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Le Grand Blanc de Lambarene
(The Great White of Lambaréné)

(Gabon/Cameroon, 1994, 94 minutes, color, 35 mm)

Directed by Ba Kobhio Bassek


Koumba . . . . . . Alex Descas
Albert Schweitzer . . . . . . Andre Wilms
Helene Schweitzer . . . . . . Marisa Berenson
Magaly Bertly . . . . . . Bissa
Marcel Mvondo . . . . . . Lambi

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), the mission doctor, theologian and philosopher who founded a hospital in the rainforests of Gabon, achieved sainthood in his lifetime, at least in the popular imagination. The critical assessment of his life and works in recent years, however, has been slightly more ambivalent. Ba Kobhio Bassek is the first director to examine this medical missionary from a purely African point-of-view.

Albert Schweitzer was born of German parentage in upper Alsace. The son of a Lutheran pastor, he studied theology, philosophy and music, and rose to prominence in German academic life. He resigned his university posts, however, to apply himself more practically to the alleviation of human suffering. He earned a medical degree in 1913 at the age of 38, and left with his wife, a scholar-turned-nurse, to minister to the sick in French Equatorial Africa. He built a hospital on the banks of the Ogooue River and served there until his death in 1965. His celebrity in his own day was comparable to that of Mother Theresa and, like her, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Recent scholarship has painted a more imperfect picture of the man who ruled his remote hospital with an iron hand, regarded Africans as primitives and children in need of his care, and remained perfectly ignorant of the culture of his chosen home. Though he knew several European languages, he never bothered to learn the local ones. Passionately musical (he played Bach's work as often as possible on his organ in the jungle), he showed no interest in African melodies and rhythms.

Ba Kobhio portrays a Schweitzer (Andre Wilms) who treats his African subordinates with condescension, and views the suffering around him selfishly as a means of achieving his own salvation. We see him initially through the eyes of an admiring African youth, Koumba (Alex Descas), who eventually grows disillusioned with the arrogant man Schweitzer reveals himself to be. When Koumba returns to the hospital as a medical doctor, the two men find themselves increasingly in conflict. Schweitzer is indifferent to the growing pan-African independence movement, while Koumba is a budding nationalist. Schweitzer's aloofness from African society ultimately renders him irrelevant to the new world that is growing up around him.

The film is shot on location in Gabon at the site of Schweitzer's hospital, and is characterized by an attentiveness to period accuracy. Vincenzo Marano's cinematography earned high critical praise and brings the setting luminously to life.

Ba Kobhio Bassek is one of Africa's most promising young directors. Born in 1957, he received a national award at the age of eighteen in his native Cameroon for best French-language novel. He served as a literary commentator on national radio from 1980 to 1985. His films include Sango Malo (1991), and Naissance d'une democratie CM (1992), a documentary about the founding of modern Cameroon. He also produced the film, Le Maitre des Elephants (The Master of Elephants) in 1995.

Although Le Grand Blanc de Lambarene has received little notice in this country, it received wide attention in the French-speaking world. Below is a sampling of quotations from French reviews.

— Mark Koplik, Program Fellow

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