ARTS + CULTURE

‘Stop Filming Us!’ – Neocolonialism through the Camera Lens

Isolde MacDonagh

3rd June 2020

 

Posing questions, not answering them – Joris Postema’s Stop Filming Us wants to show us the city of Goma you don’t see in UNICEF’s pity-inducing photos of miserable children. But can he portray the Congolese reality without becoming part of the problem?

 

For me, this question is answered early on. Postema, in this documentary, works closely with several African filmmakers and photographers to capture the ‘real’ Goma, a city in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  In a meeting, he asks his Congolese co-workers about his Western team: “Did we do anything neo-colonial in the past few weeks?”. “Of course,” Ganza Buroko replies. He lists Postema’s mistakes. “Ah – so we start again,” says Postema. They laugh. “No, we continue.”

 

This film doesn’t try to be perfect. Postema is as much of a student as his viewer, and the documentary comes across as a work in progress. In Stop Filming Us, Postema follows the lives of three Congolese filmmakers and photographers. The first of these is Mugabo Baritegera, an artist and photographer who roams the streets looking to capture the Goma he himself experiences. Baritegera explains that when he looks at the sad Congolese faces in photos released by the media, he does not recognise himself. Happiness is a significant part, not only of the Congolese life but of the Congolese identity (already so attacked by colonialism). When Westerners portray Goma as an unhappy place, they continue to destroy the Congolese identity. “We don’t even know what we have forgotten”: this is a phrase that stands out, as Postema watches the Congolese discuss their history. Baritegera is filmed building a new art gallery, where he can display his work. When the gallery is completed, at the end of the film, we see for the first time the people of Goma taking photos of one another that are not loaded with political messages – they are simply enjoying themselves.

 

“When Westerners portray Goma as an unhappy place, they continue to destroy the Congolese identity”

Unsurprisingly, there is a strong feeling about photography in Goma, many seeing it as the exploitation of their faces for money. Ley Uwera, a photographer working for NGOs, takes the photos she is paid to take, knowing that they do not represent her country. We watch her photographing a refugee settlement, where she moves children aside, stages photos, and asks people to stand in awkward positions in order to capture exaggerated unhappiness. Her photos ignore the life and the happiness that is also present in the environments she photographs. 

 

Stop filming us” is a familiar cry in Postema’s 90-minute film, and every time we hear it, we are aware of Postema’s contradictory position. “Go Home”, Postema is told. But he does not. Instead, Postema films the filmmakers. He films those who have exploited the Congolese with their cameras. He films the prison-like appearances of the high-security gates to the countless NGO headquarters, in what are arguably the most powerful shots in the film. Postema’s documentary watches the people who are creating videos that shape the world’s understanding of Goma. There are two primary examples of this. Postema’s observation of Uwera’s work for the NGOs, but also an episode where Postema films Baritegera making a (beautiful) film showing the positive side of Goma but omitting a street fight and the arguments that happened during his shoot. Although this film was the aesthetic highlight of the documentary, it omitted perhaps what a Westerner would describe as the truth.

 

Photo by: Joris Postema, Stop Filming Us

 

But can a Westerner criticise the Congolese for not being truthful enough in their representations of their own cities? Westerners, naturally, have no right to define truth, but Postema’s documentary wants to understand why these more negative aspects of Baritegera’s film do not come into Baritegera’s depiction of the ‘real Goma’. Postema asks his Congolese film crew why Baritegera might have omitted what, for a Westerner, would be important details. They give varied answers – the violence is boring, normal, not something to talk about. 

 

Stop Filming Us is a discussion. Postema’s opinion is visible in the editing and what he has chosen to film, but he includes different perspectives wherever he can. This makes for the film’s strange structure: it is a film that ends several times. Twice Postema shows his latest version of Stop Filming Us to the Congolese and asks them what they think of it, and twice the ensuing discussion is included in the film. This, of course, symbolises that this discussion has in no way ended with this film. We think again of Buroko’s words, at the beginning of the documentary: “we continue”.

 

There are questions that remain by the end of this film. Should Postema have just gone home? Should the NGOs, arrogant and unwanted, go home? Or do Westerners have a responsibility to fix what they broke? A scene of Baritegera chanting “if you watch, you are complicit” targets the film’s audience: we, also, are part of this discussion. But to what extent?

 

 

Featured photo by Joris Postema

 

 

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