In the opening image of John Akomfrah’s Mimesis: African Soldier (2018), we are confronted by a row of black and brown faces who smile nervously and knowingly into the camera. They represent the faces we seldom see in war documentaries or history books; their smiles evoke a quiet sense of unease and foreboding. Once the colonial subjects of empire, they will soon assume their positions on its invisible front line. Following on from Akomfrah’s previous works, The Unfinished Conversation (2012) and Vertigo Sea (2015), Mimesis is split across three screens, allowing for multiple stories to be revealed simultaneously. Refusing to commit to a singular narrative, the film splices archival footage and sound with newly filmed sequences to create an impressionistic, multifaceted perspective. Visualizing the complex experiences of colonial soldiers during World War I, Akomfrah commemorates those who fought, served and died for a cause that was not theirs.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the nations of Africa did not take part in World War I. However, between 1914 and 1918, millions of unknown and undocumented African soldiers served in long campaigns that contributed toward European victories. More often than not, their efforts were overshadowed by conflicts between European powers. For instance, few know that the first shot fired by British forces on land was discharged by an African, Alhaji Grunshi, at Kamina; or that the last engagement between British and German forces took place on African soil. Neither is it common knowledge that more than two million colonial soldiers, labourers and carriers served in British, French and German forces on the western front, where they experienced the widespread racism of the early 20th century. In Mimesis, Akomfrah brings this global reality into view, illuminating a history that has yet to be fully recognized or understood.
Fracturing a grand historical narrative, the film is characteristic of Akomfrah’s cinematic practice, in which he refuses to obey historical chronology. Excising archival footage from the narratives in which it is typically embedded, he cuts and combines images in highly poetic ways. In the lush imagery that comprises the opening sequence of Mimesis, European and pan-African flags are used symbolically, hovering between a dual sense of loss and victory. In one scene, they are strewn across an empty battlefield like the blood-stained rags of wounded soldiers; later on, the same flags wave resiliently in the desert winds, imposing national identities onto the natural landscape. Throughout Mimesis, powerful images such as these are accompanied by one-word titles (‘Discontent’, ‘Distress’, ‘Disgust’), each distilling the psychological effects of war. Gaining nuance in their specificity, the words speak to what Akomfrah calls ‘the ambiguities of colonial disenchantment’ at the heart of the soldiers’s loss of identity and dispossession of self.
As the film develops, we are introduced to a group of soldiers who wander the abandoned battlefields and deserted shorelines in search of their former homelands. Their earthly possessions and fading family photographs appear submerged under streams of water. While the ocean is presented as a repository of memory that washes the soldiers’s belongings ashore, it is also the vast zone of human movement in which colonial exploration and the transatlantic slave trade took shape, as well as the crossroads of many contemporary migrations between territories and continents. In Mimesis, the soldiers’s memories seem to have become faded, deformed, abstracted as the existential threat of the ocean rises.
At points, Akomfrah reveals his hand not only as a powerful filmmaker adept in the art of reconstructing historical reality but as a masterful storyteller who draws attention to the human condition. Throughout the film, traditional African and Asian song imbues the imagery with the sense of displacement so often associated with the formation of a diasporic subject. As in earlier works, such as Handsworth Songs (1986), sound is used as a memory trigger capable of traversing time and space. Much like the images, this music is sourced from a vast media archive that the artist has assembled over the years. As cinematic strings begin to pour into the moving image, the group of soldiers can be seen standing stoically, waist-deep in the ocean’s tide. On another screen, streams of water continue to engulf their belongings together with their memories of home. Here, a cacophony of sound and image transforms our reception of history, suspending past, present and future at once.
When the soldiers finally return to an unspecified African country, they come to realize that they will never reach home. Unable to fully reconnect and reunite with their loved ones, they must accept the defeat of victory. The same empires that had carved up Africa, have now turned many parts of it into a wasteland, leaving behind a path marked by death, plundering and deserted villages. With cinematic qualities bordering on those of a wartime epic, the scenes of wreckage and decay can feel more directly illustrative than allegorical. At times, Mimesis risks becoming a pastiche, with the floating corpses of the dead and the cries of a newborn appearing to oversimplify the film’s complex narrative order. However, the moral tone of Akomfrah’s memorial work ultimately yields to the clear-eyed precision of the film’s visual intelligence.
Having crossed the sea to meet their indeterminate futures, African soldiers could smell death in the air, as the sound of exploding bombs and machine guns became deafening. Some feared they would never return home, while others suspected they would eventually be sold into slavery. Remarkably, Akomfrah’s film never loses sight of the complex history of African participation in World War I, forcing us to question the conditions under which these men fought and lost their lives. Not only do the archival images and sounds attest to these African fighters’ existence, they speak for all those whose histories have no visible monuments.
As the soldiers in Mimesis walk the deserts, the ocean continues to wash over their memories as the flags of nations wave ceaselessly in the distance. In the film’s final, dreamlike sequence, the notion of the museum is brought into the frame as the soldiers enter a series of dimly lit rooms in which their earthly possessions are returned to them. It is a contemplative, hopeful ending, providing a utopian vision of return – albeit unrealized. In this light, Akomfrah’s Mimesis does more to dignify the life of the African soldier than any tangible monument is ever likely to do, because it allows the dead to wander across the borders of history and into living memory.
John Akomfrah, ‘Mimesis: African Soldier’, runs at Imperial War Museum, London, until 31 March.
Main image: John Akomfrah, Mimesis: African Soldier, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Imperial War Museum, London