Jan Zabeil’s Film River Use to be a Man in Review
River Use to be a Man stands at the crux of an unfinished conversation (and perhaps unfinishable) on the nature of representation. Which stories are we permitted to tell and in what kinds of places are we entitled to tell them? These are the sorts of questions that are inevitably asked when a film is depicted in the fragmented site of colonialism – more so when one who does not find that place his home authors that representation. This is both the narrative and the metanarrative of German film maker Jan Zabeil’s feature, where functioning as both author, director, and actor (and one might be tempted to add, character), he plays a listless German youth wandering Botswana, who is forced by circumstances beyond his control to journey on a boat down a river in search of his own life. This is a tale of existential and spiritual survival, a Heart of Darkness for a postmodern generation.
The process of filming is itself a testament to this, as Jan Zabeil came to Botswana with no completed script or written dialogue, only a vague idea of what he hopped to achieve. The film does not suffer from this ambiguity; the cinematography that arises from this method is striking. As the camera lingers upon the ordinary surroundings of the river, the grass rushing past the side of the boat, the gentle but steady swell of the current, a rhythm develops, drawing the viewer into a dreamlike state, where real images blend into unreal visions. So gradual is the transformation of the ordinary into the sublime that it becomes difficult to mark when exactly the change occurred, when the images became unreal. Indeed, at times, the viewer is made aware only after the fact, as a loud crash (in an otherwise silent film) followed by a scene change jolts the film back into reality.
The same rhythm is echoed in the character and plot development, as what starts off as a real crisis threatening the safety of the protagonist, forcing him out of his lethargy and driving him down the river, slowly shifts into an unreal struggle with the spiritual. “You are on an island in the house of the animals,” the protagonist is told by his guide. In other words, he is not at home, a reality that is all too apparent in his existential attitude of ironic self-distancing from his surrounding, an attitude in stark contrast to the seamless navigation of nature witnessed in the guide. Yet it is precisely the protagonist’s ironic stance that is drawn into question as he is forced to confront the sheer otherness of the river when his guide dies: if he continues in it, the river will kill him.
This relationship moves from the existential to the spiritual, as the spirit of his guide comes to embody the otherness of the river. Drawing from the real animistic traditions of the indigenous group who call the filming location home, Jan Zabeil uses a local myth in which a man who dies without proper burial rights will transform into a crocodile and return to kill his family and those who did not burry him. Thus, whereas the existential otherness of the river threatened the protagonist with death passively, the spiritual otherness of the river seeks death actively. This leads him to consult a local shaman who sends him back down the river to put the spirit of his guide to rest by finding the body and burying it, a quest that ends the film as ambiguously as it starts. Just before the credits begin to play, the viewer hears the voice of the guide singing a hymn in his native tongue as the camera pans over the protagonist safely surveying the river from the window of a plane. He may have been able to distance himself from the river physically, but as the hymn suggests, existentially and spiritually, his ironic detachment remains broken and the river lingers with him still.
While the film succeeds in provoking the viewer’s imagination, and drawing into question a postmodern attitude of ironic detachment, it nevertheless encounters significant problems. The question remains: which stories are we permitted to tell and in what kinds of places are we entitled to tell them? The trope of an existential and spiritual journey down a river in Africa is hardly new, and the author/director/actor’s, unwillingness to situate his film and himself within this history is reminiscent of the protagonist’s own ironic detachment from his surroundings.
In what seems an effort to occlude such a critique, Zabeil explained in the Q & A session after the film how he used the real religious beliefs of the local community to build his story. It took only a single query from the audience to draw this into question. When asked whether the hymn sung was from the Christian tradition, the director was unable to respond; he simply did not know the answer. What he did acknowledge however was that the hymn singer (the same actor who plays the guide) was a Christian preacher. This would seem to suggest that the local village of which that man was a part was not simply animistic, but held a multiplicity of beliefs, including stories, legends, and songs that were based in a Christian social imaginary imparted by a colonial history.
That the film failed to depict this, is indicative of both how unrecognizable the Christian tradition has become and how easy it is to fall into a colonialist gaze. For by choosing to depict only the animistic beliefs, the director made a political as well as a theological choice: he created a representation of a people and their home (both spiritually and physically) which, while perhaps being a better backdrop for a postmodern white man working out his existential angst, was not fully reflective of the people who really lived their. Instead of recognizing the complexity of their religious commitments, he paints them with a single mystical brush stroke of otherness, leaving out those things that might reframe the tale he wanted to tell. This is always the prerogative of the one who controls the camera, but given Zabeil’s claim to have consulted the local community, it seems all the more patronizing.
Nevertheless, River Use to be a Man is a compelling film that successfully illustrates the dangers of holding a postmodern ironic detachment from one’s surrounding, both for the protagonist and for the director. With stunning cinematography, it will enchant its viewers into a dreamlike state, even if in the end, it fails to wake them up.
Jeffrey Metcalfe is a postulant for ordination in the Diocese of Quebec, and is presently pursuing a master of divinity degree at Trinity College, Toronto. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.
 Jan Zabeil, “River Use to be a Man” (film screening and a question and answer period with the director, The Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto, September 12, 2011).