Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Le Grand blanc de Lambaréné

1995, Gabon/Cameroon/France, directed by Bassek ba Kobhio

Bassek ba Kobhio's second film, even more ambitious than his previous Sango Malo, focuses on one of the secular saints of the colonial era, the French doctor Albert Schweitzer, and offers a complex and imaginative portrait of the doctor's often contradictory attitudes towards the people in whose midst he spent the bulk of his life. The film covers the period from 1944 to Schweitzer's death in 1965, five years after Gabon's independence; the doctor was well-known internationally throughout this period, but particularly after winning the Nobel peace prize in 1952, though the film makes only limited references to his regular speaking and fund-raising trips overseas (and doesn't quite convey the considerable scale of the hospital at Lambaréné even though it was shot - beautifully - on location).

Ba Kobhio is most interested in developing a portrait that goes beyond conventional Western hagiography, and he enumerates Schweitzer's many contradictions, most obviously a deep-seated paternalism (which shades into open racism) that contrasts with moments of extraordinary tenderness; the director, as in his previous film, is also blunt about some of the contradictions of the local population, while there's a vein of trenchant commentary on some of the post-independence leaders (with Schweitzer himself capable of smart analysis). In the end, ba Kobhio is concerned to ask a series of pointed questions rather than providing simple answers, and it's an effective strategy that forces the viewer to re-evaluate preconceptions about both the colonial and post-colonial periods in Gabon (and Africa more widely). It's also a useful complement to his earlier film, casting some of the previous film's questions about education in a new and more complex light.

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