“White Material,” the new film by French filmmaker Claire Denis, proves just how complicated the depiction of race is in a film, without going off balance. Claire Denis is an extraordinary woman filmmaker. Her films like “Chocolat,” “I Can’t Sleep,” “Nenette and Boni” and “Beau Travai”l broke new ground in exploring issues of sex, race and colonialism. “Chocolat” was based on Denis’ own experience growing up as the child of a French civil servant in the former French colonies including Burkina Faso, Somalia, Senegal and Cameroon.
In “White Material”, Isabelle Huppert plays Maria, a white settler farmer intent on remaining in Africa in the midst of violent transition as white settlers are forced to leave, and the government battles an insurgency.
Why won’t she leave? She has a good relationship with the Africans who work the farm. She clearly loves the land. Africa is part of her identity. She’s is feisty and strong; the rest of her family is dysfunctional. Yet she can’t leave because, she says, “How could I show courage in France?”
It is the most colonialist of reasons: she clings to the vision of Africa through her white skin. That whiteness equals, Denis says, “a sort of purity, immaculate; angelic; a more spiritual, purer aspect of humanity.” The other side, says Denis referring to Toni Morison, is “black and dark, and darkness and obscure, all this sense goes with black; to have a black heart or black thoughts or dark intentions.”
“White Material” – the title of which is a pejorative term for whites in Africa – was written by Marie N’Diaye, a French novelist of Senegalese extraction. Walking with her in a market in Ghana, Denis said She was the one who knew the landscape – the smells, textures, language of the market. But it was Marie, who is black, whom other people saluted as “Hey sister!” This denied Denis’ own historical sense of self, as someone who, because of her childhood in Africa, has a different perspective on life. “I felt, as a white minority amongst blacks – who were a majority — I felt something that few people feel in Europe.”
The idea behind the film is a broad question. Denis asks, “What happened in the history of humanity between white and black people? Why is it possible that the relation between the people of Africa with black skin, the people who were considered maybe strong and wild, with a sort of bestiality – that’s why they could be exported like slaves, as if using your body was the only thing that could be asked of them. And using their body in both senses, for strength and endurance, and that also creates a sexiness. My question was, what it is to be “White Material?” White people, who believe today, in the modern world, that all this slavery, things are gone, far away, colonialism, racism, no more…And suddenly, to be confronted with black people who look at you and say you’re white. It’s not angelic for us. A white person could be dangerous. Could be, could lead us to a secret desire to brutalize that person.”
Like in her other films, particularly Beau Travail, Denis expresses this relationship between the color of skin and its portent of sexual danger in physical terms. Huppert’s strength, as a white woman running a coffee farm in an African country ripped by violence, is a self-created construct. During the shooting of the film, Huppert, a brilliant and precise actress, told Denis that she doesn’t want to be shown sweating, despite hard physical labor. “In certain films of white people in Africa they sweat all the time.”
Is “White Material” successful as a film? It’s like a tense thriller. It’s beautiful. It features some brilliant acting, even if Huppert does go somewhat over the top. It raises serious questions. The answers are up to the audience.
“White Material” plays this weekend at the Music Box Theater in Chicago.
Milos Stehlik is Worldview’s film contributor and the director of Facets Multi-Media.