Richard Mosse’s Enclave shot in war torn eastern Congo is fuckin’ epic. It’s well worth sitting through all 39 minutes. I swear it does not disappoint. As I recall, it starts by following a path over rolling pink hills (it’s shot with outdated 16mm military grade infrared film that registers green as magenta). It continues onto a road with twelve-foot high embankments on both sides, lined with Africans in ragged clothes, waiting as if a person of importance was about to arrive. Or, as the case maybe waiting for the camera and a chance to be seen by the outside world, in hopes of improbable fame or simply to be recorded, to give evidence that they were worth taking notice of. The camera continues on a long, smooth tracking shot where the camera smoothly works through the paths of a crowded shantytown with majestic pink mountains in the background. Kids scurry every which way to stay in front of the camera. The giant shantytown with its epic poverty seems otherworldly, especially from a Western perspective, but locating it in a cotton candy landscape really heightens the effect. Instead of abstracting the horrors of the living conditions, the images become so indigestible images that they linger in your gut, weighing you down as they’re processed. The camera floating just above human height, like a prying overseer, eventually comes to rest on a man cradling a small child in a red blanket. He eyes the camera with puzzlement and unease, as the townspeople fill in the frame, one by one, as if they’re lining up for a banquet picture in front of the distressed father. It is an amazing opening sequence.
From there, a lot happens, and all of it is remarkable. But frustratingly, the video is shown simultaneously on six screens, hanging in a rectangular shape in the middle of the room, so it’s impossible to see everything. There is space to walk among the screens, which makes the experience immersive, but the length of the film makes it quite a feat to stay moving for the entire time. What I do recall seeing from where I sat down was an extended scene of young men with large machine guns and rocket launchers setting up along a majestic, raging river for what I assumed was an ambush. As they waited, and the camera lingered over their shoulders, it was hard not to worry about the cameraman’s safety. Now, why I never worried about the equally exposed soldiers, I don’t know. I guess because they were armed, I assumed they could handle themselves. No one ever comes down the river, but we end up in town where curious onlookers peek at dead bodies laid out in the street. A crowd grows gathers around the body, a young man amazingly wears a 90’s NWO “new world order” t-shirt is dead center. The shirt was most certainly attained through a donation to goodwill and despite the overtures to a George Bush speech, the shirt is actually, even more amazingly from a Hulk Hogan wrestling story line. The shirt creates a wonderfully tragic convergence where Western cultural obsoleteness becomes a caption for human suffering.
The bodies lead to three sequences in the video that all unfold at the same time on different screens. A one story wooden house is moved by hand, a funeral march is led by a woman holding a handmade wooden cross and, in a dark, empty, purple-tinged cement room a woman gives birth. Creating a nice center to the video where life and death come together in a world turned on its head. And then the video moves into a church with a performance by what looks like a funk group. The camera sweeps down the aisle onto the stage and lingers on performers, including children who jump through fiery rings.
The camera eventually returns to the brush where men walk through stunningly beautiful, tall pink grass and end up in front of a man with a tribal spear, who seems to be blessing a ragtag bunch of soldiers before they invade a village. During the invasion, it becomes apparent for the first time in the video that the soldiers are play-acting for the camera. Villagers play dead, and soldiers run by with real guns making shooting noises with their mouths. It is mind blowing, to see this pay-acting war in a place where we have already witnessed so many dead bodies. Like most of the film, the effect is wondrous, perplexing, and tragic. An adult plays dead by lying across a dirt path as a small child sheepishly looks at the camera, then runs a couple of steps, stops, turns to the camera, does a little dance and runs away. Again hard to fathom or process, it is a reality I will never face or understand, and to see it bathed in an ever attractive purple / pink glow is heart wrenchingly beautiful in a way that is both enticing and at the same time feels inappropriate. The film comes to an end by circling a dead body on the road, as trucks pass by unceremoniously.
This is the best art I have seen in forever. It is visually engaging, plays conceptually with the assumptions of documentations and aestheticizing tragedies, and engages the viewer in a semi-informative way about contemporary conditions in the Congo. That’s a hell of a lot of things to do successfully in a video. Hats off to Richard Mosse. He made everything else I saw that day seem pretty inconsequential.