier Gourmet) and Jeanne (Elina Lowensohn) and become the entertainment for various Paris salons, kink shows, and brothels. If Saartjie was exploited before, it’s nothing to what awaits her in Paris….

At 159 mins. Vénus Noire is a long film, and throughout the course of the tale, Saartjie’s act doesn’t basically change–although it is modified to include even more degrading exhibitions. During the performances, Saartjie objects occasionally, and most of the objections occur when she’s fondled by the audience or required to exhibit her genitals–either at kinky parties or for French doctors. Films which require the audience to accompany the protagonist on a journey of degradation can be extraordinarily painful and even an exercise in masochism. As the endless scenes from Saartjie’s act continue, I’ll admit that I had a difficult time watching performance after performance of this poor woman who is trotted out for ‘entertainment’ repeatedly.

Vénus Noire is most interesting for its blurred boundaries. Is Saartjie, for example, performing of her own ‘free will’? Well, if ‘free will’ means that she agrees to walk on stage, then, yes, she’s there of her own free will. But if ‘free will’ means that Saartjie wants to perform for a leering, groping crowd, then the answer is ‘no,’ Saartjie is not acting through free will. There are several other instances of the blurring of boundaries in the film–Saartjie is forced to exhibit her genitals for the pervs of Paris and for the doctors of the Royal Academy. Is there a difference? Both lots pay for the pleasure, and one lot may be drooling, but for Saartjie, who’s on the receiving end of the voyeurism, there’s little difference.

And of course, finally, the Royal Academy, measuring every angle of Saartjie’s body (reminds me of the Nazis)  make note of her genitals and extraordinary buttocks, yet panning the audience of Saartjie’s shows, we see only crowds of freaks–the ugly, the deformed, the pock-marked–a race of imperfects who squintingly point a finger when noticing the differences of others.

From director Adellatif Kechiche (Secret of the Grain)

2 Comments

Filed under France

Burn (1969)

 “The guerilla fights for an idea.”

burnBURN director Gillo Pontecorvo’s scathing critique of colonialism is set against backdrop of the exploitative sugar trade of the 19th century. If you get over the problem of Marlon Brando playing a blond Englishman with a terrible accent, then this really is a marvelous film. To Brando’s credit, this was the film he was the proudest of in his long career.

The story is set in the 19th century, and begins when Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) is sent by the British government to a small Caribbean island. The Portuguese, who now run the island, slaughtered the native Indian population and then imported slaves from Africa. The slaves work the lucrative sugar plantations, and the British seek to usurp the Portuguese as masters of the sugar trade.

When Walker, the British government’s agent arrives, a slave revolt is brutally squashed and its leader garroted. Walker was supposed to fuel this revolt and ensure its successful conclusion, so he casts around for a new rebel leader, seeking someone who has “nothing to lose.” Walker finds what he’s looking for in charismatic slave Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez). By persuading Dolores to rob the Bank of the Holy Spirit, Walker manipulates circumstances in which the slaves must defend themselves against reprisals. Walker supplies arms, and soon a slave revolt takes place.

This is a volatile period for those on the island. The sugar is rotting in the plantation fields, and somehow, the black slaves must be persuaded to stop the uprising, and get back to work accepting the yoke once more under the guise of employment. Walker is all too aware of Haiti as an example of a revolution “carried to [their] extreme consequences.” It may be useful to ignite a revolution, but it’s harder to stop it once it’s already in motion. One great scene depicts Delores–now a self-appointed general of the revolution as he enters a huge mansion to negotiate with the whites. The mansion is manned with black footmen, complete with powdered wigs. The slaves are ‘freed’ and the British take over the sugar trade on the island. But, of course, the slaves aren’t really free; they’ve just exchanged masters.

One scene depicts Walker advising the local landowners on the merits of paying the former slaves for work, and he compares the situation of owning slaves vs. paying plantation workers to maintaining a wife vs. paying a prostitute for an hour. He asks “which do you prefer? Or should I say which do you find more convenient? A wife or one of these mulatto girls?” Then he proceeds to lecture about the salient characteristics of each situation based on economic factors: “what is the cost of the product? What does the product yield?” And in this manner, he breaks down human beings into units of production. It’s all simply a matter of economics for him.

The film analyzes the nature of freedom and empire through the slave revolts. Both the Portuguese and the British fail to grasp the notion that: “If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something that you must take.” As Delores says: “If a man works for another, even if he’s called a worker, he remains a slave. And it will always be the same since there are those who own the plantations and those who own the machete to cut cane of the owners.” Delores grasps the fact that the whites need black labour: “they may know how to sell sugar, but we are the ones who know how to cut the cane.” Soon, the Royal Sugar Company has exclusive “rights of exploitation” and this ‘right’ effectively controls the island’s entire economy. Thus corporations run politics and people are no more than troublesome commodities.

One of the interesting aspects of the film is the relationship between Walker and Delores. To Walker, achieving his goals is sport. This is not an emotional campaign for him, and he approaches his goals unemotionally, logically, and with a dispassionate analysis. To the wealthy white landowners he says that they will defeat Delores “not because we’re better than he is or that we’re braver than he is, but simply because we have more arms and more men than he has.”

The film feels a little cheesy at first. Many of the actors are dubbed in English, so the result is poor. However, if you loved The Battle of Algiers, Burn is an excellent companion piece. By the half way point, it’s clear that we are privy to something truly extraordinary, for the story expands and presents some great universal truths through the difficult relationship between Walker and Delores.

Walker is a wonderfully amoral character–he could have sprung right from a Conrad novel, but there are also shades of Graham Greene here. He makes friends with the slave population, but he only uses them to achieve his goal, and he’s not interested in their fate beyond that. The film portrays, quite brilliantly, the nature of a guerilla uprising and the continuation of the revolutionary flame. Walker seems all too aware of the danger of a popular uprising, when he cautions the white rulers “the guerilla has nothing to lose.” And that in killing a hero of the people, the hero “becomes a martyr, and the martyr becomes a myth. A myth is more dangerous than a man because you can’t kill a myth.” Similarly, “a hero who betrays is soon forgotten.”

Some of the best scenes take place as Walker ponders moral questions. There is much to be learned from this film concerning warfare, empire, and human nature, and developing a conscience can be hazardous to one’s health when dealing with corporations, empires and colonialism. For as Walker says “that’s the nature of Profit. One builds to make money, and to go on making it, to make more, sometimes it’s necessary to destroy. Yes, I think perhaps it’s inevitable.” Burn is a great political film with a memorable musical score from Ennio Morricone.

Leave a comment

Filed under Political/social films, Pontecorvo