Echoes from a Somber Empire (1990, Werner Herzog)

Not very Herzogian – the great man doesn’t interject any commentary of his own, letting his narrator (journalist Michael Goldsmith) do all the leading and interviewing, and not cutting away when Goldsmith follows up interview subjects’ stories of being imprisoned and tortured for years by order of Central African Republic dictator Jean-B├ędel Bokassa with Goldsmith’s own oft-repeated story (“you know, I was imprisoned for a month myself”). Gives the feeling that it is the journalist’s film and Herzog is a director-for-hire, which is probably not true. The movie does, after all, end with a caged monkey smoking a cigarette, which isn’t a typical way to end a journalistic interview-doc. And it opens with Herzog himself reading a letter from Goldsmith over beautiful, otherworldly shots of migrating crabs. It’s just the bulk of the film in between those animal bookends that seems kind of typical.

Bokassa, fallen dictator:

Bokassa himself seems sadly typical – a military leader of an African country who took over the government, becoming more corrupt, horrible and bizarre as his rule progressed. We talk with a couple of his (many) wives and some kids, including one who was involved in a fraud/mistaken-identity comedy which led to her having a sister with the same name who got married on the same day as her.


Goldsmith survived torture and imprisonment in Central Africa, and returned safely from Liberia (where he had gone missing at the time of this film’s completion), only to die of a hemorrhage in late ’90, shortly before the film premiered.

Fascinating movie. I think Katy liked it too, though we were both a bit upset after she vetoed my triple-feature short-doc selection at the last damned minute.


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