Imperial Travels in Cinema, Literature and News

A Professor and a Filmmaker, incoherent and influential protagonists of their time.

In order to better understand the media texts that I read or watch, it is very helpful to me to reflect on them and identify particular themes or elements that make them unique. They might be recurring themes, or different ones that convey the same concept according to the historical period of the production of the texts. In both the examples of Paul Bowles’ A Distant Episode and Ben Rivers’ The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, I could see exactly that. The people that seemed to be the main (patronizing and condescending) characters represent influential figures in the western societies they come from. Of course, from my understanding, Bowles and Rivers decide on different professions for their characters, depending on the historical period the story is set.

In Bowles’ short story, written in 1947, this character is a linguistics professor. The fact that “linguistics” is highlighted within the first few lines of the story is key. The academic role differentiates him from any other average tourist, but the fact that he’s a linguist means that he’s interested in preserving and cherishing the languages, dialects and meaning he’s studied. In Rivers’ 2015 film, the character Oliver Laxe is a filmmaker. In this case, the profession is still key, because with filming (especially documentaries) he enacts a very intimate process of capturing the environment as it is, preserving it.

However, in both cases the character fail to stay true to the inner core meaning of their profession. Indeed, the professor ignores the offense he caused to the local qaouaji at the cafe, and just keeps offering money in exchange for camel udder boxes. The filmmaker disregards the actual natives in the areas where he’s filming, ordering to “get rid of all the people who are not acting”. As seen in the film, they both “pay” with their tongue, which to me also meant that the natives were getting the role of narrators back from these western figures.

A sense of “nothingness” through imperial travels.

A long car drive, a long walk through the night. Both moments in the stories fulfill the trope of the journey that is typical of the colonizers. These long journeys however present an element that was already in both Apocalipse Now and Heart of Darkness. They both seem to happen in the middle of nothing, as if the professor or the filmmaker were really discovering something new of the area they were passing through, disregarding the presence of natives and local societal structures. Indeed, to show that he should have known better, after the filmmaker is captured and treated like an object of entertainment, some of the natives told him: “you went looking for trouble, you found it.”

The narrative of imperial travels through news: natives protecting themselves.

Not too long ago, at the end of 2018, an American Evangelist missionary called John Chau died nearby a very small island in India called North Sentinel. There, live only a few dozens people that form an independent and secluded civilization known for killing anyone who trespasses their territories. That is what happened to John. However, he went there on purpose to “educate them” about Jesus, fully aware of the risks of what he was doing, and the potential consequences for his life. Evangelists consider him a martyr, the majority of Indian population and the world (especially online) consider him simply to have been disrespectful of the civilization and culture he was approaching. In many ways, I believe this can be connected to the trope of imperial travels and the themes found in Bowles and Rivers’ works.

This reflection made me wonder: can we really think in terms of “natives hitting back”, if we are the ones that intrude their private spaces with the intention to change (or use) them according to our standards?

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