Isabelle Pauwels’ Response to Renzo Marten’s Episode III: Enjoy Poverty
I saw this film as being about our Western appetite for morality tales.
This film uses as its basic material a moral lesson that we already know. This moral lesson is: losers get to be spiritual; winners get to be engineers or storytellers– which amounts to the same thing.
We are drawn towards morality tales, because morality puts us in the judge’s seat.
It feeds into our vanity.
I admire how Renzo Martens plays the vanity card, through his blue eyed shit disturber persona. He condenses all the moralizing facets of the colonizer. He uses two basic tactics: first three quarters of the film, the tactic is making roses smell like shit (that’s what documentaries traditionally do). A good example of that tactic is the whole practical education around the ownership of images. We see him in a hut with a dry board, he teaches young Congolese photographers how to do the math like the winners do – an update of the schoolroom scene in Tintin in the Congo, the Belgian comic strip. Of course, this practical education, well, it stinks, right. For everyone. And it fails– the young guys don’t get their Press Passes. When this fails, Renzo switches tactics: he makes shit smell like roses (that’s what the church traditionally does) This is a key dramatic turning point in the movie, it turns us, the western audience, from consumers of the morality play into participants in the morality play. We are set on a spiritual quest- which means that we have to admit we’re losers, too. We’re asked to swallow a big one: Enjoy the spectacle of Poverty, please. What’s big about it is that I am being asked, not told. Renzo is appealing to my vanity. But, do I really have to play along with this?
Well I like to say no when I’m offered a role, so turned to cynical diversion tactics. I wondered about things like, who bought the booze for the lighting of the sign ceremonies? Did Renzo pay the villagers at the lighting ceremonies to say certain things? But, even if he did, that wouldn’t really change anything for me. I’m still the one who gets to judge, from a safe distance, the aesthetics of morality.
I found it very difficult to believe in Renzo’s facial expressions. He’s acting, he’s over-acting – while the Congolese, well they’re not acting, they’re just being themselves, right? I must admit that I wished they showed more suspicion towards Renzo, so that I could feel better about myself… The fact that I make this racial distinction, between actor and non-actors, must mean that I’ve bought into the colonial narrative, or rather into the mechanics of narrative itself, period. I fell for it– and now I’m reduced to judging myself!
This leads me back to vanity. There’s two moments where Renzo stops the narrative, in almost pornographic display of confession or soul baring. First, the Neil Young moment in the swamp. I checked the lyrics from A Man Needs a Maid, the Neil Young song, and they’re almost like a summary of the film: the character in the song wants to make the world play a part he can understand. So Renzo is the pupil of Neil’s character in the song. It’s all so excessively self-reflexive, as if self-reflexivity is just a convention, an inherited pose–just another formal pleasure.
The second major pornographic moment is at the end, the climactic cleansing scene in the river. Renzo whispers to the camera that he is his own worst enemy, he must be so careful of his own vanity. It’s almost as if he’s quoting Marlow quoting Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I find it significant that he says this in Dutch, a language a Congolese person is highly unlikely to understand. So using Dutch is a highly theatrical choice, like an aside just for me- but not for the Congolese [splitting the two audiences for the work]. There in the river, he even comes across another white man- doctor Livingstone, I presume. The man says the river is black- the only thing you can see is your own fear! Another moment of heavy-handed symbolism, over-wrought moral content [almost mythic]. And that’s such a relief for me, because under conditions of global capitalism, morality can only be cheesy, cheap theatrics… And that’s such a big relief for me, because Renzo has taken the evil out of the equation. I mean, let’s face it, responsibility, accountability, morality–they’re all just by-products of drama, of aesthetics… they’re commodities–if you can afford them.
The screening of Renzo Marten’s Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, was held at The Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema, SFU Woodwards, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, Vancouver, BC in conjunction with Presentation House Gallery’s exhibition Models for Taking Part.