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Theatrum Mundi: Colonial Farce and the Task of Indigenization in Niles Atallah’s Rey

Rey Dir. Niles Atallah (Chile/France/Holland/Germany/Qatar, 2017)

The indigenous peoples of what we have come to call Latin America continue to struggle against exile and genocide today. This is the takeaway, stated plainly (written, actually) in the final moments of Niles Atallah’s film Rey, yet another reminder of the urgency with which indigenization must be dealt in our present moment of advanced—truly global—neocolonialism.

Rey recalls the story of the French lawyer Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, a real-life historical figure of the nineteenth century, whose ambitions of empire-making (his so-called ‘noble dream’) propel him to Southern Chile in 1860 to establish his own kingdom in a region south of the Biobío River called Araucanía. Apparently void of any European settlement, the land seemed to the Frenchman ideal virgin territory for conquest. The presence of indigenous populations, collectively called the Mapuche (Mapudungun for ‘people of the land’), is seen not as a hindrance but as an opportunity to convince and win over (indoctrinate) ‘the masses’. After all, one can’t have a kingdom without loyal subjects.

De Tounens’s delusions play across the screen in several sequences like fever dreams throughout his trek. It becomes clear that he believes himself to have divine right to rule and conquer: ‘Like Adam, I will start a new race’. His fantasy of being accepted and crowned by docile and reverent Mapuche locals replays itself in a series of hallucinations illustrating the Frenchman’s ‘White God’ complex, conjuring the myth from the historical Spanish invasions of Mexico and Peru, as was suggested of the initial encounter between the Aztec Moctezuma and the Spaniard Hernán Cortés in Tenochtitlan.

Because he is a man of certain means, claiming to be of French royal blood, de Tounens hires Rosales, a Chilean gaucho, as an interpreter and to guide him to a Mapuche chief called Quilapán. By the time the pair reaches Araucanía Quilapán has died and no one has any desire to entertain the Frenchman’s demands. Each time Rosales and de Tounens encounter another Mapuche elder in their search for a leader, they are told to cease and desist, that to press any further will only have negative consequences. Rosales, in his feeble translations, attempts to convey this sense of foreboding to his companion, who remains recalcitrant. Before they know it, they are lost in the wilderness. Rosales, who insists he has never been lost in the region in his life, becomes increasingly agitated. He has seen all of the warnings, the omens, the brujería, and after a few days he has no choice but to lead the Frenchman to an area in which he knows he will be discovered by Chilean forces.

Rosales and de Tounens are investigated and put on trial for their offences by Chilean criollo officials. In these recurring cross-examination tableaux, performed by actors wearing caricaturesque masks, the ludicrous agenda of the wannabe ‘King Orélie-Antoine I’ is put on blast. Exhibit A: the handwritten constitution for his imagined kingdom; exhibit B: his map of Araucanía and Patagonia, also by his own hand. He claims he had the approval of thousands of Mapuche, even of an illusory French settler ‘F. Desfontaines’ of nearby Valdivia who he appointed as ‘Foreign Minister’. Rosales betrays his companion by offering a conflicting testimony with regard to this accomplice from Valdivia: he never existed. The Chilean officials have a good laugh about all of this and send de Tounens into exile, which spurs a psychedelic, hallucinatory sequence redolent of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain. An apocalyptic spiral. The fall of the King’s psychological empire.

Rey Dir. Niles Atallah (Chile/France/Holland/Germany/Qatar, 2017)

The brilliance of staging such a story as a film today, one that is reliant on a synthesis of ‘real’ archival footage with elements of a feigned and played-up documentary aesthetic, is its ability to simultaneously cleave coloniality (and with it, Eurocentric traditions like documentary film) from historical claims to truth, and force the many iterations and re-enactments of settler colonialism to collapse into one another. The story of de Tounens is rehashed as a grim colonial farce—indeed, a masquerade—in which the seventeenth-century Western notion of Theatrum Mundi (the ‘Theatre of the World’ in which everyone and everything has its place and role) takes centre stage.

The performative donning of the documentary guise as a means of suggesting plausibility, what the Harvard art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty termed the ‘parafictional intervention’ around 2008 (referring to Michael Blum’s 2005 Safiye Behar Archive for the ninth Istanbul Biennial), has important roots in Cheryl Dunye’s pivotal film The Watermelon Woman (1996) featuring the artist Zoe Leonard’s fictionalized ‘Fae Richards/Faith Richardson’ photographic archive. The ground-breaking ‘dunyementary’ is one of the myriad of examples of what my undergraduate Queer Theory professor would have referred to as ‘Black Feminism Beat You To It’. Through projects like Dunye’s and Atallah’s we can better understand how the documentary approach has been and can still be intercepted from the tool-shed of Western aesthetics and epistemologies and touted in the name of decolonization.

Because what is really so comedic about de Tounens’s ambitions (and the way they are mocked by the Chileans in each hyper-theatrical trial scene) is that they are the very ambitions upon which Chilean colonial culture had been established only a few centuries earlier. Although de Tounens merely recycles the traditions of the early Spanish conquistadors and Catholic missionaries, with their documents (Bibles, maps, probanzas de mérito, and corónicas) and performances (from the reading of ‘legal’, declarative requerimientos at the point of contact to the ceremonial drama of indoctrination as Catholic mass), his methods are seen as risible fantasies to the Chileans, who are nonchalantly superior to the confused ‘foreigner’.

Rey Dir. Niles Atallah (Chile/France/Holland/Germany/Qatar, 2017)

This fallibility and ephemerality of the factual historical document—of ‘evidence’—is underscored by Atallah’s blending of archival footage with his own footage, given the ‘treatment’ of historicity by creating an appearance of old age, of material deterioration. It is remarkable that most of the footage used for these montage sequences, as ‘authentic’ as it may be, seems to show people performing for the camera in some capacity.

The I.R.L. American legal trial could be called an exercise in uncovering the truth so that ‘justice’ can be served (although we must always ask: served to whom?). The filmic trial, maybe since Kurosawa’s über-classic Rashomon, has been a device to erode our expectations about uncovering such axiomatic notions of truth. Today, it has been averred that we have moved beyond truth, or at least, truth’s relevance. In Rey and in the documented history of Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, it is beside the point whether or not there was really an F. Desfontaines of Valdivia who corroborated his claims, or if there were thousands of Mapuche who supported his cause. What matters is that there are always many truths and that this alone should compel us to consider and reconsider our place in relation to one another, and in relation to nature.

De Tounens’s crisis of kingdom is a crisis of the body (and within it the mind). Amidst one of his psychotic episodes following his exile, he asks: Where is my body? Where is my kingdom? The cultural theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff has written about a related concept, of the body as police state, for over a decade. His analogy, which can be triangulated further between The (colonial) Body, The (neocolonial) Police State, and The (neocolonial, suburban) House, incisively capitulates the historical role of the Middle Class, that product of the (white) American Dream, as colonial garrison against the ever-evolving underclass (freed slaves, refugees, undocumented Latinas). Hence the consolidation of (primarily non-Black) wealth in the gated American suburb. At one point in the film, the Frenchman fears he has been poisoned. This fear of bodily intervention, of the infiltration of sovereign borders, echoes throughout Western biomedical sciences, criminal justice reform and the prison industry, residential architecture, and, of course, ‘Homeland Security’.

The Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter has written extensively on the critique of coloniality and settler colonialism. Indigenization, which operates upon a symbiotic, even sacred harmony with the earth—a groundedness—as opposed to a forced means of survival based upon property relations, occurs off the property, the annexed territory, between the human and her environment. The reunification of the human with her environment, of the Human Race and Nature, undoes centuries of damaging work in the name of ‘the humanities’. That post-Enlightenment separation between the humanitas (‘civilized’ Europeans) and the anthropos (animals, Nature, and everybody else) was, after all, used to justify conquest, genocide, racism, and settler colonialism.

A decade ago, when Ecuador amended its constitution, it became the first in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature. This was the hard-earned triumph of a movement spearheaded by members of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador. When indigenization becomes the national priority, amazing things can happen. The only prerequisite is a bit of expansion of the collective political imagination. It’s true that imagination has been a requirement for any kind of radical political change, even for the erection of an empire.

January 2018

Lukas Hall is an MA History of Art student at the Courtauld, specializing in contemporary film/video art and the documentary approach.

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