For decades, Swiss traveller René Gardi (1909-2000) explained the African continent and its inhabitants to us. In books, television programs and films, he waxed poetic about the beautiful naked “savages” and the pre-modern era in which they apparently lived. This supposedly idyllic world became Gardi’s paradise, as Africa was transformed into a projection screen for the desires of the audience back home.
The film AFRICAN MIRROR tells the story of our problematic image of Africa using materials from Gardi’s archive, whose ambivalent pictures mirror our European self-conception in myriad ways. The film reveals image production as a form of colonialism and shows how we have refused to truly look into this mirror to this very day.
Over the course of prolonged stays in West Africa, I became aware of my own personal entanglement in prejudices and clichéd images regarding Africa. Among other visits, I spent seven months in Burkina Faso, where I realised imagefilms for an NGO. Assuming the role of the white filmmaker in a country whose history and culture I was only superficially familiar with frequently made me feel uneasy. I became sensitised to images of Africa and their communication through media.
I recalled the presence of René Gardi’s Africa books in my parental home during my childhood. For decades, Swiss traveller and author René Gardi (1909-2000) explained the African continent and its inhabitants to us. In countless books, television and radio programmes and films, he waxed poetic about the beautiful naked savages and the pre-modern era in which they supposedly lived. Gardi’s tales were met with great interest far beyond the borders of the German-speaking countries. His books were translated into dozens of languages, and his films were shown on television in Japan and Great Britain. For his documentary film MANDARA, which screened in the competition section of the Berlin International Film Festival in 1960, Gardi received a Special Mention.
Then I learned of the existence of René Gardi’s artistic estate, which had yet to be assessed in earnest to any extent: an archive featuring diaries, letters, newspaper articles, rolls of film, reels of audio recordings and over 30,000 photographs, the majority of which had never been published. We were able to acquire the entire estate and hand it over to the State Archive of Bern. As such, I had unimpeded access to the archive and thus began my research.
Gardi’s Africa was subjective and constructed. The scenes in his films were often meticulously staged, in order to eliminate any traces of “modernity”. Life in the big cities was deliberately ignored. This view of Africa says a lot about Europe. It speaks to the existence of a yearning for bygone simple, pastoral times far removed from any hint of industrialisation. At the same time, it testifies to a desire to break out of conservative societies and find another form of freedom. The freedom of white people was based on the enslavement of black people. As soon as the African states became independent, that is, as soon as their inhabitants gained their own freedom, whites in Africa no longer felt free.
It is remarkable that René Gardi himself never treated these contradictions in his work. I wonder whether he was aware of them? From Gardi’s point of view, Africa was the land of freedom, Africans were true democrats, whose farmsteads obviously needed to be burned to the ground however whenever they refused to pay colonial taxes. Gardi did not conceive of himself as part of the problem in this regard. He saw himself as an observer who captured the truth in the most authentic manner possible.
René Gardi enabled Europeans to dream of adventure and freedom at a time when most individuals were not in a position to undertake travels of that nature. Many people in Switzerland got to know Africa through Gardi. It is as if he created colonies for Switzerland with his work. Switzerland’s relationship to colonialism is often described today as “colonialism without the colonies”. Switzerland itself never possessed colonies, but it did profit financially from trade with the colonial powers. The making and selling of images, as practiced by Gardi, was also an important component of this other type of colonialism. To date there has been no critical examination of Gardi’s work – time and again we have succumbed to our romantic infatuation instead.
My film AFRICAN MIRROR is composed almost entirely of pictorial, sound and text documentation drawn from René Gardi’s archive. In assembling the materials into a montage, I have attempted to lay bare the contradictions and conflicts within this archive. Sound and image are set in a new relation with one another – the pictures begin to think for themselves.
The film AFRICAN MIRROR tells the story of our image of Africa. The West’s image of Africa is determined by its own self-perception. One sees one’s self in the other. Every society has a need for images of the other in order to arrive at its own identity. I believe that Gardi’s work is not about Africa and Africans, but instead that it says something about us and our history. Or to express it in the words of Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe: “That which we refer to as ‘Africa’ is a collection of desires, longings and naive fantasies – which are promoted, disseminated and cultivated.”
AFRICAN MIRROR is now available as Video On Demand outside Switzerland:
Swiss theatrical release: 14.11.2019
„A portray of a well-meaning racist-filmmaker. Top 10 of Berlinale 2019.“
„Hedinger illuminates what is artfully obscured in colonial ethnography. European motives. AFRICAN MIRROR is an important readjustment of focus, which will certainly throw up many questions and discussions.“
„Working with infested images“
„A work of cinematographic field research. It is about the transcontinental history of media, their means of production and how in 20th-century Switzerland both were influenced significantly by one flamboyant character. African Mirror does indeed function as a mirror which equally serves to reflect on present-day images of Africa.“
„Hedinger’s journey into Gardi’s powerful imagination is not only a political journey into our relationship with Africa, but also a journey throughout filmmaking and its political consequences.“
Giuseppe Di Salvatore, Filmexplorer
„An eye-opening documentary essay.“
Andrey Arnold (Die Presse), Dunja Bialas (artechock), Hannes Brühwiler (critic.de), Kevin B. Lee (alsolikelife)
„The strategy with which Hedinger uses Gardi's material not only turns the African continent into a mirror, it also illustrates how the cinematic medium can be used to manipulate and affect consciousness.“
Kalliopi Pouthouroglou, Cinephilia.GR (in Greek)
„This film offers a rare opportunity to reflect on the function of images.“
Mathieu Li-Goyette, Panorama-Cinema (in French)
„Hedinger unravels what is behind words and intentions by opposing image and narration.“
Ramon Rey, Cinemaldito (in Spanish)
„When Gardi's opinions invade the media, political decisions and religious discourses, African Mirror reaches an exceptional breadth in content for its rather small archival images close to the square format (…) The film makes a powerful statement for the image as a political tool.“
„In seiner brillanten Montage aus Gardis eigenem Archivmaterial, Texten wie Bildern, verzichtet Mischa Hedinger auf jeglichen Kommentar und lässt stattdessen das Material über und gegen seinen Macher sprechen. Ein auf so vielen Ebenen souveräner Film.“
Hannah Pilarczyk, Spiegel Online
„Der Film ist gescheit gemacht, weil er Gardis Afrikabild mit den eigenen Waffen entlarvt: eine Demontage durch Montage.“
Pascal Blum, Tages-Anzeiger
„Ein ungemein kluger, mehrfach verspiegelter Essay zum postkolonialen Selbstverständnis der Schweiz.“
Florian Keller, Wochenzeitung WOZ
„Ein fulminanter Dokumentarfilm."
Caroline Fetscher, Tagesspiegel
„Einige der klügsten Filme sind bei der diesjährigen Berlinale solche, die sich mit Afrika befassen. Wie eben "African Mirror", in dem der Schweizer Filmemacher Mischa Hedinger das Lebenswerk seines Landsmanns Gardi kritisch aufbereitet und auseinandernimmt.“
Philipp Stadelmaier, Süddeutsche Zeitung
Screenplay, direction, editing
Speaker (René Gardi)
Machinefabriek (Rutger Zuydervelt)
Colour correction and post-production assistance
Voice-over recording and mixing
Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern
Consulting and assistance (archive)
Barbara Studer Immenhauser
Lichtspiel / Kinemathek Bern
Eliane Antonia Maurer
Media documentation (SRF archive)
ton und bild GmbH
In co-production with
SRF Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen
Redaktion Urs Augstburger
With the generous support of
Ernst Göhner Stiftung
éducation 21 I Filme für eine Welt
Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern
MEDIA Desk Suisse
Ministerium für Kultur und Wissenschaft
des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen