Stop Filming Us: Interrogating and Inverting the Western Gaze

May 14, 2021 | 9 min read

Stop Filming Us, a new documentary film by Joris Postema, opens at Film Forum in New York City on May 14, 2021, in theater and in virtual cinema. For more information click here.

The issue of cultural appropriation has been debated hotly and frequently in recent years—in literature, film, television, and visual arts. I’ve personally been in and around this debate for decades, and on some level it gets old and ceases to be productive or even interesting. 

Still, I am a proponent of continuing the conversation when it leads us away from oversimplistic policing of who is “allowed” to portray what, and instead enables us to Get Real about it.  In my experience—as writer, educator, and film programmer—white makers (well-meaning, self-proclaimed progressives) in all media are generally unsure, uncomfortable, and at times, yes, fragile, when writing, filming, portraying BIPOC characters and cultures.  A kind of consciousness-raising has been achieved, and this is good. Even so, if our main accomplishment is putting white makers “on notice,” and creating an eggshells creative environment, I’m not sure we’ve progressed all that much.  

The new documentary Stop Filming Us, by Dutch filmmaker Joris Postema, breathes a bit of fresh air into the stale, stiff debate.  In this age of post-post-post modernism, there is perhaps something earnestly old-fashioned—to a younger generation of cinephiles and post-colonial scholars—about the meta-documentary pivot that Postema makes in crafting his exploration of unconscious Western framing, aka the “Western gaze.” In the case of Stop Filming Us, however, the pivot feels timely and necessary in that Postema uses the meta-mode to demonstrate another earnest yet powerful documentary approach—that of engaging his subjects explicitly, and with humility, to interrogate his own problematic perspectives.

The Millions: What was the idea/vision of your original film—before the artists and your local crew began engaging you in questions about “the Western gaze” and Western imaging of Africans?

Joris Postema: I think the film idea started with the difference I experienced when I was in Goma [in the Democratic Republic of Congo] the first two times. The first time under the wing of a Dutch NGO, I slept in a guarded compound with a personal panic button next to my bed. I could only film out of the back of a van, and they didn’t allow me to walk on the street by myself. The second time I went with Ganza Buroko [one of the film’s subjects, the film’s Congolese producer] and Yolé!Africa [a community organization], and all of a sudden I could film on the street, sleep in a normal hotel, walk across the street and have a beer in a bar. Goma hadn’t changed significantly in the meantime, so it was my perception that changed. In the first Goma I felt like I was in a war zone; in the second Goma people got up, had a cup of coffee, and went to work. I was fascinated by this difference and decided to make a film about that. 

During my first research trip, many things happened that I thought would have been great little scenes. But Ganza and other people were—all the time—correcting me if I did something insensitive or just plain stupid. One time, for example, I asked him if I could wear flip flops to an important meeting, and Ganza just answered, “Would you go in flip flops in The Netherlands?” And of course I wouldn’t. I realized that all these examples—however small they were sometimes—told a bigger story, one of privilege and power inequality, and that I wanted to tell this story. So I decided to stop doing research, started filming, and let the film evolve more organically, with major influence of the crew so I could tell this story of power inequality and privilege by showing it.  Ultimately the film questions my position as a filmmaker and asks the question of who gets to tell which story.

TM: One of the most fascinating/challenging discussions in the film is when you film a man being beaten on the street. Ganza and your cameraman TD Jack Muhindo question why you filmed it, then go on to describe their own relationship to such an event, i.e. for them, it’s not so unusual.  Did that encounter make you think differently about violence in Africa in general? In Goma specifically?  How so?  

JP: This scene made me reflect on so many things. If someone would ask me to show my city (Amsterdam), two places I certainly wouldn’t show are the red light district and the coffee shops where you can buy weed—what Amsterdam is famous for. I hardly ever go there and they have been shown enough, so I would choose other places to show. Mugabo Baritegera [another of the film’s subjects, a photographer] wanted to show a side of Goma people in the West rarely see, that of people laughing and living their lives, with plenty of fish and vegetables on the market, the beautiful lake, the little boy skating on the streets. And then suddenly this fight breaks out and I almost unknowingly take my phone and film it. I guess because it shocked me, but also because this is the image I’m used to when it comes to Northeastern Congo in Western media. So immediately this stereotype of violence is affirmed.

And later, we have a conversation about that day, and Ganza makes this point that violence was brought to Congo by colonizers. Of course there was violence before that time and I’m not an expert on this matter, but the corporal punishments the Belgians carried out must have been ingrained in the people in Congo. So when we look at it now from a European point of view it might seem barbaric, but as Ganza points out, it’s us Europeans who taught them. 

TM: One of the things that is revealed in the film is the inequity of the funding infrastructure for African filmmakers to tell their own story.  Tell us a little more about this financial system that perpetuates Western dominance in image making and documentary filmmaking?

JP: I can only speak for the Dutch system of funding for documentary films. There are two major funding parties: NPO Fund (public broadcasters funding) and the Dutch Film Fund. In general, the accountability (and thus control) needs to be in Dutch hands. So in that way, it makes no difference if you are Congolese or German; Dutch funding is not available. Of course, it’s fantastic that the Dutch government subsidizes films, and does so without any say or control. Dutch filmmakers are free to make films about any topic or subject they want, even if that means being critical of the Dutch government itself. That’s a huge privilege of course. Bernadette Vivuya [another subject of the film, a young filmmaker] doesn’t have access to these kinds of funds in Goma: she needs to fund her own films by making films for foreign NGO’s (often telling stories diametrically opposed to the stories she wants to tell herself) or by institutes like Institut Francais or funding from Europe or the U.S. Often are there all kinds of requirements, ranging from a limited choice of subjects to downright influence concerning the content of the film. 

So there should be some kind of funding system, I think, that transfers funds to filmmakers in countries where these funds do not exist. But that’s more difficult than it appears. Because who will judge the film plans? If these people come from any European country they will have a Western gaze, and see things from their perspective. And who will decide that a film is good, that the filmmaker succeeded? The solution might be that the selection process be done in the countries where the funds are applied for. So not only should Western countries transfer funding money, but also transfer control over the selection and creative processes. 

That will take some time I guess, but it is changing slowly.  

TM: Will you continue to make films in Africa and/or other non-Western places?  If not, why not?  If so, how will you approach your work differently going forward?

JP: I might make another film somewhere in Africa or Asia, and if I do, I would seek cooperation with filmmakers there. Since the funding system in The Netherlands puts responsibility for a film in Dutch hands, I would have to find a way around this, in order to share responsibility and control. 

When Stop Filming Us was screening in Goma last summer, the audience asked for the footage so they would be able to make their own version of the film. Since film funding in Goma is practically non-existent, we applied together with Ganza for some funds in The Netherlands.  We’ve almost secured the funding; so, I’m very happy that there will (very probably) be a Congolese version of the film! A film over which the Congolese director has full control. That I think is crucial; and for a next film I would have to find a way to do the same. 

TM: The possibility of a locally produced version of Stop Filming Us is very intriguing.  Any idea who would direct it, and when do you think they might get started on it?

JP: Ganza is in charge of this project. He has asked Bernadette to direct it. The funding is almost in place, so I think they will start anytime soon, and I guess it will take a few months. So, hopefully sometime in autumn.

TM: Stop Filming Us is your fourth feature documentary.  What drives you as a filmmaker?  How do you know when you have a subject—and an approach to a subject—that is worth pursuing and investing into a full-length film?

JP: It starts with fascination. I read or see something that intrigues me or that I don’t understand. For example, the difference of perception of Goma that I experienced the two times I visited. Or the contradiction I felt between apparent calm, everyday life in Kigali, Rwanda, and the stories people told me about the mistrust they still had. When this happens, I dig a little bit further to try and understand. Often that’s where it ends, but sometimes I get even more fascinated and then I start thinking about how I could make a film about it. At that point I believe I have a subject and that it’s just a matter of finding the right way to tell it. So, I don’t really think about all the difficulties of finding a broadcaster (as is the usual first step in The Netherlands) and getting it funded, but instead dive as deep into the story as I possibly can. Together with the producer, we develop a film plan. That can be done quickly, in a few months but it can also take a long time, sometimes even years. But the idea is that when we start shooting, the basic idea of the film is so ingrained in my system that whatever happens during a day of shooting—even when everything turns out different than expected—I can still capture what I need to tell the story.

TM: How do you see Stop Filming Us contributing to the global conversation about Black Lives that intensified last summer when George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minnesota?  In what ways do you see European and African racial power dynamics resonating with those in America, and in what ways do you see them as divergent/distinct?  Is there something in that lineage of colonialism that you think would be useful for American audiences to reflect on or learn more about?

JP:  I do hope Stop Filming Us contributes to the conversation we also have in The Netherlands—and which intensified after the murder of George Floyd—about institutional racism. I have done quite a lot of Q&As over the last year, and there is always a lot of discussion about this, so I hope I can conclude from that that the film does contribute to this conversation.

But really this is an almost impossible question to answer for me, as I don’t know a lot about racial power dynamics in America. I don’t think I can say anything meaningful, since it would be silly to talk about things I am not that familiar with.

TM: How do you think Bernadette, Ganza, TD Jack, the two photographers Mugabo Baritegera and Ley Uwera, and the Yole!Africa community were impacted by the experience of engaging with you and your filmmaking?

JP: This is a question that should be asked to them, of course. But what they told me, or what they said in interviews, is that, in general, they were happy that some issues were raised in the film that normally aren’t raised in films made in the region. Though they were still critical as you can see at the end of the film.

I don’t think the film had a lot of impact on the people at Yolé as they are very politically active, intelligent people who understand the concept of decolonization a whole lot better than I do. And Bernadette’s film—the one she pitches at Institut Francais [in the film]—is still not financed for example. What I’m trying to say is that the impact on my community was probably a lot bigger. As the Congolese audience concludes at the end of the film, it was made for Western audiences, that’s where there should be impact.

TM: What sorts of responses have you gotten to the film—from Africans who’ve seen it, and/or from other filmmakers, both African and Western?

JP: Some people think it’s the worst film ever made; for others it’s an eye-opening film that changes the way they think about development aid or stereotypes, for example. The main concern from a few African filmmakers I spoke to is that some stereotypes are reproduced—the rebel leader with his child soldiers, or the refugee camp scene, for example. And even though I believe I put those scenes in the film for good reasons—to show a context of underlying mechanisms—the danger is that by reproducing these stereotypes, Dutch audiences will just see their image of Congo confirmed. After doing quite a lot of debates and Q&As for the film in The Netherlands and other European countries, that doesn’t seem to be the case, I’m happy (and relieved) to say.

I guess the way people see the film also depends a lot on their knowledge of colonial history. People who are well aware of the legacy of power inequalities and privilege probably think the film is telling a story they already know. For people who are not as aware, I think the film can offer all kinds of insights.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.

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