The Woyingi Blog

Film Review: Le silence de la forêt (2003)

Film: Le silence de la forêt (2003)

Director (s): Didier Florent Ouénangaré and Bassek Ba Kobhio

Countries: Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, France

Language (s): Diaka, Sango, and French with English Subtitles

Genre: Drama

Le silence de la forêt (2003), which goes by the title The Forest in English, is the first film to come out of the Central African Republic. It is co-directed by Central African filmmaker Didier Florent Ouénangaré and Cameroonian filmmaker Bassek Ba Kobhio. The film is an adaptation of the 1984 novel of the same name by Central African writer Étienne Goyémidé. The story begins with the return of Gonaba, played by French-Cameroonian actor Eriq Ebouaney best known for his portrayal of Patrice Lumumba in Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba, who has been away studying in France, to his home in the Central African Republic. He is idealistic and hopes to use his education to improve the lives of his countrymen. The film then fast fowards to ten years later and Gonaba is now a civil servant in the Central African Republic’s corrupt bureaucracy. As Michael Dembrow describes him:

Gonaba is now the regional Education Inspector for one of the Central African regions, and his voice-over commentary lets us know just how disappointed and frustrated he is with his inability to fulfill his dreams. The country is poorly run by a corrupt military, police, and education infrastructure. No one cares for the greater good, but only for ways to get ahead, which means somehow lording it over others. The ideals of Barthélemy Boganda (who led the fight for independence) and the trappings of traditional folklore are manipulated and corrupted towards this end.

So Gonaba has failed to “liberate” his countrymen with his education but he soon finds another group of people to “liberate”: The Baaka (Babinga) People, better known as Pygmies. While attending a party at the home of the regional governor (Prefect) Gonaba witnesses the ill-treatment of the Baaka people. As Dembrow writes:

For big shots like the Prefect, they are sub-human, natural resources to be exploited (as “tourist attractions” or as indentured servants) just like any of the country’s abundant natural resources. He sees them dancing (and treated like animals) at the Prefect’s party, then meets one while on a school tour (the man is serving as a virtual slave to the local chief). He decides that he has discovered his true vocation—eschewing the corrupt world of village and city, he will penetrate the forest and teach the Baaka how to read and write (in French), thereby giving them the tools to advocate for themselves and protect themselves from exploitation. It is a noble vision, but it can only lead to failure.

Gonaba goes to live with the Baaka people in what obviously seems to be an attempt to redeem himself. However, his perception of them as “noble savages” who simply need to be enlightened by reason in order to be freed of the superstitions that plague their romantically simple lifestyle soon backfires on Gonaba and ends in tragedy. I really appreciated how the film portrayed the forms of oppression that exist between African peoples, whether it be overt racism and exploitation, as we see with The Prefect, or the more subtle but equally detrimental paternalism of Gonaba. According to the review of the film written for California Newsreel: “The fact that this film is the first to focus on the exploitation and racism between more modern Africans and an autochthonous people, so ironically reminiscent of the attitudes of European colonists towards Africans, makes it even more unusual and fascinating.”

The Baaka, like many of the world’s indigenous peoples, are seeing their way of life destroyed by the increasing deforestation of the regions they call home. The film was actually filmed in a Baaka village and many of the actors were villagers with no theatrical training. In an interview Didier Florent Ouénangaré discusses working with the Baaka:

The initial idea was to draw attention to the Pygmies, an ethnic minority ignored by the politicians, the administration, and the world in general. When you go into the heart of the forest, you realise that deforestation is making it impossible for them to live from hunting, gathering, and nature as they used to. They are at risk of being wiped out like the Native Americans, only they wont even be confined to reserves! Gonaba’s role serves to hold a mirror up to show the Central Africans what they are doing.

It’s not only racist; it’s a human catastrophe too. I have had several opportunities to make documentaries about the Pygmies. Catholic nuns are trying to integrate them into the civil population by sending the youngest members of the Pygmy population to schools, but it doesn’t work because they go about it the wrong way. You can’t take someone who has lived a life firmly rooted in the forest and ask him to live like a Westerner. It isn’t for us to impose what we want. It’s true that Westerners came and imposed the way in which we live today on us, which isn’t only negative, but it’s better to ask people what they want.

I am the first to be fascinated by the Pygmies. Two had already gone on tour in folkloric dance troupes abroad, but the rest had never left their village! I told them that we were going to film a tale and that they needed to think that they were in the tale itself. But when I wanted to marry two actors in the film, they refused for fear of the husband’s reaction… But with some cigarettes, a drink, and a good long discussion, they agreed.

We looked for a site that wasn’t too far from a town, but at the same time was sufficiently far away. We built a village to house the Pygmies, and another for the studio. Everything that you see in the film is a village-studio, built according to the screenplay. They lived in an adjoining village built specially for them.

Trivia: In the 2003, the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the non-competitive Directors’ Fortnight. It was the only African film included in that year’s line up. It won the Jury’s Prize at the Namur Festival in Belgium. Eriq Ebouaney actually had to learn the Central African language Sango , which is the primary language of the country, in order to play the role of Gonaba. The film was scored by Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango.

Further Reading:

About the film Le silence de la forêt

Review by California News Reel available online

Review by Michael Dembrow available online

Review in French available online

Review in French by Valerie Ganne available online

Interview with Didier Ouénangaré in English available online

Interview with Bassek ba Kobhio in French available online

About Étienne Goyémidé

Profile in French available online

La dynamique des rapports interculturels chez Étienne Goyémidé by Francoise Ugochukwu (academic essay in French available online)

Goyemide on Slavery: The Liberating Power of The Word by Francoise Ugochukwu (academic essay available online)

About the Pygmies

Pygmies.org is a website dedicated to the hunter-gatherer peoples living in the Central African rainforests, commonly called Pygmies.

Are the men of the African Aka tribe the best fathers in the world? By Joanna Moorehead (article in The Guardian UK available online)

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Mixed Race Lives: Theodor Wonja Michael

Ever since reading Hans Massaquoi’s memoir Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany, I’ve become fascinated with the life stories of Afro-Germans. After World War II, when African-American soldiers were stationed in Germany, the number of mixed race Afro-Germans would increase rapidly up until today when their existence, although not as common as in the US, France or even Britain, could hardly be said to be rare. There are even Black History Month celebrations, organizations like the Initiative for Black Germans (ISD), that combats racism and supports programs for Black youth.

When I was in Germany, in the former mining town of Mulheim an der Ruhr, a White woman sat beside me on the train and asked me how I managed my hair. Her daughter, who was mixed race like me, was having trouble figuring out what to do with her hair and wanted a new style for going into high school. I didn’t really know what to tell her because I myself didn’t know what to do with my hair at the time. I just lived with it.

Theodor's Mother and Father Courtesy Bundeszentrale fur Politische Bildung

Theodor Wonja Michael is one of the oldest Afro-Germans living in Germany. He was born on January 15th 1925 in Berlin. His father, Theophilius Wonja Michael, was originally from Cameroon and arrived in Germany in 1894. According to Theodor, his grandfather was one of several community leaders who signed protection treaties with German explorer, and later Imperial Consul-General Gustav Nachtigal (1834-1885) in 1884 which began German’s colonization of Cameroon.  I’ve realized that many people don’t know that Germany had African colonies: Togo, Cameroon, Tanganyika, and Namibia. These were lost after Germany lost World War I and divvied up by France and England in 1919.

Growing up, German children would sometimes ask Theodor if he was from the Rheinland. This was because there were other Afro-Germans born in the Rheinland, the children of local German women and the some 25, 000 to 40,000 African soldiers who had been stationed there as occupation forces by France from 1919 to 1929. Many of these soldiers were Senegalese Tirailleurs. These mixed race children were often referred to as “Rheinlandbastards”. The German government protested the presence of African solidiers in the Rheinland and much propaganda was written about these soldiers kidnapping and raping White women. The situation was often referred to as the “Schwarze Schmach” or “Black Shame”. Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf wrote “the Jews had brought the Negroes into the Rhineland with the clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily-resulting bastardization.” It’s hard to know if and how many of these children survived under the Nazis. According to the  Deutsche Welle article “The Fate of Blacks in Nazi Germany“:

Deutsche Welle spoke to leading German historian Prof. Reiner Pommerin to find out what happened to these children. “I published a book in the 70s, which told the reader about the sterilization of mixed blood children. These were children who had been fathered by occupation forces – mostly French occupation forces,” he said. His book, “Sterilisierung der Rheinlandbastarde. Das Schicksal einer farbigen deutschen Minderheit 1918 – 1937” (“Sterilization of the Rhineland Bastards: the fate of a colored German minority 1918 – 1937”) publicized the sterilization of the Black minority in Nazi Germany.

Prior to the publication of the book in 1979, this information was unknown to the public. The sterilization of biracial children was carried out secretly because it went against 1938 Nazi laws and procedures. The exact numbers remain unknown, but it is estimated that 400 children of mixed blood were sterilized – most without their knowledge, Pommerin said.

Today, the fate of the “Rhineland Bastards” still remains largely unknown. The lack of public knowledge regarding their fate may have to do with the “lack of public interest in minorities,” said Pommerin.

Theodor Wonja Michael

Back to Theodor’s story. In 1926, his German mother, Martha Wegner died, leaving behind her four mixed race children, Theodor, James (born in 1916), Juliana (born in 1921) and Christiana. In my research it states that his father was a circus performer and that after his death Theodor and his siblings were taken in by his father’s circus colleagues. According to Osei Boateng, most Blacks in Germany at the time worked in the entertainment industry. Africans were hired to portray “traditional African dances and songs”. People would pay to see them perform as if they were animals in a zoo. But it was a living. When Theodor go older even he performed in these circuses, seeing songs he didn’t even understand the words to. As Theodor grew older the racist policies of the Nazi regime began to affect his life more and more. In 1936, mixed race Germans lost their citizenship and declared “fremde” foreigners. He lost his job as a bellhop at Hotel Excelsior due to a complaint from a Nazi guest. Theodor found work in films. He was cast in a small but visible role in Germany’s first colour film in 1943, “Muenchhausen”. He played an African servant cooling dignitaries with a feathered fan. The film was commissioned by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. When asked about the experience, Theodor said “They trained me–and it is, of course, extremely ironic that it was the Nazis who gave me my big break!”

Theodor was twice conscripted and twice rejected because he was Black. The second time was when Germany desperately needed soldiers, but he still wasn’t good enough. In 1943, at the age of 18, Theodor was forced into a Labour Camp outside of Berlin. He had to work 72 hours a week at a war munitions factory. During this time, Theodor was constantly afraid of being sterilized like many other Afro-Germans were. In 1945, the Labour Camp was liberated by Russian soldiers.

Theodor and his siblings were separated after their parents’ deaths. In my research I haven’t been able to find out what happened to his sister Christiana however, his brother and sister James and Juliana ended up in France. These siblings were only united with each other and Theodor in the 1960s. In 1994, while researching her book Rewriting The Footnotes — Berlin and the African Diaspora, Paulette Reed-Anderson met with James. He recounted to her how the German authorities in France took away his German passport and learned that he was no longer a German Citizen because he was Black:

“[It] was in 1937. We were in Paris… My passport had just run out, so I went to the German consulate to have it renewed… ‘What do you want’, the clerk demanded. ‘To renew my passport,’ I answered. ‘Your passport?!’, he said. ‘What are you, are you German?’ ‘Yes, here is my passport,’ I answered. “He examined it. “Born in Berlin on 2 October 1916 and so on and so forth. Then he took my passport and went away with it.

A quarter of an hour or more went by before he returned — but without my passport. I said: ‘I thought you were going to give my passport back to me’. “He said: ‘No, we are going to keep your passport. You are no longer German. Black Germans do not exist’. “Then, I was really angry. What was I supposed to do without identity documents and such? Nothing! How could I prove that I was really born in Berlin? This was the worst moment in my life…”

Theodor returned to acting after the war because there was nothing much else he had experience doing. He would go on to become one of Germany’s most respected Shakespearean actors. He has used his respected position to influence the casting and direction of the plays he is in. For example:

In “The Tempest,” for instance–performing the role of Prospero–he persuaded the director to cast the Duke of Milan as a black man and his deformed slave, Caliban, as white. And in “Driving Miss Daisy,” he enhanced the fond but prickly relationship of the black chauffeur with his white Georgian employer to “somewhat of a romance, a love story.”

Theodor also eventually went back to school, receiving a Master’s Degree from the Institute of Economics and Politics in Hamburg. He was able to visit Africa as the editor of the journal Afrika-Bulletin and as the economic advisor for German development projects in Niger, Ghana and Nigeria. In the 1960s, he was even able to visit Cameroon and see his father’s birthplace. Theodor said that he has always felt a connection to Africa and as a child his father told him African folktales at bedtime. However, Theodor sees himself as German, first and foremost.

In 2000, Theodor Wonja Michael was invited to speak about his experience in Nazi Germany at Howard University in Washington D.C. The lecture he gave was entitled “German-African Relations–A Retrospective From the Colonial Period Until Unification.” He had been invited by Professor Yvonne Poser on behalf of the university’s Department of Modern Languages and Literature in an effort, according to Poser to “help our efforts to integrate black German history and culture in our German curriculum and to foster a dialogue between blacks in Germany and the Howard community.”

Many in the United States still don’t know about the experience of Blacks in Nazi Germany or even that there are Afro-Germans. Theodor appears in a British documentary entitled “Black Survivors of the Holocaust” (Hitler’s Forgotten Victims UK Title) by David Okuefuna and Moise Shewa. He was happily surprised to find that at Britain’s Holocaust Museum there were many documents about the Afro-German experience under the Nazis. While at Howard University, Theodor remarked, making reference to the documents in the British Museum: “Of course, what they say is not known in America. In fact, I am puzzled about how little Americans seem to know about Africa in general.”

When asked by Afro-German journalist Jeannine Kantara what he thought Obama’s election meant for Afro-Germans, he remarked:

In Germany, we still have a long way to go. Here we encounter a form of careless racism that is based on racial purity. A German has to “look “German and accordingly, he or she must be white. I do not know whether my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will already be able to reach such a position because here in Germany they will still be confronted with the question of origin.

In 2009, Theodor received the first Black History Month Award for his role as an Ambassador for the Afro-German community. Theodor currently lives in Cologne with his second wife. “I walk a lot and rehearse, but that must soon make way because I wish to write my memoirs,” he says. “It’ll be about a German, not an African.”

Recommended Reading:

Remembering Africans in the Nazi Camps by Rowan Philip (article from The Washington Post available online)

The Fate of Blacks in Nazi Germany by Chiponda Chimbelu (article in Deutsche Welle available online)

Blacks During the Holocaust  (article from the United States Holocaust Memorials Museum available online)

Hitler’s Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of Afro-Germans, European Blacks, Africans, and African Americans in the Nazi Era by C. Lusane (Academic Text published by Routledge)

Black Germans do not exist by Osei Boateng (article in The New African available online)

We Are President! by Jeannine Kantara (article in The Zeleza Post available online)

Gert Schramm: A Black German Survivor of the Holocaust & Barack Obama by J. Kantara (article from Kantara’s Blog avaiable online)

A Tribute to Theodor Wonja Michael (article from Black History Month Berlin Germany 2009 available online)

Black History Month Berlin-Germany 2009 Website

Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD) Website

Schwarze Menschen im Nationalsozialismus by Nicola Lauré al-Samarai (article in German from the Bundeszentrale fur politische Bildung available online)

Sie sind Deutsch? Ja, klar. Afro-Deutsch (article in German from Deutsche Welle available online)

Schwarz sein und deutsch dazu by John A. Kantara (article in German from Die Zeit available online)

Video Interview in German with Theodor Wonja Michael available online

Wikipedia Page in German on Theodor Wonja Michael

Wikipedia Page in French on Theodor Wonja Michael

Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich by Tina Campt (text from the University of Michigan Press)