The Swedish filmmaker fighting colonialism with Lauryn Hill

How a Swedish director worked with the Fugees singer and a mound of TV archives to re-tell one of the 20th centrury's most incendiary texts

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Göran Olsson is a mild-mannered, middle-aged Swedish radical. A documentary filmmaker from the industrial port town of Göthenburg, his most-used medium is starkly, poetically reworked archival footage, and the subject matter of his two most recent films are violent liberation struggles. The Black Power Mixtape, an arthouse smash released in 2011, told the story of the years of urban unrest and revolution at the heart of the American civil rights struggle. 

His new film, on view as part of Swedish festival Way Out West’s excellent film programme, is Concerning Violence, and may be the most confrontational documentary released this year. Voiced by Lauryn Hill (yes, that Lauryn Hill), it splices archive footage of the wars of African decolonization with excerpts from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Called a prophet of black revolution, and published after the Martinque-born psychiatrist and Algerian independence fighter’s death in 1961, the text is a shot across the bows of the then-crumbling colonial complex. Concerning Violence, however, universalizes its core message – owning people and countries is an awful way to make money and racist violence makes people really, really, really angry – and leaves a shuddering message for us all. We spoke the director over the phone. 

Tell us about Concerning Violence. 

Göran Olsson:I made a film called The Black Power Mixtape, and after that I was determined not to make yet another archive film, but actually the publisher gave me a copy, and I went to a cafe and I read it and I was blown away with the text. I mean, for me it's almost prophetic in some ways, and very disturbing in other ways. I'm not complaining or dissing any other film but I was personally tired of documentaries where you see a person or a couple of persons in suffering, and then you are supposed to feel nice in the screening room and go out on the street and save the world. I thought it time to put a message up on the screen, as clear as possible. So that's how I came up with the idea. 

Despite using archive footage, it feels more prophetic than historical. 

Göran Olsson: In beginning I was contemplating having contemporary images, but if you have contemporary people, it results in a discussion about that specific situation in Palestine or in Nigeria, whatever. But I was searching for was for images that more almost animation: I wanted to have more timeless, almost allegorical feel to it. I worked with a graphic designer Stefania Malmsten who is a very well known Swedish designer, to have a fresh look with the graphics, which are still timeless. So, you could look at this film in ten years and still it will look the same. 

How did it work getting Lauryn Hill involved? 

Göran Olsson:I knew through mutual friends that she was a huge reader of Fanon, so I wrote a paper letter and manuscript with images while she was in prison for tax problems. She replied immediately and said it's too strange, I'm here in prison and I'm reading that book now. So she said, I will not only do the voice-over, I will also do the music. She wasn't released until late October, so we didn't have the time for her to make music, but she was released from prison on Friday, on Monday morning she was in the studio making the recording for the narration.   

What contemporary resonances do you see for the film today? 

Göran Olsson:When I read the text, it was speaking to me, for today. So, today we don't have the same countries and their armies, but we do have big global companies that are doing that the stealing of the raw materials. To me, we in the global north-west are living in a total lie when we never try to understand where all our cheap telephones and T-shirts is actually theft. I made a film as a northern European for other northern European people primarily, to try to understand the mechanism that this is.  

Could you just explain that a bit more please? 

Göran Olsson:We have rules about trade: and it's very important that the Swedish mining company can go to Congo, and establish the world’s largest copper mine. That's very important, free trades of good and services. But the exception of that rule is that no person can go from the furthest shore of the Mediterranean to the northern shore and work or live. That's a no no. To me, we don't have it like that, we have to decide either we have this total free market thing, which makes it okay for me to go and start a couple of mines in Congo, but then the Congolese can have the opportunity to come to Stockholm and start a grocery store. That dual system that we have, is upsetting to me.

When you buy a T-shirt for ten dollars or less, you have to understand that two hands put the fabrics together and pulled it through the sewing machine. There is no machine making T-shirts, the machine is just making the needle go up and down with the whatever you call it. But the two hands have to pull the fabrics through the machine. Two hands put them together. And if you think they have big machines that make everything, the stuff around us, it's not true, it's deeper, and they aren't paid, and it's okay. But it will not be for free long: and the people who do this, they're going to be pissed off.

Concerning Violence is showing at Gothenburg's Way Out West festival next week, and on world-wide release in the Autumn.

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