Interrogating the Project of Military History

March 8, 2004 - Last week I watched Flame, director Ingrid Sinclair's 1996 film about the experience of a fictitious Zimbabwean freedom fighter.  Sinclair is primarily a documentary maker and her original intent was to build a documentary around the war experiences of seven Zimbabwean women guerrillas.  But when none would speak on-camera about their having been sexual abused during their service, Sinclair decided to make a drama instead.  The title of the film is drawn from the lead character's nom de guerre; her real name is Florence.  The other principal character is Nyasha, Florence's best friend, who joins ZANLA with Florence and takes the nom de guerre Liberty.  (In the film, each recruit is required to assume a nom de guerre by which she or he will be known officially, the idea being to reduce the possibility of Rhodesian reprisals against the recruit's family.)

At far left: director Ingrid Sinclair.
Marion Kunanga, who plays the title character.

was made with the assistance not only of the government of Zimbabwe but also the French foreign ministry. Clicking Kunanga's photo will take you to the foreign ministry web page for the film.  The page includes a short excerpt in Quicktime and RealPlayer formats.

Click here to download Quicktime.
Click here to download RealPlayer.

If you want a detailed synopsis of the film, go to the Flame web site.  I'll just hit the high points.  The women make their way across the border into Mozambique--the choice of Mozambique instead of Zambia was the only way I knew they were joining ZANLA instead of ZIPRA, and I don't recall the film ever noticing that there were two resistance forces.  Once in Mozambique, soldiers from that newly-independent country give them a lift to the nearest training camp.  There they undergo a protracted training period, during the course of which three things become apparent:  life in ZANLA means long days, short rations and scant medical care; it doesn't necessarily mean the women will get to play an active role in the conflict (for a long time they train with sticks, not assault weapons); it does mean being the object of attention from the men, sometimes friendly, sometimes unwanted.  Eventually an officer in ZANLA, Che, asks to see Flame in his quarters.  She goes.  He says he loves her and without further ado rapes her.  This episode provoked a storm of controversy among male veterans of the Chimurenga, so I was surprised to see how muted it is in the film.  It occurs mostly off-camera; Flame soon visits Che of her own accord, he apologizes, and she accepts him as her lover.  Subsequently she discovers that she's pregnant.  When Che learns of the baby's birth, he asks to see the child.  The synopsis on the web site says that Che "makes no move to claim him," but I didn't catch on to that.  Judging by the tenderness with which Che treats little Hondo, I had the opposite impression.  Soon Che and Hondo are killed in an air strike by two Rhodesian jets and Flame places the body of her child next to Che's.  Given that presenting the rape was a central reason Sinclair adopted the format of a drama in the first place, I found it odd that she would soften the incident so much.

Flame, unlike most women guerrilla soldiers, serves in combat and eventually leads other guerrillas in battle.  There's even a scene in which she violates orders, seizes an antitank weapon, and blows up a truck full of Rhodesian soldiers.  Liberty, meanwhile, serves as a clerk and later (I think) a propagandist.  After the war both women return home to find their contribution to the struggle, and that of their female comrades, forgotten by the new government.

The film received a number of prizes when released and, judging by my Internet search, is still shown regularly on college campuses and similar venues.  Some find it very moving.  I did not, which disappointed me, because I was rooting for the film and wanted to be moved.  Unfortunately, at the level of basic cinematic story-telling Flame just isn't that involving.  I didn't care about the characters:  they never for an instant came alive to me as people.  I don't think that was the fault of the actors, though a number of them were non-professionals.  John Sayles, to name one example, can summon extraordinary performances from first-time actors.  (See, for instance, Men With Guns.)  Nor was it a problem with the sets or props.  The ZANLA training camp had a lot of verisimilitude, and the Zimbabwean government obviously gave the film a lot of support:  there was no shortage of weaponry and I'm pretty sure Sinclair filmed actual low-level passes by jets from the Zimbabwean air force.  The technical production values (sound, cinematography, etc.) were fine.  No, the problem was mostly in the film's direction.

Oddly enough, I have yet to find a single reference to the film in the several books and articles I've perused on the experiences of women guerrillas, most recently Josephine Nhongo-Simbanegavi's For Better Or Worse?  Women and ZANLA in Zimbabwe's Liberation Struggle (Harare:  Weaver Press, 2000).  Claire Robertson's class is reading a couple of chapters from the book for tomorrow's meeting.  I'm assigned to help facilitate the discussion, which, if you must know, is how I got on this Zimbabwe kick in the first place.  When viewing Flame I kept looking for a brief excerpt to show in class, but I didn't find one--which is partly a function of the film's dramatic weakness and partly of the fact that the strongest scenes were, surprisingly, the battle scenes.  Still, I'd love to see what my fellow students would make of the film as a whole.  Maybe they'd find things in it I missed.  But it's the last week of winter quarter:  I imagine they're too busy with papers and generally too flayed to exhaustion to be up for it.

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