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84 min. German, Swiss German, French.

Europeans in particular have always projected their ideas of the continent onto Africa in grand fashion. This specific view is less a consequence of (post-)colonialism than its precondition. African Mirror depicts this complex relationship by way of example. In Switzerland, a country without its own colonies, travel writer, photographer, filmmaker and public speaker René Gardi (1909–2000) shaped a whole generation’s image of Africa. Using Gardi’s extensive stock of footage, mainly of Cameroon, and recordings as well as texts from his unpublished diaries, Mischa Hedinger has constructed a film essay using only archive material, which seeks less to create a portrait of an adventurer than to carry out a work of cinematographic field research. It is about the transcontinental history of media, their means of production and how in 20th-century Switzerland both were influenced significantly by one flamboyant character. African Mirror does indeed function as a mirror which equally serves to reflect on present-day images of Africa – and not only for the Swiss. (Dorothee Wenner)

Mischa Hedinger was born in Jegenstorf, Switzerland in 1984. He studied video at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, as well as design, art and film at the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL). In 2013, he directed his first documentary film, Assessment. Hedinger lives and works as a filmmaker and editor in Zurich.

The story of our image of Africa

Long stays in West Africa made me aware of my personal involvement in prejudices and clichéd images of Africa. One of these was a seven-month stay in Burkina Faso, where I shot a promotional film for an NGO. Assuming the role of white filmmaker in a country with whose history and culture I was only minimally familiar often made me uneasy. I became sensitised to images of Africa and their use in the media.
I remembered the books about Africa by René Gardi from my parents’ home. For decades, the Swiss René Gardi (1909 – 2000) explained the African continent and its inhabitants to us. In countless books, television programmes, radio broadcasts, and films, he enthused about the beautiful naked savages and the pre-modern time in which they supposedly lived. Gardi’s narrative attracted great interest far beyond the German-speaking world. His books were translated into dozens of languages, and his films were shown on Japanese and British television. Gardi received an honourable mention for his documentary film MANDARA – ZAUBER DER SCHWARZEN WILDNIS (Mandara – Magic of the Black Wilderness) when it was shown in the competition of the 1960 Berlin International Film Festival.
Then I heard about his estate, which has hardly been processed: an archive with diaries, letters, newspaper articles, film rolls, tape recordings, and more than 30,000 photographs, most of them unpublished. We were able to acquire the entire estate and pass it on to the Bern State Archive. This gave me unlimited access to the archive, and I began researching.
Gardi’s Africa was subjective and constructed. Most of the scenes in his films are meticulously staged to avoid showing any traces of ‘modernity’. Life in the big cities was consciously blocked out. This view of Africa says a lot about Europe, where people yearned for earlier, simpler times, far from all industrialisation. On the other hand, people wanted to break out of conservative societies and find another form of freedom. The freedom of whites was based on the lack of freedom of blacks. As soon as African countries became independent and their people gained their freedom, the whites in Africa no longer felt free.
It is remarkable that René Gardi never thematised the contradictions in his own oeuvre. I wonder if he was aware of them. As Gardi saw it, Africa was the land of freedom, and Africans were true democrats, though it was natural that their farms had to be burned down if they did not pay the colonial tax. Gardi did not see himself as part of the problem. He considered himself an observer who captured the truth largely without artifice.
René Gardi helped Europeans dream of adventures and liberties at a time when most people could not go on such trips. Many Swiss people got to know Africa through Gardi. It is as if he created Swiss colonies with his work. Today, Switzerland’s relationship to colonialism is often described as ‘colonialism without colonies’. Switzerland itself never had colonies, but it made financial profit from trading with the colonial powers. Creating and selling images, as Gardi did, was also an important component of this other form of colonialism. To this day, there has been no critical examination of Gardi’s oeuvre; again and again, people succumbed to his infatuations.
When I stumbled upon a court case connected with René Gardi during my research, I was very surprised. In 1945, he was found guilty of ‘child molestation’. These abuse cases have still not been worked through; they were swept under the rug. It is not hard to draw connections between Gardi’s sexual proclivity and his obsession with Africa. The search for ‘innocent purity’, for example, seems to have been a guiding theme for him.
My film AFRICAN MIRROR consists almost entirely of images, recordings, and text documents from René Gardi’s archive. In my edit of the material, I try to tease out the contradictions and conflicts within this archive. Image and sound are placed in a new relationship, and the images start to think.
AFRICAN MIRROR tells the story of our image of Africa. The West’s image of Africa is conditioned by its self-perception. One sees oneself in the Other. Each society feels a need for images of an Other, in order to determine its own identity. I think that Gardi’s oeuvre is not solely about Africa and the Africans, but also says something about us and our history. Or, to borrow the words of the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe: ‘What we call Africa is a collection of wishes, longings and naïve fantasies. These are promoted, passed on and cultivated.’ (Mischa Hedinger)

How René Gardi became a travel writer and filmmaker

René Gardi’s early work was strongly influenced by the Scout movement. At the age of 17, Gardi joined the Bern council of the Boy Scouts, which he later headed for six years. He wrote his first texts for the Scouts’ entertainment evenings. Gardi’s scouting activities provided the basis for his first book, “Mit Rucksack, Zelt und Kochtopf” (With Rucksack, Tent and Cooking Pot), which he published in 1936 and later appeared in five editions. This little book of advice seems like a programme for his later life: camp life, organisation, travelling. The milieu of the Scouting movement also inspired his successful young people’s novels “Schwarzwasser” (Blackwater, 1943) and “Gericht im Lager” (Camp Court, 1944).
René Gardi’s first major travels took him to the far north: in 1936, he travelled across Finland, and further trips to Scandinavia followed both before and after the Second World War. Already at the time, he was in search of the simple, authentic life, and one of the things that fascinated him was the Sámi ethnic group (known as Lapps back then).
1943 saw a rupture in Gardi’s biography: while employed as a secondary school teacher in Brügg, near Biel, he attempted suicide and then turned himself in to the police. In 1944, the Bern Court of Appeals gave him a conditional prison sentence for ‘child molestation’. Forbidden to continue working as a teacher, Gardi turned his passion into a profession, and from then on worked as a self-employed travel writer, photographer and filmmaker.
After his sentencing, Gardi again travelled to Scandinavia. In 1948, he came to Africa by chance when a friend persuaded him to travel to Algeria. The travel agency that had booked his trip went bankrupt, so Gardi and his friend decided to continue travelling on their own and realised how surprisingly easy it was. Subsequently, he travelled to Africa for stretches of some 18 months at a time. Gardi took his last trip to Africa in 1992 at the age of 82.
René Gardi travelled for forty years and lived from the sales of his articles, books and pictures. He worked independently and was never a media correspondent nor participated in aid projects. Along with the Sahara, he had a particular liking for northern Cameroon. His first brief stay in the Mandara Mountains was during an expedition to Lake Chad. Fascinated by the naked blacksmiths working the blast furnaces, he planned another expedition with the ethnologist Paul Hinderling, who worked for what is now the Museum of Cultures in Basel. From this trip alone, Gardi brought home more than 2,000 photographs, seven rolls of film, more than 400 minutes of sound recordings and a 102-page typewritten diary. In 1959, during his fourth trip to Cameroon, he and his team shot the successful feature documentary film, MANDARA – ZAUBER DER SCHWARZEN WILDNIS (Mandara – Magic of the Black Wilderness). Thanks to his skills in media communication and his narrative talent, Gardi became a sought-after expert on Africa. His career also benefitted from the rise of the mass media. His television programme “Gardi erzählt” (Gardi Narrates) was presented like a slide show: René Gardi sat at a table, talked about his travel experiences and every so often showed the camera objects that he had brought home.
At the end of the 1970s, media interest in his person started to decline. He continued travelling and giving lectures, but hardly published anything anymore. The discourse around Africa began changing in Switzerland with the emergence of new voices, like the organisation Erklärung von Bern (Bern Declaration; renamed Public Eye in 2016), which critically examined the ‘First’ World’s approach to the so-called Third World. The extent to which Gardi’s image of Africa remained relevant is demonstrated by the fact that his films continued to be distributed and screened in Swiss schools even after his death.
René Gardi received various honours for his work, including the Youth Book Prize of the Swiss Teachers Association in 1963, an honorary doctorate in Ethnology from Bern University in 1967, and the Literature Prize of the City of Bern for his book “Heiteres aus Afrika” (Cheerful Tales from Africa) in 1969. Many of his publications have appeared in several editions and have been translated into various languages. After its world premiere during the 1960 Berlinale, his feature-length documentary MANDARA – ZAUBER DER SCHWARZEN WILDNIS was broadcast on Japanese and British television. Film historians are in agreement regarding René Gardi’s importance. Christraud Geary, curator for African and Oceanic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston wrote: ‘From the 1950s to the 1970s, no writer and photographer concerned with Africa had as great an influence in the German-speaking world as he did.’ (ton und bild GmbH)

Production Simon Baumann, Urs Augstburger. Production companies ton und bild GmbH (Biel, Switzerland), Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (Zürich, Switzerland). Written and directed by Mischa Hedinger. Editing Mischa Hedinger, Philipp Diettrich. Dramaturgy Philipp Diettrich. Music Machinefabriek (Rutger Zuydervelt). Sound design Fabian Gutscher. With Markus Amrein (Narrator René Gardi), Rachel Braunschweig (Narrator).

World sales ton und bild GmbH
Premiere February 08, 2019, Forum


2013: Assessment (49 min.). 2019: African Mirror.

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur