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Review: ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ rewrites a brutal story

“The very existence of this film is a miracle,” says Raoul Peck in “Exterminate All the Brutes”, a documentary he wrote, directed and narrated. It refers to the existence of a film that tells the story of colonialism and slavery from a non-white, non-Western perspective, although in 2021 that may seem less of a miracle than an expectation. .

What’s more miraculous is that Peck found a home on mainstream American television – yes, it’s HBO, but still – for a four-hour stunt of historical footage, ruminations, and glimpses. supremely personal, impressionistic but intellectualized. (The busy editor was Alexandra Strauss.) That would be an impressive achievement on any subject, let alone genocide.

The title “Exterminate All the Brutes”, with its combination of blunt force and literary flourishing (and its suggestion that history has misidentified true brutes), suits a project that elaborates and aestheticizes feelings of outrage, of disbelief and despair. (It was taken from “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad and a 1996 book by historian Sven Lindqvist which is one of the many scholarly sources Peck relied on.)

The film, whose four chapters premier Wednesday and Thursday nights, is relentless in its criticism, but it’s also more low-key than that title suggests. Peck’s slightly buzzing storytelling helps with this effect, as does an approach that is more free-associative than truly essayistic. There’s also, unfortunately, the documentary’s tendency to wade through and revolve around a relatively small set of ideas that would have had more force in a shorter film.

If “Exterminate All the Brutes” is never boring, it’s less because Peck – whose James Baldwin documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” was nominated for an Oscar in 2017 – always gives you something new to think of that because it always gives you something new to watch.

In addition to archival footage expected from centuries of colonial depredation, the film incorporates lively historical recreations; refined graphics; copious excerpts from Hollywood performances of non-Western populations; personal photos and films of Peck’s childhood in Haiti, Africa and New York; and fictional scenes starring Josh Hartnett as the straightforward face of white supremacy, at various times and places. (All colonialists are alike.)

Peck’s story centers on the intertwined threads of the genocide of the indigenous peoples of North America and the enslavement of Africans, and the connections he finds between these horrors and other genocides and oppressions, in particular the Holocaust. There are things in his account that will likely be new to many viewers, such as the discussion of Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas and his role in the plight of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and African slaves, or how Peck restores the ‘Haitian. revolution at its proper stature alongside the American and French revolutions.

But much of the material in “Exterminate All the Brutes” is familiar; we have known it from the start, a circumstance that Peck recognizes and which feeds his anger.

“The educated general public has always widely known what atrocities have been and are being committed in the name of progress, civilization, socialism, democracy and the market,” he says. The question is, why have they been ignored, obscured and whitewashed in popular culture.

Peck’s broad assertions and arguments are unlikely to generate much controversy, although his repeated connection between the stories of the American West and African colonialism to the Holocaust (allowing for many Hitler images) may seem easy or callous. to some.

In its attempt to replace traditional narratives of indigenous and other oppressed peoples with its own narrative, however, some strategies are less effective than others. The fictional sequences are perhaps Peck’s most direct attempt to straighten the story out – Hartnett adopts the filming of a Seminole woman in the head in one scene, and in another is bathed by an African woman near a group of lynched corpses – but their stagnation and artistic solemnity only serves to distance us from what we see. (It’s also worth noting that the women are not often seen or heard in the film, except as the silent victims.)

A work that “Exterminate All the Brutes” brings to mind, and which seems almost certain to have been an inspiration – both in theme and technique – is the great cinematic essay by Chris Marker ” Sans Soleil ”, 1983. But Peck’s documentary is more controversial and less poetic than Marker’s; it constantly establishes links, but it seems more didactic than complex, more academic than allusive.

(The rush for often violent or disturbing images is sometimes reminiscent of a very different film, the 1962 Italian shock-doc “Mondo Cane”.)

Peck sprinkles the four hours of images and references to recent U.S. presidents, and in the final chapter he lands head-on today, comparing Donald Trump and other heads of state to the white and Western lords of the United States. colonial era.

But throughout “Exterminate All the Brutes” the specific drifts into the general and the historical into the personal without, perhaps, the effect Peck hopes. He ends with a disapproving sentence that resonates throughout the film: “It is not knowledge that we lack.” But he refuses to say what we lack – compassion? Will? If there is something we have that could have made the story different, either he doesn’t know it or he doesn’t say it.

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