Horrifically racist at worst, extremely patronising at its low best, Africa Addio is nonetheless continuously fascinating, a feat made possible by the fact that the directors, monsters though they may be, know how cinema works.
Africa Addio is set around the de-colonisation of Africa, and its thesis is essentially that the colonists left Africa too soon, and without the guidance of them, Africa has descended into chaos. What that simplifies to is that Africans are savages, and always have been. It’s disgusting, sometimes cartoonishly so (there’s a scene the narrator states that the Europeans taught the native population to desire homes, which is not even the craziest statement made through it all), but it’s disgusting with a clearly knowing eye. Getting outraged is all part of the filmmakers’ plan, getting you to gasp and choke in the theatre is what puts coin in their pockets. Hell, I sought this out for my expected outrage, which means, even all these years later, they still won.
In their ostensible attempts to show the continent as lost without colonists, the filmmakers shoot an incredible amount of amazing but terrible footage – minutes upon minutes of animal torture and poaching, civil wars and violent outbursts – shot with an eye for movement and maximum power. The cameramen get close to action, sometimes distressingly so, trying to get the best angle on their exploitative hell. There is a scene involving a pile of amputated hands, the camera lingering and cutting back to the image again and again, that made me sick. I cannot quite articulate how much pain it brought me to view sections of this film.
And yet, and yet, the directors are men of the cinema. They know how to assemble image and sound to create a rush, even if you feel bad for having that rush. The score is lush and prosperous, and the screen moves with rhythm and pace that often overcomes the episodic structure. It often comes close to approximating beauty in its own ugly way.
Appreciating a film like Africa Addio takes a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance. I acknowledge that it is morally reprehensible, and yet I find it utterly fascinating.
My approval comes bundled with a million caveats.