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White Material (2009)
White Material is a 2009 French film directed by Claire Denis and co-written with Marie NDiaye. The films stars Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial, a struggling French coffee producer in an unnamed African country, who decides to stay at her coffee plantation in spite of an erupting civil war. The film was very well received, earning high ratings and appearing in several movie critics' top lists for 2010. Maria is a white farmer who runs (with her ex-husband, his father, and their son) a failing coffee plantation in an unnamed African country in the present day. Civil war has broken out and rebel soldiers, many of them child soldiers, are advancing on the area. Rebels on the radio advocate attacks on emblems of colonialism. Maria's workers leave, but she refuses to abandon the plantation, and searches for men to finish harvesting of the coffee. As she and her family await the inevitable, the tensions in their personal relationships, and in their relations with the African community, become exposed. Maria puts the farm in even more danger when she looks after a wounded rebel officer known as 'The Boxer'.
Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) is calmly determined to find laborers to harvest the remaining coffee, amidst consistently blaring radio announcements claiming control of the land from oppression. People are leaving every moment despite her diplomatic cajoling that things have been worse and it's better in the long run to finish what will take less than a week. Her father (Michel Subor) is relaxed about the idea of dying and provides little support while ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lambert), who has fathered a child with one of the workers, attempts to hand the land over to a local militia head in exchange for exit assistance.
In classic Denis-style (she co-wrote the script with Marie N'Diaye), White Material utilizes as little spoken interaction as possible, in this case conveying how much communication, and the country's condition, are based on economic transactions. When something more cerebral is discussed, Maria is unable to digest those words, as if they are a foreign language and not just because of a her conscious denial of circumstances. Maria's life becomes entirely comprised of completing one task at a time, clinging, though not desperately, to the life she's accustomed to. She drives around, personally negotiating for help, getting supplies, looking over her crops, and gradually taking on more activities as her ability to rely on anyone diminishes. With her simple indomitable resolve, through which she admirably never resorts to emotional outbursts or manipulations, the nature of impending change takes on a deeper meaning of crisis.
Though the crisp verite of following Maria's moves is simple, the cultural ramifications are far from it. It is easy to judge Maria for the amount of privilege she exudes, but she's also the only person making an effort against the mounting hysteria perpetuating further violent situations. It seems reprehensible to send the workers to rest in an unkempt shed after all the effort it took to get them there, but the treatment of citizens by their own community is no better once one of their peers has a gun. Nobody retains "authority" for very long. As more people are trying leave the confusing turmoil, innocent people die for existing at the wrong place and time. There is no perfect protagonist or easy solution.
While taking its time to explore the personal tragedies taking place during the upheaval, White Material allows no room for pity as it jostles between how different groups cope and react to sudden power alterations. The actual fighting and competing for control were as far as anyone seems to have thought, not preparing for a world in which things would actually change. As such, even as we're disgusted at one race's unjust hold over another, the results of quick equalization through force alone prove to be damaging to everyone, without consideration for class or connections.
Depicting the abhorrent nature of colonialism, and painfully critiquing the destruction involved in its fall, White Material reveals the inhumane conditions that arise when political maneuvering has no foresight. It can be heartbreaking to watch, but it's worth the reflection on what happens when people insist on superiority that they don't deserve.