Representations of Postcolonial Identity and Universal Issues in Perivi Katjavivi’s ‘The Unseen’
Response to filmmaker Perivi Kajavivi’s visit and post-production film screening at NTU, 11 November 2015
by Beth Evans, BA English, 14 January 2016
Representations of Postcolonial Identity and Universal Issues in Perivi Katjavivi’s ‘The Unseen’.
As one of the lucky few able to view of a number of scenes and speak with Perivi Katjavivi about his upcoming film, ‘The Unseen’, scheduled to premiere in February 2016 at the Pan African Film Festival, I am excited to watch the film in its entirety as soon as it is available. ‘The Unseen’, which Katjavivi suggests should be understood as a ‘blending of fiction and documentary’, explores the liminal spaces of present day Namibia and follows three seemingly dissimilar characters as they experience the authentic and lesser-seen realities of the country.
With little else in common, the characters Marcus, an African-American aspiring actor, Sara, a traveller who is contemplating committing suicide, and Anu, a musician caught between Namibian traditions and Western rap, all experience a state of what Katjavivi refers to as ‘internal flux’. ‘The Unseen’ follows its protagonists through their processes of self-identification as they face frustration and anxiety at the feeling of existing in two places at once. Katjavivi suggests that the characters do represent a ‘postcolonial identity’, which he clarifies by referring to Homi Bhabha’s concept of ‘ambivalence’ or the dual identity of the colonised other, though he is hesitant to accept the suggestion that his film is purely representative of Namibia’s postcolonial experience. Instead, Katjavivi suggests that ‘The Unseen’ should be understood as an ‘honest film’ about individual experiences which tie together to display universal issues.
This idea is gloriously evident in the enticing opening scene, in which we are almost painfully slowly drawn into the world of the film and its characters. The introductory shot presents us with an eerily empty and peaceful road, interjected with shadows. The setting is unknown and the shadows mask the characters’ identities. By concealing this information, the film immediately achieves a sense of universality through its refusal to offer any answers to the questions of where we are and who were are watching. The slow pace of the opening and its lack of dialogue are deeply enticing, enhanced only by the eventual close-ups of the characters’ faces which draw us into their very personal lives. Besides leaving me desperately wanting to watch more, it seems apparent from this opening that Katjavivi is keen to establish his film as one which concerns the individual experiences of life in Namibia.
Western audiences, Katjavivi explains, do not often allow themselves to think of Africa in terms of economy, relationships, and career and generally fixate on trying to find representations of colonialism and postcolonialism within African art. This discussion leads Katjavivi to express concern over the extent to which film should engage with social and political issues. The filmmaker recognises that colonialism is a part of Africa’s past and present and should therefore be addressed through film and other arts, but he does not believe it should be at the forefront of all African art. Katjavivi defends his stance with the persuasive argument that ‘a German filmmaker is just a filmmaker, no one else is burdened with this.’ However, Katjavivi eagerly offers areas in which his film does tackle the issue of postcolonial representation.
For example, Katjavivi explains that he wanted ‘The Unseen’ to be an authentic representation of Namibian life, rather than one shadowed by Western ideas of an underdeveloped Africa. The filmmaker achieves this through a number of techniques. The decision to film in black and white, for example, destabilises the stereotypical image of Africa as always brightly coloured and vibrant and offers an opposing image to consider. Katjavivi also filmed improvised scenes with real people, rather than actors, within the liminal spaces of Namibia, which creates a documentary-like feel for ‘The Unseen’ and presents its audiences with the realities of the country. Tackling universal issues within the context of Namibia through his film sounds like an exciting and emotional journey for Katjavivi, and I am thoroughly looking forward to watching the full film.
Beth Evans is a third year English undergraduate at NTU, undertaking a Dissertation on Black British writing and the UK publishing industry.