by Georgina Allan
"Human exhibitions went on for almost 150 years. I am still astonished that such a long history has been forgotten."
Savage is the story of Mokonzi, played by Florence Nzenwefi, a young African man who has been brought to and exhibited in early 20th Century Britain.
While only 15 minutes in length, the film offers a disturbing illustration of British colonialism and the plight of many people who were abused in the hands of institutions, for a spectating British public, right up until the mid 1900s.
The film is available to see below, as is our interview with writer/director Denis Dobrovoda. We discussed his research on human exhibition, as well as how Florence and he captured this traumatic yet personal story.
What was the message and emotion you wanted to capture with the film?
The message was quite simple - to make people aware of a chapter in our history that isn’t very well known or covered. Human zoos are something anthropologists and historians might know about, but the general population are mostly ignorant of. I felt like that wasn’t right - especially because many of the people who were brought over to take part in these exhibitions died as a result - and I feel like these victims shouldn’t just be forgotten. But the message was just one part of the film - equally as important was the emotion. It is one thing to transmit a fact, but the impact of that fact is going to be much stronger when the viewer connects with it somehow. I wanted to make a film that works on both levels.
The character's thoughts and feelings are shown purely through physicality rather than script. How did you work with Florence to capture that?
Working with Florence was a great pleasure - he is an amazing talent. Actually there wasn’t much work we did during the shoot itself. I try to cast actors who have an intuitive understanding of the script - and he definitely had that. We talked about human zoos a lot and we were on the same page about what we were making and how we should make it. That was perhaps the most important thing, because the material is so sensitive and so traumatic, there really had to be an understanding between us. He just became the character during the shoot, and I honestly can’t remember giving him any instructions. He gave it his all, and he did a great job - with real intensity, to the point of hurting himself while falling over during the running scene. But I didn’t explain emotions or thoughts to him - he just knew what they were, and they were all his own.
One of the most striking parts was when Mokonzi runs into, and shares a look with, the other 'exhibit' (a female Inuit) in the museum. What did you aim to capture here?
The majority of the people who were brought over to these exhibitions were African - but there was a substantial minority of people from other parts of the world as well. Inuits were actually very in-demand, somehow they seemed to have captured the Western imagination at the time. And unfortunately, they had some of the highest death rates, because they didn’t have much of an immunity against the germs they encountered here. That scene is about the two “exhibits” realising that they aren’t alone in this ordeal, that there is someone else. It’s about their common humanity.
Where do you recommend people research more about the topic of the film?
My research was done purely through books - I wrote the script four years ago and at the time most of the stuff you could come across was academic literature. The crux of my information came from a French book called Zoos humains et exhibitions colonials: 150 ans d’inventions de l’Autre. It is an amazing work of academic anthropology - a selection of a few dozens articles, which really looks at the different facets of how human exhibitions worked. But it is over 600 pages, and it’s not an easy read. Another book I would really recommend is called Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga - which is much more accessible. However, it’s strength (and weakness) lies in that it only looks at one particular case. It is a very complex phenomenon - and it is important to note that it went on for almost 150 years, so it changed a lot over time. I am still astonished that such a long history has been forgotten.
Georgina Allan is the Film Editor of the Radical Art Review