Video artist Renzo Martens is not one to shy away from controversy, even if it means pissing off his fellow colleagues. In his most recent work, Episode III, Martens looks at the industry of poverty in Africa, taking Congo as his main character, along with himself. (His first, Episode I, was a journey to Chechnya in which he asked the war-ravaged people: “Enough about you – what do you think about me?”. Mysteriously, Episode II seems to be absent). As Martens treks through the jungle, complete with a posse of porters to carry his large trunks, he holds his camera out in front of himself, looking in. We see his expressions and hear his voice throughout the 88 minute-long film.
The film opens with Martens talking to a plantation worker. The usual questions are asked: “How much do you earn a day? For how many hours work?” And the answers are what you would expect: he works 12 to 15 hour days for a pittance to try and feed his family of four. The film continues in this manner, “exposing” extreme poverty and degradation.
It is when Martens begins to question the media and NGOs operating in Congo, that his agenda comes to the fore. Happening upon a small village, Martens discovers a hut used by a group of photographers as a studio and office space. They tell him that they try and make a living out of photographing birthday parties and weddings, for about $10 a month. With this knowledge, Martens takes it upon himself to try and educate them in the ways of the press photographer, who, he explains can make somewhere in the region of $1000 a month. But, there is a catch – the press photographers’ pictures are of conflict and misery. He takes the photographers to hospitals and teaches them to target the “best” subjects, mostly dying children and their grieving mothers. He then takes them to the rather odious-looking boss at MSF where, after a lot of back-stepping, they are told their pictures aren’t good enough. Ultimately the venture is a doomed one and, we can only guess, that is exactly what Martens had imagined would happen, or had planned, in order to make his point: there’s no way out of this vicious cycle so you may as well try and enjoy your poverty. And, to initiate the celebration, he reveals what has been lugged around by his porters in the large trunks, a neon sign spelling out “Enjoy Poverty”. It is lit up with a generator and villagers are encouraged to dance around it into the night.
While flawed in a number of his approaches and also plain weird at times (singing Neil Young while walking through the jungle in a very Apocalypse Now moment) Martens does raise some valid points and the end product is just downright depressing.
What is unclear throughout the film is Martens’ motives and sincerity. While obviously dedicated to bringing up unspoken issues, is this a work of art, created for his own selfish purposes? Or does he genuinely believe in his newly formed mantra? Taking into account his choice of audience to pursue by screening the work in the exceedingly trendy, concrete interior of an upmarket gallery, I know what I think.