Sven Augustijnen’s Spectropoetics

TJ Demos

22 June, 2011

The world in which we live today is at each moment the world of the past. It consists of moments and relics of what man has done for better or worse; in other words, it is entirely right to say that we are haunted by the past…

–Hannah Arendt, quoted by Sven Augustijnen[1]

History will one day have its say; it will not be the history taught in the United States, Washington, Paris, or Brussels, however, but the history taught in the countries that have rid themselves of colonialism and its puppets. Africa will write its own history, and both north and south of the Sahara it will be a history full of glory and dignity.

                                                            -Lumumba, Letter to Pauline[2]

Sven Augustijnen’s Spectres, a film of roughly one hundred minutes, takes up the haunting of Belgium by the traumatic memory of the country’s past interventions in the Congo. Most immediately, the period in question concerns the intervention in 1960-61 during the momentous occasion of Congolese independence when Belgium, under King Baudouin I, granted a nominal sovereignty to its former colonial possession but refused to surrender political and economic control of it, leading to disastrous results. Providing a backdrop for the film, that period also forms a line of continuity with the longer history of Belgium’s colonization of the Congo, beginning with King Leopold II’s forcibly taking possession of the African country eighty times the size of his own, creating the Congo Free State in 1884, before later making it Belgian property in 1908. Indeed, at one point the film shows the tombs of the Kings Leopold II and Baudouin lying side by side in the crypt of the Church of Notre Dame of Laeken, thereby drawing the connection and indicating the capacious history that bears on the present, which is the film’s immediate area of concern.

If the present remains filled with ghosts from that sordid past, chief among them is the spirit of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of independent Congo, who attempted to throw off the yoke of colonial control during his brief time in office before being imprisoned and brutally executed on January 17th, 1961, with the alleged complicity of Belgium, the United States, and the United Nations.[3] It is no doubt the contentious meaning of Lumumba’s historical legacy that continues to disturb Belgium’s fragile sense of community, divided in this regard between its elite political establishment and its postcolonial immigrant community, with many resulting spirits of Lumumba. For some, like the collectif Mémoires coloniales—a group struggling for more explicit and critical engagement with Belgium’s colonial history—Lumumba represents a beacon of hope for an independent Africa: “His memory must remain alive, his fight a source of inspiration for the emancipatory struggles of Africa”[4] For others, such as Arnoud d’Aspremont Lynden, son of Harold d’Aspremont Lynden, the Minister of African Affairs during the early 1960s, Lumumba remains “a political enemy of Belgium.”[5] Confronted still with such fundamental disagreements, we await the realization of Lumumba’s vision of a glorious and dignified history of Africa. In the meantime, spectres reign.

And there are many ghosts who appear in Spectres, which is not surprising, given its expansive historical references and the volatile situation of the present. As one comes to suspect, Augustijnen’s film shows how the haunting lives on especially owing to the obsessive attempts of some Belgians at controlling the historical narrative, particularly those who lived through the events of the early ‘60s and remain possessed by the experience today. Obsessed with history, they ignore the present. Indeed, the film was made during the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Congolese independence (equally marking the 50th anniversary of Lumumba’s assassination); participating in the festivities, King Albert II visited Kinshasa—not without controversy—eliciting charges of Belgium’s endorsement of Joseph Kabila’s corrupt regime and inspiring protests against the general amnesia regarding the past that informs the present neocolonial dependency of the Congo. It was as if the past was repeating itself. How can the ghosts be laid to rest, we are led to ask, when the events that unleashed them are not entirely concluded, only repressed in the present?

Spectres deftly opens up the symptoms of that repressed history, and the history of that repression, doing so by training its camera on one Jacques Brassinne de La Buissière, a young Belgian diplomat based in Elisabethville, Katanga (in secessionist southeast Congo) at the time of the 1960 “Congo crisis,” later a historian of it, submitting his doctorate in 1989 on the circumstances of Lumumba’s assassination, and co-authoring the book Qui a tué Patrice Lumumba on the subject.[6] The film takes us to various locations in Belgium and the DR Congo, where Brassinne, serving as charismatic guide and central subject of the film, is shown making visits and conversing with other characters about the history that appears to haunt him. Chief among them is Arnoud d’Aspremont Lynden; and Jacques Bartelous, chief of cabinet to Moïse Tshombe, leader of the Katanga secession that brought on the calculated civil war that shook Lumumba from power. Brassinne also meets Marie Tshombe at the Etterbeek cemetery on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the death of her father; and visits Lumumba’s widow Pauline Opango Onosamba, and her children Patrice, Juliana, and Roland Lumumba, in Kinshasa.

Yet if Spectres focuses on a few individuals, the central one is Brassine, a seemingly insignificant diplomat at the time of the events in question. In this regard, the film sheds light on the banal and low-level bureaucratic workings of (neo)colonial power and the way functionaries come to identify with their leaders and their political agendas long after events have past. Nonetheless, the film’s subject affects us all. For at stake is the history of the transitional moment when the era of European colonialism came to a close, transmuting into a more complex form of neocolonialism—a mix of political independence and economic subjection[7]—that continues into the present, the whole forming a legacy of injustice, exploitation, and murder that is a common heritage of contemporary society. To ignore this history would mean to misunderstand the development of globalization and its present economic and political inequalities. In this sense, Hannah Arendt’s insight remains valid: “It is entirely right to say that we are haunted by the past.”


In addition to the film, Augustijnen has presented an installation of numerous photographs, documents and recordings from Brassinne’s extensive historical archive on the same subject, which the artist first displayed at Wiels in May 2011; as well, further material was compiled in a book, also titled Spectres, which includes interviews, historical information, and supplementary reproductions of Brassinne’s many photographs—all of which comprises the larger research context of Augustijnen’s extensive project. In the exhibition, a suite of reprinted black and white images showing trees and bushes in the Congolese savannah attest to Brassinne’s longstanding quest for the execution site and burial grounds of Lumumba, which he first identified during his doctoral research; an audio recording plays an interview with Brassinne on the subject of Belgian history; and documents, artefacts, and publications (including the three weighty volumes of his doctoral thesis) fill a vitrine. The material speaks to Brassinne’s thorough-going, even compulsive attempts at reconstructing the past and defending his narrative of the past, one that absolves Belgium of all guilt or responsibility for Lumumba’s death. In the galleries Augustijnen presented the images without title or date, giving us the first indication that Brassinne is a man for whom time stands still, as if his life’s work remains possessed by the traumatic events of 1960-61.

Yet clearly it is not only Brassinne who is concerned with these events. The fraught history, or rather controversial historiography, of Belgium’s relationship to the Congo has repeatedly appeared in—as if also haunting—Augustijnen’s recent work. For the journal A Prior in 2007, for instance, the artist presented a series of historical articles and magazine covers from Pourquoi Pas?, addressing how the moment of Congolese independence, as well as the shady circumstances around and alleged Belgian complicity in the death of Tshombe, was covered anxiously in the Belgian press. With Les Demoiselles de Bruxelles, 2008, the artist presented an installation of photographs and texts that interlink the lives of Karl Marx, Leopold II, and several African prostitutes who work on Avenue Louise, a grouping, the artist explains, brought together by a shared relation to the city of Brussels. There, Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto; former colonialists gather at the statue of Leopold II at Place du Trône; and Congolese women ply their trade, their presence owed to Belgium’s colonial history. For Marx, of course, the spectre haunting Europe was “the spectre of communism,” as he wrote famously in his manifesto, noted by Augustijen in a recent interview.[8] With Specters, Augustijnen turns to the haunting of Europe by colonialism, which he announced in the context of Les Demoiselles de Bruxelles: with this film, “We will go on a journey to the heart of contemporary Europe, where a number of archetypal personages are haunted by the premises of colonial history and the trauma it has caused.”[9]

            Yet if Spectres offers an account of one man’s relationship to an event of world-historical significance, insofar as Lumumba’s assassination would presage the general tendency of African nations to move from independence—some seventeen gained their independence in 1960 alone—to neocolonial servitude, the film is no mere documentary of Brassinne and his archive. Rather, Spectres proposes an innovative modeling of what we could term the “research film,” one that draws on essayistic inquiry, ethnographic analysis, and philosophical and political investigation, connecting to a history of filmmaking over the last few decades that includes the work of Jean Rouch, Chris Marker, Black Audio Film Collective, Harun Farocki, Raoul Peck, and Marcel Ophüls. As well, the tendency to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction, thereby avoiding the documentary traps of objectivity, truthfulness, authority, connects his practice further to those experimental film precedents, and brings it into constellation with likeminded contemporaries, such as The Otolith Group, Hito Steyerl, Deimantas Narkevicius, as well as Herman Asselberghs, Manon de Boer, and Anouk De Clercq, his collaborators in the Brussels-based Auguste Orts platform of which he is a member.[10]

More specifically, Spectres advances Augustijnen’s aesthetic of performative documentary, wherein dramatization and direct transmission intertwine. Forming a version of what Jacques Rancière usefully calls “documentary fiction,”[11] the speaking subjects of Augustignen’s films tell stories at the same time as they dramatize their roles—such as the thieves who share the secrets of their trade in L’ecole du pickpockets (2000); or the insider who divulges the codes of the gay cruising scene taking place under the cover of trees in the Parc de Bruxelles in Le guide du parc (2001); or the real estate magnate who discusses her plans for the contemporary art centre that would become Wiels in Une femme entreprenante (2005). These figures perform documentary, while Augustijnen documents their performances, in a way that dissolves the clear division between fact and fiction, documentary truth and subjective dramatization. Documentary and fiction—normally opposed—are here made to intertwine, such that fiction is shown to be a way of recreating the world through inspired narration, and documentary a contingent, subjective act that is equally an imaginative construction.

For, according to Augustijnen’s longstanding deconstruction of documentarism, the object is not to record speech as a transparent medium of reality, but instead to investigate how his subjects construct one version of reality, rather than revealing some faithful transcription of a social and political truth. As the artist acknowledges, “Aren’t journalists and documentary filmmakers always the first to manipulate reality? Aren’t they constantly lying to get the images and testimonies they want? The ones that best sell the story?”[12]That documentaries are in some sense fictions is of course not a new realization—the fact goes back to its very origins with pioneers like Robert Flaherty—and Augustijnen has acknowledged an interest in the work of filmmaker Marcel Ophüls on this basis. In his 1994 filmVeillées d’armes: Histoire du journalisme en temps de guerre, Ophüls called attention to the famous journalist and critic Phillip Knightley who observed that “the first victim of war is the truth,” which Augustijnen calls our attention to in a recent interview.[13] The motto—Ophüls’ as much as Knightly’s—could also serve as the underlying principle in Spectres, which has as much to do with the war for truth as it does with the sacrifice of truth in war. That is to say, Spectres is far from a fly-on-the-wall recording of the real; rather, it represents a determined organization of movements and sounds that produces a multivalent construction of its subject.

More precisely, Spectres investigates the way discourse releases the ghosts of history despite, and no doubt because of its speakers’ intentions, as they try—but inevitably fail—to bury the traumatic episodes of history, which come back to haunt them in the present. In this regard, the film—and equally the installation—takes up the fundamental problem that the spectral poses to representation: how to take the seen and the spoken and allow the normally invisible elements that shadow them to be visible and heard; in other words, how to bring about an “apparition of the inapparent,” and “a conjuring of the untimely,” as Derrida describes it so insightfully in his own investigation of “spectropoetics” in his book Spectres of Marx?[14]


Not surprisingly for a story about one man’s haunting, Spectres is set within a mise-en-scène of the ghostly: a cemetery, an execution site, a church crypt, a museum grounds filled with fallen monuments—these provide the setting for a film that also includes shots of old photographs and audio recordings from the history in question. We follow Brassinne, for instance, to Etterbeek cemetery and the grave of Tshombe, who oversaw Lumumba’s execution by firing squad, only to be later exiled by the dictator Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, dying under mysterious circumstances—again with alleged secret Belgian involvement—in Algiers.[15] As well, a short passage in the fillm documents the royal commemoration of the sixteenth anniversary of the death of King Baudouin on 31 July, 2009 at the Church of Notre Dame of Laeken, attended by Baudouin’s surviving widow, her majesty the Queen Fabiola. The ceremony, at once religious, nationalist, and aristocratic, offers a glimpse at how the Belgian elite—including Brassinne—continue to remain faithful to their ancestors, celebrating what they imagine to be a glorious history, one clearly at odds with the dark subject of the film.

Spectres also shows Brassinne at his home, amidst his historical archive and carefully hand-drawn maps, where at one point he is seen listening to recorded excerpts of the famous speeches by King Baudouin and Lumumba made on that fateful day of June 30th, 1960 at the Palais des nations in Léopoldville during the independence ceremony. Whereas the King proclaimed the independence and sovereignty of the Congo in paternalistic tones, paying homage to the genius of King Leopold II who purportedly delivered the country to this triumphal moment, Lumumba responded with an impassioned, confrontational rebuttal, in which he recalled the Congolese experience of Belgian  rule, one of “cruel and inhuman” inequalities, of being “mocked, insulted, beaten, morning, noon and night,” and submitted to “injustice, oppression and exploitation.” In his speech, Lumumba made it clear that if “the Congo’s independence…is being proclaimed by Belgium…no Congolese worthy of that name should ever forget that we gained it by fighting for it.” By showing Brassinne listening to the speeches on his couch, the film replays the notorious affront to the King’s honour, suggesting that men like Brassinne will never forget it, and indeed that their life’s work is in one way or another a desperate and endless response.

Spectres also takes us to the Congo, where Brassinne visits the National Museum’s garden in Kinshasa and sits amidst the rusting bronze statues of Leopold II and Stanley, resting as cast-off ruins from a bygone age. Like relics, they appear still redolent of past colonial energies, still happy to lord over the territory they once believed to have “discovered.” He later joins Pauline Opango and her family for an awkward visit at their house in Kinshasa, where Lumumba’s life-size portrait appears in the background propped against the wall just behind Brassinne, offering us another glimpse of the ghostly presence that haunts him. He also retraces the ruins of the Brouwez house in Katanga, where Lumumba was held and savagely beaten during his final hours, and lastly the savannah nearby where Lumumba faced a firing squad.

Yet more than this staging of ruins and relics, spaces that continue to resonate with the presence of revenants from the past, the film offers a poetics of the spectral achieved via multiple means: discursively (in terms of the film’s presentation of speech); textually (by the information presented in the intertitles, which throws the speech into a new light); sonically (by the use of the sound track of Bach’s St John’s Passion); and visually (in relation to the way shadowy appearances figure in the film). By interlinking these diverse strands, Spectres constructs a complex “hauntology”—again in Derrida’s terms—that leaves us engrossed in the story, as well as shaken in its aftermath.


The film begins with Brassinne visiting the opulent château of Arnoud d’Aspremont Lynden; the conversation between the two, at twenty six minutes, is the film’s longest. The exchange commences with reference to an open letter published in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir in 2009 by the collectif Mémoires coloniales, in which they hold Belgium accountable for the murder of Lumumba and name Harold d’Aspremont Lynden as among those responsible. As proof, the group quotes the now-famous telex written by the minister on October 6th, 1960, which states: “the main objective to pursue, in the interests of the Congo, Katanga and Belgium, is the definitive elimination of Lumumba.”[16] When Brassinne brings up this charge, Arnoud responds that his father was no “idiot” and that “if he had really intended to have Patrice Lumumba killed, he wouldn’t have put it in black and white in a telex to a diplomat, with a copy to another diplomat and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, which was Pierre Wigny then, who was an extremely cautious man.”[17]Situated amidst a larger series of refutations, the passage is extraordinary because it represents a curious moment when D’Aspremont’s defensive logic flips sides. Whereas he attempts to discredit his adversaries’ accusation by pointing out its internal contradictions, he imagines on what plausible terms his father could have been involved in the affair. By including this scene, Spectres shows Arnoud’s words getting the better of him and unwittingly illuminating the dark shadows that surrounds his statements.

As the two speak, Augustijnen’s handheld camera roves around the figures, surveying them from a distance, zooming in on details such as their shoes, panning toward peripheral areas. These visual elements bring about a disjunction between the seen and the heard, imagery and discourse, where the camera’s unsettled mobility parallels the dislodging of the speakers’ words. Things appear to be not what they seem, as the camera anxiously searches out the off-screen for the presence of the not-said. At one point when the figures transition to the living room to continue the discussion, the camera pans past an old photograph of Harold d’Aspremont, who peers into the interior of his son’s chateau, an uncanny presence still bearing on the living, the origin of the visual and auditory idiosyncrasies that disturb the house.

            D’Aspremont’s claims—even if a semi-acknowledgement, cloaked in denial, of his father’s complicity in the affair—is in fact a familiar motif from a longstanding argument, one that connects with Belgium’s official narrative since the 1960s, as Spectres shows. Most recently, it repeats a similar exchange that arose from the publication of Ludo De Witte’s book, The Assassination of Lumumba, published in 1999—cited numerous times in the film—which charges Harold d’Aspremont with having assumed a leading role in the elimination of Lumumba, even if several other representatives of Belgium, the UN and US, and the Congolese leaders Tshombe and Mobutu, are also named as responsible. As the collectif Mémoires coloniales quotes De Witte, “It was Belgian advice, Belgian orders and finally Belgian hands that killed Lumumba on that January 7th, 1961.”[18] Closer to home, De Witte’s argument was a direct rebuttal of Brassinne’s 1989 doctoral thesis, which argued that Belgium was innocent of such charges, the assassination being a “Bantu affair.” It is for this reason that Brassinne exclaimed to Augustijnen that “Ludo De Witte is my ghost!” when he was first approached about the possibility of appearing in the film.[19]

A more significant accomplishment of De Witte’s book was to inspire Belgium’s 2001 parliamentary commission, established to investigate the circumstances of the assassination of Lumumba, and implicitly to respond officially to De Witte’s damning thesis. Arnoud refers to its conclusions in the film, claiming that “in an extremely detailed report of 988 pages with an incredible collection of other documents, it proved the opposite, in my view. Namely that [the telex] was referring to [Lumumba’s] elimination from the political scene and not his physical elimination.”[20] Whereas Arnoud found reprieve for his father in the commission’s findings, its conclusions in fact established that Belgium bore a “moral responsibility” for events surrounding Lumumba’s assassination, which others took to heart. Reflecting on the commission, Foreign Minister Louis Michel, for instance, denounced “the general attitude of disinterest and apathy towards the fate of Patrice Lumumba” as “a serious lapse in good government and respect for a sovereign state” and recognized that “certain members of the then government and certain other Belgian protagonists at the time bear an irrefutable measure of responsibility for the events leading up to Patrice Lumumba’s death.”[21]

            Nevertheless, it is clear that Arnoud has drawn his own conclusions, and Brassinne, who shows himself in agreement with Arnoud during the conversation in the film, goes even further by claiming that “the commission went too far when it says that the Belgians knew and are morally responsible. That’s not true. The Belgians aren’t morally responsible. The Belgians were used as an instrument. That’s completely clear.”[22] He proceeds to blame various Katangan officials, such as Tshombe, and those from Léopoldville, such as Bomboko and N’daka, for the murder. Which is not at all surprising coming from the author of the “Enquête sur la mort de Patrice Lumumba” (Study of the Death of Patrice Lumumba), the unpublished doctoral dissertation he defended at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in 1991 and dedicated to Harold d’Aspremont (as Spectres points out in its inter-titles), in which he wrote that even the Belgians who took part in the actual shooting of Lumumba were “disciplined subalterns” who “bear no responsibility for what happened.”[23] In point of contrast, however, Brassinne was a good deal more provocative when he appeared in Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba: Death of a Prophet in 1992 as one of several witnesses to the events of the early 1960s. There he explained that “in my mind the term ‘neutralize’ can mean house arrest, for others, expatriation, for others physical liquidation,” and acknowledges that because the Congolese had no custom (or, in the French original, moeurs) for “political crime,” “it was necessary to find a solution.”

What we have in Spectres is the unfolding of Brassinne’s narrative, which includes reference to charges and counter-charges, and presentations of contradictions from earlier statements, whereby Brassinne takes us through the defense of his position, reconstructing his story of the events of 1960-61, some fifty years after the fact. Why, one might wonder, did Brassinne participate in Augustijnen’s film in the first place? The artist explains that “By releasing his doctoral thesis, Brassinne himself set the ghost free”—an unleashing that De Witte’s book certainly pushed much further in condemning Belgium. Brassinne apparently needed to respond. “To him, the movie is in a certain way a means to recapture the ghost by showing that it was a ‘Bantu affair’ and that at present historians cannot grasp the spirit of that age.”[24] Certainly that is the argument put forth, as well by d’Aspremont, who, in one shocking moment, mimics the Congolese to explain the difference: “We are Africans. We are Bantus, not Westerners. Let us keep our traditions, our customs, our morals. That’s how we solve problems.”[25] Laughing smugly, Brassinne adds in agreement, “my opinion is certain, but others don’t have to share it. One is free,” to which d’Aspremont replies, “Ah yes, and on that little ray of sun, I propose an aperitif.” With this seemingly enlightened exchange, the two wrap up their denial of responsibility in a cynical and patronizing “respect” for Congolese cultural traditions (the “tradition” being the custom of the Bantus to murder their democratically elected Prime Ministers!). Of course Brassinne’s and D’Aspremont’s excuses, diversions, and disclaimers, presented as reasonable and well researched knowledge, repeats Belgium’s strategy of responding to the events in the early 1960s by unleashing a campaign of disinformation, which took decades to unravel and is still subject to controversy today, or at least subject still to the manufacture of controversy.

In other words, we are made witness to what seems to be the workings of a defense mechanism, constituted by Brassinne’s and D’Aspremont’s admitting the seriousness of an event (Lumumba’s execution), but denying all responsibility.[26] The symptoms: focusing on insignificant details, repeating lines from books and essays for the nth time, allowing one to feel comfortable that one is not to blame, performing the role of self-righteous authority, and assuming one’s unique access to the truth. Yet by focusing on the shakiness of the defense, translated into a visual effect by the handheld camera, and by bringing attention to contradictions in the statements and well as to the considerable energy the speakers invest in repeating them, we get to the heart of Spectres: to elicit the uncertainty, the mobility, the overdetermined nature of speech, and to reveal how one can say one thing while unwittingly allowing another.

Ultimately, the defense misses the larger issue and functions as a smoke-screen. For it’s not so much the precise circumstances of one man’s murder that is ultimately at stake—though clearly it remains important to establish who is responsible (and why would even the “political elimination” of a democratically elected leader be acceptable?). Rather, the point is that Brassinne and d’Aspremont fail to condemn, let alone say anything about the longstanding Belgian colonial control of the Congo—and more broadly how it connects to the long history of European colonial activities in the Global South, with all of the brutality, slave labour, and mass killings that went along with it (amongst which Lumumba was only one of many).[27] It’s not, in other words, a matter of individual responsibility, but of collective involvement, of which Harold and Brassinne were fully a part. In Spectres they are shown seeking a personal ethical exception to what was a structural political and economic intervention. But it is the injustice of the larger political, economic and military involvement—and the entire history of the brutal and murderous colonization of the Congo—that Brassinne implicitly denies, fixed as he is on an isolated event. As the collectif Mémoires colonials states, “Beyond the question of responsibility, Lumumba’s assassination raises questions concerning the West’s political interference in Africa, and concerning the pursuit of the colonial project by retaining a stronghold on Africa’s natural resources…The danger, for the Belgian government, of Lumumba’s vision for independence lay in his stress on political and economic sovereignty, an evident threat to Belgium’s economic interests.”[28] The stakes are geo-political, global, and current.

Midway through the film’s portrayal of the discussion between Brassinne and d’Aspremont, the camera drifts away from the two and shows the grounds before the opulent château. A Belgian flag flutters in the light wind above the formal garden. By including it, the film implicates the symbolic meaning and honour of Belgian national identity, and the justness of the country’s accumulated wealth, which Brassinne’s regime of justification ultimately serves, and which stands accused by this history. Yet Brassine never offers any sign of a critical consciousness. Upon leaving D’Aspremont’s chateau, Brassinne nearly runs over the count’s dog, exclaiming with relief that if he had done so, he’d never be allowed to set foot in the house again. It’s a small detail, but his expression of emotion in this moment, greater than any other about the fate of the Congo, or that of Lumumba, speaks volumes.


            If there was any ambiguity about the meaning of the word “elimination,” and the precise circumstances of Belgium’s involvement in directing the neutralization of Lumumba, it has been further clarified in the evidence submitted to the Belgian parliamentary commission, as indicated in Spectres. The film’s titles, scrolling paragraphs appearing at several junctions, provide important historical background for its subject, including contextual information about Lumumba’s assassination and Belgium’s involvement, and background details about key figures like Brassinne. Intriguingly, at times the text’s account conflicts with Brassinne’s and D’Aspremont’s narratives. At one point, for instance, the text quotes a letter of Guy Weber, major in the Belgian military based in the Congo and military advisor to president Tshombe, dated October 19th, 1960, and addressed to the head of the cabinet of the king, which reads: “Tshombe met Mobutu. Excellent talks. In exchange for financial support, Mobutu is following advice: status quo until 31 December—wait until the situation looks brighter—Lumumba will be completely neutralised (if possible physically…).”[29] Also mentioned is the proposal of Jules Loos, right hand man of Harold d’Aspremont, that the Belgians unleash “a ‘crocodile hunter’ onto Lumumba.” Clearly, the film shows that the explanation of D’Aspremont—that “elimination” was meant politically, not physically—is not the final word.

            Spectres’s use of intertitles is crucial in that it provides a corrective to Brassinne’s narrative. The film thereby creates a friction between the subject’s spoken word and the artist’s researched historical text, which connects to Augustijnen’s methodological questions that inform his film—“What does historiography stand for? What is the value of a testimony, of the memory of the past and what is the value of the written word, of the document?”[30]—which viewers are meant to ask in turn in relation to the film that puts them in critical juxtaposition. Yet this friction does not work to reveal “the truth” of what happened, as if Spectres offers a definitive account that puts to rest all controversy and dissenting views. For there are no footnotes in the film, no archive of evidence, no presumption of scholarly authority. The fact that the film and installation present Brassinne’s defensive research furthermore suggests that there will be no convincing one way or another, only the proposition of a mimetic battle of archives without end.[31] Yet the intertitles do function to indicate that Brassinne’s narrative is a construction and not the definitive truth. More, by virtue of the presence of the film’s intervening text, we are led to suspect that Brassinne may be in the grip of denial, which problematizes documentary as such, for it reveals that the more documentary evidence is presented, the more complex the defense mechanism becomes. In this regard, Brassinne emerges not so much as a tragic figure, but as a pathetic one, unable to see the truth of his own haunting.[32]

            The point brings up a further line of continuity with Augustijnen’s past work. Analyzing earlier films of the artist, critic Jan Verwoert has argued that the artist’s speaking subjects evoke Foucault’s reflection on “discourse’s ambiguous power to deny and to redouble,” as in Le guide du parc and L’ecole du pickpockets, where speech is paradoxically coded as revelatory and secretive at once: “Like the thief who protects his identity by exposing it, the open secret is hidden in plain sight,” writes Verwoert.[33] Brassinne offers a similar cover, claiming, “no one has anything to hide,” even as he offers his controversial defense. Yet, while Verwoert’s reading is not inaccurate, his desire to situate Augustijnen’s work beyond the logic of documentary—where “it would be pointless to question whether the people tell the truth or whether they are truly the people they say they are”[34]—does not apply in the same way with Spectres, I would argue, as it is historically and politically crucial to come to terms with the historical truth of Belgium’s interventions in the Congo. Still, the significance of the film is not to provide that guarantee, but rather the truth of one man’s regime of justification that covers up the truth even as he reveals it.[35] The uncanny effect is to shown that Brassinne remains possessed by the ghosts of his colonialist masters—d’Aspremont, King Baudouin—whose cause he continues to serve as the loyal foot soldier, his duty being to beat down Lumumba’s spirit, which yearns still for a decolonized history.

The soundtrack, comprised of excerpts from Bach’s St John’s Passion, brings out a further dimension of the film’s spectropoetics. It does so most immediately by granting the images and speech a sense of weighty seriousness beyond their literal meanings. What is the music’s significance? Perhaps most obviously, given the religious content of the Passion, its use works to liken the suffering and death of Lumumba to that of Christ, as critic Ronald Van de Sompel has suggested.[36] Yet that reading doesn’t seem quite right, as Lumumba hardly figures in the film (the analogy has been made, for instance, in Raoul Peck’s Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, which does focus on and mythologize the Congolese leader as a saviour). Yet the artist declined this reading in a recent interview, explaining instead that it was the racism that tinged the Belgians’ code names for Tshombe (the “Jew”) and Lumumba (“Satan”) when it came to the latter’s transfer to Katanga  (as in the telex that reads: “Demand accord du Juif de recevoir Satan”—“request permission to the Jew to receive Satan”), which recommended the use of the Bach: “conceptually,” Augustijnen notes, “I found an association with the most anti-Semitic passion, namely the passion of Johannes, for which the Jews were held responsible after the death of Christ.”[37]

Still, I would suggest that, as with the film’s other elements, the soundtrack possesses no univocal meaning, instead operating in multiple ways. More than a single metaphor, the music communicates a sense of Brassinne’s own suffering, who clearly feels himself the victim at times, exiled as he was by Mobutu, even while he can’t acknowledge the real crime of Belgian complicity in the neocolonialist project. It also serves to slyly condemn Brassinne at certain moments, as during his meeting with the Lumumba family when the words “Crucify! Crucify!” are sung.[38] In this sense, the music places us in the realm of a judgment that is quasi-religious, where Brassinne’s discourse is revealed to be a betrayal of the past, one that is simultaneously rebuked. More allegorically, if the Passion lends a sense of the tragic to the entire historical episode—the tragedy of Lumumba as well as of the Congo—it also suggests, given the focus on Brassinne, the tragedy of history’s non-availability to the present as unequivocal, transparent truth. This is perhaps the significance of the ghostly: to appear only as non-appearance, the apparition of the non-apparent, as a negative rupture in the continuity of the seen and the heard. One such moment of rupture occurs, for instance, when the soundtrack drowns out the speech of Brassinne, as if to indicate the irrelevance of his words, to signify that we’ve heard enough. At other times, the music acts like an accompaniment to Brassinne’s discourse, turning his speech into a tragic song so that the documentary suddenly becomes an operetta. In this light, the film is not so much a documentary, but an imaginative and otherwordly choreography of movement and sound, which situates Brassinne as the performer of his own pathetic dramatic act.

Yet perhaps the most powerful moment of the apparition of the inapparent is the film’s last scene, where Brassinne appears searching for the execution site in the Katangan savannah, looking for the tree against which Lumumba was shot, doing so during the day, and then, shockingly, again at night.[39] In the dark he wanders around the trees and bushes, illuminated only by the headlights of an automobile, in the same way that Lumumba was spot-lit the night he was executed. Brassinne maps out the likely location of all involved in the execution, based on his years of research and diagrams. The film’s visual conditions subtly derealize the boundaries between the present and the past, the factual and the imaginary, the specular and the spectral. As Brassinne realizes this morbid choreography, the film reveals his mania. He is shown in the grips of an irrational drive to discover the truth of an event from which he was excluded, as if it somehow holds the key to his innocence. Yet it only convicts him further. The soundtrack intervenes, rising above his words, throwing him into dramatic light. With this uncanny reconstruction, he inadvertently replays the scenario. It’s as if he himself has become a ghost, reanimating the execution, moving through the gestures of the historical players, replaying the tragic drama. The handheld camera elicits a sickening viewing sensation and disorienting effect, making for a powerful and upsetting conclusion to a film that remarkably both allows Brassinne to present his defensive narrative, and conjures the shadowy realm that hovers around his speech that shows him to be haunted by a crime he cannot acknowledge. As a result, he is allowed to condemn himself.


            One important question remains: is it not a risk for the film to give a platform to an apologist of Belgian crimes in the Congo? By offering the opportunity for Brassinne to tell his story, does the film not offer the audience a potential pathway to identification, thereby negating the critical history that is ostensibly its goal, even publicizing the perpetrator’s narrative? Facing a similar dilemma, the filmmaker Eyal Sivan—the maker of the film The Specialist about the trial of Nazi SS officer Adolph Eichmann—observes that “to focus on the perpetrator is to risk making us identify with him; as he explains and justifies himself, tells us about his work, his joys, his sorrows, he looks like anyone else and we grant him our understanding.”[40] Yet the alternative, Sivan observes, is to center on the suffering of victims, which repeats a cliché of documentarism in substituting the spectacle of misery for the analysis of the causes and conditions of horror. The advantage in exploring the perpetrator’s side is that we can learn something new about the past, think through the horror, see how it was and is justified and normalized, and therefore learn how better to negotiate the present and future.[41]

            It is exactly for these benefits that, in my view, Spectres opens up the prospect of the audience’s potential identification with the main character. In fact Augustijnen has spoken openly of his own identification with Brassinne, which is not surprising given the artist’s intensive working and travelling with his subject during the preparation and making of the film.[42] And this prospective identification is also extended to spectators, who are placed in the position of viewing Brassinne in the starring role of the film, appearing as a monumental image on the screen who discusses his research at length. This risk may represent the film’s very ambition and complexity: for it is by granting the perpetrator understanding that we might learn something new about how neocolonial violence has been justified by the original perpetrators and by the next generation in turn. Spectres does not offer a simple condemnation or moralistic judgment of an object of pure evil, which puts viewers in the clichéd role of identifying with the mythologized heroism of Lumumba, as opposed to the despised and murderous colonizers (as does, for instance, Peck’s Lumumba: Death of a Prophet).

Rather, we are invited to consider our own subtle complicity in this history, how we may have participated through so many small acts of everyday life, moments of inattention, and the negligence of non-intervention that form part of the larger system that allows violence to occur on an institutional and national level, even if we didn’t participate in the spectacularized acts of brutality that are only the visible symptoms of that larger state of affairs. Will we accept Brassinne’s narrative and the official position of Belgium, the film asks us, and thereby join the ranks of the many who overlook the history of neocolonial violence? Will we forget the crimes of colonialism in order to enjoy its rewards, including a good part of European wealth? In what ways have we already been complicit without realization? In relation to these questions, the film challenges us to a politics of memory, which implicates us all.

In his book Specters of Marx, Derrida speaks of a “politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations,” which presents us with the imperative not only “to learn to live with ghosts” but to live with them “justly.”[43] A he argues, “No justice seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppressions of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism.” The problem is, he continues, that “without this non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present”—a non-contemporaneity that Brassinne is shown to live within, unconsciously—“without that which secretly unhinges it, without this responsibility and this respect for justice concerning those who are not there, of those who are no longer or who are not yet present and living, what sense would there be to ask the question ‘where?’ ‘where tomorrow?’ ‘whither?’.”[44]

In regards to Spectres, Augustijnen explains that “the movie is in a certain sense a reflection or a shadow from another angle, that the movie was a process that was meant to exorcize the ghost. However, it’s in the nature of the ghost—un spectre, un revenant—that it keeps coming back.”[45] He thereby provides an important response to Derrida’s questions: that when one attempts to singlehandedly bring to a conclusion traumatic events of world-historical importance, as if to pay off one’s debt to the injustice of the past, it is inevitable that the ghosts will return. It is the achievement of Spectres to reveal this complex hauntology, by developing a spectropoetics that helps us to begin to live more justly with the ghosts of the past, and which refuses to accept a culture of amnesia, one of irresponsibility to the past. One impending return of the spectres is the announcement in January 2011 that Lumumba’s sons François, Roland and Guy plan to institute legal proceedings against eleven Belgians—of which Brassinne will likely be one—for “passive or active complicity and participation in the arrest, transfer to Elisabethville and torture in the Brouwez house of Lumumba, as well as his confinement and assassination in the savannah,” as is pointed out in the film’s titles. Will we too be participate in the ongoing violence of neocolonial relations, with their systems of economic, social, and political inequality? Spectres asks about our future responsibility to this history, conjuring our own future existence as yet another ghost hovering about the film.

[1] Sven Augustijnen, “An Interview with Colette Braeckman,” A Prior no. 14, (2007), n.p.

[2] Patrice Lumumba, “Letter to Pauline Lumumba,” in Lumumba Speaks: The Speeches and Writings of Patrice Lumumba, 1958-1961, 422-423.

[3] See Ludo De Witte, The Assassination of Lumumba, trans. Ann Wright and Renée Fenby (London: Verso, 2003).

[4] Pauline Impach, of the collectif Mémoires coloniales, “Patrice Lumumba: La Belgique doit reconnaître ses responsabilités historique,” Le Soir (28 January 2009), 17; reprinted in Sven Augustijnen, Spectres (Brussels: Wiels, 2011).

[5] Arnoud d’Aspremont Lynden, Le Soir (11 February, 2009); reprinted in Augustijnen, Spectres.

[6] Jacques Brassinne and Jean Kestergat, Qui a tué Patrice Lumumba? (Paris: Duculot, 1991).

[7] For a precise definition of neocolonialism, see Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).

[8] See Ronald van de Sompel, “What a Day for a Daydream: An interview with Sven Augustijen,” Mousse, 27, n.p.

[9] Sven Augustijnen, Préface, Les Démoiselles de Bruxelles (Brussels: asbl Projections, 2008), 6. (“Nous y suivrons le périple, au coeur de l’Europe actuelle, d’une foule de personnage archétypaux, ‘hantés’ par les premises de l’histoire coloniale et les traumatisme qu’elle a causé.”)

[10] See T.J. Demos, “Auguste Orts: Sensing Politics,” in Auguste Orts: Correspondence (MuHKA: Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, 2010), pp. 86-95. Augustijnen invited Narkevicius to participate in the special issue of A Prior no. 14 (2007) he co-edited.

[11] See Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, trans. Emiliano Battista (New York: Berg, 2006).

[12] Augustijnen, “An Interview with Colette Braeckman,” n.p.

[13] Quoted in Marcel Ophüls’ film Veillées d’armes: Histoire du journalisme en temps de guerre, 1994, which Augustijnen discusses in his interview with Braeckman in A Prior. See Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo (London: Prion, 2000).

[14] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994).

[15] See Sven’s contribution to A Prior no. 14, “Qu’en pensez-vous Bwana Kitoko?,” which looks closely at this history of Belgian involvement in Tshombe’s neutralization.

[16] Cited in Le Collectif Mémoires Coloniales, “Carte Blanche,” Le Soir, 28 January, 2009. “L’objectif principal à poursuivre dans l’intérêt du Congo, du Katanga et de la Belgique est évidemment l’élimination définitive de Lumumba.”

[17] “si son intention était vraiment de faire assassiner Patrice Lumumba, il n’aurait évidemment pas écrit ça noir sur blanc dans un télex envoyé à un diplomate, avec copie à un autre diplomate, avec copie au Ministre des Affaires étrangères qui se trouvait être Pierre Wigny à l’époque et dont tout le monde connait l'extrême prudence.”

[18] De Witte, xxii; cited in Le Collectif Mémoires Coloniales, “Carte Blanche,” Le Soir, 28 January, 2009.

[19] See Van de Sompel, “What a Day for a Daydream: An interview with Sven Augustijen,” n.p.

[20] “dans un rapport extrêmement fouillé de 988 pages avec une collection incroyable d'autres documents, elle a, à mon avis prouvé le contraire à savoir il s’agit d’une élimination de la scène politique et non pas d’une élimination physique.”

[21] Louis Michel, Speech to Belgian parliament, 5 February 2002; cited in De Witte, “Afterword to the Paperback Edition,” 187, and in the open letter of the collective Mémoire colonials, as reprinted in Augustijnen, Spectres, 117. See De Witte’s description of the flaws of the commission’s report and its conservative historical basis (where murder is effectively relegated to “cultural difference”), 186-87.

[22] “Quelque part la commission va au-delà de la vérité à mon avis quand elle dit que les Belges étaient conscients. Et qu’à la limite ils ont une responsabilité morale. Mais ce n’est pas vraie. Les Belges n’ont pas de responsabilité morale. Les Belges ont été un instrument, ça c’est tout à fait clair.”

[23] Cited in De Witte, xxi.

[24] Van de Sompel, “What a Day for a Daydream: An interview with Sven Augustijen,” n.p. Furthermore, Augustijnen notes that “both the son of d’Aspremont and Brassinne were motivated to refute the thesis of De Witte on camera,” which helps to explain their willingness and motivation to appear in Spectres.

[25] “Nous sommes des Africains, nous sommes des Bantous. Nous ne sommes pas des Occidentaux, donc laissez nous avec nos traditions, nos habitudes, nos mœurs...Nos manières de régler les problèmes.”

[26] On “defense mechanisms,” see Anna Freud, Ego and Mechanisms of Defense (1936), trans. Cecil Baines (London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1968), where she discusses various defense mechanisms, including denial, displacement, intellectualization, projection, rationalizaiton, reaction formation, regression, repression, sublimation, and suppression. Also see Phebe Cramer, Protecting the Self: Defense Mechanisms in Action (The Guilford Press, 2006).

[27] See Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (London: Macmillan, 1999).

[28] The collectif Mémoires coloniales, “Patrice Lumumba: La Belgique doit reconnaître ses responsabilités historique”; reprinted in Augustijnen, Spectres, 118-20.

[29] See Parliamentary Report, doc 50 0312/007. “Tshombe a rencontré Mobutu. Excellente entrevue. En échange d’un certain appui financier, Mobutu suit les conseils: statu quo jusqu’au 31 décenbre—on attend que la situation s’éclaircisse—on neutralise complètement (et si possible physiquement…) Lumumba.”

[30] Van de Sompel, “What a Day for a Daydream: An interview with Sven Augustijen,” n.p.

[31] This was a problem, for instance, for Bambi Ceuppens, who made a similar objection at the symposium “Sven Augustijnen’s Spectres” I organized with Hilde Van Gelder at Wiels on May 21st, 2011, as part of our ongoing research project In and Out of Brussels: Aesthetics / Histories / Politics. The event included Dirk Snauwaert, Françoise Vergès, Filip De Boeck, and Sven Augustijnen.

[32] As Françoise Vergès observed at the Wiels symposium.

[33] Jan Verwoert, “The Practical Surrealism of Power,” A Prior no. 14, 149 and 155. Verwoert refers to Foucault’s 1973 essay on the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”

[34] Ibid., 151.

[35] As Eyal Sivan points out, “although there is a great tradition of documenting, collecting, and archiving images and stories of victims, documentary cinema and archival work have rarely dealt with representations of perpetrators,” in “Archival Images: Truth or Memory? The Case of Adolf Eichmann’s Trial,” in Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation: Documenta11_Platform2, ed. Okwui Enwezor et al. (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002), 284.

[36] Van de Sompel, “What a Day for a Daydream: An interview with Sven Augustijen,” n.p.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Augustijnen pointed this out at the Wiels symposium.

[39] Augustijnen notes that “Brassinne himself wanted to go back at night because the facts had occurred at night” in the interview with Van de Sompel.

[40] Sivan, 285.

[41] Sivan quotes Tzvetan Todorov, Les Abus de la mémoire (Paris: Alréa, 1995), 31-32: “Exemplary use of memory...allows the past to be used in view of the present. Memory can be used as a lesson about injustices acquired in the past and to help fight those takig place in the present, to help us live our selves and to advance toward the other” (Sivan, 288).

[42] Augustijnen discussed this identification at the Wiels symposium.

[43] Derrida, Specters of Marx, xix.

[44] Ibid., xix.

[45] Van de Sompel, “What a Day for a Daydream: An interview with Sven Augustijen,” n.p.