In 10YA’s first transcribed conversation re-view, Erik Jaccard and Yasi Naraghi tackle Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener and discuss capitalism, the nature of evil, hegemonic systems, racial equity, the white savior complex, cinematic portrayals of Africa, and if this film is truly dangerous.
Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener is a film I’ve had my eye on for a long time, long before 2015 and before I found myself considering which, if any, of 2005’s films I wanted to re-view. I knew it was coming, and I knew I wanted to talk about it, though I felt less certain of what I would eventually say when I did. Then, late last spring, while enjoying a couple of beers in the sun with two friends, I mentioned to one them, former 10YA reviewer Yasi Naraghi, that I’d signed on to re-view the film. As it turns out, Yasi also had plenty to say about it. Generally eager to explore the possibilities of the blog format by experimenting with it formally, I suggested we review in tandem, not as co-writers but as co-speakers. In other words, I suggested we re-view it as a dialogue. What follows is the end result of that suggestion. In addition, we have each added reflections on the process and result, as a way of both clearing the air and of drawing concluding connections between our two experiences. These appear after the end of the transcript below.
E: I saw The Constant Gardener for the first time here in Seattle in 2005, with my sister, in a cinema downtown. And I loved it, and I kind of remember being moved by it at the time. I don’t think I let any of the narrative choppiness bother me. I think that I was fully willing to play along with the ‘love at any cost’ romance of the story, and being an appropriately conscientious liberal, I was fully willing to participate in the ‘guilt’ the film invokes in white Western viewers concerned about Africa.
Y: So you were 25?
E: 26. I was just about to start my Master’s program in English Literature. I had been out of school for about three years at that point, and I’d been working and traveling a bit. When I saw it I was actually home because I’d been living in Prague and I was home to visit my family before I started my program in Scotland. Also my grandmother was dying, and I had come back to see her one more time. So then I saw it again in Scotland. I think I saw it again because I’d been so excited and, I suppose, moved by it the first time, so I wanted my then-girlfriend to see it, too, and share in my excitement. So we went to this cute little boutique-y movie theater in this posh part of Edinburgh and I liked it again, naturally, and got a little misty again, because, you know…romance. Because…Justin’s love for Tess. And then I kind of forgot about it, which I think is important because this time around I spent tons of time thinking about it afterward, but back then I didn’t have any conscious ideas about Africa, or about my own position in relation to the film, or to its representations of Africa. So I let it go. This is funny, because I think it’s nearly always what I say about my original experience of the film. It’s like, ‘I watched it, and I liked it, but I didn’t have nearly as much to say about it as I do now!’ But what about you?
Y: Well, I have questions for you. I know you work with Laura [Chrisman, Erik’s current PhD thesis advisor and an Africanist scholar]. Did you at any point study any African literature or postcolonial theory?
Y: Ok, so when did you start to do that?
E: About two months after I saw the film. One of the classes I took that fall at Edinburgh University was called ‘Decolonization and the Novel,’ and we read Achebe and Ngugi, Soyinka and Armah, etc. Then I wrote a paper on a couple of African novels, then I wrote my Master’s thesis on an African author. And during this time I’m reading theory and criticism and kind of starting to dip my toe into the subject. And it kind of went from there. So even if I’d watched it a year later it would have been very different. I was on the cusp of forming opinions that would have changed my experience of the film, but I hadn’t at that time. Anyway, tell us about your experience. You were in a class?
Y: Yeah, I was 16 or 17. I watched it in a class, and the class’ focus was mostly on non-linear narratives in film, but also women in film. Not women directors, but women in film.
E: Did you realize at the time that the subject was kind of vague?
Y: I did. But I hated everything at that point in my life, because I was a teenager, and I had just moved from Boston to Seattle, and I didn’t want to be here, and I was just wrapping up my undergraduate studies. This was important because when I was watching it, I was definitely one of the younger students in my UW class. It was a summer class, it was every day, it was at the old Savery building, which was basically a fascist hellhole. And it was hot and everyone was older, and I hated life and I watched this movie. And honestly I think I was the only person in that class who was not a type of liberal, West Coast white person. In this class we watched a lot of Romanian films and Czech films, and then we watched The Constant Gardener, which was kind of the odd film out, and it ended up being the film I wrote my final paper on because I hated it the most.
E: I feel like we ought to just start with that. Because I’ve started with the fact that I kind of loved it despite its inability to engage meaningfully with Africa or Africans, so what did you hate about it? It’s ok, we won’t hold you accountable for things you hated at 17.
Y: Yeah, I was a teenager. This needs to be told multiple times. I did not want to be where I was and I wanted everything I watched not to be in the English language – this was also around the time that I begin to predominantly think in English which terrified me. I hated white people without knowing it. I guess that was the problem with me. I did not recognize the fact that I had a huge problem with…I’m gonna say white people for lack of a better phrase. So, I moved at the age of 16 from Massachusetts to Seattle. When 9/11 happened, a flight went from Boston to New York, and I was in Massachusetts, the only fucking person with an Arabic last name. It was horrible. At that age I started having an understanding that I was different racially. Because I didn’t have that before. This was really significant in high school. In middle school I hadn’t had an understanding of myself as different in that way, but in high school I suddenly did. So when I first saw this there was a resentment I couldn’t name until I saw it again this time around, and I knew exactly what it was.
E: You knew that unconsciously at 17?
E: And that was a response to anger at how you were treated by Joe Q. American Patriot?
E: Ok. So, the first time it was inexplicable, undefined rage…
Y: Again, I was 17. I had other 17-year-old rage.
E: Sure, sure. And even though you’d been to college, you hadn’t been to grad school, and grad school teaches us how to categorize all sorts of things.
Y: Yeah, we learn the process of naming.
E: So this time you were equally angry?
Y: Maybe even more angry; I had to stop the movie a bunch of times to just say ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.’ But then again I’m a rage-filled, hateful person. But let’s talk a bit more about our reactions to it this time around, since that’s where we’re going. I’d actually like to talk about capitalism, and in particular how the film engages or, more accurately, does not engage it. I thought this film wanted to implicate capitalism but couldn’t because either it couldn’t imagine an alternative to capitalism or had an anxiety over the alternative.
E: Well, I think we can’t say that capitalists aren’t blamed in the film.
Y: Ok, so the politicians are blamed.
E: And the corporations. They’re faceless and abstract, so we don’t ‘see’ them in the same way.
Y: Ok, the problem with that is that it doesn’t implicate capitalism.
E: Well, you remember in the film, Arthur, Tessa’s cousin, reads the letter near the end as a eulogy for Justin, and he asks the relevant question of who is to blame for both the tragedy at hand, and also for the ongoing suffering of Africans. He asks whether the politicians are to blame, or the corporations who continue to use Africans as disposable sub-humans. And I absolutely agree with you that the film doesn’t come out and say that the logic behind this constellation of forces, which is capitalist, is to blame. If it were to do that, it would probably not be telling the same story. There is, though, some mention of that logic in the idea, brought up a couple of times, that ‘fixing’ the problem through official channels is unappealing precisely because it is so expensive. Remember, it’s first Tessa’s German friend, Birgit, and then Sandy, who both say that the delays would be crippling because they would dull the company’s competitive edge, drive up costs, etc. The logic of capitalism, efficiency at any cost, gaining market share, beating everyone else, is definitely alluded to, at least.
Y: But I don’t think it does. I think you’re smart and that’s why you think the film says that. Most people won’t see what you’re seeing because they won’t look at it the way you’re looking at it.
E: Well, we kind of accept as a condition of us doing this re-view at all that we’re going to discuss it in a way that the majority of people will not. Also, we’re both academics working in the humanities, so we’re trained to pay attention.
Y: Ok, so the film definitely mentions it. But there’s a structure to this kind of film, where you get the big Sherlock Holmes reveal. In this film it’s Ham reading the letter, like Holmes, where he’s standing in the salon reading the letter, even though you have seen it already. This type of structure is for the type of viewer who the film assumes cannot put the pieces together by themselves.
E: Well, what I think you started out trying to say is that the film is not critical enough of the capitalist world system which promotes the very localized instance of oppression we see here in the form of pharmaceutical companies in the film.
Y: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.
E: All I was saying is that there are moments when the film acknowledges this logic, even if it is, as you say, and as I agree, not critical enough. But there are those two moments, which also point to the larger question of why Arnold and Tess were killed. The answer, I think, is because it was cheaper. I think it’s ultimately too easy an out to look at this film and see it terms of good and bad guys, so to speak. The logic behind the main dramatic event is presented in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. Tess, Arnold, and all the innocent Africans are killed so that a corporation can continue testing a flawed drug. In effect, they’re killed because it is cheaper and easier to kill them to do the ethical thing and redesign the drug. It makes me think of that bit in Fight Club, where Edward Norton’s character, an insurance investigator, explains how car companies calculate the cost of initiating a recall. They essentially compute how much it will cost to settle in court versus doing a recall, because a recall is expensive and oftentimes dealing with the unfortunate deaths of relatively ‘disposable,’ voiceless people is cheaper. In the insurance scenario it’s just your average schmuck who’s bought a new exploding car. In The Constant Gardener the cost is killing a few dozen Africans that the company and their partners assumes nobody will miss, along with this white Rachel Corrie figure and her European doctor partner.
Y: This is the point that I brought up earlier about Tessa’s actions being justified. This is the whole point. The white savoir complex and capitalism are very much related. Because after a point it becomes about her bravery rather than the system. That’s a problem here in this film. It’s about her bravery, it’s about their love story, it’s not about the system that’s corrupt.
E: I agree. And I was just saying that there are moments when a critique is visible. You just can’t expect them to tell you that they’re talking about it, and that it’s more an implicit critique from within capitalism itself. It’s not meant to change anything, really. But capitalism throws up its own critiques because it has to, because it’s generally not amenable to a happy human existence. But I agree with you that there is a point to be made here about how visible the critique may be.
Y: I think the idea of evil is a good thing to introduce here, because there is capitalism, which, given my politics, I think is evil and the root of all despair.
E: But you don’t mean actually evil, right? You don’t mean literally evil? Like, in a theological sense.
Y: Oh, no.
E: Even though capitalism is about as sacred as it gets, seeing that there’s no reality beyond it. It encompasses everything, like a theological system.
Y: Well, yeah, I guess it could be evil in a theological way if you pray to capitalist gods.
E: Everyone does, every day, when we all go shopping.
Y: But in the class I was in when I saw the film people talked about evil as something different than capitalism, which I guess it is. Evil is a force that exists and we don’t necessarily have the capacity to overturn it. Only a few privileged men of history, the historical man, who can seize the zeitgeist can maybe do it, but then again that could be evil itself. If you think about it, capitalism can totally come crashing down and change the system. But if you think about it in relationship to evil, a force which will always prevail…
E: Why does evil always have to prevail?
Y: If you have a moral sense, evil will always prevail. And I mean prevail as not necessarily proving superior but merely existing or continue existing.
E: So what people once called evil we now call capitalism, because it’s a force we feel we don’t have the power to change. You’re saying evil is something we don’t have the power to change, whereas capitalism is something we do have the power to change, but we act as though we don’t.
Y: Yes, and that what we call evil is something that is not as abstract as we think it is.
E: Ok, so you’re saying that the film makes it seem like the motivations and the power behind this is some vague, dispersed, abstract thing that sometimes acts through state representatives, sometimes through shadowy corporate structures, but always through something that you probably can’t see and when you do see it you’re only seeing the henchmen nine layers removed.
Y: Right, you see the Kenyan police.
E: Or the German guys who beat up Justin.
Y: Yeah, or the last shot of the jeep going by and you see the guys with rifles.
E: Interesting side point, then. From the standpoint of a conceptual Marxist analysis, this all makes perfect sense. But from the standpoint from someone who just experiences this ‘evil,’ how do we talk about it? How do we talk about this thing that you see lurking on the periphery of your vision at all times, but can never glimpse directly? I mean, in the film there’s this vague sense of something ominous lurking around off to the side, these kind of Kafka-esque moments. It makes me want to make a Žižek reference, you know, it’s the whole anamorphosis thing. You only see the truth if you’re not looking right at it…So do we blame the film for not doing something about this, for not being more open about its critique? It seems like you’re doing this to a degree.
Y: Well, we’re being critical of it right now because, as you mentioned earlier, is part of the re-view and a nature of our fields. You understand anamorphosis as a theoretical concept and I understand the reference. This film wants to be serious but has to be entertaining too. It’s the type of film that your parents will go to in order to feel good about…themselves?
E: Hmm. Maybe not my parents. I think the film is too self-consciously artistic to appeal to my parents. Let’s shift gears a bit and talk a little bit about Tessa, the young activist character played, in an Academy Award-winning turn, by Rachel Weisz.
Y: She’s supposed to be 24 years old!
E: I think we could start with that surprise. Because when I first saw it, I just kind of read the character as Tessa, I didn’t read her as Rachel Weisz, and I just assumed that she was supposed to be a bit younger than him.
Y: But not 24!
E: No, not 24. Maybe 28 or something. And he in his mid-to-late 30s.
Y: Yeah, I thought she was mid-to-late twenties, and Justin was meant to be in his late 30s.
E: I think Ralph Fiennes is older than that, actually. But he looked younger. They gave him some nice hair plugs maybe.
Y: He looks young from so much time spent not moving his face when he acts.
E: Haha, right. So, he meets a 24-year-old Tessa. First of all, where did you think he was meant to be meeting her, where he was giving that talk?
Y: I thought it was a university. I thought it was a political science graduate seminar or something like that.
E: So that makes more sense, now that I know she’s supposed to be 24.
Y: Yeah, and everybody seemed to know her and were telling her to shut up. They know her.
E: Right, they seem to have seen this before. You know, the only reason I thought it wasn’t a university and was maybe a government building was because of the shot of the skyline when they open the blinds at the end. But now that I think of it there are plenty of universities in central London.
Y: I thought it was the London School of Economics.
E: Oh, you’re totally right. That’s totally right. Even the view makes sense now, with St. Paul’s in the background, which is further east. I think the LSE is due west of there. Nice catch. So she’s 24 and at university, which means she’s probably doing a postgraduate degree, a master’s in whatever. But you don’t read her age really, or, if you do, you don’t read it as young. She’s so much more confident and she kind of bowls Justin over that she seems on par with him age-wise.
Y: That’s an interesting casting decision, then.
E: Yeah, and she doesn’t seem to be playing a flirty, seductive pose, which you might associate with someone younger than him.
Y: I disagree. She’s being flirty. She tells him that she owes him a drink. That, to me, was flirty.
E: Ok, yeah, I suppose.
Y: Also, she doesn’t just buy him a drink, they actually go home together. That’s the same day.
E: Yeah, she says, ‘Oh, please come in.’ And then it’s cut to that weak/blurry light shot of them having dimly lit sex. But the thing he says to her there seems to reinforce this distinction between them, because he says ‘Thank you for this wonderful gift,’ which is both bumbling and funny and a little sweet, but also a remark on her power to give or not to give.
Y: He sounds like a virgin.
E: I can see him not having had tons of sex, poor Justin. His reaction to her ‘work,’ her activism, is interesting. You know, he’s in her place and picks up the Amnesty booklet and is like ‘Amnesty, ooh, rabble rouser.’
Y: We can come back to the activism bit. I want to go back to that scene at the university, where we see Justin kind of stumbling when reading the speech prepared by his boss, Sir Bernard. He’s nervous and stumbling as he merely recites someone else’s ideas. This is important because it establishes him as this meek middleman who’s not really high but not really low. He’s the guy who does what you ask him even if it’s uncomfortable, because he doesn’t have thoughts of his own. He’s reading someone else’s lecture, which is very important, especially once we learn who Sir Bernard is later in the film.
E: Well, doesn’t he say that in response to Tessa’s charge that he was the one delivering the lecture, speaking for Sir Bernard? He says, well, diplomats are just supposed to do what they’re told, and she says ‘so are Labradors.’ And then, when he’s been detained by the Kenyan police, they say that for a diplomat he’s not a very good liar and he answers that he hasn’t risen very high.
Y: But it needs to be pointed out that he’s risen high enough. He’s not high but he’s not at the bottom of the food chain either.
E: But he’s there and he’s useful precisely because of who he is. He’s someone who doesn’t have a lot of consciousness of his own role in the world or of his identity. There’s the bit where he’s lunching with Sir Bernard and the latter has that great line where he says ‘Quayles have always made reliable foreign servants.’ Delivered as only Bill Nighy can do it. It’s almost like he’s saying ‘You are a part of a long line of these weak-willed, spineless creatures who have been doing this for us for years. Why trouble that?’ Right, so we kind of register Tess as this massively opinionated and engaged person and then Justin as totally weak and disengaged.
Y: Yeah. I think he needs to be in a position that has the veil of importance in order for that system to work.
E: But he can’t be like Danny Huston’s character, Sandy. We’re given no cause to believe that Justin would act out of anything besides procedure or decorum. When Tessa wants to give a ride to Kiyoko Kilulu, the boy, he says ‘We’re not supposed to get involved in their lives, we’re not supposed to help.’ You know, it’s like he’s reciting out of a manual. While callow, he doesn’t seem to bear anyone ill will because he’s relatively ignorant of what goes on behind the scenes. Whereas Sandy has kind of mastered both the manual and the shady background stuff that goes on. He knows how colonialism works in ways that Justin doesn’t, partly because Justin thinks that he’s doing his job, helping people kind of. So…what do you think Tessa means to Justin?
Y: I want to answer that question by going back to when they meet during the lecture, when she starts questioning him and afterward he calls her ‘courageous and impassioned.’ Those are two terms I think are slightly insulting. If you think about her age, 24, right? There has to be some understanding that he knows how old she is…
E: You think it’s condescending?
Y: It is condescending. You call someone ‘courageous and impassioned’ rather than a good thinker or ‘correct’ or ‘brilliant.’
E: So you’re looking at the gender dynamics in this one scene, outside of other levels on which it might be playing out.
Y: Right, so ‘courageous and impassioned.’ It’s funny to me, too, because her political stance hides behind the United Nations. She cites its role in global affairs, which I found to be very naïve on her part.
E: Ok, but to what degree do we then see her 24-year-old self as being somewhat naïve? Because she’s definitely idealistic. I mean, Justin’s not wrong when he says she has passion and courage. I mean, in relation to the people in that room?
Y: Yeah, she does. But he says she’s impassioned, not passionate. There is also a difference between being called ‘courageous and impassioned’ by someone whose ideas you just challenged and being engaged in a dialogue because of that passion.
E: So he’s talking about the moment rather than character in general. Makes a little sense, given that he doesn’t know her and she just scared him by challenging him in front of all these people, and he’s generally a pretty diffident guy. Wouldn’t it be weird for him to condescend to her there, given that one who condescends would need to have a stronger conception of himself?
Y: But he can condescend, because of his position. He’s older, he has a job at the high commission, and he is a man.
E: He could just be nervous, though. I mean, there’s this pretty girl who just asked him to have a drink. Anyway, I take the point. There’s a gender dynamic there, though I do think she immediately reverses it and that he is not the powerful one between the two. She’s not that much more powerful than him across the narrative arc, but…
Y: See, this goes back to me having been in academia for too long, and seeing shit that I shouldn’t be seeing, and knowing stuff I wish didn’t exist. The idea here is a younger woman seducing an older man, and then we assume she has power, but she doesn’t. We see this in academia all the time; how many professors have dated their students? I’m just saying that sometimes there is an idea that the woman is seducing or being seductive, but in reality the man is always in power.
E: But in this case, she picks someone who has just enough power, but really very little.
Y: But he’s still using her.
E: Which gets back to my question: What does she mean to him?
Y: “Oh great, this young, beautiful, ambitious woman has come into my life.”
E: “She likes me! She really likes me!”
Y: Yeah, ‘She likes me!’ Exactly, and she’s sexy, definitely, and pretty smart. I think that she legitimizes him, insofar as he gets to have a wife, he gets to show her off, etc.
E: But is it then just a ‘marriage of convenience,’ as Tess calls the relationship she uncovers between the British government and the drug company? They both use each other, then, right? Justin’s just not conscious enough of the world around him to be…scheming? But he absolutely takes advantage of the residual effects of having a pretty girl around him.
Y: If we assume this is a marriage of convenience, then Tessa’s pregnancy is peculiar event in that a child is not the logical end their convenient arrangement. Also, the way her character is set up, she would not be pregnant. She has too much stuff to do to be pregnant. The first time I watched this, when I was 17, I asked why she was pregnant and that’s true today as well. Is it just to justify the clinic scene?
E: Right, but saying that the way that she is with Justin is some kind of act, or that their real motivations are somehow false.
Y: Well, it’s not about whether they’re having sex, but whether she would think that having a baby wouldn’t somehow jeopardize her work.
E: Maybe she doesn’t think having a child and pursuing her work need be mutually exclusive.
Y: Have you ever carried a child?
E: No no, of course not. I’m not saying it might not set back your ability to work, only that some women would say that pregnancy and life, including work, can coexist. Otherwise, pregnancy becomes this special kind of delicate condition justifying an ideology of separation and pathologization, etc.
Y: That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that, if she gets pregnant, their marriage no longer becomes a marriage of convenience. Once they have a child they have something they can share. They both have their individual work, and this is a situation which works for them. But then if they have a child, Justin would be involved in her work, which would then be of concern to him because they would then have this thing together, that they’d created. In a sense, it’s not the child jeopardizing her work but rather Justin’s involvement in her and the child’s life. Introducing a child into the marriage ultimately restricts her freedom and ability to do what she wants.
E: The child needs to exist in order to justify the film being a love story, I think. You said it yourself. You need to have a reason for two people to come together and form a lasting bond. It’s not as business-like as we’re making it sound, or at least the film doesn’t want us to see it that way.
Y: See, I think you’re way more sentimental. Or maybe that you have a more sentimental relationship to this film.
E: That was definitely true ten years ago, though I’m not so sure it is now. I’m just trying to take your claims and read them against what we see in the film. That said, I suppose half of my re-views for this blog are about men and women and relationships. The other half are about sci-fi movies and colonialism.
Y: Or Scotland.
E: Or Scotland, exactly.
Y: It’s not even that you’re more sentimental. It’s that you’re sentimental and I’m not. I watched the love story in this film and for me it was just something there. It was slightly in the background.
E: Well, I guess you have to be receptive enough to it to notice what it’s doing. I’m not agreeing with the fact that the love story takes up so much of the foreground of the film. I fucking hate that. If I’ve done a few primary things in my time here, one of the big ones has been to chide films that unnecessarily turn interesting material into love stories. And I would probably say the same thing about this one because I’m with you. This film has its two registers – on the one hand it’s a serious political story that gets told as backdrop to the dramatic foreground, and on the other it’s a story of political intrigue read in retrospect as a story of love.
Y: I had a hard time believing – or understanding – the love story because before we see them in Africa, before we see her pregnant, we see her come into his office and ask him to take her to Africa under whatever identity he wants. I took it as Tessa performing whatever identity Justin wants but she is not bound to being it. Right? “You can introduce me as this to people, but I’m not necessarily going to be it.” So, I thought that if she were having an affair with Arnold it shouldn’t be shocking to Justin because she’s merely performing an identity. She’s merely performing the role of a wife so that she can be in Kenya; this in return somehow legitimizes Justin. But it’s a love story, so they have to be monogamous, she has to be faithful.
E: I suppose. I think the presentation of their relationship in the film is vague enough that these a kind of uncertainty accrues and needs to be taken into account. The question you’re asking – whether Tess is the role she claims she will perform – isn’t really answered by the film, and this has something to do with the way the film itself is put together. We see them meet, cut back to present; we see her come to his office and entreat him to take her to Africa with him under whatever pretense, cut back to present; we see them in Africa, time has passed, and it seems like maybe she’s no longer playing. If she is playing, then that is a massive blind spot in the film’s self-awareness. Or, maybe more accurately, it’s a huge contradiction between the story and the way the film was marketed. I guess she could be unfaithful, given what we see, but she could also just genuinely find Justin sufficient for her needs, or she could genuinely be head over heels in love with him. The film supports all three possibilities, I think, but the way it’s put together leaves them as possibilities.
Y: I was also interested in why Arnold has to be gay in order for the film to prove that an affair didn’t happen?
E: That’s an interesting question.
Y: But what I want to say…I don’t know how to put this. I’ll put it in academic terms, I guess. The issue is that hegemonic systems need to be preserved.
E: Sure. Can you say more?
Y: If Arnold is gay, that’s fine. What bothers me is that his sexuality is trivialized and is defined to assuage Justin’s anxiety. When I watched this the second time I was more aware of what bothered me, and why it was necessary.
E: Yeah, I agree with you about this. There’s nothing else in the film that suggests that he’s gay. It’s kind of pulled out of thin in order to convince Justin of her fidelity. There’s nothing we see; we see him with no other men, he’s always kind of attached to Tessa.
Y: And is he castrated? He’s castrated, too.
E: By other Africans.
Y: This is interesting, because if we trace that history to why slaves were castrated, it’s because of the idea that they were sexually voracious and after your women. It was thought that they posed a certain danger, which is why castration seemed necessary. So there you have the idea of castration.
E: The way I thought about it was in the local context, where we hear from Gita that homosexuality is illegal in Kenya, and then we see Africans taking down Arnold’s body, just as we see Africans come to kill Justin, as they presumably killed Tess, so we’re led to believe that there are Africans committing these crimes in the service of higher powers. So, the punishment is meant to be ‘African,’ rather than ‘colonial’ in a, say, nineteenth-century sense. I guess you could call it neocolonial perhaps.
Y: Yeah, but I think there’s a clear line between the way that he’s killed and the history of slavery.
E: I think there’s a line, but I’m not sure it’s clear in this story.
Y: I think it is. Why would you do it that way? I saw it as a colonial legacy.
E: Well, I agree that the environment in which it occurs lends the act a colonial connotation. But here, I’ll throw out a tentative alternate answer: If you’re traditional and conservative and a man is using his penis in a way that is not culturally sanctioned, you might cut it off to show him that what he’s doing is wrong.
Y: It is clearly connected then, because the idea is that it’s not culturally sanctioned.
E: Right, but it’s not as though European colonizers have a monopoly on cultural sanctions. I think you’re oversimplifying the act. You have to at least admit that another possible context for interpretation here is traditional African culture, or some dimension of it. I’m not saying it can’t be an allusion to the historical fact of European brutality in Africa.
Y: But that’s the thing. They’re killing him on behalf of the higher power, the British government or whatever.
E: Yeah, but it’s never explained that anyone was instructed to kill him in any specific way. I don’t think there’s anything to suggest that the murder is motivated by race or by a kind of historical colonial superiority. It’s more likely that the henchmen who were told to kill him did it in their own way. Just from a purely grotesque, strategic angle, if you’re a European boss or corporate henchman or something, you’re not going to send your guys to kill a black man in a symbolically meaningful way when your goal is only to get rid of him because he knows too much. Maybe the issue here is that you’re seeing a kind of absent cause or motivation for this killing. You’re tracing it backward from the act itself to the motivations, and I’m not seeing the motivations. Maybe that’s a fault of the film.
Y: Ok. Point taken. Anyway, I do find the whole idea of castration is that the person is sexually dangerous, and Arnold is seen as someone taking advantage of Tessa sexually. The idea of the fact that his sexuality needs to be removed from him is interesting because we see him as someone maybe having an affair with her, but that’s about it.
E: Kind of. A lot of the time he’s just her inside guy who has connections and knows the scene. I think it’s worth pointing out that the bit with Arnold is one of those scenes wherein, if you look at from the perspective of a white Western viewer, or even just a ‘Western viewer,’ whatever that means, wherein we’re offered something that we’re meant to look at and immediately find reprehensible. I mean, there are a lot of things we’re meant to find reprehensible in this film, but this is one of those moments where his death is offered up to us as an example of a kind of barbarity that wouldn’t happen where ‘we ‘are. We’re supposed to see it and log it as something we know goes on in Africa – horrendous brutality – and then move on, in a way feeling a kind of catharsis that we’ve been able to internally think ‘shameon you for being so cruel.’ Or maybe another type of person wouldn’t level a judgment, but would just shake their head at the sadness of it all. The point is that this movie offers up a number of those moments, whether visually or verbally, where it calls to the viewer to identify with positions which have been designed for their consumption. The presence of neo-colonial African politicians would be another one. You don’t see Africans as much as you see yourself being outraged by things you already think Africans do.
Y: Ok, well, let’s go back to that.
E: Are we getting to the white savior complex?
Y: Yes, well, kind of. We’re going to make a transition between Arnold getting castrated and the white savoir complex. So. We are writing a ten year review of something, something we watched ten years ago. So it has to do with our initial perception of it. First time, I saw it in the US. First time, you saw it in the US. Second time, you saw it in Scotland. Pretty white places, you have to say.
E: Very white. Scotland is the whitest.
Y: Right. I’ve never seen this movie anywhere that wasn’t the West. I think it’s pretty pathetic when you hear about Arnold and not make a connection to lynching in the South. If you live in the US.
E: Really? But it’s really just a connotation in the film. At most.
Y: It is a connotation, but I think it’s pretty pathetic if you as a viewer do not see that. It is. I think there is so much denial of what the “West” has done to the rest of the world.
E: I’m not sure I agree. You say above that I see things that not everyone else will see, which is probably true, but if it’s true of me then it’s also true of you. I guess if you generalize and say that ‘the viewer’ here is American, and that any allusion to racial violence ought to prompt a connection with histories of racial violence in the USA, then maybe you have a point. But I honestly think you have to overgeneralize in order to do that. However, I do think that there is a general sense here of a large, abstract history of violence that is played out in Arnold’s death. I think it’s more like what you were saying before about evil. Most liberal people in the ‘West’ live with some kind of awareness of what ‘the West’ has done. The problem is—
Y: No, they don’t!
E: Give me a minute. I said ‘some kind.’ It’s not a perceptive consciousness of what the West has done, and it’s certainly not radical or intended to change the situation in any way. It’s more like a vague, abstract guilt that’s arranged in opposition to a vague, abstract evil.
Y: It’s guilt, though.
E: Sure. But it’s like, I know this happens, or that it happened, and I feel bad about it, but at the same time, you know, it’s not something that I feel I have the power to change so the best thing I’ll do is arrange my attitude in such a way that’ll make it seem like I’m not complicit. This involves ideologically arranging your relationship with Africans in such a way that you can critique all the bad things that happen to them on the one hand and never have to change your life to accommodate theirs on the other. To me it seems like a classic liberal conundrum.
Y: Yes, and that comes back to capitalism. You’re complicit because you uphold this system that inherently negates racial equity.
Y: You’re definitely complicit. But also the idea of guilt…does Tessa feel guilty?
E: I don’t think she believes guilt is a profitable way to approach the relationship between the West and Africa.
Y: Because the idea of white savior complex always comes from guilt, personal guilt. It’s the idea of repenting or rectifying something so it always goes back to ‘I want to feel better about myself.’ You just think this movie should stand as it is and I think this movie is dangerous.
E: Well, I’m coming at it saying, ‘Here we have this object; what can we say about the things it’s doing?’ It would be hypocritical of me not to agree with the point that I wish it had done things differently. But my focus is on what it does do, as much or more than what it could or should be doing.
Y: But this object is hurtful because this object gives the false sense of – and I just don’t know how to name it.
E: And that’s why we’re here. That’s one of the things we can do as reviewers; we can criticize it, which we have been doing and yes, you are more angry about it than I am…partly because, I think, partly because it opens doors that a lot of similar films do, by which I mean that it shares problems with other films about Africa. I find myself standing somewhere in between what we can ask of something that has already been made and what we can take away from the act of talking about it. Are we blaming it for not adapting Le Carré in a different way or are we blaming Le Carré for not being more conscious?
Y: Well why keep making these films? This is the year that we get so many of these films.Syriana came out that year. When did Hotel Rwanda come out?
E: End of 2004, actually, so less than a year before Constant Gardener. You’re right, though, this was a big period for ‘African’ films. The Last King of Scotland was 2006, I think. There were two movies about Rwanda that came out around then. There was Hotel Rwanda, which had more distribution and more push and there was a film called Shooting Dogs, I think, which starred John Hurt and another English guy I don’t know. And I think there was something else that coincided with that. Blood Diamond came out around that time, maybe 2006. You asked why keep making these films. My first answer is because Americans like watching films about Africa which validate their guilt, even ones that make it very clear that their guilt is harmful. I think the scene with Dr. Lorbeer is meant to be critical in this sense, for example. He gets this massively important moment of exposition where he explains how the West ‘fucks Africa’ by never fully committing to it. Their attention is all attuned, in his estimation, toward assuaging guilt. I wonder if the move towards a different kind of ‘African film’ represents a shifts in the larger guilt complex. These films are all about guilt. The Rwanda situation offers the white liberal viewer a ‘why didn’t we do something?’ moment, even if they don’t like the answer. Blood Diamond is another one that foregrounds its guilt narrative in the story about conflict diamonds. I guess what I’m seeing is that the idea of white/Western/liberal guilt has become embedded in the stories, rather than just being an effect of them. Maybe what you’re saying is that you see The Constant Gardener taking the next step in ‘African’ film and not being happy with that fact.
Y: That’s an interesting point you make about guilt being embedded in the film. It’s this embedded guilt which reinforces colonial structures in a post-colonial film. This sort of guilt still sets up the distinction between “we” and “they” and somehow “we” positions itself as above “they.” We can see this distinction in the cinematography of this film, it has an uncomfortable aesthetic that fetishizes the other as if they’re mere props. I have a problem with these processes that seem necessary for making visible serious problems to a predominately white audience. We could call it the white savior complex aesthetic that relies on the suspicious position of guilt.
Y: It just tries to rectify or appease individual feeling. It’s about feelings, it’s not about the system, it’s about goddamn feelings. It’s whether I have been courageous or impassioned enough to stand up against this.
E: I’d say yes or no, because most people who we’re talking about having a white savior complex don’t do what Tessa does. They may go on some type of sponsored African field trip or they go visit an orphanage or, at best, use it to send money to sponsor a child. But they don’t fight drug companies in Africa.
Y: I disagree with that because the white savior complex is about taking over the voices of the people you’re trying to help. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a small scale or on a big scale. What I’m thinking of is Game of Thrones. I’ve only seen one episode of it.
E: Which one?
Y: The one with the blonde lady crowd-surfing on top of all the brown people.
E: Oh yeah, that one.
Y: That’s an interesting image that we are accustomed to. Why do people have to see this? It’s the idea that she has to be the voice of these people; she has to be the leader of these people because these people are not ‘equipped’ to ‘save’ themselves.
E: Ok, that makes what you’re saying clearer to me and I think I’d agree. I guess my response is still to ask whether we can blame the film for doing what it does with the character, which it receives from the source material. The book is definitely written in concordance with the accepted conclusion that ‘these people’ are not capable of saving themselves, and the film accepts this to a degree. The only Africans we see who are in positions of power are those who are corrupt. It definitely, totally, embeds the assumption that empowering Africans is a dangerous thing. That’s in the movie. But you’re saying that ultimately what Tessa is doing is disempowering Africans?
Y: In a way, yes. In a way it’s similar to mission work. She is trying to reveal the truth about the drug trials but is not trying to answer why these predatory systems are possible in Kenya.
E: Interesting. Do you think, then, that Lorbeer’s condemnation of the West’s guilt complex includes Tessa, that he is meant to be a critical voice in the film, from within that same complex, of her otherwise unblemished character?
Y: I don’t think it includes Tessa in his action because, in a way, turning to religion is in itself carrying out a guilt complex. I do, however, think that he is condemning her in his intention. He completely distances himself from the pharmaceutical company but he finds any resistance to that system futile which is, in my opinion, why he turns to religion and goes to Syria. He is enacting the same savior complex that Tessa is.
E: But he seems conscious of it.
Y: Honestly that doesn’t mean shit.
E: It means shit in this case because that’s part of the film’s message. On one hand the film gives you Tessa and on the other, this doctor.
Y: But I don’t have to choose between either of those characters. I think this polarity is what makes this film dangerous because it privileges intention and intention should not have any place in human rights because you can have good intentions that cause harm.
E: Absolutely. It’s one of the main contradictions inherent in liberalism.
Y: This is why this film is dangerous, because these people had good intentions and they didn’t necessarily see the outcome.
E: The only person in this film with good intentions is Tessa.
Y: Except for the doctor at the end because he says so and that’s why he needed to remove himself from that. In this film, there are people who have good intentions and there are those who are evil. Good and evil.
E: Would you connect this to the argument that white liberals are able to distance themselves from the concrete effects of racism and systemic oppression by convincing themselves that by believing that race thinking is wrong they are able to absolve themselves from its effects?
Y: Certainly. First of all, they can distance themselves from racism’s concrete effects because they’re not the subject of them; they haven’t had the lived experience. Second, believing race thinking is wrong does not eradicate it; it purely works to assuage the individual guilt. In some cases, believing race thinking is wrong doesn’t mean the individual believing it is not engaging in it. I see Tessa as this latter individual.
E: So what you’re saying is that the film is not doing enough; it validates the idea that there are people who exist in relation to Africa as white saviors but then it also doesn’t do enough to critique the person who is being offered as an alternative to the white savior complex.
Y: Yeah, it doesn’t critique Tessa because she is our heroine, our savior, or the saint that died too soon. And there is a sense of hope at the end that negates a critical perception of the film which might promote an awareness of this conclusion. She is also memorialized at the end, through her death, through Justin’s death, through the love story eulogized.
E: That part is validated. I think if there is hope it’s in the romantic part. The funeral thing is very ambiguous because it essentially says that nothing will be resolved.
Y: And that’s the problem, nothing systematic is resolved; it’s about this evil. It’s this individual evil guy, Pellegrin, he will be ousted. What about the next guy? This is what I find dangerous. At the end, you have the guy facing public shaming and being ousted but you still haven’t gone through how this is a systematic problem and that it’s not enough to only expose Pellegrin because Pellegrin himself is probably a middleman.
E: But everything Ham says after he reads the letter is not about Pellegrin. It seems to pan back to at least try and take in the whole scene.
Y: But we see Pellegrin getting in the car.
E: That’s the last thing we see.
Y: Here you have to take into consideration the deliberate nature of the shot. The viewer and the film ends on Pellegrin in the car while the speech is being given by Ham. The logical understanding is that Pellegrin is being implicated and all will be well.
E: With the exception that after that – and I think the letter ends as he’s running out and we see him in the car with the cameras flashing – and then there is the rest of Ham’s comment, the ad hoc bit where he asks who we are to blame. He asks whether we blame the government, the corporations, the individuals? He tells us that the corporation has moved on, moved their testing facility from Nairobi to Harare in Zimbabwe so that the tests can continue. At least, that tells me that if something goes wrong in the corner of this system, the system will readjust and move to another corner.
Y: The center always moves.
E: It’s not just the center, it’s the center’s relationship with a periphery conceived as inhabited by disposable guinea pigs.
Y: I just wanted a Yeats reference.
E: I think it ends without telling us anything that can be done about—
Y: Again though, you are a smart individual and are not the general audience that this film is pandering to.
E: No. I think if I were to write this up like more of my re-views, I would blame the film, as you’ve done, for not doing enough and for not being more intelligent and critical.
Y: I’m sorry.
E: Why? That’s what we do and what we bring to the blog. You’ve brought me around partly, and I have no problem with that.
I keep thinking of the last scene when it actually shows us and give us; that the system continues.
Y: But it does end with hope. When I saw this film, I thought of its intended audience and the effect of the film on its intended audience. There is always that hope that you would be remembered as that courageous and impassioned person. The story of Tessa and Justin ends with them being justified at their funeral. They’re justified and put on pedestal and are immortalized in their mortality. That’s the whole point of eulogies, right? What Ham does is actually immortalize them because they did something courageous. Because they did something passionate. That’s their love story. They did something out of the ordinary through their passion, because we’re supposed to believe that Tessa actually loved Justin. I have a problem with that because when the center moves – and the periphery is only the periphery with a defined center – there will be more courageous and passionate people going around trying to fix things. The idea here is that I have to travel to Africa to fix things. And then people go google pharmaceutical companies and Africa, maybe donate some money to a charity. But the problem isn’t over there. It’s with us. We’ve set up predatory systems.
E: So here’s a more direct question, what is it about the movie that impedes the viewer from recognizing that what the film is critiquing is themselves? What stops people from seeing that they are part of the problem?
Y: Tessa and Justin’s romantic relationship. When you have a romantic element in the film, it becomes the only thing about the film. You talked about the poster, what does it say?
E: ‘Love at any cost.’
Y: The cost is not important, the love is.
E: The cost is ironic.
Y: The cost is unmarked mass graves.
E: So what we’re saying is that by the end of the movie, the cost is interpreted by the audience as Justin’s courageous, heroic quest.
Y: And Tessa’s too.
E: I think I agree with what you’re saying and maybe we can come around and fully agree on the fact that, because the film foregrounds its love story, we lose the ability as viewers to engage meaningfully with the political dimensions of the background narrative. So what we take away from it, and what makes it damaging, dangerous even, as you say, is the idea that love, romance, and passion are the appropriate contexts through which to interpret the systemic injustices foisted on and perpetuated in Africa. I think ultimately it can be brought back, again, to your observation about good and evil. Tess and Justin are abstractly good in their intentions and their love is equally as abstract, but also good. The film ends, maybe, with the idea that if you have enough love you can save the world. And now that I think about it, that sounds really facile. It sounds like bullshit.
Y: You won’t save the world but, at the least, you can understand your lover fully. Isn’t that what Justin says before he is killed, “I understand you now?” Now I can understand your initial sentimentality – not sentimentality itself but why one would be sentimental. But this sense of sentimentality that certain audience members (maybe even the majority) experience ignores the nuances of post-colonial globalization that only benefits a few privilege groups at the expense of a large plurality.
I really enjoyed this process and I’m happy with the re-view it produced, however unorthodox it may be. Yasi is convinced that she ruined the film for me by interrogating it so aggressively, but I don’t think this is true. Before I’d even started I was suspicious of my younger self’s uncritical acceptance of much of what the film says, directly and indirectly, about the capitalist West’s relation to Africa. I’d learned too much as a student and scholar in the ensuing ten years not to be. But she was also right to point out that at times there was a still a vestige of that earlier experience clouding my ability to really push and think and articulate what was, as she puts it, dangerous about the film’s role as a vehicle for the dissemination of an ideology to which I do not subscribe. While I was able to distance myself from the film intellectually, I still clung to it with some part of my affective being. I see now that there is value in this recognition, because it shines light on the different dimensions of the re-view process. Knowing what you thought then and what you think now is one thing; understanding how you felt then and how you feel now is another. If part of the premise of this project is that we carry the past with us when we attach ideas and feelings to cultural objects, one of the things I’ve learned from this collaboration is the value in allowing another person to illuminate the blind spots which accompany that process.
I’ll start with this: I don’t do well in conversations; I digress and get stuck in the inability to name that which I think. I have to rehearse my thoughts as I just don’t have a linear mind. So I can’t really say that I didn’t expect our conversation to move the way it did but I truly didn’t. I meant to be calm and patient but that fell apart pretty quickly. As a result, I became fodder to Erik’s calm and lucid conjectures. (It should be noted that Erik embodies the calm, critical, lucid scholar of whom I’m envious. I was very conscious of how I will never embody this affect during our conversation.) This dialogue was fruitful in that it forced me to think through the discrete ways in which I could express my discontent but I was very conscious of the tone I was taking in opposition to Erik’s, an issue with which I have been preoccupied. During the conversation, he is the more succinct critic. I’m envious of that and it has taken me a few reads of the transcript to realize that at the moment of our conversation my thoughts were muddles with insecurities over language. It wasn’t until a few informal chats after the initial conversation that I was less sorry for my tone and more proud of my position as a fodder, even if my position is guided by impassioned anger.
I am confident that Erik was not aware of my limitation in carrying out a composed conversation. Unfortunately for Erik, he had to re-experience our conversation as he transcribed the majority of the recording of it. So here is my sincere apology.