Edinburgh 2014: 'N: The Madness of Reason' review

★★★★☆
"We began before words, and we will end beyond them." So begins Peter Krüger's mesmerising N: The Madness of Reason (2014), a spiritual journey through the memories and regrets of Raymond Borremans, a freewheeling Parisian musician turned encyclopedia enthusiast for whom Africa was his destiny - its heat his home. Borremans moved to Africa to escape Europe, soon becoming fascinated by the continent's rituals and culture before embarking on the Encyclopédie Borremans; a comprehensive study of the history and customs of Western Africa. Sadly, Borremans was never able to complete his encyclopedia, only getting as far as the letter 'N' before his death in 1988 at the grand old age of 108.

Krüger resuscitates Borremans' spirit through an experimental cinematic portrait that combines elements of this lepidopterologist's biography and writings with a self-reflective voiceover, allowing this former musician and adventurer a chance to articulate his thoughts and observe his beloved Africa against today's tumultuous post-colonial landscape. N: The Madness of Reason is part-installation work, part-ghost story; a shrewd and personal dialogue about Africa's colonial past that works best as a deconstruction of memory and self-reflection. Like the avant-garde essays of Chris Marker, Krüger's narrative contorts the Western gaze to confront European culpability for Africa's current state, whilst his doc also helps to define the media's hand in perpetuating the colonial narrative.

Krüger's journey could indeed be seen as an attempt to reclaim the past and approach colonialism away from the bias of the Western media. Interweaving voiceover with imagery of modern Africa's impoverished cities and faded architecture, the director lets his camera lilt and glide through the continent like a ghost caught between two worlds. This wistfully composed, richly visual poem for the past depicts memory as a junkyard of abandoned guilt and regret, with primitive drums, haunting chants and nightmarish soundscapes coalescing in a formidable lamentation of contemporary Africa's post-colonial condition. Borremans' spiritual guide insists he should "stop trying to define things" and "see the world as it really is", aiming to challenge our preconceived ideas of Africa by examining the memories and tragedies of the past. These ghosts haunt the corridors and line the walls of these faded buildings as Krüger attempts to rediscover the truth that has become shrouded over the decades.

Evident in the mournful molecules of dust that hang in the air, the shrill melody of oppression inherent within Africa's traumatic history is inescapable. Only through Borremans' ethereal voyage can we bare witness to a world disappearing, washed away by the "white wind of oblivion". Borremans arrived in Africa as a musician - not your archetypal colonist - but his presence is still symptomatic of imperialism - the film's only true fault being that it doesn't do enough to scrutinise his fetishist interest in Africa. His spirit guide scolds him for "never getting involved" when he complains about having to witness the agony and suffering endured by a family picking through the remains of their burnt house, yet this reproach doesn't feel adequate in a piece that could itself be accused of being anthropologically fetishistic. Though N: The Madness of Reason's depiction of colonialism is somewhat problematic, as a meditation on memory Krüger's latest is a triumph of form and structure.

The 68th Edinburgh Film Festival takes place from 18-29 June 2014. For more of our EIFF coverage, follow this link.

Patrick Gamble

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