Nov 1, 2023
Travel back to a truly jarring and bizarre period in history in Alexander Markov’s documentary Red Africa – a fascinating examination of post-colonial Africa and the burgeoning, uneasy and uneven relationships many newly-independent states struck up with the Soviet Union.
Using a treasure-trove of incredible historic footage, this 60-minute documentary presents a look at 30 years between a series of newly independent African nations emerging in the 60s to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s, and the infringe of Soviet business and culture into Africa in the intervening time. Presented nakedly and without voiceover or contribution, the footage is allowed to speak for itself, as the Soviets work to burrow into the heart of Africa under the guise of friendship – but with sinister aims of resource extraction and reliance construction in order to expand the Soviet sphere of influence across the continent.
With similarities to Adam Curtis’ masterful documentary series Traumazone (which interestingly also focused on the collapse of the Soviet Union), Red Africa is striking and outstanding because of its minimalist approach to documenting its subject. The editing of the eye-opening historical footage is where the film lives and dies, and Alexander Markov has a committed vision for the history he is bringing back to life. Constructing a cohesive narrative over a 30-year timespan and multiple nations is not easy, but audiences will come away from the film with an understanding and conception of the Soviet’s aims in Africa, the appeal for Africans of turning towards the iron curtain, and the inevitable betrayals that came with what was ultimately a politer form of colonialism.
The footage is impressively presented in excellent quality, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in the time period. The unbroken spell that comes as a result of the pure footage approach works wonderfully, as old colonial masters in immaculate British military regalia are humiliatingly ejected from a new Kenya in footage that doesn’t look out of place when brought to the screen using 2023 technology. An otherworldliness is present once African traditions are interpreted by Russian dancers in front of bemused leaders invited to Moscow. Crisp and vibrant imagery allows for full engagement with this truly odd time.
The stylistic approach does limit the film. As with the aforementioned Traumazone, the events of the film fix in place its content and limit the level of analysis the film itself provides. Unlike Curtis’ series however, the film doesn’t quite leave with the same impact or connection to contemporary events. Traumazone concluded with the emergence of Putin from the rubble of the new Russia – a chilling and relevant finale for a series that was released following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Red Africa concludes with the USSR’s fall – a pivotal event of course – but fails to quite land the significance of this to either Africa or Russia today. Given that China are currently aggressively pursuing a similar strategy today with their ‘belt and road’ initiative, it feels like a missed opportunity to link the events of the film, as well as their causes and their consequences, to today.
As a snapshot of a fascinating and unexplored time however, Red Africa is an immersive and engrossing hour that is filled with footage of the scarcely believable. A honed knowledge and passion for Cold War history is required to really appreciate the unconventional documentation, but for those looking for a new angle of the 20th century, it is a revelatory piece of filmmaking.
Watch the official film trailer for Red Africa here.