Goma, the DRC, is under attack. White gates divide the city. White jeeps consume the roads. Foreign powers impose their presence on every surface: UN, USAID, Red Cross, Save the Children. The people raise their hands, wary of the intruder’s ever-watching eye. They cry out for freedom, they want to be left alone. They long for a Goma, a DRC, and an Africa freed from the terror of good intentions.
Such is the impression one gets from watching Stop Filming Us (SFU) by Dutch director Joris Postema. The documentary follows three local content creators, Ley Uwera, Mugabo Baritegera, and Bernadette Vivuya, as they defy Western discourses on Goma and attempt to tell the city’s real story. Simultaneously, the film highlights Postema’s struggles with his outsider position and openly debates his (in)ability to sketch an honest portrait of the Congolese people. The African crew he works with also takes a centre stage as they challenge Western assumptions and Postema’s own reinforcement of negative stereotypes. The result is a discursive wrestling between the narratives in front and behind of the camera, including when both are of African origin. As I delve into these stories, I understand discourse as the combination of specific linguistic and visual elements that construct a certain truth about a certain object/subject. Importantly, discourses do not reflect social realities, but rather create them through framing our understandings (Rose, 2001).
One of the dominant discourses portrayed and challenged by SFU is that of the White saviour. The White saviour is akin to the traditional Western hero: “a young white male [who] comes from outside to regenerate a decaying society” (Karim, 2001, p. 129). Africa is often presented as such a singular decaying society in need of the Western helping, or rather steering, hand. SFU shows that the personifications of this complex are not merely (neo-)colonials, but also humanitarian NGO workers and ‘woke’ documentary makers. Starting with the former, the film contains a striking fragment of an UN official who visits a Congolese village. Although her ‘mission’ is to negotiate with a commander accused of recruiting child soldiers, she stresses that she does not suffer from the White-saviour-complex. Her work is purely work. Indeed, she acts more as a dictator than a saviour; negotiations are skipped and no time is spared in signing contracts. “I understand you, you understand me’ she tells the surprised commander. Looking back on the event she celebrates having made the perpetrator part of the solution and appears to get a kick out of the influence she can exude over this remote village. “The village was very happy to see us” she observes. The expressions of the villagers and the tone of the commander betray that this UN official was looking but not seeing, hearing but not listening. She entered the scene confident that she personified the moral high ground and would be recognised as such.
The same behaviour can be observed for Postema. A White documentary maker attempting to show the reality of Goma, he is convinced of his right to be there and film there. Even when he recognises that Africans could produce their own documentaries, he states that for unmentioned reasons it would be impossible. With these words he, unconsciously, frames documenting the African truth as a White burden. The African crew, however, opposes him and proposes a challenge where Postema and an African content creator record the same scene. SFU then skips to Baritegera using the humble equipment of his mobile phone to film a roller-skating-loving boy. There is no explicit mention that this is the scene concerned, and whose take on it eventually won the challenge. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Baritegera’s work disproves the assumption of Postema, and many others, that White people and/or resources are necessary for Africans to produce anything of value. Yet, in other scenes SFU reinforces this narrative. An example is the footage of Vivuya appealing for funding for her film on the real life-world of Goma, at a Western institute. As noted by the African film crew, it are Vivuya’s struggles rather than Baritegera’s success that audiences of SFU will likely remember. They cite more examples of well-intended ‘saviourism’ on Postema’s behalf, such as an incident where Postema gave biscuits to kids without them asking for anything. This, the crew explains, reinforces the image of the White saviour in the children’s minds. Even if Postema himself considered it a simple act of kindness, it was in fact inappropriate as he was “not the right person to do it”. Similarly, when he films a public beating, Postema defends himself, stating that it was a shocking scene and therefore worthy of filming. For the crew, however, it was a completely normal event, and they smile at Postema’s remark that beating is something that “we stopped doing … in Europe”. They remind him that even if his intentions were journalistic, he turned a neutral event into another negative marker of Africans. With seemingly small acts and production choices like these, Postema perpetuates the narrative of a degenerate Africa awaiting White salvation/civilization.
What is interesting is that both the UN official and Postema frame their actions as neutral benevolence. According to Van Dijk (1992), a fundamental part of racism is the denial thereof. Based on SFU, the same may be said about the contemporary White-saviour-complex. The denialist discourse produces exactly what it pleads against. This is also observed by the African crew members who note that good intentions that do not take account of local customs reinforce negative perceptions. Such narratives shape not only the understanding of Western audiences, but also of Africans themselves. As mentioned in SFU, the constant confrontation with “colonial myths” has led to a certain self-forgetfulness, in turn leading to the adoption of “their opinions”. An example hereof is Uwera, who works as a photographer for Western contractors. Her pictures of refugees illustrate the suffering-African discourse, used by NGOs, FBOs, and the like, to solicit donations. Other central figures of SFU refer to it as the work of “a colonised African”. Uwera justifies herself by stating that she is only doing the job that she is being paid for (one is reminded of the UN official). She also stresses that she is an African before she is a photographer, and would therefore not cross the boundaries of decency by, for example, photographing naked African children as some humanitarian photographers do. With this statement she reminds the audience of the inappropriate executions of Western good intentions. Yet, the respect for her child subjects is awkwardly balanced by her constant complaints about the omnipresence of children in the refugee camp. She also portrays the behaviour predicted by those who would call her work colonised, namely the active forcing of victim-invoking poses. SFU thus shows how good intentions can create negative discourses about Africans, and, moreover, how such discourses may be internalised and consequently perpetuated by local content creators (and Africans generally).
Importantly, SFU also shows how Africans – the crew, the followed content creators, and the local people – challenge the idea that Africa requires saving. A recurring notion is that the Whites in Goma are not needed. The locals experience aid as intrusion, and ‘honest’ filmmakers as profiteers. Consequently, they shun any media attention, even when Baritegera approaches them. When the African crew debates if Postema should pack his camera bags, some agree that the time has come for Africans to tell their own stories and “to tell the Whites to leave”. Others believe that those like Postema should still be welcomed if they commit to telling the real truth. Nevertheless, all encountered actors suspect that Postema’s work will eventually add to the long list of negative portrayals of Goma. The documentary thus calls for extreme caution when outsiders attempt realistic recording of African daily life, as what is considered truthful portrayal is highly dependent on culture. As mentioned by the crew, it are the singular scenes of ‘different’ behaviour that will really be understood by Western audiences accustomed to the discourse of uncivilised Africa. While other scenes may be present, the question remains if they will truly be seen. Recalling Vivuya, how many will not only remember her pleading at a Western agency, but also the topic of her film?
This reminds us of a vital aspect of discourses that underlines the need for critical analysis: not all discourses are created equally (Hart, 2008). The ability of a certain narrative to dominate depends on the power of the producing actor. As such a White person reinforcing traditional discourse can have more impact than an African content creator writing “alternative epistemologies” (Raia, 2020). This has nothing to do with the ‘level of truth’ of each, but rather with the ability of each to make itself heard. The central characters in SFU are all held back, be it by a lack of funding, contract requirements, or limits to freedom of speech in the DRC. Simultaneously, no such problems are shown to exist for Western content creators. When Netflix wants to make a documentary about Ebola, everything is immediately set in motion. Even Postema himself notes in the opening scenes how he could do his work without need for security guards. It is this imbalance in power which can turn certain discourses in tools of oppression. As becomes clear from SFU, the benevolent White saviour is one such terrorising narrative.
In the end, the audience is left wondering if all Western documentaries concerning Africa should be like SFU, or if Western documentaries concerning Africa should not exist in the first place. Throughout the film, freedom of speech is called upon for both the Western and the African content creator. After watching SFU, this concept takes on meaning beyond its Western democratic understanding. Freedom of speech also constitutes being freed from the Western lens. For a White person, it means to be able to see and listen to the actual stories of Goma and the DRC. For the African content creator, it means to not have to ask Whites for funding, or for permission to feature in a film. For the people of Goma, it means to be freed from the good intentions that erect gates throughout their city and make renting a car unaffordable. For Africans in general, it means to speak their truth without having to care if the Westerner understands it. Indeed, it is time for the White narrator to step aside and give space to an African discourse.
Hart, C. (2008). Critical discourse analysis and metaphor: toward a theoretical framework. Critical Discourse Studies, 5(2), 91-106. doi: 10.1080/17405900801990058
Karim, K. H. (2001). Cyber-utopia and the myth of paradise: Using Jacques Ellul’s work on propaganda to analyse information society rhetoric. Information, Communication & Society, 4(1), 113-134. doi:10.1080/13691180121788
Raia, A. (2020). Interview Dr. Annachiara Raia. Retrieved from http://innovativeresearchmethods.org/seminars/
Rose, G. (2001). Visual Methodologies: An introduction to the interpretation of visual materials. London, UK: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Van Dijk, T. A. (1992). Discourse and the denial of racism. Discourse & Society, 3(1), 87-118.