Last year a new translation of James Baldwin came out in the Netherlands. There was a disagreement between the translator and the publisher. The publisher wanted to use the now politically most correct words black and white in the translation, even though those were not the words James Baldwin used. The translator argued those words weren’t used in that time – not here nor there – but the publisher censored the translation anyway. “We want the translation to be inclusive and in the language of today.” But Baldwin didn’t write today. Why do we have to censor his words?
While the history of slavery in the USA is not the same as the history of colonialism, the Baldwin translation example does show how sensitive it is to talk about or portray dark sides of the past.
Emma de Swaef and Marc Roels are the makers of the stop-motion animation ‘This Magnificent Cake!’. It portrays Belgian’s colonial past in Congo, in a world of wool and fabric. It is beautifully made, it is often sardonically funny, and a treat to look at. In 44 minutes we meet five characters; a troubled king, a middle-aged Pygmy working in a luxury hotel, a failed businessman on an expedition, a lost porter and a young army deserter and their stories loosely interweave at some points. The woolen characters with their little eyes, round faces and remarkable expression, are able to show things without offending. The narrative on the other hand doesn’t ‘tell’ us much: we don’t learn facts about Congo and the story is mosaic, dreamy, surrealistic. There is switching of perspective, switching of storyline and even switching of realities. Literally and visually the film is soft to the touch. But we can see darkness created in wool: a pygmy man employed as an ashtray-on-his-head-holder, hangers for coats made of black fingers.
The colonialists want a piece of the cake called Africa. This magnificent cake! Money and status up for grabs! But in the film the atmosphere ends up a bit sad for everyone. We do see the complete egoism of one colonialist: while a line of luggage carriers with chains on their necks fall in a river, they are being yelled at for leaving him alone. But we also see the failed dreams of fortune seeking, the drinking, the emptiness, the diseases.
And then there is the surrealist part (one example: an alcoholic in love with a giant snail!).
Two common critiques of this movie are 1, it is too vague and surrealist to comprehend and 2, it doesn’t want to show the atrocities of the past. Instead it sweetly wraps up the ugly past in soft cuteness, with no room for a critical view.
It is true the movie ends on surrealist notes, it moves further and further away from reality. It is also true the five stories don’t lead to an end where everything comes together.
I tend to not mind (= often love, to be honest) this more associative type of story-telling, but there is another point to be made here. Maybe it is a good thing the film ends in surrealism. Maybe it cannot be told ‘more directly’. Maybe it is too strange to tell.
The woolen figures with their little eyes are able to posit a critical stance. They portray the ignorance and selfishness and banality of the colonialists. They show how the colonialists view the people from Congo. They show that world through a Pygmy’s eyes. The softness of the fabric-made world makes room for a look at the darkness of the past that escapes censorship.
You can find a trailer on the website of the makers here, scroll a little bit down to find it.