Post-colonial theory sounds like something best left in a textbook, but in the context of a film industry that still limits characters of colour to sidekicks and stereotypes, it is worthy of broader discussion. Post-colonial films address the issues and ongoing effects of colonialism. Sometimes this involves portraying historical events, where the story is progressed by themes and devices that come from a colonial source. Other post-colonial films are less direct, and have storylines unrelated to processes of colonialism; instead post-colonial themes run throughout the context of these films. Post-colonial cinema walks a very fine line between documenting important yet uncomfortable truths, and pushing forward the representation of marginalised groups.
Post-colonial cinema cannot be discussed without mention of French director Claire Denis. Denis spent most of her childhood in France’s West African colonies, and many of her films reflect on this upbringing. Her first feature film, Chocolat (1988), is set in Cameroon, and depicts the relationship between a white French family and the local community in which they live. Denis portrays a colony in decline, where race and class divides are still present, but are muddied by desire and the essential fact that humans – no matter their skin colour – are ultimately more similar than they are different. This is complexly depicted in the central relationship between the not-so-subtly-named France (Cécile Ducasse) and her black nanny Protée (Isaach De Bankolé). The first scene shared by the two demonstrates the relationship between the characters effectively, and also functions as a symbol for France and its colonies. As France (the character – not the nation-state) eats an apple, Protée catches ants and squashes them on a piece of bread for her, daring his companion to act improperly and rebel against her cultural heritage.
Post-colonial themes are at the heart of Chocolat, and it is one chapter of a wide selection of post-colonial cinema focused on Africa. However there were, of course, many colonies outside of Africa – plenty of which are still recognised today, but which are perhaps not the first to be evoked in discourses of race relations. The histories of Aboriginal Australians and Maori New Zealanders, for example, are not well known by many. Belonging to smaller populations in smaller film industries, these histories are represented on screen even less than other colonised groups.
Australia’s Rabbit-Proof Fence was released in 2002 and, like Chocolat, it has unambiguously post-colonial roots. The film’s opening titles explain that in the 1930s A. O. Neville was the legal guardian of every “half-caste” child in West Australia. Neville’s life’s work involved taking these children from their homes to be “culturally assimilated” in schools. The children that were subject to this mistreatment are known today as “the stolen generation”. Rabbit-Proof Fence is the fictionalised account of the true story of two sisters and their cousin as they navigate their way through the outback to get home from such a school. The white characters in Rabbit-Proof Fence are mostly antagonistic, and the race divide is the driving force of the story.
Rabbit-Proof Fence is very much about the direct effects of colonialists forcing their lifestyles on indigenous populations, but the film does not delve deep into the wider impact of A. O. Neville’s work. Chocolat and Rabbit-Proof Fence are historical dramas which provide an understanding of the basis of racial injustices in the present day. However, the “bigger picture” of colonialism’s residual effects and lasting systemic inequalities is only addressed in the film incidentally, left largely to intertitle cards at the film’s conclusion, the last of which reads: ‘Today many of these Aboriginal people continue to suffer from this destruction of identity, family life and culture.’
Post-colonial films set in contemporary times reorient the approach to residual colonial issues. In these films, the effects of historical events are shown to be still present, but the story is not driven by explicitly post-colonial narratives. In Samson and Delilah the eponymous characters live in poverty, they do not attend school, and they are ignored or held in disdain by the white characters. However, the film is about the connection between Samson (Rowan Macnamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson). This less direct addressing of post-colonial issues works more subtly to confront audiences with potentially uncomfortable subject matter, while also enabling characters to avoid being defined simply by the oppression they have faced.
Samson and Delilah also sees a shift in the relationship between the film’s main characters. In Chocolat and Rabbit-Proof Fence, racism or racial segregation are what challenges the films’ protagonists. It is clear-cut and puts the non-racist characters on a higher moral ground, making it straightforward for audiences to take their side. But in Samson and Delilah, the characters are antagonised by their own community. Additionally, both main characters are themselves flawed – they huff petrol, for example, and although substance abuse may be attributed to disenfranchisement or systemic issues, it is harder to sympathise with characters behaving in self-destructive and negative ways.
The same can be said of the 1994 film, Once Were Warriors, set in contemporary New Zealand, which follows the tempestuous relationship between Beth (Rena Owen) and Jake (Temuera Morrison) Heke. Jake is physically and verbally abusive toward his family, and as a result the family falls apart. One key difference between Once Were Warriors and Samson and Delilah is that the characters in the Heke family draw strength very directly from their cultural heritage. This is best exemplified in a scene in which younger son “Boogie” (Taungaroa Emile), who has been placed in state care, is learning a Haka (Maori war dance), and his teacher tells the boys that they are ‘reaching up for all these ancestral lines’ and ‘pulling them down into your body’. Boogie internalises this mentality, and redefines himself, empowered by his Maori legacy.
Although many of these films attempt to end optimistically, they tend to be bogged down by the unshakeable weight of past racial tensions. Much post-colonial cinema focuses on the differences between people, by telling stories that are unique to a culture or ethnicity which may be unfamiliar or underrepresented. This is vitally important, as those stories have all too often been absent from the mainstream. However, to define a group of people only by the oppression they have faced would be wrong for many reasons, and there are also post-colonial stories with a positive outlook, which show characters of colour not facing adversity because of their race, but instead embracing their heritage.
In 2002’s Whale Rider, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) proves to her Koro (grandfather, played by Rawiri Paratene) that she is fit to be the tribe’s next chief – despite being female. Just as in Samson and Delilah and Once Were Warriors, the antagonists and protagonists are of the same ethnicity; however, the relationship between Pai and her Koro is more complex than simple opposition. Koro loves Pai, but his belief in upholding tradition makes him mourn the loss of her twin brother and makes him unable to see Pai for the leader she is. In this way, Whale Rider directly addresses the place of tradition in a modern context. In the other films mentioned here, tradition was respected and left largely unchanged – an exception perhaps being in Samson and Delilah when Delilah’s grandmother sells her traditional artwork. Where Once Were Warriors had tradition as a source of strength and comfort, Whale Rider demonstrates how tradition can hinder progress, and must be adapted to help the people who adhere to it.
While centuries of colonial expansion has left plenty of cultural groups with post-colonial stories to tell, this guide has focused on just a few films from Australia and New Zealand. Whether set during the boom of European imperialism, or the contemporary context of residual racial inequality, post-colonial cinema can offer more screen time to stories not often told or too long ignored.