‘N: The Madness of Reason‘– a docu-drama co-produced by Peter Krüger and award-winning Nigerian writer Ben Okri – left me suspended between discomfort and awe.
Discomfort because such scenes as a woman performing fellatio on a man; the ritualistic slaughter of an ox and the display of bare-chested women jumping – if filmed in the UK – would most probably be censored.
And yet in this 102-minute film, these real – and at times graphic scenes – were interwoven between absolutely exquisite images across west Africa.
The solitary caterpillar, the colourful butterflies housed among acres of forest, the booming ocean waves and most of all the myriad of faces.
The film is complex but the premise so simple. The story unfolds telling the tale of a Frenchman man who leaves the turmoil of Europe in the 1920s. He is in search of adventure and falls in love with and ends up spending 40 years of his life in the west of Africa.
Dead and alive
We see Raymond Borremans alive but on the verge of death. But in death, he is much more alive. We follow his journey sweeping through a multitude of scenes as he recounts his life – albeit through rose-tinted glasses. We see him visit his old haunts, commune with his friends and watch him seek the help of strangers.
We follow him as he returns to a derelict train carriage, listen to a makeshift band play and repeatedly visit the ruins of his home. These images read like a sad show reel of his life as it flashes before him shortly before death.
Borremans compiles encyclopaedias and is someone obsessed by categorisation and order. And yet during the film, these very foundations are rocked by a central female character who refuses to let him categorise her. Despite his requests, she never reveals her name.
Ben Okri said, after the film, that the production was about exploring legacy and those inadequacies that we sometimes feel when we reach a certain age and question what we have achieved.
Borremans embodies this. He watches his incomplete body of encyclopaedic work sold on the street in a market not dissimilar to Makola in Accra, Ghana.
His death meant that only encyclopaedias between the letters A and M were produced, which Borremans equates to building an unfinished house. ‘What use is it?’, he asks.
Unable to pass on fully after death, he revisits old places searching for direction until he realises that he should finish what he started. But he can only achieve that through the assistance of the living. It is along this journey that he wakes up to some truths about how real his romanticised vision of west Africa is. And we, the viewer, are forced to digest this along the way.
The film is based on reality – too much in my view. The macheted bodies strewn across fields are real and record the deaths of too many civilians murdered during one of Côte D’Ivorie’s civil wars. Borremans was real too and came from a family of encyclopaedists. Even the actors in the film are – for the most part – everyday people that Krüger enlisted to help give the film a veneer of authenticity.
For me, the biggest draw of the film has to be how seemingly arbitrary elements are fashioned together in such a cohesive manner. I would never have believed that the images were sewn together seven years before Okri wrote the script. But Okri tells us it is true.
And my biggest revelation came from a scene tucked in the middle of the film in which one elderly man tells another that the act of putting pen to paper when telling a story is in itself limiting. Naturally, it excludes and forces us to take a linear approach to self-expression.
“If I write that I am Hutu – it therefore suggests that I am not Tutsi,” the man says in the film.
And since Africans have a strong and well embedded belief in oral tradition that serves to preserve stories without using the written form, I would urge you not to take my ‘linear words’ for it – but watch the film for yourself.
Film Africa 2014 is on until 9 November, showcasing some of the African continent’s finest films.
By Kirsty Osei-Bempong
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