Sunday, 3 May 2009

Enjoy Poverty: Renzo Martens


The lasting image in Renzo Martens’ documentary-style film, set in the Congo, is a neon sign saying “ENJOY please POVERTY” that he sets up in a remote Congolese village. As the Dutch artist starts the portable generator and the letters light up, the children look on in delight, and the parents are happy that a little joy has been brought into their children’s lives. It is quite clearly the event of their year, if not their lifetime.

But the message it carries is a stark one: be resigned to your life of poverty and don’t believe in the hope offered by western charity workers, you have been poor for decades and in reality this probably won’t change, be satisfied with your lot, enjoy your poverty.

This uneasy pairing of, on the one hand, seeming to want to better the Congolese people’s lives and, on the other, concluding that there is no hope of a better life for them runs throughout the film. It makes uncomfortable viewing as you wonder what Martens’ true intentions are.

The film seems to mock the way the western world exploits the poverty in Africa: the white journalists and photographers seeking the worst atrocities so they can sell their ‘story’ to the western media, the United Nations peacekeepers keeping designated areas safe so that overseas companies can fly in and out to search for gold, the western palm oil and cocoa plantation owner whose local workers don’t earn enough to feed their children, and the NGOs who drive around in jeeps and plaster their logos on everything to increase visibility and help secure more funding.

Martens travels around the Congo describing this situation to the Congolese people, telling them how their poverty is a resource that the west exploits to make money, little of which is returned to those in need, and to make themselves feel good. But isn’t Martens complicit in this too?

At one point, Martens sets up a makeshift classroom where he puts basic calculations up on a board to illustrate to local men how photographing malnourished children and raped women and selling these photos to foreign media would bring them more money than taking pictures of weddings and celebrations. They set out to put the theory into practice.

You sit there squirming, as these men are encouraged to point their cameras into the faces of their own suffering people and get a ‘good’ picture that will sell well. Martens and the men go to a hospital to see if the (white) Médecins sans Frontières representative would allow them to take pictures and if he’d be interested in buying their photos. The answer is no, the reason first being that it would be inappropriate, and then, when Martens points out that western photographers are permitted to do so, the reason is because the locals’ work isn’t professional enough.

Martens tells the men bluntly that their plan won’t work, they won’t be able to sell their photos and that they should go back to selling happy, wedding pictures for a pittance. You feel like Martens has used them for his own personal experiment, and then abandoned them once he has made his point and obtained his documentary material. They had put their trust in him and are left disappointed, exploited even.

It’s a contradictory film, which initially made me question the point of my monthly contributions to Médecins sans Frontières and by the end had me questioning what Martens really hoped to achieve with his documentary.

The film is showing at the KVS in Brussels until May 10 as part of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts.

(Photo credit: © Renzo Martens)

9 comments:

Anne said...

This piece in De Standaard (http://www.standaard.be/Artikel/Detail.aspx?artikelId=2629GU7V&subsection=4) mentioned that Martens has arranged for some people in the film to receive royalties, thus putting in practice 'fairtrade poverty'. I agree with you he is playing, but I do think there is a purpose to it as it brings us closer to the (multi-faceted) reality...

Anonymous said...

you should read this article based on a series of interviews with Martens: http://www.aprior.org/articles/34

Paweł Wimmer said...

I have just watched this film in Planete - it's really shocking. I have the same impressions.

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Anonymous said...

I was disgusted with his irresponsible "experiment" with the wedding photographers - how high he raised their expectations only to have them humiliated by the MSF guy. He himself was exploiting them for his own "journalistic" or "artistic" ends. It left me sickened.
I was also bemused by his persistent filming of himself, particularly the scene with him singing Neil Young's "A man needs a maid" - egotistical nonsense.

Annemarie said...

This was a really said and discomforting documentary. The sad part is, he has a point. Poverty is a billion dollar industry. Poverty in Africa has generated billions upon billions of dollars. The real question should be, why is Africa still poor and why has nothing changed?

Anonymous said...

As others have said, there are whole poverty industries that make a living with their various charities and agencies and so forth. They live off of private donations, government subsidies/people's taxes.

In the US, well-funded agencies like ACORN earn incomes for their employees and do quite well, but no real change takes place. The film's message resonates in many countries...

Anonymous said...

have you considered that probably the message was not for the villagers but for the viewers?! I would sustain my argument by the fact that if it was for the villagers it would have made more sense to be written in French...
I rather see it as an invitation to watch, meditate and enjoy... what is to be enjoyed... and mainly think of it from this point of view, i.e. is there anything at all to enjoy?! And if the answer is no then take action in some way! My zero cents [just to be in line with the title...]

Anonymous said...

".... It is quite clearly the event of their year, if not their lifetime."

Really? How is this clear to you? Do you not think the birth of their children, weddings or other moments would take such an honour as being THE EVENT of their lives???

Please do not infantilise the people in this film. It is disrespectful. These people have dignity like any others anywhere in the world, and you are, unknowingly I think, not really recognising their humanity. Also we must not treat people like small children, assuming they do not understand or fully conceptualise of a) the way in the devlopment industry works and b) Renzo's own gains.

Your reading and some of the commenst emulate the very same attitudes you argue against.

Sorry for the strong words, I hope they can resonate with something in you.