The idea that we live in a “postcolonial” age is something of a myth. The effects of centuries of imperialism are still felt today, whether that’s in the trampling of Sioux rights for the sake of a pipeline or in language that continually undermines non-white cultures. It’s not surprising, then, that colonialism is still under the microscope in cinema.
At the Berlinale, two films feature scenes of white men determining the borders of other nations. In Viceroy’s House, the plot revolves around India’s political independence and the controversial decision to create the new nation of Pakistan. In The Lost City of Z, a British soldier is commissioned to create a border between Bolivia and Brazil.
Viceroy’s House is more explicitly about the effects of colonialism than Z, as it charts the handover of power in India. Gurinder Chadha’s film is surprisingly effective, coming from a very personal connection to the story. Her vision of India in the ‘40s is surprisingly romantic at first, like an exotic episode of Downton Abbey, complete with elaborate costumes and opulent halls. This The-Crown-in-India vibe serves to make the ensuing political debates accessible to a wider audience. Chadha gives space to the moral complexities of the partition decision and is admirably unflinching in showing just how awful Britain was. It’s a bold move when your target audience is probably Brexit-voting old white people.
The Lost City of Z
, meanwhile, is an old-fashioned adventure story about the consuming power of ambition. It follows Percy Fawcett, who wants to convince the Royal Geographical Society that South America has lost cultures and civilisations and that the people of the Amazon are not “savages.” The impact of colonialism forms a backdrop; it’s the reason the city of Z was lost in the first place.
Although James Gray’s thrilling film is a formally richer and more satisfying piece of cinema than Chadha’s softer film, they are linked by thematic connecting tissue. Both Fawcett and Mountbatten are sent to other nations on behalf of Britain; both want to treat people from other cultures with respect and as humans. It’s heartening, in this isolationist climate, to see mainstream, accessible films confront the ugliness of colonialism and to find within it a message of warm humanity.