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CPH:DOX 2022

Review: Black Mambas

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- Lena Karbe's documentary is a complex exploration of intersecting issues, following young black women in South Africa as they protect animals from poachers in a national park

Review: Black Mambas

Colonialism, racism, exploitation, animal preservation, women's rights and class issues intersect in Russian-born, German-based director Lena Karbe's first feature-length documentary Black Mambas, which has just won the FACT:AWARD at CPH:DOX.

In 2012, Craig Spencer of the Kruger National Park in South Africa used the momentum generated by social media and wildlife documentaries around the poaching of rhinos to create the Black Mambas, a group of young women tasked with protecting the park from poachers. As the film opens, we see them train in a boot camp in their uniforms, giving the impression that these are strong, black, empowered women. However, all their superiors are white.

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Karbe focuses on three of these women. Nkateko is the most ambitious; she wants to move on and become a tour guide. She is the most socially conscious of the three, pointing to the fact that the increased number of poachers results from fewer jobs, especially in COVID times. Of course, the poachers are not the white tourists who go on safaris and hunting trips, but rather poor black people from surrounding communities. Karbe interviews one of them as well, who says that white people are protecting animals that in fact belong to Africa and don't care if the locals are starving.

Naledi was looking for a job that emancipates independent women and is apparently fulfilled by becoming a Black Mamba. Qolile has two children and an unemployed boyfriend who spends most of his time drinking with his buddies. After feeding one of her kids, she jumps into a van carrying the inscription "Abortion is Crime" to get her to her workplace, which is just a small symbol of the contradictions the film tackles.

The Kruger National Park was established in 1920 as a symbol of "white unity" between the British and the Dutch. Gathering a group of black women to protect it is therefore ironic at best - something that is not lost on Spencer, who speaks openly about his misgivings. He wants the women to get better careers, and indeed manages to help some of them to do so. On the other hand, Johan, and older man from the centre for endangered species, is proud of how he trains them to be of best possible use to him.

When we watch the Black Mambas do their work, looking for traces of poachers, holes in the fence or being careful with elephants, an aspect of empowerment is definitely present. But of course, it can also be seen as exploitation, and the name of the group definitely sounds racist even if it refers to strength. All these issues and the way Karbe treats them make for exciting and thought-provoking material.

The film is also very enjoyable to watch and engaging, with its savannahs and bush and wild animals, but the way DoP Mateusz Smolka films them is not touristic; instead, he focuses on the women. Composer Rémi Alexandre's soundtrack has the pulsating quality of an investigative documentary score, but with harmonies that have more of a contemplative spirit. The music is elegantly peppered with live percussion, without going into exoticisation. Karbe's sober approach ensures that the crucial nuances of the complex topic stand out, as it is not possible to view any of them completely separately. In the end, the viewer is tasked with answering the question themselves: is this empowerment or exploitation? Or can it somehow be both?

Black Mambas is a co-production between Germany's Karbe Film, France's Day and Night Productions and South Africa's Natives at Large, with participation of ZDF/Arte and Ushaia TV. Austria's Autlook has the international rights.

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