Ever since the first missionaries set sail from home, Westerners have been obsessed with observing, civilizing, and writing about the “natives” they encounter. We all know the story in its modern form. White boy goes to Africa, films the lives of locals, and returns home to tell his story. His documentary goes viral online, telling the story of desperate need and issuing a cry to viewers for salvation. But in the process, films like his blur the relationship between observation and activism. From positions of power and privilege, how do we engage with the people of developing nations without falling into the cliché of the Western savior? In her documentary “The Al-Hadji and His Wives,” Harvard professor Jie Li attempts to do just this. I picked up the DVD on a whim last weekend, popped it in the computer, and munched on dhall pretzels as Li’s camera turned me unwittingly from a spectator into an armchair anthropologist, from an observer into an activist, and back again.
Her film captures the life of a Mbororo Fulani family in Cameroon. As the camera pans around the family compound, we get to see polygamy as a normal part of everyday life. The Al-Hadji is a cattle-herder and has three wives, each of whom lives in her own house, takes turns cooking meals, and owns her own cattle. As I watch, I find myself suspending my own sense of right and wrong, trying to inhabit instead this new moral system, one in which a woman can be both a property owner and owned as property.
The film soon introduces us to the Al-Hadji’s daughter, Amina. She’s quiet and stands straight, with long hands like cornstalks. We learn that she doesn’t like her fiancé, but before the plot can move forward, the camera wanders through other snippets of everyday life. A colorful cloth is wound around a head, a baby crawls towards a bowl of water, a woman tends to her cows.
One year later, Li returns to the village to find that Amina has been married off and that she has tried—and failed—to escape after being beaten by her husband. When she sought shelter back home, her father gave her another beating and carried her back to her husband’s village. The whole episode is recounted by the Al-Hadji and his first wife. Young people are too free these days, they tell us. The Al-Hadji gives a shrug, with a gentle chuckle that could have come from any father concerned for his daughter. But this time, the activist in me isn’t so ready to embrace my earlier stance as an armchair anthropologist. Instead, my first instinct is to search for ways to save Amina from her plight.
When Li goes to visit Amina, she slips her the crucial question: “Are you happy here?” Amina doesn’t give us a straight answer, but the camera does. We see her long cornstalk hands grasping at the colorful cloth of her dress, but nothing more is said. We cut to the threshold, where two drops of rain have fallen and are quickly being absorbed by the dust. The camera wanders and we find ourselves outside, where a sheep’s throat is being cut by a long knife.
As I watch, the activist and the anthropologist inside me are at war, and I can’t reconcile them just by swallowing another dhall pretzel and ejecting the DVD. Li’s film has been criticized for failing to show how Amina could have resisted the patriarchy. According to one reviewer, we expect a narrative of female empowerment, and we are left woefully betrayed. In Amina’s world, there is no campaigning, no fundraising, no humanitarian intervention.
Just as Amina carries on with the routine of her daily life, the only thing we can cling to are the images that Li has wrought for us. Amina’s pregnant silence is like the silence of the heroine in Chen Kaige’s 1984 film, “Yellow Earth,” about a young Chinese peasant who is forced into an unwanted marriage. The sheep’s slaughter is not only loaded with religious allegory, but is also a reference to Zhang Yimou’s 1987 epic, “Red Sorghum,” in which the flaying of an ox is used as a stand-in for the actual flaying of humans during the Japanese occupation. As a Chinese cinephile, Li is of course aware of all of these references and their powerful implications.
But what troubles me is precisely this. “The Al-Hadji and His Wives” has the cinematic qualities of “Yellow Earth” and “Red Sorghum,” but it’s a documentary. Because I’m an observer and nothing more, I’m complicit in the acts of violence done to Amina. As a viewer, I’m tempted to play the part of the slum tourist, the white boy in Africa, the Western savior. However, Li has denied me the chance to swoop in and save lives. I am made to feel empathy, but I am also made to feel helpless.
In its own, quietly devastating way, Jie Li’s film is a response to the mission of female empowerment that has spawned endless orphanages, microloan schemes, and English-teaching programs abroad. I’m reminded of a tweet from the Nigerian-American author Teju Cole, writing on the hypocrisy of KONY 2012: “The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” Li puts us in that uncomfortable space between anthropologist and activist, but she doesn’t let us channel our empathy into the industry of becoming a savior. Her film is honest about our role in the third world in ways that promotional videos are often not. As the closing credits roll by, I’m left with no easy way out. There’s no call to action, no donation box to ease my guilt. All I can do is eat another pretzel, eject the DVD, and look out the window. Two drops of rain have fallen and are quickly being absorbed by the dust.