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Sven Augustijnen’s Spectres

Sven Augustijnen, Spectres, 2011, stills from a color video, 103 minutes.

THERE IS A MOMENT about twenty-five minutes into Sven Augustijnen’s film Spectres, 2011, that goes straight to the heart of how politics, history, and empire intersect in Belgium. Historian (and Chevalier) Jacques Brassinne de la Buissière is driving away from the gray stone mansion of Count Arnould d’Aspremont Lynden, whose late father was Belgium’s minister of African Affairs at the time of Congo’s liberation. The count has just granted Brassinne a friendly interview, complete with glasses of beer on the veranda, regarding the role of the minister and by extension the Belgian government in the infamous 1961 murder of independence leader Patrice Lumumba. As Brassinne and his wife cruise along the shady drive, the count’s dog dashes in front of the vehicle. Slamming on the brakes, Brassinne gasps (in French): “The dog just ran out. If I run him over, I can never set foot here again.” In an instant, we see the historian ensnared: His desire to be included among those he chronicles—in this case, among the nobility—is primal and primary.

A co-founder of the progressive Brussels film and video cooperative Auguste Orts, Augustijnen transforms meticulous research on a variety of subjects, from aphasia to prostitution, into video, photographic installations, and books. Spectres is more than an artistic “postdocumentary,” however: It is a treatise on contemporary history, investigating our fantasies about the ways in which history is made and told and exploring how these fantasies haunt our political and social institutions. The film follows the lanky, white-haired Brassinne as he appends another search to his exhaustive study of Lumumba’s assassination—a subject on which he has written thousands of pages, including a dissertation he published in 1991, when he was past sixty. In addition to the current Count d’Aspremont, Brassinne interviews the daughter of Moïse Tshombe, leader of the puppet government of Katanga, a state that Belgium briefly set up to maintain control of Congo’s richest mining area. He attends a Sunday mass commemorating the anniversary of the death of King Baudouin, the last Belgian ruler of Congo—a brilliantly weird scene in which Queen Fabiola, as dodderingly senescent as the hyper-conservative Belgian church itself, takes Communion while a strangely ill-assorted royal guard looks on. He manages to obsequiously insult Lumumba’s widow and children in another scene in which he pays his “respects” at their home in Kinshasa. And he journeys into the forest where Lumumba and two of his ministers were shot, buried, disinterred, and dismembered, their remains scattered over the forest floor, as if dead could not be dead enough. As Brassinne seeks the tree the men stood against when shot, we sense the real fragility of his search, the confusion of its critical coordinates and the uncertainty of its stakes. Villagers inform him that the tree was cut down for charcoal, and we feel his resignation, as well as his brutal disappointment. By this point, while Brassinne’s total identification with the colonial project is obvious, the exact nature of his relationship to the event that obsesses him is strikingly undecided, perhaps undecidable. Disclosures at the film’s very end will make his role in the colonial government chillingly clear, but that knowledge does not suffice to extract us from the knot in which we, too, are tangled.

Brassinne is a collaborator, an apologist—a fact that his friendship with the count, his many regretful, longing conversations about Katanga, and his profound awkwardness among Lumumba’s heirs make plenty evident—and a reactionary in the truest sense of the word. In the opinion of some in Belgium, the filmmaker provides too much latitude for Brassinne’s version of the assassination story, which exonerates Belgian officials and pins the lion’s share of the blame on a Mobutu crony. In 2000, sociologist Ludo De Witte—having reviewed Brassinne’s own archives—published a book that reached the opposite conclusion, provoking a parliamentary investigation that ultimately came down on Brassinne’s side. The absence of de Witte, who is referred to several times in the film, reminds us that we are far from a “debate” between two competing positions. Instead Spectres gives, in its chillingly self-deceiving protagonist, a damning portrait of postcolonial Belgium as a nation that treats its colonial history as simply a dynastic one, another chapter in the royal annals. Unlike some nation-states that spent the second half of the twentieth century reviewing their criminal roles in colonialism’s atrocities, Belgium has no institutions or policies recognizing (let alone “working through”) this darkest period of its past. As recently as January, Lumumba’s heirs brought charges of war crimes and torture against ten surviving Belgian officials, evidently feeling that this was the only way the state would ever be called to account.

One senses that the work of declassifying a political history of Congo is reserved for Augustijnen’s camera. It lingers on a shot of the elegant ankles of Brassinne and Arnould d’Aspremont, as the two reminisce about fifty-year-old telexes whose meanings they have long agreed on; the count’s effete, showy socks somehow bespeak the sense of remarkable impunity that cloaks the two men’s very being. Even as a Congolese villager tells Brassinne, “What you think is the opposite of what exists,” he continues stumbling along the forest path. Fascinated, without recourse—he is our historian as well as our criminal—we can only follow.

Rachel Haidu is an associate professor of art history at the University of Rochester, NY.