This film is a surreal, disturbing, confusing, and yet an enticing glimpse of life in Africa, neo-colonial and unstable Africa. Black and white are represented in various characters. Beyond that, things get a bit muddled.
Call me whatever you like, but I felt the film got derailed and jumped about a bit too much, especially the ending. I was literally confused as to what happened with the main character. It seemed, listening to the director’s commentary on the DVD, that the production had some difficulties, where their light kit was delayed for a full month in Cameroon customs. That led to a complete on-the-fly reworking of the film. I’m wagering that a little bit of continuity got lost in the malaise.
Even more confusing, a crucial scene of Maria returning home to the plantation was cut, and it ended up as a deleted scene. Not sure why it was cut, as this was a climactic moment. Lastly, the DVD I received had technical audio issues. This, I tried to overlook, but it amazed me that a professional sound mix would have this blatant problem through most of the film. I’m referring to a strange springy echo that accompanies nearly every sound in the film, the dialogue, the sound effects. This was disappointing and distracting.
But the story was, as I said, enticing and escalates. The situation deteriorates, and the characters are put in direct opposition to the events unfolding. Maria is driven to harvest the crop before giving up her plantation. The rebels are on the advance, and have taken over the land surrounding the plantation. The government, and its corrupt officials, have their own designs on appropriating the plantation. Everything converges to deny Maria her payday.
I saw something very recognizable in Maria, in a blindness to danger an obsession to succeed despite the risks to herself, or others. Actually much is familiar in White Material, including the title. The film makes an attempt at confronting European colonialism. The plantation is itself white material, constructed by whites, with white investment and know-how anyway. It’s a white resource extraction enterprise, to send coffee abroad for European markets. It requires black labor to pick the coffee, in a time of turmoil and revolution where bands of black revolutionaries control much of the countryside.
So many topics are touched upon: colonial rule, child soldiers, corruption, capitalism, racism, etc., that the film perhaps lacks sufficient focus. It has a winged, scattershot feel to it. Still worth a watch, but perhaps it could have benefitted from a rewrite and a bit of grace from the gods of production.