“White Material” is the story of a white family living in an unnamed African country, on the day the Colonial French powers are officially turning over control of the government back to the natives. All whites are told to vacate immediately for their own safety.
The head of the household is Madame Vial (played by Isabelle Huppert) refuses to leave the coffee plantation she has managed on behalf of her distant husband.
She runs but does not own the plantation, an important distinction that of one of her African workers point out that “If you don’t own it yourself, you have nothing.”
Madame Vial refuses to leave her land, because she 1. Believes that she is not like the other “...dirty whites who cannot appreciate the beauty of this place” (her words) 2. Believes the Invisible Hand of capitalism; her business relationship with the local townsfolk is enough to ensure her safety and continued prosperity (though we learn from her husband the business is worthless) and 3. She refuses to give up her role as mistress of the plantation, or to accept any idea that would contradict, distort, or undermine this self-image (whether it be the warranted criticisms of her lazy son, or the doubly warranted suggestions from nearly everyone she meets that the only viable solution is to abandon ship.)
The child soldiers arrive in the town having marched hundred plus miles, where they find a man named The Boxer (played by a nearly silent Isaach De Bankole) , a rebel leader of a group trying to wrestle away control from the countries still infant prevailing powers.
The child soldiers who appear are apparently aligned with The Boxer, “I pray to God everyday to let me fight for The Boxer. I pray for nothing else”, ones boy tells De Bankole
While Madame Vial is certainly apolitical, the film is not, in fact its pointing out of her apolitical head-in-the-sand nature is the crux of the film. Her role as Mistress and most importantly class-less, race-less master of the plantation is equally a critique of a certain brand of multi-cultural politics which believes ignoring these issues and just treating everyone “nicely”, “fairly”, and “with respect” is enough to make all differences disappear. Sitcom reality.
Vial in one scene manages to convince some townsfolk to work for one more week in her fields til her harvest is done (after her usual workers abandoned her and their own homes for fear of the rebels), and leads them to where they will sleep for the night.
It is a stable with cots on the floor for which a dozen men are given one flash light to find their way into. It resembles a slave quarters and from the looks on the men’s faces as they gaze into the darkened room, they too realize this.
However a few scenes later we find Vial (in the big house) is also not turning on the lights to save the gasoline the estates sole generator runs on. She does not tell the workers this (or in Denis fashion this info is omitted). Lacking any explanation what are the men to think but that she considers them not far off from animals.
This scene draws our attention to Vial’s naivete and insensitivity (which at worst does approaches quiet caricature at times, like an inverted Wikus van de Merwe of "District 9")
Vial listens casually to the pro-rebel radio station that advocates breaking into the abandoned or occupied houses of whites to sack the spoils they accumulated “on the backs of our suffering”.
She does to this with her workers as if by “White Material” (African slung for white folks, which renders them an inhuman object like say, “African resources”) they are referring to all the other members of the white land-owning gentry.
Then again she doesn’t really own anything, besides her role, and this is completely dependent on those that own and control the environment that this role can manifest itself in.
Her father in-law who actually owns the property moves through the film silently like one of the many pale ghosts haunting the area, her husband who also has a son with a native woman is busy making preparations to leave without ever pressing on either his wife or son the seriousness of what he knows is coming.
The son just wants to lay in bed all day in the bed of western decadence and apathy, until he’s held at gun point and made to strip naked by child soldiers, whereupon he promptly shaves his head, tries to shove his blond hair into a black servant girl’s mouth and then runs off to join the rebels who abused him.
Him and the kids get hopped on prescription drugs and candy, and hasten their own destruction by looting the family pantry, as the government troops close in.
The son seems to have little idea what’s going on, he’s bored and something violent happens, and it’s terrifying but he's so alienated that he jumps at it, because at least it’s something happening to him.
Vial’s taking in of The Boxer because they are both just people, humans who deserve the same compassion, and because she is above petty political squabbling, is the act which ultimately destroys her world.
By avoiding the conflicts around her she invites it to steamroll over her life and those she loves, though Vial herself is always preserved from harm like a miserably lyrical "Mr. Magoo."
Vial and the film by extension is not a nihilistic as Armond White’s hit and miss review of this film alleges, she is well-meaning but also ignorant and self-absorbed.
The political unrest of the film is to her as uncontrollable as a natural disaster, and equally mysterious.
Though many of the victims of Hurricane Katrina were stranded, many also simply refused to leave the place they called home come hell or high water, and they both came.
Vial is like them to a degree (she will not be moved by the changing of seasons etc.), but the most important difference is Vial would have been reading the warning signs not for weeks, but for years and ignoring them, and of course Vial has no levys in place at all, not even faulty ones.
Ignorance is seldom bliss, and if so quickly passing.
But enough about plot. Director Claire Denis, at least from what I’ve seen of her work, does pay attention to the delicacies of story and nuance, but is most cinematic in her application of music and editing, the former the much like the ebbing and flowing guitars of "The Tindersticks" in her “Trouble Every Day” creating a rumbling, rising, tension, as Vial wanders her grounds or crosses into what ruins and corpses the rebels leave left of the town.
The editing is what I usually notice most in Denis' films, where seemingly irrelevant scenes are stretched into arduous takes, and important gear-shifting moments can be limited to blink and you’ll miss em’ epiphanies.
“White Material” is no exception to this, and is often shot in accordance with Denis’ obscurest whims, but by and large, her gut feelings prove effective.
There are plenty of feel good films about African diasporas and politics and even more feel bad ones, but how many feel dumb ones?