A film that is part of the RIDM’s International Feature Competition is a Dutch, German and Belgian co-production by director Peter Krüger that in a very non-traditional and aesthetic way tells the tale of Raymond Borremans. In a film that is part magical and totally mystical you see how Borremans could be attempting to finish his life’s work from beyond the grave.
On the 1st of January 1929 Frenchman Raymond Borremans boarded a ship headed for Africa. He was attempting to escape the rage and violence of Europe. An obsessive collector butterflies, which he painstakingly catalogued, and knowledge it was in his travels across this huge continent that he discovered his passion. Borremans decided he was going to write the Africa’s first encyclopedia. Unfortunately when he died in 1988 and the age of 82 he had only got up to the letter N. It is said that his unhappy ghost now haunts Cote D’Ivoire attempting to finish his work.
His Borremans’ Foundation Library is now just a dusty and abandoned building. His books, typewriter, index cards, butterflies have all disappeared since his death. Only his loyal employee remains and visits his gravesite to keep things tidy. Borremans believed in learning and education. In the north of Cote D’Ivoire there is a lot of illiteracy. Kids are not able to go to school as they have to work at home taking care of crops or animals. Borremans gave books to young children and encouraged them to go to school.
This is in no way a straightforward documentary in that it combines actual people with fictional characters to muse upon the life of Borremans and the belief that his spirit continues to roam around trying to get the encyclopedia finished. Through the images and the narrator’s words (which are supposedly coming from Borremans’ spirit) you really get a sense of what an obsession writing this encyclopedia was for the man. It truly was akin to a madness as it took up all of his energy and every waking moment.
Another “character” in the documentary is an African woman (Wendyam Sawadogo) who helps restless spirits to find peace. She is acting as a conduit to help Borremans pass on to the next life. He argues with her that he must finish the encyclopedia because if he doesn’t it will be as if he never lived. Wisely she retorts that when he stops defining things he will see the world as it is.
Several issues that are particular to Cote D’Ivoire and Africa as a whole are touched upon. Issues like colonialism, civil war, poverty, and education make up the subplots of the film. The difference between the Africa that Borremans arrived to find and its difference to the one that existed when he died is examined. He left Europe due to the violence and it astounded him that towards the end it had come to Africa. Factions fighting for control. Countries fighting over boarders. Bodies began piling up.
Narration is done by French actor Michael Lonsdale with the text being written by well-known Nigerian author, Ben Okri, who used the biography of Borremans as his source material. Okri has won a Booker Prize. Visually and musically this film is something specially. You are treated to eye catching due to their sharp colours and interesting subjects of shots like a caterpillar crawling along a rusting railing, a man in all white playing guitar and singing, and a butterfly on a bed of brown leaves.
Watching the film is like engaging in a spiritual journey through Africa. We hear of the life and regrets of Raymond Borremans. As the film goes on (102 minutes) you begin to realize that Borremans did not leave a legacy with his work rather there are traces of him and his influence to be found in the people of Cote D’Ivoire who knew him. That is where his spirit continues.