It is no doubt an understatement to say that preconceptions always get in the way of clear perception. What is more: it is painfully obvious. Yet we fall victim to it over and over. Even when we think we come to a new experience with an open mind, we end up falling back on old assumptions to make sense of things. This is an especially harmful attitude to bring to a work of art. Art demands the individual’s willingness to change; it addresses one’s capacity for new ways of thinking. The old road maps one typically uses to navigate through life will only get in the way here.
I have watched Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise in three separate experimental film courses, and each time the subsequent discussion has digressed into a condemnation of the white Austrian filmmaker’s portrayal of the indigenous Africans as animals. We can all agree that Kubelka’s film demonstrates the barbarity of tourist violence against animals, and for this we applaud him. However, we fault him for his indifferent, somewhat exoticized and fetishistic photography which seems to treat as equal subject material the African and the African animals. This always annoyed me, and I was relieved to find, in the discussion that followed the film the last time I saw it, an African student willing to argue against the consensus opinion. After several white students expressed their anger at Kubelka’s insensitivity and his failure to break from the colonialist mentality he is ostensibly critiquing, the one African raised her hand and gently suggested that her white, American peers had missed the point. Kubelka does not equate African people with African animals, she suggested, rather he demonstrates Western expansionist culture, by way of the Austrian tourists in the film, does not make a meaningful distinction between the animals they hunt and the people who serve them while they do it. What happens next is one of those precious moments in life, the kind of occurrence that would be totally unbelievable if it did not happen every day. She was ignored. How amazing! How momentously condescending, ironic and stupid all at once! The sensitive, post modern, hip white people have judged Unsere Afrikareise to be racist, and no black, African girl is going to tell them different.
I love this story as an example of the tendency toward self-righteous, hypocritical political correctness that so many people bring to art these days. They not only assume that Peter Kubelka has a responsibility to present everyone’s perspective evenly and fairly, they also want their desire to see those qualifications met to be easily satisfied. In other words it’s no good if Peter Kubelka really is on our side if he arranges his material in such a way that we can’t understand that to be true. James Benning addresses this in an interview with Scott MacDonald about his early films:
I was trying to experiment, and if you’re experimenting, by definition, you don’t communicate with a large audience. I thought it was rather silly to try to put political issues into an esoteric context. If you’re trying to make political changes, you should use the language that is easiest to understand (231).
Here Benning points toward something that a lot college kids (or, for that matter, more sophisticated viewers such as teachers and critics) do not consider when they watch Unsere Afrikareise, Kubelka does not have message. While I am unwilling to go as far as Kubelka himself, who says that he could have made this film with any images, I will agree with him that violence against animals and the treatment of Africans by Euro-tourists do not constitute the primary concern of this film. The film is about structure, and the subject is, I believe assumed. It is wrong to kill animals for sport and to abuse natives for cheap labor. This simple truth, however, is not fodder enough for an artist. Showing that the bad guys are wrong is Spielberg’s project. Kubelka aims higher; he digs deeper. He wants to effect the viewer’s perception. He does not care about politics as such.
The aim of such care-less filmmaking is further extrapolated by Benning, “If you look at things different aesthetically, maybe you’ll look at things differently politically” (231). When Kubelka says that he is trying to drag us out of the Stone Age, this is what he is talking about. But we like the Stone Age. We like our morality and our ethics to be simple, either/or choices between right and wrong.