Claire Denis’ newest film, “White Material”, takes place in an unnamed African country destroyed by civil war. Its main character, Marie Vial, is a white woman whose family has been living in Africa for generations. They own a coffee plantation, which is going into ruins since all the employees have fled the area. Marie refuses to leave the land she was born in since she rejects the idea of there being any real danger in the area and tries to desperately save the plantation. She denies the increasing danger and threats towards her family and denies that the violent fights between rebels and the country’s military are spinning out of control. This results in a series of tragic events which causes Marie to lose everything she has.
The film starts with a gang of militant black young men setting a house on fire and locking the doors, letting a white man inside burn to his death. It then cuts to Marie trying to get the employees at the plantation to stay. As the story unfolds, we find out who the man in the burning house was and why he was killed so brutally. We also get to see Marie doing the best she can to save her plantation, in which she has worked in all her life. This film, like many other great independent films, uses the dogma style of filming. The film also leaves out basic facts like the name of the country the plot takes place in and why the civil war has broken out. It also does not tell us much about the unnamed country’s past. Denis is fairly clever for doing this, for it feels more like her film is speaking to developing countries in general, instead of only talking about the experiences of one single land. It is shown, though, that the continent is Africa, where the rebels not only cause suffering and pain on their fellow man, but also cause a form of “reverse-racism” towards the few non-rich whites that have been living in the country. Denis states here that all forms of discrimination do take place in the world, sadly enough.
Even if the film has empathy for Marie and her family, it also condemns her. She is shown as naïve and righteous. Though she does treat blacks as equal and pays good money to work there, Marie is unable to sympathize with their growing fear of the rebels. Naïve and blinded, Marie finds the whole situation only a contemporary “uneasiness”, even if all the facts and signs point to the complete opposite. Marie is not a person you like, but you do feel sorry for her. For she is actually a hard worker, and has a strong passionate love for the country she lives in. You could say that her love for the country “blinds her”. A typical problem a privileged white person living in Africa might have…
The climax of the film leaves the viewer in a state of shock. I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that the ending was heart-breaking yet perfect for this film.