Cinematic Colonialism: Canonization and Prestige as Weapons of Imperialism

Long before individuals like Ousmane Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambety forced their way into the world of cinema and took the job of representing the continent of Africa and her peoples through their own hermeneutic, Africa was being portrayed and visualized in all the wrong ways by all of the wrong people. The most indicative example of this would be the Tarzan films, which started being made as early as 1918 and haven’t since stopped. Based off a series of stories written by one Edgar Rice Burroughs, a white man who had never set foot in Africa, the series follows the eponymous Tarzan, a tall, handsome white man raised in Africa by apes who adventures around, often aiding his white European cohorts as they “brave the dangers of the dark continent.” As the first visual representation many Americans and Europeans would be given of Africa, the Tarzan films were damning, saddling Africa with words like “savage” or “primitive,” language that the studio heads were surely aiming to conjure up to add to the intrigue and mystique of the completely fictional onscreen world they were fabricating. For proof of this, look no further than how Tarzan himself is presented in the films, as a bumbling man who can hardly stumble through a sentence without grunting or “ooo”-ing. In the source texts, Tarzan speaks elegantly and scholarly. These kind of details and decisions made for the film were done with the intent of changing the image of a place and her people for capitalistic intent, and it can be viewed as a type of cinematic imperialism.

Thankfully, many people are now aware of the damage and falsity of these films and others of its ilk dating from the silent era through to the end of the ‘60s, as American adventure films decreased in popularity and stragglers like The African Queen (1951)gave way to the popularity of noir and domestic suspense (think Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock). The type of films that W.S. Van Dyke made, who was responsible for the 1931 production of Tarzan the Ape Man, were no longer wanted or needed, so a decline in these types of cinematic portrayals of an LA soundstage Africa began. This doesn’t mean that cinematic imperialism ended, however- it simply took a new form, one that was open to critical acclaim and art house canonization. With the wave of new auteurs that emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s whose work focused on internationalism and the Brechtian dismantling of the line between fiction and documentary came a new type of celluloid colonization. Following in the footsteps of Rene Vaultier and his venerated picture Afrique 50 (1950), often touted as the herald of the so-called “Third Cinema” movement, established European filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Gilo Pontecorvo created works in Africa that treated the continent like a boundless cinematic playground, using the land as canvas to take out all their creative impulses on and craft whatever image of the indigenous people and places that they saw fit. Equally damnable but canonized within a separate subsector of cinema are the mondo films, specifically those made by Gualtiero Jacopetti, which cult film audiences flock to for their brutality and shock value. All the films by these aforementioned creatives are difficult to approach, as they all contain vast artistic merit and contribute many things to the craft and conversation of world cinema, yet they come from the mouths of wealthy, revered Western European men who realistically have no place or position making films in or about Africa, especially when they acknowledge the continuing legacy and damage of colonialism but seem unable to recognize the role they play in progressing it. While we may be nearly 100 years removed from Van Dyke’s Tarzan the Ape Man, that films like Herdsmen of the Sun (1989) and Africa Addio (1966) continue to comfortably hold their place in the annals of cinematic academia with little scrutiny towards their validity or legacy is an issue, and even films like Pasolini’s Notes Towards an African Orestes (1970) or Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) which seek to examine and rectify the relationship between Europe and colonial Africa are worthy of scrutiny, as they too seek to represent the continent and her people through a European lens. All of these films and their authors continue to paint Africa with European voices and subdue those voices of African filmmakers, as these European works are celebrated and films by African men and women are overlooked by the cultures and institutions who decide what in world cinema is canonized and what is not. This paper will be looking specifically at Herdsmen of the Sun and Africa Addio, examining how the prestigious badge of the European auteur and the façade of honest documentary practice allow films that are as problematic and compromised as the aforementioned Hollywood studio products to not only escape scrutiny and damnation, but be canonized and celebrated.

            Werner Herzog’s Herdsmen of the Sun is an object that passes itself off as an ethnographic film, but, like most of Herzog’s documentaries, is so full of fabrications and contradictions that it lacks any semblance of indexicality and instead presents Herzog’s own touches and flourishes as fact and document of the lives of the Wodaabe tribe. The film shows the lives, customs, and rituals of the Wodaabe, a nomadic Saharan tribe, and implies that everything it shows is to be taken as an accurate representation. This becomes questionable early on, however, as we see the village elder speaking to the camera wearing a Rolex, as well as seeing other signs of western materialistic items scattered around the village. As Ave Maria plays through the film and the tribespeople adorn their lips and faces with blue paint made from crushed batteries, more and more western elements are highlighted, and while it would be easy to claim that Herzog is painting an image of the impact of colonialism on the tribe, those more intimately familiar with the filmmaker know his reputation for meddling and staging his films to present an image that is more artistically viable and interesting to him. This is a trait most visible in his film Fata Morgana (1971), another pseudo-ethnographic film shot in the Sahara.

Fata Morgana is comprised of footage gathered in Africa by Herzog over the course of several years that is assembled alongside spoken word narration of a Mayan creation myth. In doing so, he presents images of Africa, many of which feature suffering and impoverished men, women, and children, in a way that does nothing to represent their lives or culture and instead only appeal to his artistic vanity. By not giving an accurate portrayal of the circumstances that caused the destruction of the landscape and agony of the people he’s filming, Herzog, a German man, is using the fallout of colonialism as a “mythical” and “otherworldly” backdrop for his cinematic experiment, treating people and the land as props and set dressing. This was addressed by critic Vincent Canby in his original review of the film for the New Yorker, where he aptly states “Werner Herzog, the young German director of “Fata Morgana,” is obviously not suggesting anything as engaged, or as engaging, as a Save-the-Sahara campaign. His film simply uses the Sahara as the background for his own vision of man’s compulsion to corrupt and debase himself, as well as the world in which he lives.”

            While Herdsmen of the Sun isn’t a flagrant fabrication of events using African suffering as its palette, the persona surrounding Herzog and his documentary work makes it impossible to believe that what he shows of the Wodaabe tribe. In Les Blank’s film Burden of Dreams (1982), Herzog is shown lying repeatedly and with great ease, both to his film crew and the indigenous people of Peru he is using for manpower and fodder. He treats them, too, like set dressing, and his decisions in the pursuit of crafting his ultimate artistic vision lead to the deaths of several of them in a violent accident. With this and Fata Morgana as precedent, it becomes clear that the contents of Herdsmen of the Sun should be questioned. Where, exactly, did the Rolex on the elder’s wrist come from? How positive are we that the blue paint from the battery acid is truly part of the Wodaabe ritual? Why is this supposed ethnographic film, documenting the lives of a Saharan tribe, accompanied by Ave Maria? Even if it was revealed that everything being shown was an accurate depiction of the life of the tribespeople, Herzog cannot resist infusing the picture with his German heritage, threading a piece of German music through African images. This, too, should be taken as a form of colonialism. In the interview collection Herzog on Herzog, Herzog himself states “My films are anthropological only in as much as they try to explore the human condition at this particular time on this planet. I do not make films using images only of clouds and trees, I work with human beings because the way they function in different cultural groups interests me. If that makes me an anthropologist then so be it.” While this moderately relieves him of some guilt, as he at least admits to not intending to be anthropological and clearly states his goal is to look at and show different cultural groups, the explanation doesn’t take into account that his “working with human beings” and looking at “the way they function in different cultural groups” are nearly worthless statements, as, being a beloved European male filmmaker, his own identity and culture ends up supplanting and masking that of his subjects in his documentary work, especially in those films set in Africa. This is an often-cited issue with auteur theory as a whole, as the individual filmmaker uses the medium to service only themselves and their needs, not the needs of the nation or the culture. This was something that ICAIC set out to combat with the creation of their new Cuban national cinema, and looking at how someone like Herzog can misrepresent entire cultures and peoples, it’s easy to see why it would have been an important tenant for a developing “third world” cinema.

            To give more context into the things done wrong in Herdsmen, contrast these practices with those of Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Reassemblage (1982), another ethnographic film from the ‘80s. Minh-ha’s film is comparatively non-invasive, as she simply presents images of Senegalese men and women going about their daily life with little narration or interference. Minh-ha’s film allows her subjects to represent themselves as they are, devoid of moments of forced drama or grandiosity. The images, without the guiding, twisting hand of a European male auteur like Herzog, are rich, honest, and naturalistic.

Having Reassemblage to look at as an example of how to correctly capture and show another culture with ingenuity and respect, Herzog’s picture, a portrait of Africa by a European male who values his artistic intent and personal identity over the sanctity and integrity of the lives he captures with his lens, seems to have more in common with the Van Dyke-era Tarzan films than one would assume, as he uses the continent in the same way to present awe and excitement to an American and European audience. Herzog, however, has largely escaped the fate of these now-despised American studio films, as he possesses something they do not: pedigree. Indeed, Herzog’s place as one of the great canonized filmmakers keeps many of his questionable works safe from scrutiny, and you’re likely to find this film and many others of its ilk playing on a Criterion Channel retrospective or a special screening at Anthology Archives. While they may not be inherently evil or carry with them the heart of The Birth of a Nation (1915), these films shouldn’t be taken as representative of the people or places they show, and they have often received passes on that due to the place Herzog holds in the annals of world cinema. Now, while Herdsmen of the Sun exists safely within the realm of academia, there are other “documentaries” that commit all of the previously accused crimes on a far greater level, albeit in a different niche of cinema.

Referred to as “Mondo Films,” there exist a group of films by predominantly Italian directors that were released beginning in the early ‘60s. While the term “mondo” is now interchangeable with “shockumentary” and refers to any of the highly sexual, violent exploitation films that foreground real death and conflict as selling points and often depict the murder of people and animals in graphic detail (see: Faces of Death [1978]), the original and definitive batch of these films were five documentaries by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, beginning with Mondo Cane (1962) and ending with Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971). These films often took place across the world, but were predominantly set in Africa. Each one holds its place in the annals of cult cinema history and are discussed and deified in alley way video stores and film discussion boards online. The one worth examination for the current discussion is the most well known and loved, Africa Addio (1966). The fourth of these films to release, Africa Addio is a vast, continent sprawling viewing. The picture opens with a narrator introducing the viewers to the end of the colonial era and ready to usher in a new chapter for Africa, free of European meddling and influence. For the next two hours, Jacopetti, Prosperi and their crew examine every facet, development, and repercussion that accompanies the end of this era, and show in graphic detail violent uprisings, mass executions, despicable European hunting practices, and the bliss of nature on the beautiful continent. The intentions of the filmmakers seem to be pure and honest, at least if they’re being taken at their word, and what they’re capturing is important historical documentation, but unfortunately, as will always be the case when a colonial power tries to depict the state of something they’re complicit in, there is a disconnect, and the film begins to show its true colors through the often repulsive narration. To cherry pick and present the same quote film critic Roger Ebert used in his brutal admonishment of the film, one of the opening lines of the film states “Europe has abandoned her baby, just when it needs her most.” This attitude runs through every frame of the film, as the filmmakers act as doomsayers and seemingly damn the continent to failure now that Europe, its eternal oppressor, has withdrawn its tendrils. The film exists still as something that is to be taken as indexical and truthful, one of the most well-known and supposedly “reputable” visual documents of Africa (Google “African films,” Africa Addio is the second result that comes up in the documentary category), which means that many individuals take it as gospel. This is the ultimate issue with these films, with canonization, with European filmmakers working in Africa and treating the continent like a creative (not to mention financially viable, all of the mondo films did surprisingly well) playground. While the current state of the cinemas of the African nations may be vibrant, exciting, and wholly unlike any visual or narrative language that came before it, the stain left by these beloved canonized work remains, and for many audiences is the only exposure they have. European pens and lenses have long overwritten the African history they destroyed and corrupted, and cinema is a realm where it looks like it remains acceptable and put on a pedestal, especially if the filmmakers carry with them a level of prestige and cult adoration. If these films continue to be touted the way they are with no scrutiny or closer observation simply because they are well-made and interesting pieces of cinema, the damage that cinematic colonialism does will continue to grow and only become more acceptable with time.


Canby, Vincent. “Sounding the Alarm on the Sahara: Fata Morgana’ Bows at the Beaumont 2 Other Movies Open at Theaters Here.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Oct. 1971,

Herzog, Werner, and Paul Cronin. Herzog on Herzog. Faber and Faber, 2007.

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