LE GRAND BLANC DE LAMBARÉNÉ (1995) (Cameroon: 1995)

Director: Bassek Ba Kobhio

Writing Credits: Bassek Ba Kobhio

Alex Descas as Koumba
Andre Wilms as Albert Schweitzer
Marisa Berenson as Helene Schweitzer
Magaly Bertly as Bissa
Marcel Mvondo as Lambi

Executive Producer: Francoise Leherissey

Sound Designers: Alain Curvelier and Eric Bonnard

Cinematographer: Vincenzo Marano

This film provides a fascinating revisionist perspective on Albert Schweitzer, a Noble Peace Prize winner and secular saint of the colonial era. Like Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, this film begins to rewrite the history of colonialism from the point of view of the colonized. Le Grand Blanc de Lambaréné is not, however, a facile exercise in iconoclasm but rather a deeply-felt lament for a missed opportunity, for a cross-cultural encounter between Africa and Europe which never happened.

Shot on the site of Schweitzer’s hospital in Gabon, Bassek ba Kobhio elicits psychologically complex portrayals from his actors as he did in his earlier release, Sango Malo. Behind Schweitzer’s impenetrable reserve, Ba Kobhio discovers a man blinded to the people around him by his own spiritual self-absorption and arrogance. For Schweitzer to see himself as a stern but loving father, he had to cast Africans as childlike primitives whom he could protect from the temptations of modernity.

The film reveals that the ultimate tragedy of colonialism may have been its refusal to see and value the colonized as autonomous, creative human beings. Schweitzer knew numerous European languages but never learned to speak the local tongue; he was an accomplished organist and Bach scholar who never evinced any interest in African music. Ba Kobhio represents the richness of Africa through Bissa, a beautiful concubine the local chief gives to le Grand Blanc. Though clearly tempted, Schweitzer remains aloof; only at his death does he invite her to sleep in his bed rather than on a mat. The film’s epigraph, ironically, is a famous remark by Schweitzer himself: “All we can do is allow others to discover us, as we discover them.” —summary by California Newsreel (http://newsreel.org)

“Gripping, vast, animated, with something profoundly magical…In Le Grand Blanc… the cinema truly meets Africa.” –Le Nouvel Observateur

“Audacious…The filmmaker presents the story of Schweitzer from an incisive, intellectually provocative point of view.” –Le Monde

“Though the subject is in the past, the filmmaker succeeds in describing today’s Africa of humanitarian NGOs and voluntary doctors of which Schweitzer was, unwittlingly, the forerunner.” –Ecrans d’Afrique

Academic Articles:
Higginson, Francis. “The Well-Tempered Savage: Albert Schweitzer, Music and Imperial Deafness.” Research in African Literatures 36. 4 (2005): 205-222.
Curtius, Anny Dominique. “The Great White Man of Lambarene: When Translating a Colonial Mentality Loses Its Meaning.” Translation in French and Francophone Literature and Film FLS Vol 34 (2009). ed. James T. Day.