Clearly in reference to the seizure of the Zimbabwean farms run or owned by western Europeans during the Mugabe era, White Material is a French drama showing such an experience from many angles. The story centers on a coffee farm in an unnamed African country run by a white family, a few Africans who work in management-esque positions and quite a few African laborers. I once heard a saying that the problem with Africa is that everyone is wrong.
This certainly seems the vantage point of director Clare Denis is taking. The white farmers are clearly in the wrong. They refuse to give up their farm, refuse to move their family to safety and live in air-conditioned luxury while those around them suffer.
The local adult and child rebels are clearly wrong, as they seem to only care about snatching up what they can get and will kill anyone who gets in their way.
The government is also quite clearly corrupt, as they too live in luxury while those around them suffer, but then they will swoop in and take what they can get and seem to heartlessly kill at will as well. This last one was an obvious reference to Mugabe himself, who heavily suggested an uprising against white farmers for amassing vast properties, but then he owned 14 commercial farms alone and lived like a king.
Each side was portrayed as an intense source of frustration, persons acting grotesquely in the name of entitlement.
The movie was shot well and the performances were top notch. My only complaint about the movie was that it had almost no story. French filmmakers love the ‘slice-of-life’ approach to story telling, where there’s no particular story arch, but rather the watcher gets to simply receive a message by being a fly on the wall during a particular time period. It’s an approach many enjoy, but I’m not a huge fan of it. I can’t help but leave a movie like this and think, why didn’t they just make a documentary? The point of a feature, to me, is storytelling and there just wasn’t much story here.
That said, it was certainly worth a watch and will most definitely get conversations going.