Sunday, March 22, 2009

Where I Draw The Line: The Sands of Haiti

Ok, so I think I’ve found the man guiltier of cinematic crimes against nature than any of his peers or disciples. Someone who makes Bruno Mattei look like Ang Lee. Someone who makes Andrea Bianchi seem like a good candidate to direct the next incarnation of RENT. Someone against whom even Umberto Lenzi could be pardoned of his worst sins. I’m talking about Franco Prosperi. Franco Prosperi may be the most contemptible maker of films I’ve ever encountered in my many years of watching crap cinema. Prosperi, along with his partner Gualtiero Jacopetti, made Mondo Cane, the faux-documentary that spawned the cannibal movie genre. When that was finished they went on to make Africa Addio, a movie that Cannibal Holocaust would mock when it needed appalling documentary footage to show. When Deodato uses you as a template for contempt, you’ve reached the point of no return. When Prosperi wasn’t making films that capitalized on actual cruelty to people and animals for real, he was simulating it in trash like Last House on the Beach and The Cannibals. He’s also responsible for Invincible Barbarian, a Conan rip-off so boring and cheap that it makes Cave Dwellers look like Krull. Prosperi’s final credits were writing two separate films with the name Cannibal Holocaust 2. So of all the shit he attached his name to, what is the film that I find him most guilty of? What film will they be reviewing when Prosperi enters purgatory? The answer is today's installment of Where I Draw The Line.

Goodbye, Uncle Tom
by Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi

I wish that Goodbye, Uncle Tom was some kind of made up title they ran this under, but Addio zio Tom translates quite literally to Goodbye, Uncle Tom. That just makes this all the more uncomfortable, that they would call it something so aware of its own cruelty and modernity; they knew exactly what they were doing. The film follows an Italian film crew as they go back in time to the Southern United States to witness and take part in the horrors of slavery. They see the whole process from the arrival of slave ships, through their cleaning, inspection, selection, working, breeding, auctioning, beatings, rape, ridicule, and torment. It’s all punctuated by commentary by slave masters, particularly odiously portrayed slaves, a learned black man who’s supposed to be a Fredrick Douglass stand-in, and the filmmakers themselves who ask questions of all of these people. In one rapturously offesnsive scene Prosperi actually has sex with one of the slave girls who keeps calling him “massa” while holding the camera. When the heinousness of slavery is over, they flash forward to a vision of black guerillas that somehow feels just as racist as the depiction of slavery we just sat through. A few panthers murder a bunch of whites while they sleep wearing ridiculous clothing and absurd, ecstatic looks on their faces.

Ok, quick question, one sentence answer, so why is this film completely atrocious? Because despite it’s claim to be an accurate depiction of slavery, Franco Prosperi and co. really did all that horrible shit to real people. Dig into the making of Goodbye, Uncle Tom and you’ll see that it’s directors decided that the only place they could get away with sub-human treatment of human beings for the sake of making money was Haiti. Haiti in the 1970s was sort of like Guantanamo Bay on a national level. The country was led by the sadistic (some say legitimately insane) François Duvalier. Fans of the Arcade Fire will recognize his last name as his reign of terror is name checked in their song ‘Haiti”. Duvalier was responsible for about 30,000 deaths during his 14 year reign as “President For Life” of the small half-island. Duvalier, in one of those ironic twists, was nicknamed Papa Doc. He frequently called himself god and modeled his appearance on the vodou deity Baron Samedi. He terrified intellectuals like the parents of Régine Chassagne, who fled the country leaving it seriously short on doctors and teachers and the country has remained uneducated and ill ever since. Duvalier frequently allotted huge amounts of money into manhunts, including one to round up and kill all black dogs because word had gotten back to him that a scheming dissident had turned into one. He was found and killed a few months after his private militia had murdered every black dog on the island. Why are we talking about Duvalier? Because when Prosperi and Jacopetti needed a place to go to film degradation and subjugation where they knew they could get away with it, they sought out Papa Doc and he said “Come On In, The Water’s Fine, if you don’t mind it being mostly blood.”
So, with Haitian locations set up, Prosperi recruited hundreds of blacks willing to be in the film for a pittance. A few dollars a day could buy you an unskilled laborer who would act like a dog for your film cause he knew of no other way to earn the money. What I’m trying to say is that every one of the cruel things done to the people in this film were really done by Prosperi & Co. All of a sudden the stories of Jacopetti and Prosperi paying governments to postpone executions so they could film them pale in comparison. There’s a reason that Prosperi and Jacopetti are the only credited cast members in the film; they were the only people who gave anything like reasonable consent to appear; they didn’t even bother with low-rung expendable meat like Bobby Rhodes or Ivan Rassimov. They probably never learned the names of any of the people they were torturing. They just did horrible things to people with the government’s cooperation and then brought their film back to Italy and told everyone they were artists. They even got uppity when censors issued cuts, if you can believe that. What really helps atrocity seem worse is Riz Ortolani music to accompany it. His proto-funk rock score is just jaw-droppingly inappropriate. And what’s more, they made this film in response to the allegations that faced them after the release of their earlier Africa Addio. David Gregory, the director of Plague Town and producer of the Mondo Cane DVD boxset, told me that Prosperi's intentions were far from the heinousness you would think while watching the film and that they did honestly set out to right their wrongs. They included the bit about the black power as an attempt to get on the side of black nationalists, but all they did was make it seem like the only thing on Huey Newton’s mind was murdering white people. Why? Cause they’re a bunch of fucking idiots who don’t get anything at all and would film the murder of their loved ones if they thought there was money in it.

Watching Goodbye, Uncle Tom revealed something to me I’d been wondering since I first saw Cannibal Holocaust. I’d been unnerved by that film, and not just the obvious turtles being pulled apart kind of thing. It was in the composition; something about the scenes leading up to the part where Kerman trades the consumption of a human heart for the footage made me really upset. I see now that it’s in the composition. Goodbye, Uncle Tom is shot from the point of view of a man looking in on the world. This means when we see people in cages in scenes that are compositionally identical to the way in which cannibals are shown, I realize I hate the feeling of being a voyeur. There’s nothing more creepy to me than looking at people with no power over themselves stacked like animals or consumer goods. That, a brutal lack of humanity in the depiction of human beings, scares me. It scares me that people can be viewed as anything other than human. Franco Prosperi for this reason doesn’t deserve the same privileges and rights of human beings because he views them as means to an end.
Goodbye, Uncle Tom is the most racist film I've ever seen and is more offensive than any blackface performance I've ever witnessed. If people tell you this is a thoughtful film, they are either unaware of the facts or are in ignorance of them. I believe Franco Prosperi is a bad person who will burn in hell for all of eternity, and as I don’t believe in hell, that’s really saying something. When a film elicits that kind of reaction that's where I draw the line


Doc Zombie said...

this sounds pretty despicable.

Scout said...

Oh Doc, you don't know the half of it. Stomach turning, like a racist shark attack.

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