African Mirror (DOC 2019) // Colonial Switzerland, Part 1 (with Ana Sobral)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Many thanks to Zurich Postcolonial Studies expert Ana Sobral, who brings some credibility to my white British scribblings on this complex topic! Ana was my co-viewer this week and shared her thoughts after the movie, several of which inspired this piece.

Black silhouettes hop silently over sand-coloured rocks. The terrain could be bush, mountain, praire. One of the figures ascends a boulder and looks back towards the camera. We see our own curiosity at the distant, the unfamiliar, reflected back .

“Sometimes,” says a pensive male voice in heavily accented German, “I wish that we Swiss had a colony in the tropics.”

René Gardi, an amiable children’s author and TV broadcaster, wrote those words as he reflected on his life’s work. The Swiss never did get a colony, but that didn’t stop them craving images of Africa on the new-fangled televisions of the 1950s and 1960s. Gardi found his niche providing those images.

African Mirror consists of Gardi’s film and audio footage spliced together by editor Mischa Hedinger, interspersed with journal entries and related texts in voiceover.

Gardi compares the “intact families” of Africa favourably to Swiss society, and draws numerous parallels between Swiss mountain-dwellers and the ethnic groups of the Cameroonian bush. And he paternalizes is relentlessly. The clips chosen for African Mirror focus on the Mafa people of Cameroon, who lived out moments from their lives for Gardi and his Swiss audience, and now, once again, for us. Gardi’s feature-length documentary Mandara, was released a year before Cameroon’s independence in 1960; much of the footage comes from research trips made for the film.

The spectacle of independence cannot be cut from the film roll of history, a fact René Gardi recognizes with increasing bitterness: “The gap between technological education and inner [psychological] development is very large… One can’t let them have democratic freedom too early.”

Back home, Gardi’s star wanes in a new wave of European cinema. A German film commission demands a rewrite of Mandara‘s “patronising” text to qualify it for tax exemption; meanwhile, trashy Mondo shockumentaries were about to sweep through cinemas. And then came the first waves of German tourists, clutching cameras and their book versions of Mandara, turning the mirror back on to the great enlightener.

A final twist: René Gardi’s mirror is, it turns out, a queer one. For the movie also portrays the tragedy of a closeted gay man finding solace in the “wilderness” of Africa – a place he is tempted to go wild, lose control, but never does. Gardi is there, from there, looking back at Switzerland, and failing to find an “intact family” where he belongs.

Worth a watch?

Gardi’s footage remains spectacular; I regularly caught myself saying “Wow!” A big part of this is the insight into a society on the brink of massive historical change. And of course there’s that vestige of the exotic romantic, a more “primitive” reaction: awesome vistas and unashamedly naked human beings, and that flickering, hypnotic graininess which furnishes the old footage with the aura of an authentic historical document.

Yes, African Mirror tells us, we’re watching a fastidious filmmaker who has found genuine passion for the people and places he encounters. But we’re also being immersed in a colonial mindset. Gardi helps French administrators perform their duties on indigenous people he frames as wild, primitive children; when he criticizes the French, he hints the Swiss might do better.

So that’s Mischa Hedinger’s African Mirror, a bomb of a movie to blow open our Swiss Me Deadly canon. Essential viewing, not only to learn not only about Switzerland’s attitude to the wider world, but also about a talented and contradictory Swiss propagandist, tricky to pin down.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Säntis (intermediate).
Language: Swiss German and German. There’s an English subtitled version on Vimeo, as well as French.

Availability: On Vimeo to own for 10CHF, or on Cinefile to rent, a little cheaper.

Swissness Lab Report: Colonial Switzerland, Part 1 – The Noble Savage and the Bergler

In spite of Switzerland’s lack of colonies, much of René Gardi’s paternalizing falls under the typical colonialist category of the “noble savage”. This is the idea there is something pure and untouched in so-called “primitive” black society, a kind of echo of an earlier time for the global West before civilization came along and corrupted everything.

Gardi doesn’t explicitly say “noble savage” in African Mirror, but he does refer to “black Arcadia”. Arcadia, the ancient Greek pastoral utopia, is a pure state of bliss and happiness on a social level before something happens that ruins its purity. His Africa is an untouched space that he captured innocently.

Naturally, ehen the wave of tourists influenced by Gardi’s images arrive, they capture an Africa that is no longer “authentic”. Gardi is disgusted by the passage from “black Arcadia” to so-called “free democracy”, and bemoans scenes of Cameroonians selling cheap Western wares in the markets, or Maja people descending from the mountain for photo ops. But he assumes that it’s decolonization which has brought this about – technically speaking it is, but the fact that decolonized countries have to be integrated into a market system means they have to sell themselves. Gardi is aware of the word “neo-colonialism”, and the debates that are taking place, but refuses to participate in it.

As we see in the following journal extract from early in the movie, Gardi projects the prototypical Swiss mountain-dwellers, the Bergler, on to his African “subjects”.

There are very many parallels with our Bergler: having the world to themselves; in balance with the land; free on the inside. The Matakam, the free lads, ignore our magic, our commodities, our money. That gives them an immense freedom. Swiss Bergler are really quite similar. The land without complexity. True democrats.

In that sense, Gardi’s discourse looks forward to the Schwing- und Alplerfest so beloved of the Swiss People’s Party, and goes back at least as far as the wartime Spiritual National Defence. But the concept has deeper historical roots. Zurich historian Bernhard Schär summarizes it as “the idea that Switzerland emerged from a freedom-loving, pious population of simple farmers and herdsmen”.

According to Schär, this idea – a myth – was pushed in urban academic circles of the 1700s, and then harnessed by nation-makers in the nineteenth century (history reminder: 1848, year of the first Swiss constitution and founding of modern parliament). Crucially, this “farmers and herdsmen” myth evolved alongside colonialism itself – it was a construct of the imperialist machine, just like the “noble savage” was. No European colonies would have equated to no relentless pushing of the myth of rural Ur-Switzerland.

Schär concludes that the early anthropologists of the twentieth century, the immediate predecessors of René Gardi, helped maintain a symbolic representation much closer to home: “Switzerland as an unchanging patriarchal population of farmers and herdsmen, which was kept out of the centre of things under the protection and leadership of benevolent individuals.” It’s a powerful image which not only ties in with the wartime Spiritual Defence we’ve seen, but also could be a useful tool when watching Switzerland actions in the world today.

Switzerland differentiates itself from its colonial neighbours – it is “outside the centre.” In African Mirror, Gardi is shown to be critical of the colonial powers who accompany him. He may give the French administrators a helping hand collecting taxes, but he also calls them “stupid and overly complicated”. Compared to the French, he suggests, Switzerland sometimes has more in common with the Cameroonian ethnic groups: “When we’re alone, we Swiss live simpler and often quite primitively.”

A French administrator collects taxes from Cameroonian farmers whose entire economy was invented by the colonials.

All in all, Gardi draws a very clear line – bothered by the post-independence developments, but refusing to enter the more critical thinking about why these developments were the way they were.

Intriguingly, while researching for this review, I stumbled on an Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Cameroon. One photograph shows a village similar to those shown in African Mirror. “Thatch-covered conical roofs of cylindrical houses in a Matakam compound, Cameroon,” reads the caption. “Image credit: René Gardi.” So Gardi’s work still has use today, even in venerable encyclopedias.

Except – at the very end of African Mirror, an intertitle informs us that the word “Matakam”, repeated by both Gardi and the Encyclopedia Britannica, in fact has pejorative meaning as “those without clothes”, and was employed mainly by the colonials; the correct terminology would be “Mafa”. So here we have quite a literal example of how Gardi’s mindset still filters down, and why movies like African Mirror are still urgently needed.

My co-viewer for this movie Ana Sobral freelances via Postcolonial Spectacles as a teacher, consultant and public intellectual. Her main areas are racial justice, cultural diversity and colonial history, and how they’re related to our everyday lives. She also works as project manager at Weiter Schreiben Schweiz, a cultural project showcasing exiled authors living in Switzerland. In a former life she was Professor of Global Literatures at the University of Zurich.


Bernhard C. Schär, “Bauern und Hirten Reconsidered: Umrisse der erfundenen Schweiz imperialen Raum” in Postkoloniale Schweiz, ed. Purtschert, Lüthi, Falk (2012)

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