Monday, 10 January 2011

montagnarde1793: (République française)

I just finished watching a documentary on Toussaint Louverture on Arte (or rather, on Arte's website, since I don't exactly have access to the TV here) and I don't have too much to say about it, but I wanted to share my thoughts.

First, before I get into the nitpicking, I want to point out that for a documentary attempting to cover the entire Revolution of Saint-Domingue/Haïti in less than an hour, it wasn't bad.

However... I feel it could have been a lot stronger if it had taken a more global view of the said Revolution instead of trying to make it all about Toussaint. Because, as it was, in order to understand anything about Louverture, so much context needed to be given about the Revolution that it ended up being the Revolution with bits of Toussaint's biography tacked on and at that point why not excise the bits of biography and make the Revolution the centerpiece, using the extra time to go into more depth?

Well, anyway, to speak of what they did do rather than what they didn't... I'm pretty sure it was an American documentary - all the historians were dubbed anglophones - which would explain the fixation with, one might almost say fetishization of violence, which was especially blatant when it came time to talk about France, but was certainly a bit of a problem in the main narrative as well.

I remember one transition especially well: an image of 10 August came up, and I thought, well they're probably going to explain now why the Convention would have a different policy on slavery and the colonies than the Constituent Assembly (eg, because it's more radical/democratic/principled/republican/whatever descriptor works best for you). But, no, apparently not. Well, at least not yet. Instead of what I would consider to be the logical narration for a painting of 10 August, it doesn't even mention the word "republic" but instead goes on about... the Terror. Because we all know that "thousands of people" (their words, not mine) were being guillotined daily from 1792 on, right? The best thing is, then they just segue right into Sonthonax's (for some reason Polverel isn't mentioned; I guess he doesn't matter) being sent to Saint-Domingue and his abolition of slavery, then the abolition of slavery in all the French colonies by the Convention upon the arrival of the three representatives from Saint-Domingue. Because these things were in a accordance with the Convention's principles, the documentary rightly explains. However, someone who didn't know anything on the subject watching the documentary (ie, probably most of its audience) would not be out of line to ask: what principles? given that the only other significant thing that the documentary informs us that they did is chop heads off. Really, it's no wonder Americans (and anyone else who gets fed this kind of narrative) are confused: all the time that could have been spent explaining context is eaten up describing (occasionally imaginary) bloodshed.

When it comes to revolutionary violence in Saint-Domingue, we're at least given a reason for it: some combination of vengeance and the resistance of white planters (they don't really bring up the colonial lobby back in France, which is a shame, but I understand they were pressed for time... one more thing it would have been useful to describe instead of the head-chopping), but they go into far to much detail on the subject of massacres, fires, heads on pikes, etc. for so short a documentary in which they have so much material to get through.

Still, it's nice to see them attempting to contextualize the violence in Saint-Domingue at least (perhaps because people have a more visceral reaction to slavery as oppression than to feudalism or monarchy as oppression and therefore the use of violence to escape from it becomes more acceptable...?) Which is more than we see for France. Apparently there the violence was just for the lulz (and also totally one-sided). Whatever. Since the documentary wasn't actually about the French Revolution per se, I'm not quite as irate as I would be otherwise, but that kind of representation is still always uncalled for.

Don't get me wrong though, even with all those flaws it was still a pretty good overview that managed, despite the inevitable oversimplifications to introduce the different interests and principles in play and though someone completely ignorant of the period might be a bit confused about the events in France during the period, they would walk out with a basic knowledge of the events of the Revolution of Saint-Domingue/Haïti and their importance, which was probably the goal. (Just don't expect anything more sophisticated than that.)


montagnarde1793: (Default)

October 2014

5678 91011
19202122 232425

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios